Saturday, 15 July 2017

All barrel and no trousers?

Barrel-ageing is all the rage – especially in whisky or whiskey barrels, but also wine, rum, tequila and who knows what else. Sometimes though the results can be rather disappointing – the flavour and aroma from the barrel doesn’t so much complement the beer as overpower it. I mean, if I want a drink that tastes and smells of whisky, I’ll have a Single Malt…

But it doesn’t have to be like that, as I was reminded a couple of weeks ago at Imbibe, the trade show for the drinks trade, when I met Marty Kotis, the boss of Pig Pounder Brewery, one of three brewers who’d banded together under the banner of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild to take a stand at the show. He was pouring samples not only of his Boar Brown 5% brown ale, but also a tasty barrel-aged version of the same beer which was smooth and vanilla-accented – and had the same 5% ABV, even though it had spent time in Bourbon barrels.

“We blend the barrel-aged beer with fresh beer,” Marty explained, adding that getting the taste right and consistent is extremely important – the brewery is actually a spin-off from his restaurant chain, so he and his team are all somewhat flavour-obsessed!

It reminded me of a time around a decade ago, when I was in the Hock Cellar at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery for a taste training session organised by CAMRA and hosted by brewing director John Keeling and then-head brewer Derek Prentice. Towards the end of the evening, John brought out a pet project of his as a surprise – a sample of some 8.5% Golden Pride that he’d been ageing for months in a Glenmorangie cask.

It was intriguing, but also somewhat harsh and woody – and also very strong, around 12%. John said they were still trying to work out what to do with it and the subject of blending-back came up. Fortunately we also still had a jug of ESB on the table, so with a little bravado I topped up my half-glass of barrel beer with ESB to see how that might work – and the answer was “very nicely indeed!” The fresh beer filled out the body and mellowed the harsher notes, while still leaving the warming spirituousness in place.

When Fuller’s subsequently released John’s various Brewer’s Reserve vintages in bottle, they did the same. It wasn’t just for the flavour, though – John explained that there was also a crime called Grogging, which dates back to the 1800s. (You can read his longer version of the story here.) Not only can there still be a couple of pints of whisky left in an ‘empty’ cask, but some alcohol also seeps into the wood. So unscrupulous types would buy old barrels and slosh water into them to get out and sell the last of the alcohol – without paying tax, hence the offence, and the need to get the original ABV back in order to mollify the Revenue.

So, blending-back. Why don’t more brewers do this? Perhaps they do, but they prefer not to talk about it. Anyone seen it done elsewhere?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The brewers reinventing alcohol-free beer

Most low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beers tend to be thinnish attempts at lager, or in Germany maybe Hefeweizen. Some of the better ones are just about tolerable, but others have a weird soapy note (hello Beck’s Blue). Then there’s Brewdog’s Nanny State, which ain’t bad at all, but you really need a bit more alcohol to carry that much hoppiness. So it’s a bit of a surprise to realise that I’ve drunk not one but three non-alcoholic ales in the last week, and all were remarkably palatable!

Without certainly looks the part
St Peter’s actually sent me a couple of bottles of their alcohol-free St Peter's Without a few weeks back, ahead of its national roll-out next month (August). However, I didn’t think to try it until I found myself wanting a beer on a sunny afternoon when I also needed to drive the kids somewhere…

Having mostly just seen non-alcoholic lagers before, both in the UK and Germany, the first surprise was how dark it poured and the second was how toasty it smelled. It had body too – not heavy, but not thin either. If you’ve ever tried a malt drink or malt beer, it’s like a roasty one of those, but with a light peppery bitterness – and thankfully without their sometimes-gross sweetness.

Instead it is more dry-sweet, with burnt caramel and malty wort notes. A little unusual but very drinkable. It’s the result, says the brewery, of “a complex proprietary process involving both attenuated fermentation and the stripping out of residual alcohol” – if I’ve understood rightly, that means they ferment it as low-alcohol and then remove what little alcohol there is.

Nirvana's Steve Dass
Then at the Imbibe drinks trade fair last week, I was introduced to Leyton-based Nirvana Brewery, one of two recent start-ups I know of that specialise in low and non-alcoholic beers. Co-founder Steve Dass explained that they started as home-brewers, and learnt from scratch how to brew non-alcoholic beers. Now they’ve acquired a normal 10 barrel brewkit and gone commercial, not just with an alcohol-free Pale Ale called Tantra but also an alcohol-free ‘Stout’ called Kosmic.

“We’re trying to put a bit of body in – a bit of malt. Too many non-alcoholic beers are a bit thin, even the good German lagers,” Steve agreed.  He said they’ve also done some work on 0.5% and 1% beers, but “we won’t go higher.” As far as the brewing process he was cagey, saying only that they use different yeasts and malts from most brewers.

Both his beers were quite light bodied, yet carried their flavour well. Tantra was very malty on the nose with lots of Ovaltiney notes, in the body the maltiness was dry-sweet and it’s lightly hoppy. Kosmic definitely looked the part – near-black with a beige crema – and while it’s too light to really be called a Stout, it had pleasing notes of treacle tart and raisins.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the other low-alcohol start-up in London, Big Drop Brewing, also started with a Pale Ale and a Stout? I’ve not tried these 0.5% beers yet, but I will when I get the chance. In the meantime, I now know that there are decent low or alcohol-free options out there, not just sickly sodas and malt drinks, or weedy 0.5% lagers!