Saturday, 17 August 2019

A macrobrew lesson in the middle of the Med

Mahon's magnificent harbour
When we went on holiday last month to Menorca, in the Balearic islands of Spain – it’s the smaller counterpart of Majorca (hence minor/major) – I was curious to see what interesting beers I might find. I’d already had a look on Untappd which suggested there were a couple of breweries on the island, plus a couple of bottle shops, one in each of the main towns.

We were staying near the current capital Port Mahon (Maó in the Catalan dialect used locally), while at the opposite end of the island is the former mediaeval capital of Ciutadella. The switch from one to the other happened in the 1700s when the island was under British control, not Spanish, but it reflected changes in naval technology as much as nationality. The harbour at Ciutadella is closer to the Spanish mainland, but is shallower and far smaller than the magnificent 5km-long Mahon harbour, which was much better positioned and sized to suit an 18th century fleet of battleships tasked with controlling the Western Med. 

Anyway, quite how we missed Birra O’Clock in Mahon/Maó I don’t know – we must have walked almost straight past it. But that was on Sunday afternoon, so maybe it was closed and less noticeable, and anyway I’d have been more focused on keeping the kids from getting lost and/or run over.

So what I drank while there was what I found in the supermarkets. What I didn’t expect, even though technically we weren’t all that far from Spain’s craft beer capital of Barcelona, was that it was almost all macro and crafty macro. Sure there was variety – amber lagers, Märzens, a Hefeweizen and even a few ales of various sorts – but with just a couple of microbrewed exceptions, they were all from Damm, Mahou-San Miguel or Heineken Spain.

As for local brews, it wasn’t until we visited bottle shop Sa Bona Birra on a trip to Ciutadella that we found any, and that was from Sant Climent back near Mahon. Yes, they had beers from Barcelona micros as well, but they had beers from all over the world, as you’d expect in a specialist shop.

Ciutadella
It reminded me just how much of a bubble the beer scene in, say, Barcelona actually is. But it also demonstrated how much the big brewers have invested in crafty brewing to ensure that outlets such as supermarkets have no need to go elsewhere in order to add a dusting of modernity and variety to their beer shelves. (Like washing powder manufacturers, they also grab for shelf space by having secondary brands for their generic beers – pretty poor stuff in the main.)

By chance, a week later I found myself chatting with one of the brewers from Mahou-San Miguel after we’d both spent the day judging in the International Beer Challenge. He confirmed that, as I already knew from elsewhere, it’s all about the extra margin on craft, not the sales volume. And it’s not about doing it on the cheap, either, although he noted that the Mahou Barrica barrel-aged strong lagers (the Bourbon one is rather good, by the way) are deliberately priced low to get shelf space and attention.

And clearly it works, with some of the crafty ones actually being pretty good – San Miguel’s Manila Vienna lager for instance, and Heineken Spain’s Cruzcampo ales (but not its eponymous Eurolagers), although yes, the real independents were on average rather better.

Interestingly, Heineken seems to have recognised the need to separate off its crafty element. It worked with a local hospitality group to set up a brewpub in Malaga called La Fabrica de Cruzcampo where its brewers can get creative. It then brews and bottles some of the results back at HQ for nationwide distribution.

Will this crafty-creative approach be a model we’ll see more of across Europe and elsewhere? I suspect so. The question is, how can real micros and independents respond?

Saturday, 20 July 2019

London's Summer of Beer

There’s a lot for the beer-lover to look forward in London over the summer. I guess it started with last weekend’s Ealing Beer Festival, under the giant oak trees and in the grassy surroundings of Walpole Park – and once again mostly in the sunshine this year. A great selection of cask beers this year, all in good-to-excellent condition.

Beer judging underway
Perhaps to show that any style can work in cask, my absolute stand-out there this year was a cask Belgian Saison – but then, the original farmhouse Saisons would have been cask, so why not? Called Go With a Smile, it was a collaboration between two small Kentish brewers, Boutilliers and Iron Pier. By coincidence, my second favourite was also Belgian – but not just in style this time. One of the two kegs on the foreign beer bar, it was De la Senne’s Jambe de Bois, an 8%er billed as the most bitter Tripel in Belgium. Lovely!

I wasn’t just there for the drinking, mind you – I was helping judge CAMRA London’s Champion Beer of London, along with assorted luminaries from the world of brewing and beer writing. For the record, the overall winners were:

Gold:  Five Points Railway Porter
Silver: Tap East’s East End Mild
Bronze: Wimbledon XXXK Vintage Ale

This weekend, there's still a few tickets left for tonight and tomorrow at Craft Beer Cares, which was the subject of my previous post, then in two weeks time on Saturday 3rd August there’s an open-day at the Weird Beard brewery in Hanwell, after which we dive into the week of the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia (August 6th-10th). That kicks off with the judging of Champion Beer of Britain on the morning before the Tuesday trade session.

The 2018 LBA festival in Fuller's sunny courtyard
Overlapping with GBBF this year, which I guess ought to make it easier for some people to get to both, is London Craft Beer Festival (9th-11th August). It’s back at the Tobacco Dock event space this year, and when last I looked there were still tickets left for all sessions. It’s typically £50 for each five-hour session, but unlike GBBF where most sessions are £11 but you buy beer separately, the LCBF ticket includes all your beer. Then again, your GBBF ticket covers twice as long, at ten hours.

And last for now, but not least, the London Brewers Alliance has announced the date of its 2019 summer beer festival: Saturday 14th September. Hosted in the courtyard and carriage house at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, this is another all-inclusive event. Tickets are £35-ish including fees, and you can expect to find more that 50 of the capital’s brewers, each pouring at least two or three of their beers.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Charity beer fest returns for a 3rd year

Last year's event was very enjoyable
Craft Beer Cares, the festival where all beer is donated and all profits go to charity, is back for a third year. It's this coming weekend, Fri/Sat/Sun, at the London Fields Brewery event space in a set of railway arches just off the eponymous park in Hackney.

The sessions will run from 6-11pm Friday 19th, 12-5pm and 6-11pm Saturday 20th, and 12-5pm Sunday 21st July. Apparently there's still tickets available for all three days - they're only eleven quid (inc. booking fees), which gets you a festival glass and enough tokens for five halves or thereabouts. You can buy more tokens of course, and I assume there will also be food and merch for sale as in past years.

This year all the profits - that's £10 from every ticket since pretty much everything is donated, including the volunteer servers - will go to Hackney Winter Night Shelter. This is a charity that provides food and shelter for homeless people during the coldest months of the year. Last year, the festival raised over £10,000 for the London-based anti-violence charity Art Against Knives.

More than 30 breweries, representing some seven different countries, have so far offered beer for Craft Beer Cares 2019. They include:

Beatnikz Republic
Big Drop
Brew By Numbers
BrewDog
Brixton Brewery
Brooklyn Brewery
Canopy
Cloudwater
Collective Arts
Dry & Bitter
East London Brewery
Fierce Beer
Fourpure
Gipsy Hill
Hale Brewing
The Kernel
Lervig
London Fields
Lost & Grounded
Magic Rock
Mikkeller
Mondo
NZ Beer Collective
Partizan
Siren
Solvay Society
Stone Brewing
Toast Ales
Verdant
Weird Beard
Whiplash
Wylam
and Yeastie Boys
with more to be confirmed.

We already have our tickets for the Sunday - see you there?

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The beers we almost forgot

If you’re running a craft beer bar or specialist real ale pub that caters to aficionados, it’s relatively simple – in concept at least, though less so in execution! You offer a range of styles, rotating as often as you can manage, always with something new and/or weird – and also with a known-brand but unusual lager for your less adventurous visitors, or the non-aficionado friends and other halves.

But what about venues where craft beer isn’t the main or only offering, such as restaurants, cafés or ‘regular’ pubs. The constant chasing after fashion and novelty is a never-ending game. Constant novelty, but it’s a business model that’s tough to scale and make reliable. Even those brewers famed for their frequent special releases usually try to build up a solid baseline of regular beers as well, just like craft bars needs that regular tap for those customers who ‘just want a beer’.

I arrived late at this month’s Imbibe Live trade show at Olympia, but just in time to catch Mitch Adams’ final talk and tasting, “Back to the Future”. In it, he encouraged retailers in particular to forget modern beer trends and fashions for a moment, and instead pay attention to some of the beers – and perhaps more significantly, beer styles – that have dropped off the headlines, but still deserve some love.

In particular, he highlighted Helles & Vienna (golden & amber) Lagers, Hefeweizen, Golden Ale, West Coast IPA, and Tripel. I might quibble with one or two of his exemplars – Stiegl Gold isn’t my favourite Helles, I’m afraid – but others were excellent choices. Erdinger Weisse for instance, and Ska’s Modus Hoperandi for classic American IPA, while I'd say Brooklyn Lager is the best Vienna Lager in volume production. 

He’s got a very good point here, although as implied earlier I have no fears for lager. We’re seeing more and more craft lagers – it does seem to be lager that most ‘just-a-beer’ drinkers go for. So you make your craft lager a bit more malty and flavoursome than the big brands, easy drinking but nothing too scary, nothing too different…

The crafty (re)birth of lager

Even in Germany, where the craft beer movement grew up in large part in opposition to the industrialisation of beer, you can see this happening. German industrial Pils is yellow, fizzy, light-bodied and remarkably samey. Craft beer therefore set out to be the opposite – it’s at least hazy if not downright murky, amber-brown or even darker, malty, and comparatively heavy with aroma and flavour.

While that trend’s not gone away, more and more modern microbrewers are now producing a Pils or a Helles too. It’s partly that they have customers who want novelty, but familiar novelty, and partly the realisation that making a really good lager is hard. So if you want to show your skills as a brewer, it’s one way to do it.

Choose your guests

But while offering a regular craft lager for the ‘just-a-beer’ customers works for the specialist beer venue, what about the reverse – a ‘regular’ catering for aficionados? Maybe it should be a guest Vienna, or a blond lager and a West Coast IPA. And it can’t hurt to have bottles of a reliable Weizen and Tripel (or Dubbel) in the fridge.

What do you think – are we worrying too much? Does this happen already? Or is there still too much focus on fashion?

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Jubel gets crafty with the lager-top

Maybe you already saw Jubel’s attractive bright-yet-minimalist labels on the shelves in Sainsbury’s, but like me, you weren’t convinced by the idea of sweetened, fruit-flavoured beer. Flavoured beer is quite traditional though in some ways and places, so I was pleased when one of my local pubs announced a meet-the-brewer visit from Jubel Beer.

We had two varieties to taste, Alpine which is peach-flavoured, and Urban which has elderflower syrup added. They had just launched a third, Grapefruit, but it hadn’t reached London yet. I tried the Urban first and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s sweet – much too sweet for my liking – but the elderflower adds an intriguing grape-like note, with the result ending up like a cross between lager and a sweet white wine.

Alpine is less subtle, with in-your-face fruitiness and the rather light base-beer almost lost in the background. “Craft beer is all the thing now, but it’s too hoppy for some,” noted Jubel rep Adam, which I’m afraid I translated as ‘This is beer for people who don’t actually like beer, but still want to be seen drinking it.’

Life is peachy

Adam passes the beers round
Everything has to have an origin story these days, it seems, and as Adam explained, this one involves two students on a skiing holiday in the French Alps and encountering Demi Pêche, which is the local variant of a lager-top – beer with a dash of peach syrup.

He says they came back to London and, after graduation, initially tried renting brewing capacity and making something similar using peaches in the brew. That didn’t work well though, so they decided to make their own peach syrup. They added this to a contract-brewed gluten-free lager – one of the two founders is Coeliac, says Adam – and sold the result in bottles. (There’s also a YouTube version of this story.)

So why was I meeting Adam, who’s actually on the sales side, covering London and the South East, rather than one of the founders? That was down to their need for more production capacity and money for expansion, both of which came from picking up the whole operation and moving it to Cornwall, landing in Penryn, near Falmouth. This is just 20-odd miles from St Austell Brewery, and it helped them get a grant from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund, one of whose aims is to boost the economies of places like Cornwall.

Just a taste...
A launch across the south-west of England followed, and then a listing with Fuller’s (we were talking in The George IV, a big yet cosy Fuller’s pub in Chiswick). And then late last year came the big one – a nationwide launch in 600 Sainsbury’s shops.

Should you buy some? Well, if you or your friends are sweet-toothed and enjoy drinks such as the mixes of beer and fruit juice* produced on the Continent – and especially if they are Coeliac too – then give them a go. The elderflower one could also be interesting for anyone who like sweet white wines and wants to try something a bit different.

*Note that these are fruit-flavoured drinks but they are not ‘fruit beers’, as the fruit is not there during the brewing or fermentation. They are closer to shandies, or what the Germans more practically call a Biermix.

Monday, 17 June 2019

How can Innis & Gunn be both barrel-aged and available everywhere?

It’s rare to visit a brewery these days that doesn’t have a barrel-ageing programme of some sort. It might just be a dozen or so wooden casks stacked up in a corner, or it might be a dedicated storeroom or even a whole warehouse full of casks. For most though, barrel-aged beers are specialist small-batch products – a whisk(e)y cask is two hectolitres, and ought to yield enough to fill between 500 and 600 33cl bottles.

Dougal with samples of chips and beer
That’s scalable to hundreds of casks and hectolitres, which is tolerable for those speciality beers (700 hl of Duvel BA, say, or Goose Island BCBS). But what if your annual production is heading for 150,000 hectolitres, and you need to barrel-age pretty much all of it? If you’re Dougal Gunn Sharp, the boss of Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn, it means applying some science…

To start with, they developed the Oakerator, which circulated beer through treated oak chips in a tank. Then two years ago they switched back to using real Bourbon barrels – but barrels that had been broken into their staves, then turned into wood chips and toasted to differing degrees to “open up the wood” and yield different flavours. Both methods resemble the oak-chip techniques used by some large wineries and are used for the same reasons – to do more, and faster, with less wood. Though because in this case the brewers are also looking for Bourbon flavours, they don’t even have the option to use large wooden tanks.

Once the beer is on the barrel chips, “We apply different temperatures and pressures to get different flavours in, such as that Bourbon vanilla note. It’s like using a pressure cooker,” explained Dougal when we met at an Innis & Gunn beer matching evening in London last month.

Flavour targets

“We know exactly where we want to be, the flavours we want,” he added. “We’re about warm, smooth characteristics, but not too many of them. The starting beer is something of a blank canvas – not too hoppy, and brewed with our own yeast, selected for the flavours we want.”

Along the way, they have learnt a lot about what works when it comes to barrel-ageing. “For example, barrel-aging goes better with some styles than others – it needs some ‘weight’ to carry it,” he said, adding though that you don’t want to overdo it. As a result, most Innis & Gunn beers have quite a short aging period: “We don’t need longer than 5-30 days, though we could go to months [for certain beers].

“The timing also depends for example on the time of year – it really is quite a scientific process. The right flavours for us are vanilla, toffee and so on – once you leave the beer longer it begins to change and you begin to round off some of the more robust characteristics. The key thing here is to be able barrel-age a beer that isn’t 10 or 11%, without having to liquor it down.” (That’s to say, without having the aged version come out at 11% and then blend it down to a more saleable strength.)

The Innis & Gunn story combines serendipity with family history – Dougal’s father Russell was the head brewer who rescued Caledonian Brewery. Russell Sharp also had extensive experience in the distillery business, and he founded Innis & Gunn with his two sons – its name comes from their middle names – as a joint-venture with whisky producer William Grant, shortly before Scottish & Newcastle took control of Caledonian.

William Grant wanted ale to ‘season’ Bourbon casks before they were used to age whisky, the original plan being that the beer would then be disposed of. But workers who tried it liked it, and so a new business was born, one which is now run by Dougal after a management buyout a decade ago.

Looking back to when it all began , Dougal said that one thing the founders realised was that while a good product was essential, it wasn’t enough. “Beer at the time was unsophisticated compared to the wine industry,” he explained. “So we made it look different, and we got people to realise it wasn’t beer for just chucking down [your throat].” And it has to be said that they did a great job of getting the presentation right, from the name to the bottle designs.

Science for volume, age for speciality

The second release of Vanishing Point
The scientific approach has also enabled Innis & Gunn to considerably ramp up production – the company now produces six regular beers, of which only the lager is not wood-aged, plus a number of seasonals and specials. Most if not all of the latter are still aged in actual barrels, and many are primarily or exclusively for export, such as Vanishing Point, its delicious 11% Imperial Stout, which gets 12 months in first-fill Bourbon barrels.

The company currently contract-brews its volume brands at the Tennents brewery in Glasgow. However, for pilot brews, smaller runs and cask ales it has a 50hl brewkit at Perth-based Inveralmond Brewery, which it took over a few years ago. More ambitiously, it also has a £20 million project to build a new brewhouse in Edinburgh – part funded by private equity and part by crowdfunding – with the aim of bringing all production back in-house.

Whatever you think of the idea of using toasted barrel chips instead of real barrels, the resulting ales are both good quality and undeniably popular. They sell well not just in the UK but also in export markets, most notably Canada where it’s the number one imported craft beer*, but also in Sweden, the US, and elsewhere. Quite a success story both for beer and for barrel-ageing.


*In fact it’s so popular in Canada that the Innis & Gunn earlier this year announced plans to brew and keg several of its core beers at Brunswick Brewery in Toronto, using the same recipes, ingredients and processes as in Scotland. The two breweries have already worked together on a couple of collaboration brews, and plan to do more of those too.  

Monday, 10 June 2019

What's wrong with Bavarian Pale Ale?


It’s getting so that, when I see the words Bayrisch Pale Ale, I reach for my sink plug. Bavaria is famous for several beery things, but precisely none of them is Pale Ale.

I can see why they try – a crisp American Pale Ale is what most traditional German brewers seem to think of when they “Hmm, we really ought to do something about this Craft Bier fashion.” That or possibly an American IPA – but mostly APA.

It’s partly because Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been readily available there for a good few years now, so it has come to epitomise Craft Bier for many Germans. Of course, SNPA was just as enlightening for pioneering British brewers back in the 1980s, the difference perhaps being that they already knew how to brew ales, they were just trying to make them less old-fashioned.

To be fair, in a few parts of Germany ale is understood to a degree. I don’t count Cologne here, mind you, as modern Kölsch is a warm-fermented lager, nor do I count Hefeweizen, which bears only technical similarities with ale. But knowledge has survived in a few of the Alt (old-style, ie. top-fermented) traditions – and of course there are now many brewers who have trained abroad, in places where ale never died.

So I’m not dissing all German Pale Ales, not by a long straw. It’s just I can’t remember when last I had one from Bavaria (or nearby) that was any good. Just recently, the ‘not good’ list has included Hohenthanner Schlossbrauerei Bayrisch Pale Ale, and Perlenzauber German Pale Ale from Herrnbräu in Ingolstadt (yes, that Ingolstadt, the home of the Einheitsgebot), but there’s been others.

The commonest fault is vegetal or cooked sweetcorn notes, which means DMS. This is a big giveaway as far I can see, because while it’s a fault in ales, a bit of DMS is part of the character of many lager styles. It suggests to me that these are experienced lager brewers working off their patch and getting it wrong.

It’s ironic really. Most ale brewers I’ve spoken to acknowledge how hard it is to make really good lagers. Perhaps there are Bavarian brewers who believe that lager is therefore the pinnacle of the art, and that ale should therefore be easy by comparison.

Or perhaps they imagine it’s like making a Hefeweizen, just with a different yeast and without the wheat... That might explain why there’s so much loose yeast in there that if you want a reasonably clear pour, you’re going to have to leave 15% or 20% in the bottle. For Pete’s sake, either give it a light filter, or if you do want to bottle-condition, use a properly sticky yeast for it!

OK, rant over. As ever, please feel free to recommend good Bavarian ales – or even to disagree with me! – in the comments below. Cheers!

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Nothing says Brutal quite like an English IPA

If there’s one thing big brewers are good at, it’s spotting an opportunity in the market. This of course is why they almost all have subsidiaries producing and/or distributing craft-type beers. Sweden’s biggest brewer, Spendrups, is no exception: if you’ve tried the Pistonhead lagers that you’ll find now in most big UK supermarkets, you’ve already met its beer – or rather, the beer of its crafty offshoot, Brutal Brewing.

Sweden's best-selling IPA
Brutal has quite a few more beers on the Swedish market though, and has decided that the time is right to also bring some of those to the UK, with a big launch at Craft Beer Rising earlier this year. The flagship of its range is the appropriately-named A Ship Full of IPA – I’m told this is now “the best-selling IPA in Sweden” – and it is in my glass right now, courtesy of Brutal’s UK distributor Proof Drinks.

Also coming to the UK are the non-alcoholic version of Ship Full – as predicted last year, n/a beers are growing in popularity – plus three or four others. Some that I’ve bought and drunk in Sweden are not coming over though, for whatever reason.

So, what of the beers? Ship Full is a 5.8% IPA in the deep brown malty-toasty English mould, but brought up to date East Coast-style with a decent wodge of New World hops, including American Cascade and Amarillo, and Australian Galaxy. It’s dry-bitter with fruity notes over toasted toffee-malt sweetness, and is very drinkable, even if it’s not so very different from many other brown IPAs.

Also coming over is Hale to Nothing, a 4.5% English Pale Ale. This has light citrus notes reminiscent of lime or lemongrass, and it’s simple and quite light, drinking more like a lager than an ale. Then there’s 5.1% Cirrus Cloudy Lager, which again is drinkable and pleasantly aromatic, but a little dull on the palate, and 3.5% Session Pale Ale, which I’ve not yet tried.

The complete UK range
Incidentally, the Session Pale Ale is one of several 3.5% beers that Brutal sells in Sweden – 3.5% is the maximum that supermarkets there are allowed to sell. For anything stronger, you have to go to one of the state alcohol monopoly shops, Vinmonopolet, which have much more restricted opening hours. One other at 3.5% that I tried in Sweden was Brutal’s hoppy lager Sir-Taste-a-Lot, whose name would risk falling foul of Trades Descriptions laws here, as it doesn’t – although it does smell nicely hoppy.

So, what to make of Brutal Brewing? The beers are well-made and very approachable, as you’d expect given their pedigree. I wouldn’t seek them out, but I’d be quite happy to be offered Ship Full, Hale or Cirrus again (I still think their best though is Pistonhead Full Amber, which is a lovely interpretation of a Vienna amber lager).

Overall they are, as you’d probably also expect, safe bets and far from brutal. There’s nothing here to attract the aficionado, but equally there’s nothing to frighten the horses. This is 'crafty beer' – craft for the mainstream, with any real brutality smoothed off by the marketing people.

Sure, it’s bad for smaller brewers because it sets people’s price expectations at macro levels – the big brewers can always produce and sell more cheaply. But even craft beer fans may want to keep something decent yet safe in, whether for uncomplicated evenings or when there’s guests over. And of course for some drinkers, crafty beer might just be the gateway that opens the door to a world of wonderment. Here’s hoping.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Checking out the Czechs

If you’re a beer-lover, Czech Beer Week UK from the 17th-23rd of June is something to look forward to. Czech beer culture is one* of the world’s greatest, yet curiously it is one that most people will have only seen a small slice of.

From traditional to craft, and back again.
Indeed, pretty much all we saw in the UK until a few years ago were a those big-brands owned by multinationals – chiefly Staropramen (owned by Bass, now Coors), Pilsner Urquell (SABMiller, now Asahi), and perhaps Krušovice (Heineken). That has been changing, with a few more coming in, but while some are family-owned, such as Bernard, others are yet more big-brand subsidiaries – Kozel and Radegast are both Urquell/Asahi, for example.

There is plenty more change to come, though – even more so this year, as their government export agency CzechTrade is working to bring more small brewers to the UK market via importers such as Euroboozer and Pivovar UK, as I discovered last summer at the Czech Beer Day event that it held for the trade.

Just as English brown bitters tend to resemble each other, many Czech beers are also very similar in style – some are better than others, but most are recognisably similar golden lagers. That’s no surprise, according to one of the brewery reps I chatted with at Czech Beer Day last year. “Czech customers are still very local-orientated, so all the breweries produce similar beers, but for their locale,” he said.

He added an important note on naming: “All are Pilsner-style. Nobody says ‘Pilsner lager’ though, they just say Lager. Urquell is from Pilsen so it’s Pilsner, but they all use the Pilsner technique.” In other words, don’t call a Czech lager Pilsner if it’s not from Pilsen! (You can probably get away with 'Pils' though...)

Of course, there are other Czech beers too, including the inevitable IPAs and ales of other sorts. As everywhere, Czechia is having a Craft Beer revolution of sorts, and true to form this has generated quite a few local copies of styles from elsewhere – American IPAs, English pale ales, and so on. We had a few at Czech Beer Day, those I tried (mainly from Pivovars Permon & Clock) were very nice examples of their styles.

Sometimes the tradition is the craft. 
This variety is also a sign that Czech brewing is definitely on the up. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when things looked pretty bad, when the nationalisations of the Communist period were followed by a somewhat botched privatisation process which led to yet more brewery consolidations and closures. Now, as well as newly-formed breweries, there’s even been some closed ones brought back into production, such as Jarošovský, whose Ležák 12% was definitely my favourite lager of last Czech Beer Day, and a few contract-brewed brands, such as Praga (pictured).

Useful things to know if you want to get into Czech lager culture include a few key words such as Světlý – pale, Tmavé/Tmavý – dark, and Ležák – lager. Then there is Granát, which translates both as grenade and garnet – the semi-precious stone being the appropriate one here! Originally it was a blend of light and dark lagers that produced the deep red colour it was named for, but now it is often brewed ‘entire’, as we say in English, meaning as a single beer. It’s also sometimes called Temně, or semi-dark.

And there’s how the beer is poured. A few years ago, I went to an event hosted by Urquell, where their spokes-barman explained that there’s at least three main styles of pour, some of them distinctly weird. I was a little sceptical at the time, but another brewery rep at Czech Beer Day last year confirmed at least some of the details, adding that it varies between breweries too.

A thick head is essential, she said, adding that “People also believe the head retention shows the quality of the ingredients.” Apart from ‘beer with a head’, the other main pours are ‘milk’ which is all foam, and ‘snyt’ which is more foam than beer – drinkers believe this helps the beer stay fresh in the glass. Yes, I’m still sceptical! Still, however you pour it and whatever the colour, Czech out the beers – you'll almost certainly find something you like...


*Alongside British, of course, which is where Groll & co got the pale malt technology for Pilsner, and Belgian, which has become the custodian of legendary and almost-lost beer styles that were once common across Northern Europe. 

Then of course there’s German beer culture. Americans often prioritise this one, perhaps biased by their huge influx of German brewers in the 1800s (think Anheuser, Busch, Pabst, Coors, Schlitz et al). But even there, much is owed to what’s now Czechia – most obviously, Bud is named for Budweis in Bohemia, although a local surely wouldn’t recognise it as a Bohemian Lager. 

Monday, 25 March 2019

Tracking down modern mead in south London

Now there’s something you don’t see every day: mead on tap. And not just that, there’s even frozen mead cocktails and seasonal meads made with specific honeys. Welcome to Gosnells at the Coal Rooms, upstairs in old railway station buildings at Peckham Rye, which officially opened just a week ago.

Peckham, as in “Only Fools and Horses”, “Desmond’s” and Rose Tyler’s council estate home? Yup, that’s the one. While the station is now surrounded by grime and graffiti, it must once have been pretty grand. The area seems to be recovering some of that too, judging from how busy the upmarket restaurant on the ground floor was, even on a Monday evening.

Peckham Rye station
It’s also where Gosnells brewery is – about two minutes from the station, said Tom Gosnell. He added that there is a small taproom there, but it’s on an industrial estate, so the town centre made a lot more sense for their ‘proper’ brewery tap. And a nice mellow set-up it is too, with a relaxed gastro feel to it, excellent bar food from the restaurant kitchen downstairs, and of course mead on tap.

Gosnells London Mead is medium-sweet to my taste, light-bodied with distinct but not cloying honey notes. If it’s chilled, an unusual aroma of orange juice emerges too. It is also quite light in alcohol terms, at ‘just’ 5.5%, making it a Hydromel in meadmaking parlance. By comparison, most commercial and home-made meads will be honeywines upwards of 12%, with popular sweet fake-meads such as Lindisfarne and Bunratty weighing in at almost 15% (they’re fake because they’re actually grape wines with added honey).

Gosnells Mead
Tom told me that, like other commercial meadmakers I’ve met, he fell in love with the drink in the US, where artisan meaderies have been a thing for at least 20 years. “The US was the first time I’d had really good commercial mead,” he said. “There’s something like 500 meaderies there now.”

He said he came up with his recipe about four and a half years ago. It has a kilo of honey per five litres of water, and a Pilsner lager yeast – by comparison, mine has around twice the proportion of honey and a wine yeast – and that they stop the fermentation and pasteurise to get the desired flavour and strength.

Although the regular brew was called London Mead*, the locative referred to where it’s made, not the ingredients – it’s actually made with Spanish orange blossom honey (hence the aroma). It’s the same problem I’ve heard before – there just isn’t enough locally-produced honey. Gosnells can get sufficient local honey to make monthly single-origin specials, however, such as the 8% ABV Biggin Hill mead that we also sampled, which was made using honey from Kentish beekeeper “Dave from Biggin Hill”. This was rather drier than the draught mead, and had an intriguing almost beer-like malty character.

Tom Gosnell
“It shows two extremes of what you can achieve with mead,” Tom explained. “It’s all about doing something different with the honey you’ve got – you taste the honey and adjust the process...” He added that they – he has a head brewer now, rather than making it all himself – also do specials with adjuncts, meaning extra flavourings such as hibiscus or hops. Indeed, one of the others we tasted was their intriguingly tangy Citra Sea Mead, which is flavoured with lemon peel, tarragon, Citra hops and a dash of sea salt.

Add in the mead cocktails list and the ability to pour it simply cool or completely chilled, and it’s a surprisingly broad palette of flavours. As Tom declared at the official opening, “There’s a lot you can do with mead, it’s going to be a very exciting year this year!”


*I say it ‘was’ called London Mead because it went through a rebranding last year. It’s now simply called Gosnells, and is sold in 75cl bottles instead of 330ml. The aim was to move away from the usual association of mead with beer – for example, major beer-lovers websites such as Ratebeer and Untappd also list both meads and ciders – and towards the wine market instead. I can’t help thinking that would make more sense for a 12% honeywine mead than a 5.5% hydromel, but there you go. 

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Devil is in the barrels

After an evening in the Bottleshop Bermondsey with the folks from Duvel Moortgat UK, who were launching the latest Duvel Barrel-Aged edition, I’m still in two minds about barrel-aged beers. Are they better as they come from the barrel, or should you taste them carefully and blend back for a ‘beerier’ flavour profile?

This is the third year Moortgat has run this project. The first batch used 100 Kentucky Bourbon barrels, said Duvel UK marketing manager Natalya Watson, while  the second had 190 and the latest was put into 351 barrels last year. She wasn’t sure if they were new barrels every year, but from reading Duvel's website I think they re-use them after re-impregnating with fresh Bourbon.

They now have barrels from six different distilleries, including Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Jack Daniels and so on. This highlights the challenge of acquiring used barrels in bulk, which is why I reckon they're being re-used. The aged beer was all blended together for consistency before bottling, Natalya said. Bourbon barrels are 200 litres or 53 US gallons, and each yielded enough to fill around 240 75cl bottles – I suppose the 10% disparity must be leakage and other ‘process losses’.

The result is an amber-brown beer that almost glows in the glass and has aromas of sweet vanilla Bourbon, quite unlike the yellow of Duvel itself, with its lemony spicy-hoppy nose. The barrel-aged version is rather sweeter too and warming, with more vanilla and an unexpected faint salty note in the finish.

Draught Duvel
It’s a lovely beer, and people all around were enjoying it for itself, but for me it was a little too barrel-heavy – too much like drinking Bourbon. So since we had both on hand, I tried mixing some Duvel Barrel-Aged with bottled Duvel in about a 50/50 blend. The result was a little lighter, drier and more bitter, livelier (the barrel version had only a very light sparkle) and yes, beerier. I’m not sure what this proves, however, apart from the fact that tastes and preferences vary!

Natalya also introduced those of us who’d not met it before to Duvel on Tap. This is not a draught version of bottle-conditioned Duvel, but the same beer put into kegs and keg-conditioned (yes – if it weren’t for the carbonation that would make it real ale). She explained that the distinction is important because Belgian brewers typically adjust their recipes for kegging, in particular lowering the carbonation to avoid fobbing (excessive froth).

Duvel’s brewers didn’t want to do that, so instead they came up with a new dispense system for their branded fonts. The problem was that it’s a remarkably gassy beer – its CO2 content is twice that of standard keg beers and three times that of many craft beers. The solution involved two metres of 3mm piping (far narrower than usual, and non-reusable as it’s too fine to clean) to ‘break’ the pressure in the keg, plus anti-fobbing training for the barstaff.

The initial problem for me was that it was too heavily chilled. Duvel recommends 5C for the bottled version, which I think is already too cold, but I reckon the tap beer was even colder (annoyingly, I’d no thermometer with me to check). Still, too cold is better than too warm, and once the chill had lifted the beer opened up considerably while remaining very drinkable.

Mind you, despite being the same 8.5% brew as the bottled Duvel (and Duvel Tripel Hop) we’d been drinking earlier, it didn’t seem as complex. The hops were still there, but not the lemony-spicy note – I wonder why, if they’d got everything else pretty much the same? Still, a lovely beer and one to watch out for.

My thanks once more to Duvel for supplying free beers and arranging the tasting, and my apologies again for how long it's been since I last posted here. Life keeps getting in the way...

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

What is bottle-conditioning – and why do we do it?

“Bottle-conditioned beers are not some sort of poor relation to cask, they exist in their own right,” declared John Keeling, former head brewer at Fuller’s, now retired. “A bottle-conditioned beer can never ever be the same as a cask beer, the reason is it will probably be a lot older.” He explained that while most cask beer has a shelf life measured in weeks, “most bottle-conditioned beers haven’t even left the warehouse at 6 weeks old!

“So it will have changed flavour, and secondly it will have more fizz in it. Bottle-conditioned beers are the supreme example of packaging beers. You do get some ingress of oxygen but the yeast mops it up – we opened a bottle of 1979 Vintage, for example, and the yeast was still viable.”

Introducing the panel
He was speaking at an event hosted by Marston's a few weeks ago, when a group of brewers and beer writers got together to discuss the past, present and future of bottle conditioning. We’d actually started by talking about the widespread assumption – fuelled in part by CAMRA’s ‘Real Ale in a Bottle’ (RAIB) validation scheme – that bottle-conditioned (BC) beers and real ales are the same thing.

Cask as a precursor

Was John Keeling right, though? Certainly there are clear links between real ale and bottle-conditioning. For a start, if you produce cask beer then it’s easier to do a BC version – you just bottle the cask version, said Harviestoun’s Stuart Cail. The advantage is that if you bottle it right – he uses big hand-bottled flip-tops – you can make it ‘premium’ and add a bit of theatre in a market where as he put it, “cask is not esteemed.”

Aged & conditioned Ola Dubh
Where it gets more interesting is when you use bottle-conditioning as just one step in a more complex process, he added. By way of example he offered a BC version of Harviestoun’s already highly regarded Ola Dubh (Black Oil) which had been aged in Highland Park whisky casks then krausened – dosed with fresh wort – to return it to life. The result was stunningly good, rich and heavy with a whisky tint, treacle-sweet yet burnt-dry, fruity and complex.

Along with John Keeling’s reminder that “in BC you get negative and positive reactions. They go in waves” as different microorganisms get to work on different components in the beer, it made me think: They’re both right, aren’t they? Yes, you can readily bottle beer brewed for cask, but that doesn’t automatically mean it ends up as ‘cask in a bottle’, because what happens to it next can be very different.

It certainly can be a route to ‘bottled cask’, as Marston’s brewer Pat McGinty explained. Marston’s wanted bottled Pedigree to taste more like the cask version, so its brewers had to do a lot of trials to work out the best way to achieve that. “We got way more of a fruited flavour when we put yeast in,” Pat said. “After a couple of weeks it had more carbonation, and was more recognisable as the cask beer.”

Something a lot of brewers (including Fuller’s) do is to filter and then reseed with fresh yeast for the bottle – preferably a different ‘sticky’ one that will settle to the bottom. Marston’s didn’t need to do that though, thanks to its yeast and the celebrated Burton Union fermentation system. “The Burton system traps the yeast and we can crop it nice and fresh,” Pat said. “It’s great for brewing but also perfect for bottle conditioning – most yeasts flocculate at the top but Marston’s yeast hasn’t made up its mind!”

He added, “Two weeks after we produce the beer, we bottle and cellar it. We put a 12-month shelf life on it, you can consume it beyond that but really its flavour will develop beyond [the intention of] the brand.”

Going through the four seasons

There we have it again – give it time and it’ll go further, even more so if you give it a bit of variation in storage, added John Keeling: “They would not have had temp control in the past. To me going through the four seasons makes sense, why not let it go the way it wants to go – and the way the outside temperature wants it to go?”

John told a tale about the development of Fuller’s Vintage Ale to illustrate the changes that time can bring. “When we developed 1845 [in 1995] we put one year shelf-life on it, but when we tasted it at one year old it was even better, so we had the idea of doing a vintage like you would with wine. Because the first Vintage Ale was 8.5%, we decided to put three years on it, we couldn’t put longer because the labelling regulations said you couldn’t. Now you can, and we put 10 years on!”

To illustrate, he offered tastings of the 2017 and 2010 Vintages. The former was rich and warming, fruit and lightly peppery, while the latter had picked up light oxidation notes – iodine, a little dry dustiness, a faint woody note – reminiscent of an old Madeira wine, in fact.

Not everyone filters and re-seeds the beer with fresh yeast, mind you. St Austell head brewer Roger Ryman told how they used to do that, dating back to his strong witbier Clouded White winning the Tesco Beer Challenge. “It was unfiltered in the competition – we had to ask if market was ready for that, and we decided to filter then reseed,” he admitted.

When the St Austell brewers subsequently tasted aged beers, they discovered that while others were showing signs of age, Clouded White was not. So then they did a BC Admirals Ale and two years later they added Proper Job to the BC list.

“It took three-or four years to find traction in the market, we were worried about its reception in the supermarket,” Roger continued. “Every brewer gets those unhappy Monday morning emails, ‘I bought your beer and found bits in it,’ but for every one of those there’s thousands of other happy drinkers.”

The challenge, he added, is once your beer is selling well and you’re on double-shifts at the brewery, how do you find time to filter and re-seed it? So Roger experimented with unfiltered beer instead, and luckily the yeast in Proper Job settled really tightly, yielding an excellent result. So after a visit to Marston’s to see what they were doing, he designed a set-up that blends yeast and beer in controlled amounts as it goes to the bottle-filler.

“We put quite a bit of automation around it, I thought it was unique,” he laughed. “Then I visited Westmalle, I’m looking at the bottling line – and there’s their yeast tank the same as I'd designed! So we brewers find the same solutions to the same problems.”

Ageing in cask – and in cans

But to come back to the original question, is bottle-conditioned beer definitively different from real ale? Well, yes – if you take today’s real ales as your examples. But historically, probably not because in the past any vessel could potentially be used to age beer. In the old days, stock ales were aged in wooden casks, often in the brewery yard. While it’s rare to age cask beers these days, it is sometimes done, and I’d argue the difference is as much to do with expectations as anything else – we expect cask ale to be fresh, not aged.

Moor's award-winning OFW is now can-conditioned
And cask-ageing is making a comeback – if, like some commentators, you regard cans as tiny kegs or casks… One of the pioneers here is Justin Hawke of Moor Beer, whose canned beers were the first to be accredited by CAMRA as real ale – that is, they contain live yeast, and the beer continues to develop (condition or referment) in the can.

“We had to work with the manufacturer on can-conditioning,” he said. “It was a bit crazy! We measure the sugar and yeast content in our lab, then we literally package the same beer into can and keg.” Justin added that refermentation makes the beer more stable, such that “unfined casks will keep for ages.”

He continued, “We go through a full refermentation, we crash-cool the beer pretty much to freezing to settle it out, then we warm it up in special temperature-controlled areas to get that refermentation to happen. It’s at least three weeks, some beers are longer – it’s a massive cost because we’re sitting on beer for an extended period, but it gives that evolution of flavour. My friends who brew tank beer will get the perfectly-fresh hop aroma that we will not get – our yeast interacts with the hops and changes the flavour. It gives a much more rounded mouth, you lose a little flavour but gain depth and shelf life and stability.”

The numbers game

The aftermath....
One thing is for sure – whatever the motivation, the popularity of bottle-conditioned beer shows no sign of abating. Jeff Evans, formerly editor of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide, and more recently of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, pointed out that “at the founding of CAMRA, only five bottle-conditioned beers were known to be in regular production,” a decline which he argued had been driven in part by better bottling technology which made it possible to give people the clearer beer they wanted.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the number started growing again as CAMRA first introduced a BC category into its competitions, and then began listing BC beers in the Good Beer Guide. By the time the listing was spun off as the Good Bottled Beer Guide the number was well over 100, and by the most recent edition it was a shade under 2000.

Producing a new edition would be a daunting prospect. It would need to consider over 3000 from the UK, said Jeff, plus more from abroad, where some brewers have long preferred the softer texture of unfiltered live beer.

Would it be worthwhile – do people still seek it BC beer out, I wonder? Or it is a case of it’s expected or assumed that some will be BC? Let us know in the comments below… Happy New Year!