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!