Saturday, 21 April 2018

Tis the season for Irish Saison

It's Irish Saison beer night tonight, for no obvious reason except that I was gifted a couple of bottles at the Irish embassy's craft drinks night last month. First up is Grunt, a 4.8% Saison from Dublin-based Hope Beer, a name that's new to me, although it turns out they're almost three years old.

It pours with an aroma that puzzled me for a moment, then I realised: gin! A check of the label, and yes, this is that relatively rare thing, a spiced Saison. Most brewers let the yeast and hops add the spicy notes, but this one has added juniper, lemongrass and bergamot. The result is initially disconcerting – the spices overpower the Saison flavours, with a dry-edged bitterness that doesn't invite one to quaff.

Read the label some more though, and it becomes obvious that this is a beer for drinking with food, not merely for drinking! Hope suggests pairing with seafood or cheese, and sure enough, a slice of the latter lifts and brightens the flavour of the beer considerably, smoothing the harsh edge in the process. I was impressed – generally one tries to find a pairing where good beer and good food complement each other; rarely does one find a beer that really shines when drunk with food!

The second comes from a brewery I already knew, Boyne Brewhouse of County Meath, but when I last spoke with export director Peter Cooney, I think they were still contract-brewing while they built their own brewery. Two years on, it was great to see how the beers have improved – they were decent then but a little pedestrian, now they are solid, with an expanded range that includes some brilliant beers.

It helps that it's part of a larger group that also makes whiskey and cider – for example, I tasted Peter's prize-winning barrel-aged Imperial Stout, which spends four to six months in casks that once held sherry, but more recently held his Boann whiskey for 30 months. It was gorgeous, but more intriguing still was the fact that he's now cycling the casks back again, so after the beer they are refilled with spirit to make Stout-barrel-aged whiskey, then he'll refill with beer, and so on. "I'm not sure how many times I can do it though," he laughs. 

Anyway, Boyne's Irish Craft Saison doesn't disappoint. It has the classic Belgian estery and slightly funky nose. There's lemony golden malt, firm peppery and pithy bitterness, a touch of peaches and cream, and at 5.5% a light chewiness to it. A little too gassy for my taste, but otherwise a very well-executed example.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Where's Waldo? Down the pub

It's 4.20pm on April 20th – 4/20 in American parlance – and Lagunitas Brewery market manager Finny is in London for the 2018 launch of Waldo's Special Ale, one of the brewery's annual one-offs. "Happy 4:20!" he announces merrily, before taking a mouthful of the beer and launching into its origin story.

Finny – real name Andrew Finsness, but known to all by his nickname – clearly loves telling a story. This one is the 1971 tale of five high school students, who called themselves the Waldos because their favoured hang-out was by the school wall. They had acquired a 'treasure map' which would allegedly lead them to an abandoned marijuana plantation, and they agreed to meet at 4.20pm each day after school to go and look for it.

The way the story goes, they never found it, but somehow "4:20" entered the counter-culture as a term for smoking a joint. Then 40 years later, the founders of Lagunitas – who knew the term well – made a connection. Hops and marijuana are closely related plants, so with richly herbaceous and hop-forward ('dank') beers in vogue, they got in touch with the Waldos and invited them to come and help brew a beer that would both celebrate the 420 legend and that herbal sub-culture.

Finny spins a tale
The result is a triple IPA – triple in this sense means above about 10% alcohol, says Finny – that is brewed just once a year. That might not sound much, but the brew length at Lagunitas is 250 US barrels, which is a shade under 30,000 litres, and most of its fermenters take three brews, so a single batch is almost 90,000 litres or a quarter of a million bottles.

The beer varies a little from year to year in terms of alcohol strength (it's 11.3% this year) and the exact mix of hops, but regardless of that, it is the hoppiest and dankest beer that the brewery produces. And what a brew it is – rich and flavoursome, very bitter, yet well balanced because of its smooth and dank texture.  

It's also the first time that it had officially crossed the Atlantic, with April 20th launch events in several European cities. This, as Finny and his colleagues acknowledge, is one of the welcome results of Heineken's 2017 takeover of Lagunitas – it's now the craft flagship of the Heineken empire family, and has the Dutch giant's marketing and distribution muscle behind it.

Indeed, apart from a growing confidence and ambition, it is hard to tell that much has changed at Lagunitas since the acquisition – the playful, charitable and iconoclastic family feel is still in evidence. One has to hope that this will last.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

West Cork's new meadery offers a modern take on an ancient tradition

If your idea of Irish mead is that rich and smooth, but tooth-crackingly sweet Bunratty stuff, you could be in for not one but two pleasant surprises. The first, Kinsale Atlantic Dry, is a light, crisp and flavoursome honey-wine – dry, yet still a little soft on the palate.

The second, Wild Red Mead, is a gorgeous red Melomel (fruited mead) which while still distinctly honey-toned, also carries the berry notes of rich red wines. When we met at last month's Irish drinks event at the London embassy, its creator Denis Dempsey (left) explained that where the Dry is fermented with 300kg of honey per batch, the Red replaces just 40kg of the honey with an astonishing 400kg of Irish blackcurrants and cherries – hence those lovely fruity Cabernet notes.

"Even sweet blackcurrants are only 14% sugar," he said, as we compared notes on mead-making. With my own redcurrant Melomel, I found that the dryness from swapping half a pound of honey for a pound of fruit (so 2:1 rather than 10:1, on my far smaller batches) accentuated the tangy currant flavours, but he's aiming for a richer, rounder result – and he hits that target most excellently.

Although his meads are made in Kinsale in West Cork – "an amazing foodie place," as Denis put it – and the fruit is Irish, the honey is Spanish because Ireland simply doesn't produce enough to be cost-effective. The mead retails at €22 (around £20) a bottle as it is.

The amazing thing, given how very good the meads are, is that he and his wife Kate only set up Kinsale Mead Co last year. Denis said their research included visiting a number of meaderies in the US – there are dozens of them there, making a huge variety of drinks. They also did test brews and tried different yeasts (they mostly use a white wine yeast now) before launching in Ireland last September.

We talked a little more about mead-making techniques, before Denis added a piece of advice for mead consumption: "It works well in cocktails, too," he said. Now there's an intriguing thought!

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Moor Beer opens up on the Bermondsey Beer Mile

Moor Beer's new Vaults and Taproom in London's Bermondsey is now officially open – it's actually been open for several weeks, but perhaps that was unofficial opening! Anyway, Friday last week saw various writers and other people from the beer business come to meet brewer Justin Hawke, sample his beers, take a look around his new venture, and if they chose, stay on for Arrogant Sour London, a festival of yes, sour beers from Italy that Justin was hosting that evening.

Located in the inevitable railway arch, the Moor Taproom is just a few doors (or arches) up from Brew by Numbers and The Kernel, and is on the other side of the viaduct from Anspach & Hobday, UBrew and BottleShop – yes, it's the latest addition to the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Indeed, one of the first people I saw on arriving was Kernel owner Evin O'Riordain, chatting with Draft House head of beer Alex Stevenson while making a neighbourly visit.

Justin (centre) opens Arrogant Sour London
As the name implies, this isn't going to house a brewery – that's staying put in Bristol, where Moor's original taproom is. But as well as a bar, it is also Moor's distribution hub for the London area and its new barrel-store – Justin explained that they've totally run out of space in Bristol, so it makes sense to move his barrel-ageing work to London, even at four times the rent.

Moor is committed to both cask and keg beers, and both feature on the bar here – six casks on a gravity stillage visible behind the bar, plus a dozen keg taps. On our visit the cask ales ranged from 3.8% Revival pale ale, to the stunningly good 7.3% Luke Sloewalker, which is Moor's Old Freddy Walker* strong ale, aged on Justin's hand-picked local sloes. The kegs featured several more Star Wars-inspired names, including Return of the Empire IPA, Dark Alliance stout, and a wonderful 8% Double New England IPA called Rey of Light.

It all backs up what I discovered a few weeks ago – that the Bermondsey beer scene is undergoing growth and a welcome revival. Hopefully, this time it won't get swamped by stag parties and inadequate toilet facilities!

*This multi-award-winning ale and the slogan "Drink Moor Beer" are all that's left of the brewery's former incarnation on a farm in North Somerset. 

The art of whiskey is more in ageing and blending than distilling

Whiskey blender Louise McGuane at work
I'd not heard the term 'whiskey bonding' until last week, at the third of the Irish Embassy's annual presentations of 'craft drinks' from Ireland, when I tasted a new whiskey called JJ Corry The Gael, from a producer called Chapel Gate.

When I met new-wave Irish craft whiskey producers before – yes, there's 'craft' everything these days – I discovered that while some were building distilleries, they were also buying ready-distilled spirit in from elsewhere and ageing and blending it for sale.

For many – including two excellent examples I'd tasted earlier that evening, namely Boann Distillery's bourbon and sherry-aged The Whistler, and Writer's Tears from Walsh Whiskey – this is so they can get their brand to market and have some money coming in while they get their distillery up and running.

Their problem is that you can't legally sell your own whiskey until it's three years old, so you need something to sell in the meantime. (This is also one reason for the upsurge in craft vodka and gin, by the way, as they are things you can sell un-aged.)

Chapel Gate currently has no plans to distill its own spirit, however. Instead, founder Louise McGuane talks of reviving whiskey bonding, which she describes as a 19th century tradition where wholesalers and even pubs would buy in whiskey and age it 'in bond', which is to say without tax paid. Like them, she buys in various old barrels and the spirit to fill them with, or even ready-filled barrels.

Once the whiskey is aged – and the main flavours of whiskey all come from the barrels – she combines the many different flavours to create her preferred blend. The result is lighter in colour than the others I tried, lightly fragrant, fruity and smoky, and perhaps a little drier too.

As soon as I heard the story (there's a fuller version here), I recognised it: it is also the story of Scotch blending, and it is how well-known names such as Chivas Regal and Famous Grouse originated. The big difference is that in those cases the same company now owns both the blend(er) and the contributing distilleries.

Friday, 23 March 2018

It's fresh-hopped Budvar:Strong day

A tank of the regular stuff in the background
It's fresh-hopped Budvar day today, with the London launch of the Czech Bud's once-a-year Imperial Lager. At least, the hops – Czech Saaz, naturally – were fresh when they were harvested last year, before the 7.5% beer went into the lager tanks for its four months of maturation…

"This our brewers' show-beer, the pinnacle of the brewer's art," says Josh Nesfield, Budvar's UK marketing manager, handing me a glass of it. "It's a celebration of our beer – we'd use fresh hops all year if we could, but we can't."

Surprisingly, given his enthusiasm – here's a man who clearly enjoys his work – this is only the sixth year of this beer's production, and that's not long when your brewery has 123 years of history. The temptation to chase fashions must be strong, and Budvar also released an unfiltered lager about four years ago, which was just after the fashion for unfiltered and cloudy Kellerbiers kicked off across Germany and it neighbours.

Still, unfiltered Kellerbiers were far from new, even then – they're Central European staples, it's just that they were eclipsed in the public mind by golden Pilsners and Helles beers. So it's not exactly a sign of Budvar's brewers aren't going full-on Craft. "We will never chase a trend – we will never do a grapefruit lager," Josh laughs.

And indeed, while Budvar's Fresh Hopped Imperial Lager has a definite modern twist, it still places well within the traditions of Czech brewing, which of course have considerable overlap with their German and Austrian neighbours. You could see it perhaps as a Bohemian take on Maibock – rich and bready-malty, with soft and corny diacetyl notes that might be faults elsewhere but are entirely appropriate here, plus fresh and sharp bitterness and bright nose-pleasing hoppy aromas.

Whatever you call it and however you analyse it, it's a lovely beer, and perhaps one that's almost enhanced by only being available once a year.

The Budvar brewery is currently somewhat space-constrained, but Josh says that is changing – they are expanding the brewery which should give them the opportunity to "collaborate with other brewers who share our values." He wouldn't name names, but said he's already in touch with several British brewers. And given that Budvar already has a UK distribution channel, he's looking at bringing in beers from small Czech breweries too. It's interesting times indeed for Czech beer.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

It’s not about cask vs keg, it’s about the beer

We need a more nuanced approach to "cask vs keg", an end to the keg rip-offs, and a wider recognition that in beer packaging, limiting your options is generally a bad idea... 

One of the things I learnt, talking to brewers at both the final London Drinker last week and Craft Beer Rising before that, is that some continue to talk down cask ale. Somewhat sadly, for a cask-focused festival, even one of the prize-winning brewers at London Drinker confessed to me that his brewery is doing less cask. What was perhaps more interesting was that his reasons were more nuanced. Rather than the wild generalisation we’ve heard before that "Cask is too cheap", his argument was that cask is too cheap for many of the beers he wants to make.

Because the thing is, cask is not too cheap, nor is it impossible to build a viable business model on it. For many of the brewers I’ve discussed it with, the reverse is true: cask can be the cheapest way into the market. Pubs already have the necessary hand-pumps and are well-used now to the idea of guest and seasonal beers, cask deliveries and collections can help maintain customer relationships, and you have those less tangible promotional benefits of tradition, ‘LocAle’ and ‘NaturAle’.

Sure, it needs investment in infrastructure – a cask-washer, for instance, and the casks themselves, while reusable, are not cheap – but so does keg, and that’s typically more expensive. And yes, Keykegs (and cans, for that matter) are recyclable, but aren’t we supposed to be reducing the use of one-way plastics and making more use of reusable containers?

The real pricing problem is more subtle, and it’s to do with how popularity and availability affects expectations of price. You can make cask ale pretty cheaply indeed, if what you’re making is relatively lightly-hopped brown bitter, using mostly English hops. What you can’t do is make a full flavoured and hop-forward craft beer at the same price, not least because the ingredients are so much more expensive. Prices I’ve heard for modern New World hop varieties can be three to four times those of English hops, for example, and something like a New England IPA uses way more hops than a Bitter does. 

Then again, the same is true of keg beer – the average Eurolager or German industrial Pils is also cheap to produce, compared to the properly-flavoursome craft equivalents. (Bigger production volumes help here too, of course.)

So, expecting to pay £3-ish for cask real ale is reasonable, as long as what you want is subtle, flavoursome bitter, an English mild or pale ale, maybe a decent Porter. And to be quite honest these are the beers that can be utterly sublime in cask when well-kept, but can equally well be one-dimensional when kegged.

On the other hand, expecting a Double IPA, a triple-hopped American Pale, or a Belgian Quadrupel of any decent quality for £3-ish in cask or keg is just taking the proverbial. And in many (though not all) cases, such high-powered beers will benefit from the lift that an appropriate degree of extra carbonation in keg can bring.

So no craft brewer should be talking cask down like it’s something that’s holding them back, or moaning that it’s "too cheap". If you can cost-justify the recipe at £3/pint, casking it can both show your skill and produce a better end-product. On the other hand, if the recipe won’t be viable at £3/pint, then by all means keg it at £5/pint.

But don’t pretend there is any inherent extra value for the consumer in kegging. Sure, there is value for the bar – they get a product that can stay on sale longer, which enables them to charge more while they wait for it to sell, instead of pricing it to sell promptly. That might be OK for slow-selling niche beers, but charging £1 more for the keg version of a cask beer is merely an ecologically damaging rip-off.

And no one should disparage ‘twiggy brown bitter’. Some drinkers prefer subtlety, properly done, to in-yer-face flavour. And many of us like both, depending on our mood, our budget, the occasion or venue, or whatever. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Chop and change at Craft Beer Rising

At last year’s Craft Beer Rising, and in the run up to this year’s edition of the show, most of the conversations I had with brewers and others in the trade centred around how it had become largely a trade and show-off event. No one expected to sell anywhere near enough beer to recoup the costs of being there – a serious four-figure sum for most of them – so they were there to promote their brands, network with others in the business, discuss work opportunities, and so on. Or in several cases, they were not going to be there, because they didn't feel the need for those things.

As Pete Hughes, head brewer for the Brewhouse & Kitchen group, told me last year, “We’re here to build awareness and to participate, we don’t think of this as a money-making event. If you’re already at maximum [production] capacity you’re here for fun or to make contacts.” Sure enough, when I met Pete this year he was enjoying the event, but just as a trade visitor, leaving the awareness-generation to those in more of it.

Bellfield, a newer brewer
And what a lot of them there were – from small first-time exhibitors, through local brewers trying to break into Craft or out of their local region, to well-known brands ensuring that they stay that way.

Which makes it a little surprising that the organisers had apparently reined back the availability of tickets for the trade session – or they had done in the run-up, anyhow. When I turned up with all my paperwork ready as instructed*, no one actually looked at it and there were no queues or checks beyond a spoken “Got an invitation, yeah? Alright.” Upstairs, the halls were surprisingly quiet, so perhaps they overdid the restrictions!

My initial aim was to work out where the talks were being held later that afternoon, as I wanted to attend Goose Island’s class on beer & cheese pairing. This gave me a destination for a leisurely meander route through the halls, spotting sights of interest along the way.

One of the first was Mad Squirrel, a name I already knew as the crafty brand of Hemel Hempstead’s Red Squirrel Brewing – except that it turns out that the craft side has staged a takeover and the whole brewery now operates under the Mad name, with keg the majority of production.  (They still brew their cask ales though, which have quite a loyal following around the Herts/Bucks area.)

Operations and marketing manager Tim confirmed what many people have suspected: with the craft revolution and the number of new brewers competing for space on the bar, it’s not enough just to brew great beer any more. “Competition is massive for the free trade,” he said. “Branding is increasingly the thing. We wanted to do more hop-forward and contemporary beers, but the branding was holding back sales – buyers were looking at our Double IPA and saying, ‘you’re not going to be good at that.’”

On the other hand, Tim also highlighted a welcome result of all this, which is the return to vertical integration, where the brewer is also the retailer. Mad Squirrel now has five outlets around the Chilterns (including the brewery tap), which Tim characterises as half bottleshop, half bar. Indeed, where five years ago Red Squirrel employed seven staff, the company now has around 50, two thirds of them on the retail side.

I tasted two of the Mad Squirrel beers on tap. Kodiak was very pleasant, but odd – described as a American Brown but more of a dark amber, and hoppy like an American Pale, with little of the malty toastiness one tends to expect in a brown ale.  The other, Ascension, was a gorgeous Farmhouse Ale, strong in the Belgian Saison vein at 6%, and richly hoppy thanks to an unusual extra dose of hops in the mash, alongside the usual boil hops and dry-hopping. Sort of a Saison/New England IPA hybrid.

Further along, I spotted Edinburgh’s Bellfield Brewery, which is one of several gluten-free brewers that have emerged lately. Having spoken to a number of others in this area recently, including Autumn Brewing Co who I met at PubShow18, I will write more about gluten-free beer soon.

Next to catch my eye was the Marston’s nano-brewery DE14, which is where the brewers from the big Burton brewery get to experiment and try out new ideas – and also where they host local homebrew clubs and the like. The latter is where Morgan Silk, their lovely New England IPA, came from – it is named after its creator and was originally his response to a challenge set to the homebrewers to create a beer using breakfast cereal – I’m told his prototype had Special K in it! That had to be swapped for equivalent base ingredients for rebrewing on DE14’s two-barrel brewkit, but the result remains juicy, creamy and spicy-fruity.

Most DE14 brews aren’t widely sold – they might go into the brewery taproom, a few local bars, and local beer festivals, say. But at CBR I also got to see cans of the first two DE14 brews to graduate to full commercial production: End Point, described as ‘a modern take on the historic Burton IPA’, and Flight Suit, which is a pale ale with both Mandarina Bavaria hops and orange peel for added citrusness. Needless to say, these are brewed on the main brewery, which can brew up to 500 barrels at a time with a minimum run of 60 barrels (hence the desire for a smaller experimental brewkit).

This was about when I spotted the talks room – more on that later!

*With no press registration offered for the trade session, I had originally decided I wouldn’t be going this year. However, I was chatting with Hannah, one of Goose Island’s UK PR team, about their plans for the event. She knew of a writer who had a ticket via Goose Island but couldn’t now attend, so at the last minute I was able to substitute for him – thanks Hannah, and thanks Goose Island! Sad to say though, the restrictions on trade ticketing were such that even Hannah and her colleagues couldn’t attend, despite their work on promoting the event. Most strange. 

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Bermondsey Beer Mile is flourishing again

A couple of years ago, I came to the conclusion that the Bermondsey Beer Mile had lost its appeal. It had jumped the shark, a victim of its own success. The Kernel had closed its drinking area, and the other brewery taps were often overwhelmed – some, like Partizan, had a bar but little seating space.

What a difference those two years have made. OK, even on a freezing day in February, respected and well known places such as Brew By Numbers and Anspach & Hobday still get busy, and Eebria – one of the newer bars – was so rammed I didn't even bother trying to get served. Apart from that, and despite the many groups of people strolling from venue to venue, it mostly felt comfortable.

Fourpure, now times two
The overall story is expansion – existing breweries moving and growing, new ones moving in, more beer retailers, and so on. At the eastern end, Fourpure has taken over into the industrial unit next door. This has added a lot of production and workspace for them, but has also allowed the taproom to expand, with more seating space and a new bar. They also now have a proper spacious indoor toilet block, which highlights just how shamefully dismal are the loos in pretty much every other local brewery and bar.

Heading west, Partizan’s move to a new and much bigger site, with both indoor and outdoor seating, was long overdue. Being an industrial building, the taproom might be a bit overly echoey and noisy for some, but it has much more space and a bigger bar (right) with guest taps too – when I visited, there were several Kernel beers on.

The move also freed up two railway arches on Almond Road, making room for not one but two new breweries. Well, one isn’t totally new – the highly experimental Affinity Brew Co moved down from Tottenham. And the other, Spartan Brewery, isn’t totally a brewery as it doesn’t yet have its brewkit in (they’re brewing up the road at Ubrew for now).

To make it even better, while the other breweries on the Mile – with the notable exception of Southwark – are keg-focused for their draught beers, both these new ones plan to package a significant proportion in cask. Sadly, neither had cask on when I visited, although Spartan co-founder Colin Brooks said he’d like cask to eventually become the majority of their production, and they’ll have casks at London Drinker Beer Festival next month.

Meanwhile, Affinity (left) is organising a weekend Bermondsey cask beer festival for April 7th-8th. Co-hosted by Partizan, this will feature 30 breweries from up and down the country, each brewery supplying two different casks, one for Saturday and the other for Sunday. Tickets are available online and cost a fiver for each day – that covers a glass, a programme and your first half, then it's a fiver a pint. And no, I don't know if there's a refund on Sunday if you still have your glass from Saturday!

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Low-alcohol is the future – but for whom?

Do you drink low or non-alcoholic beers? Why – or more importantly, why not?

The beer and pub establishment has largely failed to notice or build on a growing interest in low and non-alcoholic drinks. That’s according to producers and promoters speaking in a panel discussion (pictured below) at the recent PubShowUK in London – and when I think about what I‘ve seen in the industry, I think they could well be right.

Initially I was cautious – like other bloggers who’ve written on the topic, I’ve seen low & non-alcoholic (LNA) beers* come and go over the years. And even after I tried a few of the new breed and found them pretty good, I wasn’t sure I would actually go on to buy them regularly.

What I’m being reminded though is that I and those other writers are not the target market. We more typically seek out new and flavoursome beers – which often means high ABV to carry the flavour, with LNA as an occasional curiosity. But the wider market is rather different, with retail analyst company Nielsen last year reporting that annual sales were up 17% by volume, which it said was the highest growth in five years.

It helps that there’s now a much wider range of LNA beers available – and the NA ones in particular are miles ahead of the stuff we were offered 10 or 20 years ago, such as Kaliber or Swan Light. Most of this is down to greatly improved brewing techniques, including new yeasts that produce fermented flavours but very little alcohol – most modern craft NA beer uses these, rather than de-alcoholisation. It means you can even get acceptable NA stouts and American IPAs.

And that’s before we take into account other LNA drinks that a pub or bar might serve, such as ‘mocktails’, craft sodas and even specialist teas.

They look old, but aren't
I’ve certainly seen an upsurge in craft sodas in Germany – it sometimes seems as if every beer brewery now also markets a non-alcoholic Fassbrause**. These “brewer’s sodas” (right) are sometimes shandy (radler) made with NA beer, but most often they’re just flavoured sodas – a few are even hop-flavoured. As an aside, they’re usually marketed with a heavy dose of history and tradition, yet they are very much a modern trend. And being packaged like a beer, with a brewery label on, they’re clearly acceptable to many beer drinkers.

Complicating all of this in the UK, though, is the soft drinks levy, or ‘sugar tax’, which takes effect in two months time. This is going to add to the cost of anything with added sugar – and it includes drinks with up to 1.2% alcohol. That’ll exempt packaged 2% shandies, say, and anything with no sugar added, such as drinks based on pure fruit juice, but it will cover drinks mixed at the bar, whether it’s a ‘lager-top’ or a St Clements. According to the trade press, suppliers are already responding by reducing the sugar content of their sodas, but it’s still an issue.

So, back to the LNA panel debate at Pub18. They were saying that what the market really needs – and what’s already appearing, but needs more support from the pub and bar trade – is a new breed of grown-up soft drinks. Whether that’s non-alcoholic (or yes, low alcohol) beers, fruit juice mixes, mocktails or flavoured tonic waters is up to you.

A (very tasty!) adult soft drink
When the presenter, Laura Willoughby of ‘mindful drinking’ (ie. LNA) promoter Club Soda, asked for questions from the floor, I waited to see if any of the assembled licensees, barstaff and other trade figures would ask about pricing. No one did, so I asked it: how do you justify charging as much for LNA as for a fully-taxed alcoholic drink?

With the benefit of hindsight, the answers from Laura and other panellists – who included Gemma Catlin from The City Pub Company and twin sisters Joyce and Raissa de Haas, whose company Double Dutch Drinks does the afore-mentioned flavoured tonics – were predictable. They’re ‘premium products’ (and craft beer isn’t?), they’re produced in small batches which puts up the production cost (must be getting less true as volumes rise, eg. with LNA beers), they require the same amount of work from barstaff, they’re lifestyle choices, and so on.

All true, of course, but I suspect they omitted the biggest one, which is “Because we can.” By which I mean, because they’re targeting a different, new and fashion-conscious customer base: the Generation Zs and Millennials who have money to spend and want entertainment, but are drinking less alcohol, or so we are told.

Laura came closest to it when she pointed out that all if a bar can offer is a sticky-sweet lemonade or cola, then adults like her will choose water – and that means zero revenue to the bar. On that basis, if 'soft drinks for grown-ups' get people back into pubs and bars, and that helps keep those open for the rest of us, then seriously, I am not complaining!

So, back to the original question: do you drink low or non-alcoholic beers, and why – or why not?


*Of course, what counts as low-alcohol varies from place to place. For example in Germany, where the norm is 5%, light (Leicht) beers are typically 3% or 3.5%, whereas in the UK the norm is more like 4%, and ‘lower’ for tax purposes means below 2.8%

**Many already do at least one NA beer, either one that meets the legal definition of under 0.5%, or increasingly one that is actually 0.0% alcohol. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

What really killed Watney's Red Barrel?

Red Barrel reborn
People who remember the Keg Wars of the 1960s still talk of how keg bitters were pasteurised and fizzed-up, knocking much of the character out. Some of the stupider ones also talk of today’s keg craft beer as if it’s treated the same (they’re wrong – much of it would fit CAMRA’s definition of real ale), and a few will also trot out how keg bitter was supposedly brewed cheaply and “full of chemicals”.

Full of chemicals? For the pedant, pretty much everything is a chemical – salt is a chemical, even water – but that’s not what they mean. They mean additives and impurities, things that probably wouldn’t be permitted under food regulations. Again, they’re almost certainly wrong – unless you count “processing aids” such as PVPP*, which is permitted under the Reinheitsgebot for instance.

Yet they might also be sort-of right, in a weird way that they probably wouldn’t recognise, and for something that they would almost certainly not think of as a “chemical” – and that is sugar.

That review in Which?
I didn’t become a beer drinker until a while after the seminal 1972 review of keg beer in Which? magazine – its criticisms helped drive the growth of CAMRA and the rebirth of cask – so I didn’t experience 1960s keg bitter. I’ve read quite a bit though about the likes of Whitbread Trophy, Double Diamond, Worthington E, and of course the legendary Watney’s Red Barrel, including the interesting tale that some of these beers were also available in cask form in small volumes, and were considerably better like that.**

So when I heard that one of my local brewpubs, The Owl and The Pussycat in Northfields, had brewed a cask recreation of 1963 Watney’s Red Barrel to a recipe devised by beer historian Ron Pattinson, I knew I had to try it. Earlier this week, I did just that, and it wasn’t half bad! It was also by far the pub’s bestseller, selling almost an entire firkin on the first night it was available, which will have had a fair bit to do with nostalgia and curiosity.

As I sipped my Red Barrel, a fairly pale amber-brown beer of 4.4% ABV, I detected light malt, a moderate and slightly earthy bitterness, and touches of biscuit and fruit. Yet I also found myself thinking how unlike modern bitters it was, even the keg ones. There’s lots around the same strength, but even the golden ones tend to be fuller-bodied, a little sweeter, a little more flavour-forward.

It was when I spoke to the brewer that I got an inkling of what was going on. He mentioned that the Red Barrel recipe was very different from their other ales in two ways: it contained a significant amount of sugar, and was relatively highly attenuated, meaning more of the sugars were fermented out to leave a drier body.

Re-reading some of Ron’s writing on those 60s beers, it makes sense. The grists of the period – grist is the mixture of malt and other fermentables – were typically 10% to 15% sugar (although he notes that Red Barrel used less than that). The typical reason for adding sugar and other adjuncts (sources of fermentable sugars) is to lighten the body, in a milder easy-drinking, don’t-frighten-the-horses sort of way. It can also improve stability and heads retention – and yes, it can save money (though not always).

So maybe, just maybe, the real reason people found 60s keg bitter insipid wasn’t just the blandifying effects of pasteurisation and fizz – though I’m sure they were (and are) important – but the fact that it started out as a light-bodied and fairly dry brew. In cask, it could just about overcome its limitations, but killed and kegged, well the poor thing didn’t stand a chance.


*PVPP (polyvinyl polypyrrolidone, or Polyclar) is a powdered plastic used as a clarifier. Anti-Reinheitsgebot campaigners say that the rule is simply a marketing tool of the big German brewers – and that it lets them cheat by claiming the PVPP is filtered out after use, so it doesn’t count as an “ingredient”. The German beer purity law also failed to prevent a 2016 scandal when some beers were found to contain traces of glyphosate weedkiller at a level up to 300 times that permitted in drinking water. The beers had been made only with malt, hops, yeast and water of course, but the malt had been made from contaminated barley. 

**Around 20 years ago I sometimes drank a perfectly acceptable cask ale branded as Worthington E, but I'm pretty sure it was nothing like the 60s version!