Friday, 10 September 2021

Tasting chocolate instead of beer? It's an Olympian task!

Honey liqueur
Honey dissolved in whisky? Sure, why not!
There’s not been too many big food and drinks fairs in the last 18 months, so the trip over to London Olympia this week for the Speciality & Fine Food Fair was welcome on many levels. One of the first things that struck me was the sheer diversity of the food and drink exhibitors, and the next was how much commonality there was within that. I spotted several offering different sorts of monthly meal kits, for example, plus a number offering assorted honeys and honey derivatives. 

Plant-based products were another grouping, including vegan ice lollies, and of course lots of snack brands – crisps and the like. A drinks quarter offered any number of craft gins and rums, modern whiskys and liqueurs, hard seltzers and so on – even a mobile gin distillery, though for flavouring pre-made spirit rather than distilling it afresh. What there wasn’t much of, as far as I could see, was beer. 

Mmm, chocolate...
So I decided to become a chocolate blogger for the afternoon – there were a lot of chocolatiers out there! And it seemed like each had its gimmick: there was single-estate chocolate, volcanic island chocolate, illustrated chocolate, chocolate so fresh it has to be kept chilled, and lots more. See my Twitter for more photos and details…

At last though I found a few beers. First was Fungtn, which is pronounced Function but with a nod to ‘funghi’ because, as well as being alcohol and gluten-free, it has mushrooms in it… They’re not just any old funghi either, they’re “adaptogenic functional mushrooms” as used in traditional eastern medicine. Oh-ho. There wasn’t time on site for more than a sip to confirm that yes, they’re good lo-no brews, but fuller reviews of Chaga dark lager, Lion’s Mane IPA and Reishi Citra beer will follow.

And then just as the show was wrapping up, I discovered PR Dutch Drinks who distribute in the UK for 20-odd craft breweries from I think you can guess where. They include the likes of Uiltje, Poesiat en Kater, Kompaan, Emelisse, De Molen and Brouwerij t’ IJ (and yes, I know that not all of those are independent now). 

Mobile gin still
OK, who doesn't fancy owning a mobile still?
Of course, while chatting with the company’s Eric Bestebreur I had to ask whether his imports had been affected by the widely-reported border disruptions. “Normally our deliveries took four days from leaving the brewery, but our first shipment after Brexit took seven weeks,” he said. He added that it’s now down to three to four weeks, but that the real problem is not so much the product being delayed – although I do notice a fair few “sold out” messages on their website – it’s financial. 

This is partly the extra cost of transport and of having valuable goods in limbo for weeks on end, but it’s also payment terms: being on 30-day terms with your supplier is not much use if the goods take 30 days to arrive! “We’ve had to change the definition of delivery,” he says. 

I hope to catch up with Eric again at some point – he also runs The Bolton, a pub in nearby Earls Court with a specialist Dutch & Belgian beer bar upstairs called Proeflokaal Rembrandt. (I notice this is also where you can pick up your Dutch Drinks orders, and avoid delivery fees.) 

Just coming back to Olympia after more than a year was startling too, as almost the whole area now seems to be a building site. At the eastern end, the Grand Hall and National Hall are still there – they are Grade II listed buildings – but they’re shrouded and fenced-off, and even inside the lobby it was almost impossible to hear yourself think due to what sounded like a pneumatic drill just behind a wooden partition. 

Meanwhile at the western end of the site, pretty much everything has been demolished. It turns out that most of Olympia is being rebuilt, with lots of new office space (just in time for the work-from-home and hybrid-working revolution, hah!), two hotels, new public spaces, a 1,575-seat theatre, and an exhibition hall with a 3,500-seat live music arena on top of it. Completion is due in 2024. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

German Pale Ale: when a beer is defined not by what it is, but by what it's not

Beer bottle & glass
A bit of a gusher...
Just recently I’ve has a few German pale ales and amber ales, and noticed something common to them all – a yeasty roughness on the palate, and sometimes on the nose too. The malty body is still there, along with fruity modern-style hops, but overall it’s nothing like the clean brew you’d expect in the US, or in most other countries with a US-influenced ‘craft beer revolution’ underway.

It set me thinking. What are the fundamental things setting a well-made pale ale apart from a lager? There may be fruity esters from the warmer ale fermentation, say, but they can be minimised. The existence of Kölsch – which to the uninitiated might appear to be a pale hoppy lager, but some which beer geeks insist on calling a pale ale – shows how close the two can be, as do several British ‘lagers’ that are actually warm-fermented, such as Fuller’s Frontier.

In the opposite direction, so too do the snobbish descriptions I’ve read online of Eichbaum’s clean and smooth Steam Brew Session IPA as “lagery”. Then what’s going on with these rough-edged and yeasty brews?

Then it struck me: it’s most likely a legacy from the early days of German ‘craft beer’, when the most important thing seemed to be to differentiate yourself from the industrial Pils producers. So if their beer was golden, hoppy and as bright as a new pin, yours needed to be murky amber and tasting of yeast.

I had hoped it would have changed by now. After all, what inspired many new-wave brewers in Germany and around the world were the big flavours and aromas of golden-bright Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and its ilk. The opportunity is still there to create great Pale Ales, and differentiate or localise them by using all-German ingredients.

It’d be a huge shame if, instead of capitalising on the broader palette of aromas and flavours available to them, it turns out many German brewers – and drinkers – still prefer to lazily define German Pale Ale as “Hey look, it’s definitely not Pils!”

What's your experience - have you found a great German Pale Ale? Do you like the yeasty-rough edge, and am I missing something here?

Thursday, 5 August 2021

What’s the best city for beer?

It’s one of those questions that's really hard to answer. I mean, first of all you have to set parameters – what terms do you judge “best” by? And what do you mean by “beer” – craft beer, or anything from industrial lager onwards? On top of that, how reliable is your data to start with?

But in the quest for a headline – and to incidentally promote its other activities – the Money.co.uk website has given it a go. Working on the three measures of price, brewery density and bar density, it lists the top three as Asheville (in North Carolina), Prague and Krakow, with major craft beer destinations such as Denver, San Francisco and yes, London, way down the list.  

Top 10 Best Cities in the World for Beer Drinkers

Rank

City

Country

Breweries per 10,000 people

Bars, pubs & clubs per 10,000 people

Average price per pint (£)

Overall score

1

Asheville

United States

2.80

7.86

£3.58

8.41

2

Prague

Czech Republic

0.76

5.86

£1.34

6.88

3

Kraków

Poland

0.39

2.46

£1.89

4.79

4

Fort Collins

United States

1.29

1.41

£2.87

4.72

5

Cincinnati

United States

1.02

2.70

£3.58

4.46

5

Buenos Aires

Argentina

0.21

0.89

£1.17

4.46

7

Austin

United States

0.53

2.69

£2.87

4.4

8

Dublin

Ireland

0.54

5.66

£4.70

4.36

9

Wrocław

Poland

0.42

0.92

£1.70

4.35

10

Grand Rapids

United States

0.85

1.59

£2.87

4.31

What they’ve done is to take brewery numbers from Ratebeer, venue counts from TripAdvisor, and the average price per pint from cost-of-living tracking site Numbeo

Those who know the US scene will not be surprised by presence there of Asheville, a party-town full of small breweries, nor I suspect by Fort Collins, where 20+ craft brewers, most notably New Belgium and Odell, have grown in the shadow of a massive Budweiser factory. Prague and Krakow, on the other hand, benefit more from low beer prices and thriving nightlife. 

Pricing – or rather the extortionate rate of beer tax in the UK – is a big part of what pushes London to an absurd 39th out of 40. And that’s despite London having more than twice as many breweries as any other city on the list, and being second only to Tokyo in its number of venues. Well, that and the fact that Money’s analyst has normalised by population, which drops sprawling London down below even Antwerp and Anchorage on "Breweries per 10,000 people".

Re-sorting the full list of 40 cities it’s interesting to see other effects apparently at work. For example, craft beer meccas such as Portland Oregon, San Diego and Denver report beer prices around $6 a pint, while in the likes of Kansas City and Milwaukee it’s nearer $4. 

Is that because more people in the latter two drink cheaper macro, or because they’re less fashionable and wealthy areas, so prices are lower? I don’t know – although a quick look at Numbeo suggests that its data may not be the most reliable as it merely quotes average prices for “domestic” and “imported” beers. This is a crappy old Americanism from the days when the typical menu choice was Bud/Miller/Coors for Joe Regular, and Heineken or Amstel for Joe Posh.  

It’s all a bit of fun though, and it certainly generates a few ideas for places to visit, as well as a picture of what you can expect to be charged in different countries around the world. Just don't take Money's promotion of debit cards as gospel – cash remains king in many places, including Germany where pre-pandemic habits are reasserting themselves.  

Let's rephrase it them: what’s your favourite city for beers, and why? 

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

A grand day out: BrewLDN 2021

After 18 months of not-a-lot, and 10 days after the absurdity of "Freedom Day", it felt weird but so good to be back at a beer festival, chatting with brewers and fellow beer fans. The oddness started of course with the trek across London to Canada Water - my first tube journey in 18 months, too, and the city still strangely quiet which somehow I'm not used to, as my local area has been pretty busy for months now. 

Then the long-ish queue to get in, still reasonably distanced while we all waited to have our Covid passes checked, and finally into the cavernous halls of The Printworks... Again, it really was not busy - partly by design, as the organisers were determined to avoid crowding and said they'd gone for just half the theoretical maximum capacity, and partly because it was so early in the first trade session that some bars hadn't quite finished setting up yet. 

Anyhow, I'm typically rubbish at taking photos, often only remembering once it's too late, so this time I decided to get it done while it was quiet. The early start gave a better view, even if it also meant a slight absence of atmosphere! Here's a few samples...







Needless to say, it got quite a bit busier as the day progressed - though never crowded or full, not even during the early stages of the evening public session - and there's quite a bit more to write about.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Turning back the years: aged Barley wines

To 2014 in this case, which is when these lovelies were first brewed. How they have managed to sit in my beer shed for so long since then, I’m not sure. I guess once they got past the first year it was a repeated case of “I wonder how they’ll be after another year…?”

The first, Windsor & Eton’s 7.2% Magna Carta, I bought in the brewery shop at one of their Knight Club events – a friend was a member and invited me along. It’s an interesting beer – a barley wine, but with the herb and spice mix known as Gruit as well as hops, and based on a recipe by a keen homebrewer local to Windsor, who then helped mash-in the commercial brew. And while it was brewed in 2014, with a few samples escaping that year, its proper release was in 2015 to mark 800 years of the eponymous Great Charter. 

I actually bought two bottles, opening the first in 2015, so this week allowed me to compare the effect of an extra six years. Not too surprisingly, time had oxidised it a little, but the herbal and liquorice notes from the Gruit of 2014 were still there, along with toffee from the caramelised sugar and black malt that also featured in the recipe. The original earthy bitterness and burnt sweetness had mostly subsided though, to be replaced by an aniseed note.  All in all, it was slightly better young, but still very drinkable. 

The second is a sad reminder of the days when, thanks to the Single Market, brewing across country boundaries wouldn’t have generated the paperwork it would today. Although badged, and I believe bottled, by Shepherd Neame, this 10% Barley Wine was actually brewed in Sweden, as a collaboration with Sigtuna Brygghus.  

Thankfully the result, even – or perhaps especially – at seven years old, is gorgeous. Almost, but not quite, lovely enough to take one’s mind off the cretinosity that is Brexit. Deep deep red and still lively, at first anyhow, with a settling foam and a woody malty nose that carries notes of liquorice and red fruit. Malty-rich and bitter-sweet, it’s herbal and syrupy, with a slight vanilla softness from its original ageing in Blanton’s bourbon casks.  

So what of my ageing experiment so far? It’s telling, perhaps, that the stronger beer survived better, although it may of course also be that Shep’s longer experience with bottling had a part to play. There's also the fact that the Sheps beer was in a presentation box, which explains why its crown cap was pristine, unlike the rusted and dusted WEBrew one. 

Anyway, I know I’ve a few even older bottles that need opening – mostly Fuller’s Vintage Ales – so I will continue to investigate!

Saturday, 24 July 2021

Hail the Goat indeed!

“I can relax a bit here, because everything has Brett in it anyway,” says Holy Goat co-funder and sour beer specialist Johnny Horn, comparing life in his own small Dundee brewery to his previous role, cuckoo-brewing sours for Vault City in the much larger – and more mainstream – brewhouse at 71 Brewing across town. 

Goat Wizard
That relaxation, relative though it be, is clearly paying off, because the resulting beers are amazing. I have to declare an interest here, as Johnny’s a family friend and fellow ex-Viking, but the beers are still excellent! 

At Holy Goat he focuses on two main brews: Goat Wizard is a 6.8% ‘Golden sour ale’, while Crimson Queen is a 7.4% Flanders Red. There is a third, an 11% Russian Imperial Stout called Foehammer, but that’s contract-brewed in Edinburgh by Newbarns, no doubt to keep it safe from all those sour influences.

“It’s all mixed-fermentation here,”  Johnny explains. “The primary ferm is 100% Brett, then we use our own mixed culture to do the souring and finishing.” Brett for the initial fermentation? Yes, you read that right – Brettanomyces is more often used for finishing, to dry out a beer by eating up the complex sugars that your regular Saccharomyces yeasts can’t digest, but at Holy Goat he’s fermenting a complex wort using only a pair of Brett strains. 

The secondary mixed strain is equally interesting. It combines a Lactobacillus strain – that’s the bacteria that produces the lemony-tart notes in Berliner Weiss and assorted modern sours – with a Kveik. That’s the Norwegian farmhouse yeast that’s fascinated both of us since it was thrust out of obscurity some years ago, and which Johnny adopted with gusto – that’s him in effigy on Filungar, the collaboration Kveik IPA he brewed with Gipsy Hill, by the way.

The results are, as I said, amazing. The Vault City beers I’ve had have been very good, but most were very much fruit-forward with a layering of tart or sourness. Goat Wizard and Crimson Queen are more complex and multi-layered, and beautifully integrated with it.  

The Crimson Queen in particular is gorgeous – tart and lightly balsamic sour, yet somehow smooth with it, it’s rich and fruity-dry with its Bretty juicy berry notes intensified by refermentation on local Scottish blackberries and tayberries. 

Goat Wizard is funky and earthy, dry-sweet and sour with notes of lemon and stonefruit, yet despite its rich fruity flavours and tartness, it is both unhopped and unfruited – the flavours all come from the malts and fermentations. Having perfected the base beer though, Johnny is now experimenting with maturing it over fruit and herbs. We were able to taste from the tank a version aged over Sicilian citrus – bright, zesty and delicious, and subsequently released as Citrus Crusher. There’s also now a honey and elderflower version, called Honeybucket, which I very much look forward to trying – if there’s any left... 

Johnny Horn and the Holy Goat brewery
The brewer and his brewery
The icing on the cake was tasting the beers at the brewery last month, while on a family holiday in Scotland. Not only was it the first time I’d been inside a brewhouse in many months, but we’d not seen Johnny in more than two years. 

The last time we met, he was still brewing with Vault City, which he also co-founded. He moved on from there last year – or perhaps it was Vault City that moved on, as they went back to Edinburgh while Johnny stayed in Dundee. 

It amused me a little that the 10hl brewkit that he and his new business partners, Scan and Graham, pulled together is – like Johnny himself – a London transplant. The brew vessels and three of the fermenters were formerly at Islington brewpub the Earl of Essex, while his other fermenters are ex-Kernel. “We have 20hl fermenters coming, we’ll double-brew into those,” he adds. 

Why so many fermenters for just two core brews? In a word, time. The beers spend a full three months maturing, so even if you only brew once a week, that’s twelve batches sitting around. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

How many 'styles' can one beer have - and what is Amber Ale anyhow?

Beer styles are a perennial topic for discussion among beer geeks - sorry, I mean 'aficionados'! I was in just such a debate last week, discussing whether a particular brew should be classed as Bitter, Pale Ale or Golden Ale. 

Over on sites such as Ratebeer and Untappd, and among the BCJP beer judges, it's even worse - does this particular Amber/Red Ale meet the specs for Irish Red or would it be better listed as American Amber? Is this Pale Ale - English, Pale Ale - American or Pale Ale - International? And how do we differentiate between Lager - Strong and Bock - Helles?

So when the news came through that Asahi has refreshed* the branding for Fuller's London Pride I was struck not so much by the new imagery - very nice though it is, with an impressively subtle combination of modernity and continuity of tradition - but by the fascinating image they published alongside the news, showing how Pride's branding has changed over time. 

The name's unchanged of course, and the griffin is always there, but just look at how the description changes!

* Distinctive Best Bitter 
* Special Pale Ale
* Outstanding Premium Ale (superlative overload...)
* Original Ale, and now...
* Outstanding Amber Ale

London Pride branding

So one beer has at various times in its history been Best Bitter, Pale Ale, Premium Ale, whatever that is, and today it's Amber Ale. OK, so now tell me what you reckon the difference is between Bitter and Pale Ale? 🤔

It also confirms something I've been saying for a while now: Amber Ale is just another word for Bitter. (And yes, American Amber Ale is just American Bitter!)

It's the same thing that happened with Mild. Marketing types decided that Mild was no longer an attractive word to use, that it didn't describe the beer accurately (and to be fair, they're right - Mild originally meant un-aged, not Mild in flavour) and that it put consumers off. So they renamed it Dark Ale - I'm guessing the marketeers were probably lager drinkers, so weren't aware of pale Milds...

Now it's the turn of Bitter. In recent years more and more brown bitters have been renamed Amber Ale, or in some cases Ruby Ale (although we are crossing into Brown Ale territory here, as well). 

Let me say it again then: 

Amber Ale is just Bitter under a new name.

Dark Ale is just Mild under a new name

Oh, and historically at least, Bitter was synonymous with Pale Ale - and by the look of it, for many brewers it still is. Or am I wrong?? 

*Well, I say 'refreshed', they say 'unveiled a striking new brand identity' 😉

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Drink local

One of the few compensations of lockdown is that, while I really miss the pub, it’s been a chance to connect with local breweries in new ways. In particular, with draught outlets few and far between, many breweries have not just ramped up their “small pack” production – that’s cans and bottles to you and me – but they’ve also found ways to deliver locally, often for free. 

For example, while it’s my closest brewery, the Ealing Brewing taproom in Brentford is shut for now and the only place to get their beer has been click-and-collect at the original brewpub in Northfields. Sadly, that’s not on a regular route of mine any more, so when I heard they were now doing local delivery I got an order straight in. 


I've only a few bottles left – here’s some of the empties – but they’ve all impressed thus far. A couple of Saisons, including spicy Gan Bei, a couple of very nice fruited sours – properly, but not overly, sour – two strong bitters, one of them brewed with Kveik,  a couple of IPAs and a rich and complex Imperial Brown Ale. 

Then there’s Weird Beard up in Hanwell. I’ve placed several orders with them during lockdown, it helps that their minimum order for free delivery is lower for locals – I reckon sometimes the staff deliver them on their way home! Most recently, there’s been two fine Black IPAs and their excellent black barleywine, Gaslight the Electorate. (They don’t just brew black beers, by the way, they also do great IPAs, a nice Pils, and now a great example of a Helles too – although it seems to me to be closer to a Dortmunder than the expected Münchner!)

This is my most recent order with them, it includes Orange & Black which is the beer they did for the BrewDog Collabfest a few months ago. We had this as one of our dozen festival crowlers (canned from the tap in the pub) and it was excellent, so I wanted to try the properly canned version. 

More recently, an opportunity came up to take part in a tasting session with another local brewery, Portobello – well, it’s t’other side of Acton but that’s still only five miles, and they deliver free inside the M25. So now there’s a mixed box from there and also Big Hug, a contract brewer that currently brews at Portobello. I’m looking forward to that little lot! 

So if you’ve not ordered locally yet, have a look around and see what’s available. There’s still time before your local pub's beer garden reopens – if indeed it has one. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

Beerviking's Golden Pints 2020

Watching the beer industry adjust to the reality of 2020 has been a mixture of fascination and horror. Seeing the production of cask beer crash has been terrifying – if there’s one thing I’ve really missed, it’s been good real ales, in a pub – yet on the other hand it feels as if the huge pivot to bottling and even more so to canning (“small pack” as it’s called) has brought increased beery diversity.  

And even as breweries have struggled, and many have closed, others have opened – there’s even a new cask and can-focused micro opened this very month not far from me, which I plan to get to before long. 

Best UK cask beer: without a doubt, it was when one of my locals got not one but three casks of Fuller’s 2020 Vintage Ale, and served them all in those few weeks of semi-freedom from October to November. Rich and malty, with notes of orange and Port, just thinking about it makes me angry again – all those Covid-safe pubs forced to close now, while no one does anything about the nose-bandits and other Covidiots inside supermarkets. 

Best UK keg beer: I’m going to list Fierce’s gorgeous Big Chomp here as it was a crowler – a draught beer canned in a bar, in this case Brewdog Tower Hill. A 9% barrel-aged chocolate & caramel stout, it was one of a case I ordered when Brewdog switched to crowlers to save the 1000 kegs brewed for its Collabfest 2020. Afterwards, I wished I’d ordered the random pales case as well as the random dark – and perhaps two of each, they were that good!

Best UK bottled beer: Beer52 has been a good source for me this year, not monthly but bimonthly or so. I know some snobs don’t like it, but this year it has replaced previous errors such as licence(fake)-brewing an entire monthly case with popular and successful Cyberfest “online festival” cases, containing the likes of Harviestoun’s gorgeously boozy Old Engine Oil Engineer's Reserve, with its notes of toasted plums, chocolate and raisins. 

Best UK canned beer: labelled as a black Barleywine and sporting a label entirely appropriate for the times, it’s Weird Beard’s Gaslight the Electorate. Black and heavy, with notes of liquorice, tar, coffee and berries, and almost enough to help you forget living in a country governed by corrupt idiots and venal liars. 

Best overseas draught: There’s not been so much this year, oddly enough. But back in January we had a rare evening out in Hamburg, ending up at top craft bar Alles Elbe, where they were hosting a “Meet the brewers” for new-wave cuckoo outfits Blech.Brut and Atelier der Braukünste. It was the former’s Vivid Dreams, a hazy 7.3% IPA, that topped the evening – lightly creamy and warming, and as vividly hoppy as its name might suggest. 

Best overseas bottled: Another one from a Beer52 Cyberfest case, WRCLW Tonka, Vanilla and Chocolate Baltic Porter Nitro from Poland’s Browar Stu Mostów was rich and heavy, and stunningly good. 

Best overseas canned: Bottles still dominated in many of the places I get my beer from, notably in Germany, so this was a tougher one to work out. In the end it’s a tie between two hazy Double IPAs, both from central Europe, more or less. One was another Beer52 offering, East Coast DIPA (8%) from Croatia’s The Garden, the other was Test Trace Isolate (9.5%) from Atelier der Braukünste, which I picked up on a brief but welcome visit to Bamberg.

Best collaboration: Who now remembers the other disasters occupying the headlines a year ago? Back in January, Pressure Drop hosted a fundraiser at its Tottenham brewery for Australian bushfire relief and we went along with the kids. It got pretty rammed as the afternoon went on, but the queues moved along, there was an Aussie barbie and Aussie cakes, and there were donated delicacies such as Pressure Drop / Left Handed Giant Escape Pod, a 10% Imperial milk stout, redolent of toasted coconut, dark chocolate and a fruity bitterness. 

And on that wistful note of remembering “the before times”, I’m going to end. It’s almost midnight and timer to get this posted… Happy New Year, Frohes neues Jahr, godt nytår to you all, and here’s to a better 2021. Cheers!