Monday, 18 June 2018

Can Tottenham become the new Bermondsey?

There's now at least seven breweries around the Tottenham area of north London, which if I remember rightly is more than there were on the original Bermondsey Beer Mile. So when I heard that the local CAMRA branch there was organising its "4th Annual Tottenham Real Ale Revival Crawl" last Saturday, I was intrigued – was Tottenham becoming the new Bermondsey? And for real ale?!

Well, not quite. For a start, Redemption doesn't have a brewery bar open on Saturdays, and One Mile End doesn't even have room for a brewery taproom, or so I'm told. Still, a five-brewery crawl is not to be sniffed at!

Our designated starting point was Five Miles, which is also the home of Hale Brewing. The brewery is housed in two shipping containers in the yard (left) and uses the former Affinity brewkit, Affinity having upgraded and moved to, yes, Bermondsey. As well as being the brewery tap with four Hale beers on tap, Five Miles is a beer bar in its own right – among the others on tap (below) during on our visit were beers from Magic Rock, Mikkeller (Denmark), Oedipus (Netherlands) and Schremser (Germany).

What there wasn't was any cask ale – or at least, nothing on handpump. This was to be a feature of the whole crawl, although of course some of the draught beers we encountered may very well have been keg-conditioned real ale. You might think this a bit odd for a CAMRA event, but I assure you it's not – not for London CAMRA, anyway. I think we're a pretty open bunch on average – good beer is good beer, although being cask or keg-conditioned generally makes it better still!

Anyhow, the Hale beers I tried – a fruited Berliner Weisse called Tropipisch and a fruity-hoppy pale ale – were pretty decent, and the bar is nice too. It's a little out of the way, mixed in among industrial units some 15 minutes walk from Seven Sisters tube, but that too as we'll see was to be a feature of the afternoon…

Join the crowd

Because it was another 15-20 minutes walk to our next destination, Beavertown, which is also mixed in amongst industrial units. This of course is the keystone brewery for the area, and was correspondingly crowded. It's cards-only at the bar and the queue can be pretty long, but once you get there, then as well as Beavertown's own excellent products there's usually at least a couple of collaboration brews. On our visit they had on tap both the De la Senne collab Brattish, and the stonking 14.5% Heavy Lord quadruple stout brewed with Three Floyds.

It's a nice place with a friendly crowd and great beer, helped by the early afternoon sunshine. I was happy enough though to move away from the throng (left), especially as we were only going around the corner on the same industrial estate – our next destination was Pressure Drop which recently moved in from Hackney (as an aside, it's just agreed to reopen its old brewery site there as a joint taproom with Verdant).

Pressure Drop's unit is less crowded – for now! – and feels more relaxed. Its beer range is well crafted but isn't as envelope-pushing or as broad as Beavertown's. Somewhat stereotypically for craft beer, there were several IPAs available, for instance, including multiple examples of New England IPA. To be fair though, the two NEIPAs I tried were notably different from each other.

A neat move on Pressure Drop's part is that the bottle bar is also where you get your glass deposit refunded, and you get the option of swapping it instead for a bottle – there's several beers here that aren't on the main draught bar.

From here it was on again, with the realisation of just how amazingly many small industrial estates there are in this part of London. That's because I and another chap, having been left behind by the main party, headed in the right direction up what looked like a road, only to discover it was actually the entrance to a small estate – and it was the only entrance. So we ended up having to walk more or less in a complete circle to get out again, and then backtrack to find a parallel proper route. Sigh.

Still, and few twists and turns, and a walk through a rather nice semi-wild green space, and we found ourselves entering yet another nondescript small industrial estate. Luckily I recognised the logo on one of the buildings as that of Brewheadz, our next destination, and yes, there were a couple of long tables outside. Apart from our group, it was pretty quiet – one member of staff and a handful of customers. It's a bit off the beaten track, I fear!

Brewheadz is operated by Italians, and its beers are eclectic – some classics such as their IPAs and Pales, and a medal-winning Porter, a series of fruited sours and a few outliers such as Attila the Nun, a Tiramisu white stout. I tried tart-sweet Drowning Mango, a slightly thin fruited sour that also has yogurt in(!), although I couldn't detect it, and Pineapple Wannabe, a pina colada porter which worked surprisingly well (left).

What do you mean, you lost the Czech?

Then it was off to the fifth and final destination: the Czech-inspired and operated Bohem Brewery which was having the opening party for its brewery taproom. I was lagging a bit again, and while the others sought a bus I decided to walk there with the aid of Mr Google and his map. The mistake, of course, was in letting the map guide me to where it thought the brewery was, instead of telling it the street address. Once again, I found myself walking a loop around a small, dead-end, industrial estate where everything was closed for the weekend. The brewery probably really was down at the end of it like the map claimed – just on the other side of that three metre high fence.

Still, I got there eventually. I subsequently learnt that although it looks to be in the middle of nowhere, on a dusty estate decorated with rotting old cars, this will change. It is very close both to the Redemption and One Mile End breweries, and to the site of the new Tottenham Hotspur soccer stadium. Indeed, I hear that there is a proposal for the three to open a joint brewery tap on match days, using the Bohem building as the others are more limited on space.

As promised, the Bohem beers are all Czech-inspired, with the possible exception of Druid (right), which began as a dry Stout before being converted to bottom-fermentation and becoming a sort of Baltic Stout-cum-Schwarzbier. I liked it a lot, but others weren't so sure, it being too burnt and ashy for them.

This being the final stop, and with the opening party being very much in full 'flow', we managed to get through every beer on the menu at least twice. Other than the Druid, my favourite was Vasco,  the 7.4% Double IPL – smooth, caramel-fruity and dry-bitter – followed by honey lager Henry, hopped-up Thor and amber lager Sparta. The 'only' two that didn't impress me were Victoria the session Pils, which lacked depth, and the Raleigh rauchbier which lacked, well, rauch!

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and many thanks to Ian MacLaren of North London CAMRA for planning it. And it certainly wasn't his fault that getting home afterwards was a whole other adventure in itself, involving night buses and the night-tube – that was more to do with the magic never-emptying beer glass which meant I'd stayed slightly longer at Bohem than I'd expected to. Oops.
🤣

Monday, 11 June 2018

Fuller's brewery shop is much refreshed

When Fuller's brewery shop closed a few weeks ago for refurbishment, I wondered what it might open as. Would they go full-on craft beer store, with beers from their friends and so on, or would it just be a paint-job and some new furniture? So when I saw on Twitter that it was reopening today, I jumped on my bike to have a look.
It doesn't look that different from the outside at first - it's been a sunny day, so the inside looks a bit gloomy. However, if you peer closely you can make out the first change - it has expanded inside to the right of the main entrance, into the space behind the old door labelled The General Store.

This space is the new wine shop, looking much expanded and also housing both the glassware and souvenirs.

Behind the doors at the back is a space fitted with a boardroom-type large table and a big screen. Its curved wooden walls are to put you in mind of yes, a Tun Room, as it says on the doors, and it is a meeting venue that'll be available for hire.

At the front by the windows, there's a fridge with assorted beer-infused food items, from cheese and sausages to sticky toffee pudding!

Back in the main space, almost the whole of one wall is now bottle and can fridges. The desk at the left (where there's also a blackboard for events listings - key ones to watch out for are the London Brewers Alliance beer festival in the brewery yard on Saturday 23rd June, and the Fuller's brewery open day on Saturday 2nd September) is the meeting point for brewery tours.

In the fridges, it's mainly products from the Fuller's family, so that includes some Dark Star bottles, Cornish Orchards ciders, plus some of the others that Fuller's distributes - that's bottles from Sierra Nevada and Chimay. Being able to sell these all in cooled form will please many, I'm sure.

Opposite that is, to some surprise given that the Mawson's Arms is just a few doors away, is a bar, featuring four handpumps and several keg taps! There's no glasses though, and you can't drink here - it's just for filling growlers. There's even a special machine to flush the growler (which is basically a large screwtop bottle) and if keg, to add a bit of pressure after filling.

Here's Paul, the general manager, demonstrating the filler (right). Apparently the new shop is going to be the centrepiece of Experience the Works, the new Fuller's "visitor experience".

A word on the growlers - these reusable take-away flasks are an idea that's hugely popular in the US, which may be why the Fuller's ones are the somewhat unusual size of a tad over 3.5 pints. Sharp readers will have guessed that's because they are actually half a US gallon. Anyway, an empty growler is £12 and then fills and refills are in the vicinity of £8, depending on the beer.

But it's at the back of the shop, past the bar, that you can see the pièce de résistance: Fuller's long-anticipated pilot brewery, all gleaming steel - and yes, fitters in fluorescent waistcoats, as by the look of it, it's not quite finished yet...
As you might expect, the plan is to use this both for trial brews and for short-run and special release beers - there's already at least one Twitter thread asking for suggestions. I know the brewers are very much looking forward to getting their hands on the new brewkit - and I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the results!

Monday, 4 June 2018

A Goose on the Thames

2018 is Goose Island's 30th anniversary, and last week, Fuller's – which was a major inspiration in the Chicago brewery's founding – threw its young cousin a birthday party in London. Pride of place went to the 30th Anniversary Ale, a 5.9% collaboration brew based on Fuller's original ESB recipe, but with modern and experimental US hop varieties.

It's a beer that's been available in the US since early May, but not here – kegs were brought over specially for the party at The Hydrant, a Fuller's pub named for its location next to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Also getting a relatively rare draught outing there was Fuller's 2017 Vintage Ale in cask, so I'm afraid my first question for Goose Island president and general manager Ken Stout was: how come the Anniversary Ale isn't in cask too?

"We do quite a few cask beers, but the only place we serve them is in our own brewery tap," he said. He explained that it's the same problem so many British craft brewers have with cask beer – you're totally reliant on the skills, or lack of them, of the pub cellar manager.
The Anniversary Ale, very nice with a sossie!

I'd just come from a CAMRA meeting where those who couldn't get to the recent AGM (where votes were taken on adjusting CAMRA's aims to widen its campaigning remit and educational coverage) could hear and discuss reports from delegates who were there. So Ken and I went on to talk about why there's still this perceived divide between cask and keg – he's a big fan of British cask ale.

He loves classic Bavarian beer too, so we also talked about what's going on with German craft beer (with almost everyone now making Pale Ale and/or IPA, German and even Bavarian PA/IPA have emerged as genuine substyles, but the aficionados and beergeeks have moved on to Porters and Stouts, preferably barrel-aged Imperial ones…); about Franconian Ungespundet which is Germany's equivalent of cask-conditioning; and about Goose's collaboration with fellow AB-InBev property Spaten last year. The resulting Keller-Märzen was served at the Goose Island London Block Party last September, and like the party it was excellent.

It got me thinking: here's two macro-owned breweries, but they're still making great beer, and they seem to be getting nothing but help and support from their owners. Is this, and not the dumbing-down that many assume will follow when you 'sell out to big beer', the real threat from macrobrewers buying into craft? That the result will be too good – or at least, plenty good enough – and too well resourced for others to compete? I'm going to have to think (and write) some more about this…

Ken also introduced me to Andrew Walton, the newly appointed head brewer for Goose's Shoreditch brewpub, which is due to open in September – there's already brewpubs in Toronto, Seoul and Shanghai, as well as the original one in Chicago of course, and we're next. Andrew is from Canada, but has spent the last couple of years brewing in London, at Fourpure.

Samples of Belgian-brewed Midway are air-freighted back to Chicago so they can be tasted for consistency with the US version. If there's one thing companies like AB-InBev understand and can help their craft brewers with, it's expertise in quality and consistency management. Interesting times, eh?

Friday, 1 June 2018

The rarity that is draught unblended Lambic

Well, I was wrong last week – this weekend's Ales Tales Belgian beer festival does indeed feature Lambic beer on draught. It's an unblended Lambic from Belgoo Beer, a 10 year-old brewery which five years ago moved to the Senne Valley, part of the only area where you can legally use the Lambic name.

And as brewer Jo Van Aert gently reminded me, there's not many breweries that serve an actual Lambic – although there's a dozen or so producing traditional Lambic beer, most blend it into Gueuze or referment it with cherries as Kriek. (There's also several varieties of those for sale at Ales Tales on the bottled beer stand.)

Jo added that while he does export his regular beers, which include a Saison and several Belgian Blonds, "We only sell our Lambic – a blend of one and two year-old beers – in Belgium as we can't produce enough for export."

He confirmed that, despite its sour beers being highly fashionable world-wide, they are still a very regional taste in Belgium itself. "We do see a lot of fancy restaurants picking up Lambics though, because you can do some very interesting food pairings with them."

Belgoo's Lambic is fermented in 400 litre barrels, which Jo said "gives enough contact with the wood, it's a good balance." The resulting 5% beer is tart with notes of lemon juice, dry-sweet and lightly spritzy, and cleanly refreshing. 

The one drawback to adding Lambic to a 'regular' range of beers is of course that you can't mix the two. Belgoo has to have two completely separate brewing and packaging lines, with the minor consolation that Lambic is OK with a simpler bottling line. As Jo said, "A little bit of oxygen can ruin normal beer, but not Lambic!"

The public sessions will be busier!
If you want to sample it – and around 75 other gorgeous brews – Ales Tales has afternoon and evening sessions tomorrow (Saturday 2nd), and there's still tickets available. It's a nice straightforward festival – simply decorated bars, most with four beers on tap, and mostly staffed by the breweries themselves, so you can learn more if you want to.  

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Ales Tales beer fest brings Belgium to London

Whether you subscribe to the belief that Belgian beer is something unique, or the one that it represents a window into an almost-vanished tradition that once dominated much of northern Europe, or perhaps the more esoteric one that it's heavily influenced by exported British beers of the 18th (or was it 19th?) centuries, there's no denying its variety and quality.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that so little of it – in the grand scheme of things – makes it across the Channel, and much of what does travel comes from the Belgian subsidiaries of multinational brewing empires. That's not to say the latter beers are all bad – far from it! Some are quite excellent – just that you rarely get to see beers from smaller, more local producers. Not only may they lack the production capacity, they lack the distribution muscle of the megabrewers.

Which is why I’m looking forward to the Ales Tales beer festival of Belgian beer (and food) in London’s Hackney next weekend. I’ve not been since it was an off-shoot of London Craft Beer Festival, back in 2014 I think it was. I remember walking in and thinking, “Ooh, I didn’t know they were here – and oh look, I’ve not seen their beer in ages!”

And even though I spent several days in summer 2015 touring Belgian craft breweries old and new, there’s still lots on this year’s list that I either don’t know, or am looking forward to reconnecting with.

In total they’re expecting 70 beers from 20 breweries at Ales Tales, ranging from classic Trappist brewer Westmalle through new twists on the classics from the likes of Fort Lapin and Dochter van de Korenaar, to modern craft idols such as Alvinne and Brasserie de la Senne (the full list is below). We are also promised Belgian food pairings, including fries (no doubt with mayo available) and cheese – although I fear these are probably not included in the ticket price!

The one gap is that I can't see a single Lambic producer on the brewery list! I know a couple of the participating brewers have experimented with Lambic in the past, but I don't think any produce it regularly. Without that, the organisers' claim to provide "the full Belgian experience" is just nonsense, so I really hope I've missed something – maybe there will be a bottle bar or somesuch.

Belgian hops, in the rain...
Still, the tickets look good value, even though the cheapest are now £42 (the £35 early-bird ones are sold out). In the modern vein, they’re inclusive tickets that give you a five-hour session to drink as much or as little as you can manage. The main sessions are the evening of Friday 1st June, then the afternoon and evening of Saturday 2nd. There’s also a trade session on the Friday afternoon which I hope to report from – and which presumably means we can expect to see these breweries here again, if they can get distribution arranged.

With LCBF having now moved off elsewhere, Ales Tales has even taken over its 2014 venue – which although called Oval Space is rather confusingly nowhere near The Oval.  Instead it’s just off Hackney Road near Cambridge Heath railway station.

Here’s what the festival’s press release has to say:

Ales Tales is the brainchild of two Belgians, Nicolas Tondeur and Sayuri Kasajima, it was created after the duo were unable to find their favourite Belgian beers in the local pubs and supermarkets of London.

Discussing the return of Ales Tales, creator Nicolas Tondeur adds: “We are thrilled to bring the festival back this summer, with new beers to taste, new breweries to discover and talk to. We can’t wait to show Londoners how vibrant the beer scene in Belgium is.”

Undoubtedly set to be one of London’s best curated beer events of the summer, Ales Tales is open to everyone from beer enthusiasts, curious novices and anyone interested in a fantastic day out with a friendly atmosphere.

And here's the brewery list:

New for 2018:
De Ranke
Alvinne
Brouwerij ‘t Verzet
Jandrain-Jandrenouille
Westmalle
No Science
Brasserie de l’Ermitage
Belgoo
De Plukker

Returning Breweries:
Brasserie de la Senne
Fort Lapin
Hof ten Dormaal
‘t hofBrouwerijke
Brasserie des Legendes
Brasserie de Cazeau
Brasserie de Bastogne
Siphon Brewing
Solvay Society
De Dochter van de Korenaar 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Trebles all round for music-themed Signature

When I first came across Signature Brew, with its music industry-themed beers, I confess I thought it was a gimmick. I assumed it was another of those generic "Rock Pale Ale" type beers, contract-brewed and labelled with the name of a venue or a music promoter. And indeed, it did indeed start out by doing  collaborations with bands I'd never heard of, creating beers that were nomad-brewed at places such as Titanic and London Fields, and which never appeared anywhere I went drinking or beer-shopping.

It wasn't long before I realised my mistake. As time went by, I encountered more and more of their beers on sale – some were even cask-conditioned, glory be!! In the process, I discovered that they were accomplished core brews that were branded for Signature itself, not for a band.

Four regulars, plus 'special guests'
They all still had music-themed names though – it turns out Signature's founders come from the music industry, hence the brewery's tagline (hey, everybody has to have a tagline these days…) of "Brewing with Music."

Then this year, two things happened on the exact same day in March: first, the news came that Signature had won the 2018 Brewery Business of the Year award from the Society of Independent Brewers, and second, I encountered Anthology, their stunning 10% Imperial Stout, on draught at the London Drinker Beer Festival. I realised that this was now a real brewery, with real brewers – and with real ambitions!

So when the brewery's publicity chap got in touch with news that they were launching a 9.4% Triple IPA called Treble, and would I like a sample, I was intrigued. Well, OK, there may have also been elements of "Are bears Catholic?" and "Does the Pope...?"

When the beer arrived, he'd kindly added a few more samples, including one of Anthology. Perhaps to cock a snook at the beery establishment and the neo-Puritans, while the regular Signature Brews are now in 330ml cans, the specials are in 440ml 'extended editions' – yes, almost half a litre of Triple IPA goodness!

And very, very good it was, too. Treble's an almost glowing amber-brown, with a fine head and aromas of pine resin, touches of onion skin and toasted orange, and a hint of mango. At first it's rich and malty-sweet on the palate with dark marmalade notes, then drying resinous hoppiness and alcohol slide in. The bitterness is there, but pretty moderate in context. Lovely! (If you'd like some, it looks like it's still available, despite its 'special guest' status, as there's still check-ins popping up on Untappd.)

He also sent news of the latest band collaboration brew – yes, they're still doing them, this one is a Grapefruit Sour created with London alt-pop outfit Banfi. I love both good sours and grapefruit, but sadly couldn't make it to the launch event.

If you're in London over the coming late May bank holiday weekend though, you can catch up with Signature Brew at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick. There's a Signature tap-takeover all weekend with seven beers on, and on the Friday night there's also a tutored tasting of five beers – that last bit is ticketed and will cost you £11.37 (weird price, but it includes a booking fee). By chance, I noticed that the place currently has that Grapefruit Sour on tap. Hmm...

Friday, 18 May 2018

Gluten-free beer tasting

To follow my blog on how gluten-free beers are made, I enlisted some selfless volunteers to help me taste several examples to see how they compared to standard beers. One was a coeliac who for several years has had little beer, apart from the occasional gluten-free light lager.

We started with a trio of barley-based beers. The first two say they use low-gluten barley and a brewing process that further minimises gluten, while the latter doesn't say how it's de-glutenised, which means it's probably Brewer's Clarex.

Bellfield Bohemian Pilsner: A golden beer with a very slight head and light aromas of dry hay, biscuit, a little sweetcorn – making it pretty close to style. The body did seem to me to be a little thin for a Czech-style Pils, but beyond that it is malty and dry-sweet, with light dry bitterness. It's a nice example of a lager, and was well liked by our coeliac taster.

Bellfield Lawless Village IPA: It's orange-brown and toasty, with touches of Seville orange and caramel, a note of grapefruit pith and a hint of lemon on the finish. Don't expect American hops or bitterness – this is a nice classic British-style IPA that you wouldn't know was gluten-free – and indeed, why should you?

Glebe Farm Wellington Bomber: Described as a Porter, it seemed more in the Brown Ale vein to me. It has aromas of toast, cocoa and a little cola, then the body was a little watery, with roasted malt, palate-drying cocoa, and a sweet, burnt sugar note. We found it a bit confused and thin; however, I suspect our bottle – bought from a farm shop – had suffered a bit of oxidation in storage.

We followed with a trio of non-barley beers, brewed instead from malted rice and other grains, including millet and quinoa. All are from Autumn Ales, and like the Bellfield beers were kindly donated by the brewer.

Alt Brew No.01: Labelled as a Bavarian-style Pilsner, it's light-bodied – certainly a lot lighter than the average Eurolager, and maybe even a bit thin. I don't think it's bitter enough for Bavarian Pils, but it went down well with the other tasters, who agreed it made a nice summer drink.

Alt Brew No.02: A Golden Ale, it pours a bright amber-brown with a lasting head. The nose is hoppy-fresh with a hint of citrus. Then there's crisp bitterness and lightly sweet, with a toasted edge and a slight astringency. This a nice zesty beer, and was the only one liked by all our tasters.

Alt Brew No.03: Brewing a dark and roasty Stout without barley is a challenge, but Autumn has come pretty close with this dark brown brew. It's a little thin compared to many other Stouts, and was too 'burnt' for some of our tasters, but for dark beer fans there's a light milky sweetness in the midbody, plus notes of bitter chocolate before an ashy-burnt finish.

Overall, even though these are such different beer styles, I think some conclusions are fair. As a regular drinker of all sorts, my favourite was the excellent Lawless IPA, while the Pilsners seemed not quite authentic. However, the latter were popular with the tasters who hadn't drunk much ale in recent years, but who still appreciated something better than Eurolager.

The one we all agreed on liking was the Alt Brew No.02. Yes, it's that classic golden ale crossover beer – well put together, and appealing to ale and lager drinkers alike.

Ultimately though, the most amazing thing is that while Autumn Brewing and Bellfield Brewery are special, in that they brew only gluten-free beer and don't rely on Clarex, this was just a sample of what's available now in terms of gluten-free beer. So whether you're a super-sensitive coeliac or simply have an intuition you're gluten-intolerant, at least now you can enjoy a decent beer. Cheers to that!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The brewers going gluten-free for health and profit*

There's been specialist gluten-free beers for a while now, often using the same gluten-free grains as the traditional sorghum and millet beers of Africa. However, few have managed to really replicate the aroma and flavour of beers made from malt, or indeed the range of beers possible with malt – light lagers were just about the only thing possible. Until relatively recently, that is.

Why does it matter? While gluten-free and wheat-free are lifestyle choices for some people these days, for those who have coeliac disease, gluten can genuinely and seriously damage your health.  So when you're diagnosed as coeliac, as a close relative of mine was, you need to give up gluten – and it's in an amazing number of things these days, one of them of course being beer.

Yes, there's the specialist free-from brands such as Greens, as well as obvious gluten-free (g/f) alternatives such as cider and wine, but it's not the same. So over the last three years or so I've been intrigued to see more regular breweries adding g/f beers – often as versions of their regular beers, such as Greene King's g/f IPA and Old Speckled Hen, and Damm's Daura range – and so I set out to learn more.

The first thing I learnt about was Brewer's Clarex – not to be confused with the many other Clarexes out there, which range from assorted pills to a form of acrylic glass. Brewer's Clarex is an enzyme that was originally developed to stabilise beer faster, but it was subsequently discovered that it also has a de-glutenising effect. It doesn't remove it all, but beer treated with it will typically have well below 20 parts-per-million (ppm) of gluten, which means you can legally call it gluten-free (once it has been lab-tested as such, of course), and it should be safe for all but the most sensitive of coeliacs.

This is how the majority of the new wave of g/f beers are made, and it means they taste little or no different from beer that hasn't been Clarexed. Indeed, the widespread use of Brewer's Clarex simply as a stabiliser also means there will be beers out there that are g/f for practical purposes but are not labelled or accredited as such, typically because the brewers don’t want the additional cost of testing, or can't guarantee every single batch will be below 20ppm. So if you were to taste-test g/f beer versus non-g/f beer, you could find you're accidentally comparing like with like!

However, even this process is not good enough for every coeliac. In addition, some, such as the coeliac founders of Edinburgh's Bellfield Brewery, argue that the by-products of de-glutenisation can themselves be harmful. So instead of enzymes, they use very-low-gluten barley malt, along with g/f adjuncts such as maize, in a brewing process that they say also minimises gluten.

I met Bellfield back in February at Craft Beer Rising, where beer seller Robert Shepherd said that the result of all this is beers that routinely test below 10ppm, which counts as 'gluten-absent'. (This level is not hard to find – Daura claims 3ppm, for example – but it’s unusual in a barley beer that's not been enzyme-treated.)

But what of the other g/f grains used in European-style brewing, such as maize and rice? Although they have been used for many years, they have not had great reputations – their main purpose is to add fermentables without adding body, making a 'thinner' beer, hence the beer-geek distaste for American Bud as "thin, tasteless rice beer".

It turns out though that does not have to be the case. When I met Peter Briggs (left) of Autumn Brewing at the PubShowUK earlier this year, he introduced me to a stout, a lager and an amber ale which are gluten-absent but still taste like all-malt beers – because they are malt beer. It's just not barley malt.

He uses malted rice, millet and quinoa (!), sourced from specialist maltsters in the US. Malting, where the grain is germinated then kiln-dried before it grows too much, is a key process in making beer. Not only does germination help convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars, but both it and the subsequent kilning also alter its flavour and colour. Indeed, the degree of kilning used can produce a broad range of drastically different results, from light lager malts to the dark roasted malts that give stouts and porters their colour and flavour. Peter reckons Autumn is (or was – who knows!) the first brewer in Europe to import these malts and brew with them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this – and the most positive thing to come out of the g/f lifestyle movement – is that it's boosted the availability of g/f beer for everyone, including the coeliacs who need it most keenly. Bellfield's Robert Shepherd even spun it into a business benefit for the g/f brewer: "Most beers can only reach around 90% of the market – there's people who can't drink them. We're both gluten-free and vegan, so we can reach 100%."

Coming up next: the coeliac's gluten-free taste test

*Profit? Maybe – I hope so, anyway. This is a tough market to operate in, because it normally involves extra production & testing costs and therefore higher prices, which makes it harder to also reach the mainstream buyer. 

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.