Thursday 5 October 2023

Czech beer at a crossroads?

Clock's barrel-aging outpost Fenetra
has this Bretty sour cherry beer
Most beer lovers who’ve tried a classic Czech lager rapidly become fans. So why is it that when brewers list the great brewing cultures that influenced them, it’s usually Belgium, Britain and Germany?

I suspect the Iron Curtain played a part in this, as it was still very much in place when the beer writer Michael Jackson and others kicked off assorted craft beer revolutions in the 1970s and 80s. But even after that, how many beer lovers knew more than just Bohemian Pilsener* and maybe Czech dark lager, or Tmavý?

Today, though, we can be spoilt for delicious choice. As well as those two, there’s Černé black lager and Polotmavý or “semi-dark” amber lager, sometimes a blend of light and dark but mainly now brewed ‘entire’ – as a single beer. There are strong beers too, both light and dark, reminiscent of strong lagers and Bavarian bocks. More recently some brewers have added Weizens, and of course there’s the ubiquitous Pale Ales, IPAs and even a few Sours.

Most is still pale lager, however – Svetlý Ležák in Czech. Even here it can get significantly confusing though, because those two simple words – just like “Pale Ale” or “English Bitter” – embrace a huge diversity.

Šlik: 11° but only 4.4%
A percentage of error

The terminology doesn’t help. In particular, Czech breweries normally describe their beers by their original gravity in degrees Plato, which measures the sweetness of the wort, or malt extract. The trouble is that this only tells part of the story, because quite apart from how hopping rates and processes will vary, fermentation may consume (or attenuate) more or less of the sugars in the malt, making the beer drier and stronger, or sweeter and less alcoholic.

To make it doubly confusing, some use the % symbol for those degrees Plato, instead of °. For example, at the London embassy’s recent Czech Beer Day trade expo I encountered Pivovar Svijany, which was presenting not one but three pale lagers, all at 11%! However, differing levels of attenuation mean that these 11° beers were actually 4.4%, 4.6% and 4.8% ABV, and had noticeably different characters.

As well as being sweeter, the 4.4% Šlik was less bitter, with a Eurolager-like character, while the other two differed in other ways. The 4.8% Svijanský Máz is their best-seller – 75% of their 600 khl production volume, I’m told – and a classic balanced Bohemian Pils, while the 4.6% ‘450’ (originally an anniversary special) is the most bitter and drying of the three but was also bready, reminiscent of a Munich Helles.

Thankfully, this substantial but very traditional brewery – Svijany uses a double-mash and open fermenters, has its own hop-garden and doesn’t pasteurise its beers – also gives all its beers distinct names, as do most Czech brewers now. Which in turn brings up one of the biggest challenges for Czech brewers as they try to expand sales: differentiation.

Rampušák semi-dark
Fewer pubs, less beer

As in many countries, most of the breweries are relatively local. What’s a bit unusual is that, as Primátor sales director Romana Jansová explained, around half of the Czech market is now sewn up by Asahi’s Pilsner Urquell-led group, which also includes the Gambrinus, Kozel and Radegast brands.

To make matters worse, she said that – as in many countries – people are drinking more at home and less outside. “A lot of pubs and village bars are closing,” she added. “The younger generation is drinking less beer and more non-alcoholic drinks.”

So breweries like hers and the others at the trade expo are both pushing for exports and diversifying into non-alcoholics and new beer styles. I already knew that many modern Czech microbrewers produce hazy IPAs and the like, so I wasn’t too surprised to learn while walking around the embassy expo that Rampušák now does monthly specials alongside its flagship “12%” pale lager and its “13%” semi-dark, for example, and to taste intriguing oddities such as a 6.7% ABV Red Imperial Pils from Pivovar Panaczech.

Hoppy Benedict
Looking for innovation in lager 

However, while several of the older Czech brewers have had a go at ales, it’s with varying degrees of success. They are lager brewers really, which may explain why some have also, or instead, picked up that curious hoppy hybrid, the India Pale Lager, or IPL. The first Czech IPL I tried, Břevnovský’s rather excellent Nachmelený Benedict, or Hoppy Benedict, is explained as an 11° pale lager but with American rather than Czech hops. It’s a bready and nicely balanced brew, fruitier than a typical Svetlý Ležák, with a light citrus nose and a longer bitter finish.

The second was back to Primátor, where Romana described their IPL as “a lager body with IPA hopping” – in this case it’s Czech Rubín, Harmonie and Vital hops for bittering and flavour, then Summit and Citra for dry-hopping. She said that, as something that’s new to most Czech drinkers, “IPL is a door-opener for us.”

The brewery also decided that because the style was unusual, it needed an unusual name, though quite how well ‘Mother-in-Law’ (Tchyně in Czech) will be accepted over here is another matter. “She may bother you at first, but then you wouldn’t give her up for anything,” says the brewery blurb – but I find it hard to believe that Czechia lacks a history of mother-in-law jokes.

Romana & Mother-in-Law
It’s certainly an unusual beer – lightly dank and orange citrusy on the nose, before a firm vegetal and Seville orange peel bitterness over a smooth and relatively light-bodied amber lager. It’s both rather like and very unlike a West Coast IPA, and yes, it’s pretty drinkable.

Do they need gimmicks like IPL to sell more Czech beer here in the UK, though? Well, maybe. There’s far better Svetlý Ležáks available than the likes of Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell. For example, Konrad Vratislavický Ležák 11°, Panaczech Queenie 10° or the wonderful Jarošovská Jura, to name just three from that expo. However, those two mass-produced examples are already on bar taps across the country.

Personally, I’d much rather see more Tmavý and Polotmavý, but it’s a fact of life that pale lagers and IPAs are where it’s at. So perhaps for sustainable growth, hopped-up traditional lager is playing to your strengths. 

Footnote: several of these breweries are represented in the UK and Ireland by the Czech Beer Alliance, others are seeking distributors here.  

*non-Czechs call it Bohemian Pilsener, but most Czechs won’t call it Pilsener unless it’s from Pilsen, or Plzeň.

Sunday 10 September 2023

Welcome to the Windsor beer (half!) mile

“Where’s the local beer?” I half-jokingly asked my hosts at the Windsor (as in Castle) office of a US tech company, as the day’s meetings finished and the social hour began. In a similar office in California or Colorado, I’d be entirely unsurprised to see a local microbrew on tap in the kitchen for an after-hours social event, never mind in cans. But here it was Peroni and the like – well meant, for sure, but perhaps missing a trick.

For not only does the town have Windsor & Eton Brewery, now venerable in craft beer terms at 13 years old, but others have appeared more recently too. Just a short walk from that office took me to a little industrial estate in the arches underneath the western end of Windsor & Eton Central railway station, where I was greeted by the happy sight of tables and benches outside not one, but two microbrewery taprooms. 

The sightly older of the pair is Two Flints, and it’s also perhaps the more traditional looking. Neutral painted walls, some exposed beams – metal rather than wood, though – and the bar, with its menu on the wall behind, is the first thing you see on entering. The 20hl brewery is visible towards the back of an arch which, to someone more used to Bermondsey, felt very high and deep. 

Next door’s Indie Rabble Brewing takes more of a carnival theme. The bar is slightly hidden around a corner, and instead the first thing you see is bright colours and stripey round parasols – it would have been a bit of a fun atmosphere, if we hadn’t all been so sluggish from the heat!

Both taproom menus seemed to be dominated by West Coast IPAs, hazy pales and the like, plus there’s always a craft lager or Kölsch on the bar these days, but both also had guests on tap. Some of these looked very tempting, sadly though I was driving back, so had to skip the likes of Burning Sky’s Saison Anniversaire 2023 in Two Flints, and the 12.2% Tartarus Herne the Hunter in Indie Rabble. In Indie Rabble’s case, everything on the bar was also a collaboration – they have only just got their brewkit (another 20hl outfit) installed so all their brewing thus far has been collabs

Taking my Elusive/Indie Rabble collab Westie outside, I realised just how central we were. Sure, you’re sitting in a car park in the shadow of a railway embankment, but there, just over the rooftops in front of you, is one of the most famous castles in the country. And it’s literally a 10-minute walk to WEBrew, so if you fancy three brewery taprooms in an afternoon, put Windsor on your visiting list. 

Incidentally, they are selling tickets for a dual-brewery Oktoberfest on Saturday 7th October - £14 gets you a pint of Festbier in each, plus entrance. (I've no idea if you'll be able to get in that day without a ticket, sorry.)

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Cold comfort down at the Forge

There are some marketing campaigns where you see them and simply think, “What on earth were they smoking?” Usually followed by, “Why the heck didn’t they just run it by a focus group?”

So when an unexpected package arrived, containing a black cardboard box with FRGD on it in large yellow letters, my first thought was to wonder why on earth someone was sending me something to do with fridges.

Inside the box was a cap, also black and yellow with FRGD on it, plus assorted similarly-labelled bits and bobs – and then, ah-ha! Two tall cans of nitro stout and a glass, this time bearing the ‘full’ version of the logo: Forged, complete with a strong-armed swordsmith beating out a blade. All very martial and manly. 

By now I had worked out what it was about, thanks to a press release I’d received a few days earlier. As soon as I saw the hat, though, my mind was boggled. Who on earth would walk around with FRGD written on their head? 

In the spirit of scientific enquiry I decided to conduct a focus group of my own. I posted this photo of the hat and a similarly logo’d key strap thingy on both eX-Twitter and Facebook, asking friends what they’d read into it if they saw it on the street.

The results were almost exactly as I suspected they would be. A few outliers, then in second place assorted mentions of fragged/frigged/frogged(!), but the clear winner was, yes, Frigid. Like I said, possibly not the thing you want written on your hat. Unless maybe you're the Snow Queen.

So what’s the story meant to be? Well, there’s an Irish MMA fighter and multi-millionaire called Conor McGregor – he’s something of a Marmite figure across the water, from what I hear – who owns a pub called the Black Forge Inn. The house beer there is Forged Irish Stout, which is, or was, brewed at Porterhouse Brewing.

However, Porterhouse had been in the doldrums following a COVID slump, so earlier this year McGregor bought the brewery, renaming it Forged Dublin and investing in a new nitro canning line, among other things. A figure in excess of €4 million has been mentioned. He is now taking his vanity brand – I think we can safely call it that, as his face is all over the Forged Irish Stout promo material, its eX-Twitter and Instagram feeds, and so on – international, with UK distribution agreed in Asda and Spar. McGregor has said it will go to North America as well.

Onto the important question, then: is Frigid, sorry, Forged Irish Stout any good? It certainly looks the part, pouring near-black with a tan nitro fizz that rather quickly settles into a thick creamy foam. It’s lightly smoky on the nose, then creamy and sweetish – more like a sweet stout than a dry one – but with a roasty note and a slight ashy dryness on the finish. Easy drinking and pretty sessionable, I’d say. 

One last thing on the focus panel, though. If you were launching will inevitably be seen as a rival to or copy of Guinness, why on earth would you make any reference to forging? 

Monday 24 July 2023

One-off direct-to-can printing is real now

Having previously covered the under-rated importance of can labelling in the history of craft beer, it’s time to bring the topic up to date. Yes, what some back in 2015 saw as the Holy Grail of labelling – the ability to print directly onto a can in full colour – is here. Or at least, the technology is here, even if it’s not yet been miniaturised quite like canning technology itself has been.

It's not exactly 'desktop' yet
The inkjet printing machinery actually comes from a German firm, Hinterkopf, and as well as cans, it is advertised as being able to print on a variety of other packages, including plastic bottles and tubes.

At Brew//LDN earlier this year, not one but two companies were talking up the topic. I already knew about Swiss packaging company Nomoq and was pleased to learn that UK-based Oasthouse also now has a Hinterkopf machine installed. These printers are big and expensive beasts, though, so you are unlikely to see one alongside the canning line in your local microbrewery any time soon.

Dawn of the one-off printed can

Sample cans from Nomoq
So what’s the advantage? According to Nomoq co-founder Patrick Schweizer, a big part is that, unlike other labelling schemes, it can handle any size of production run – even a single can! “The setup cost is €139, a customer can upload their design and get a free sample as a proof [a test print],” he said. “We average 20,000 cans per design but the smallest order so far was just 40 – it becomes worth it for special events.”

An Oasthouse promotional special print  
To compare that with other labelling techniques, a chat with Oasthouse suggested that the minimum practical quantity for sticky-labelled cans is around 350, and for sleeving it’s just over 1000. The minimum run for traditional offset-printed cans is now 75,000, which is down from the 100k I was quoted years ago, but not by a lot!

The inkjet is also flexible, offering unlimited colours, photo-realistic printing, and fast set-up times. The caveat is that this flexibility does bring some uncertainty because of the variables involved. In particular, the cost will depend on ink usage (so, how much of the can you cover and its size), the type of ink, the desired finish and so on.

Both companies say that once that test print is approved, an order can be turned around in three, maybe four weeks, or even quicker if they're not fully busy. “We do have some capacity for some just-in-time quick turnaround work,” adds Oasthouse, “but this will be limited.”

Eco aspects of can labelling

And then there is sustainability. “Burning off labels generates more CO₂ and heat,” Nomoq’s Schweizer explained, “so for example the [brewery] sustainability department wants to get away from labels as they have to compensate for the CO₂ emissions otherwise.”

(The CO₂ isn't the end of it, incidentally. Some years back I met a man who used to manage a can recycling plant, he said labels and wraps were no problem logistically as they burnt off. However, their residue contributes to the muck that floats to the top of the 'melt' and must be scraped off as slag, leaving the bottom as pure aluminium. So more label material is likely to mean a bit more metal lost as slag.) 

The inkjet system has cost and speed caveats too, said Schweitzer. “We are competitive with labels and sleeves at around 20-30 cents per can, but we can’t compete with offset printing on cost,” he said. “Plus, unlike offset we can do 90 cans per minute, not 2000!”

He added that the Hinterkopf machines need cans that are specially made with a surface that will take and hold the ink. “We can’t use any old blanks – I think that has held back some large customers,” he said. “The key is the adhesion of the ink, even during 80°C pasteurisation. [Can manufacturer] Ardagh has to make these cans specially, and it’s still a small part of the overall business for them.”

Impressive results with more to come

The results are impressive, both from Oasthouse and Nomoq. They are also clearly different from the existing ways of labelling a can – no seams, photo-like textures, full 360° coverage and so on. 

Of course, those other ways of labelling have also advanced massively and are not going to be eliminated overnight – I just have to think of some of the gorgeous sticky labels I've seen recently, and while it will surely improve, the inkjet can't yet match offset printing for fine detail (see left). 

Still, I reckon there are big changes coming once Hinterkopf and others shrink the technology to something more manageable and affordable. After all, it took years but it worked for laser printers, canning machines, mobile phones and all the rest. 

Tuesday 4 July 2023

How can labelling enabled the craft beer revolution

The next time you pick up a beer can, take a closer look. How is it labelled – is it smoothly printed or slightly rough? Does it have a sticky-backed label, or is it shrink-wrapped with printed plastic? Is the label embossed or smooth? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I picked up two cans that very much looked printed, and it’s only because I know where to look and what to look for that I could tell they were actually shrink-wrapped. 

It feels printed, but can you spot the shrink-wrap now?
Now think back 10 years, if you can! Apart from on draught, obviously, how did you buy your craft or specialist beer then – was it canned or in bottles? 

If you think it was in cans, either you lived somewhere a bit unusual back then or your memory is playing you tricks. The micro-canning revolution didn’t really kick off until around 2014 or 2015 – which was, incidentally, when I wrote one of the very first articles on the topic. It was published not in a beer magazine but an engineering magazine, for reasons which I hope will soon become clearer.

Yes, it was really only big-brand beers – and very often, cheap brands at that – that were sold in cans back in 2013, and the biggest reason was labelling

Sure, the fact that an automatic canning line cost serious six-figure sums – millions, even – was an issue. But you didn’t have to own your own line, because anyone who wanted to can a drink could get it done by a contract canning facility.

Minimum order quantities

In reality though, small producers almost never did it – because you had to get the cans labelled. That meant getting them printed, and the minimum order quantity for printed cans from the manufacturers was in six figures, half a million if you wanted the best price. Wastage in the canning process could be 10% or more, so even for a ‘short’ run of 100,000 330ml cans you might need to supply 40,000 litres. For a small brewer with a 10 hl brewkit, that’s 40 brews of the same beer! 

By the time I published that article in 2015, things were changing. You had multiple suppliers offering much smaller canning machines, both manual and semi-automatic, which is where the engineering interest came in. You could even get hand-operated can seamers to seal a lid on – these were picked up by some brew clubs and self-brew shops, and are the ancestors of the crowler machines you see in some bars today. 

Sticky labels: flexible and easy to recognise
But the problem was still labelling. Sticky labels were an obvious option, but they needed a dry surface. Applying the label before filling was awkward because empty cans crush very easily, and applying it afterwards meant you needed to dry the can, adding time and effort to the process.  

As time went by, potential solutions appeared. Cans could be dried more easily, sticky labels were more tolerant, labelling machinery got better, so even quite short runs could be canned and labelled. Label quality advanced hugely too, so you could have embossed or textured labels, or labels with cut-outs. 

Cut-outs make each can unique
This has allowed some designers to get really creative, for example at Brew//LDN this year I met Green Duck, whose cans have a dual-layer label. The first layer has complex patterned artwork specific to that beer while the second has a cut-out, duck-shaped of course. The neat trick is they don’t line up, so every can is unique, with the cut-out revealing a different part of the underlying pattern. 

The label's downsides

Labels or wraps still have to be ordered in quantity though, and when the cans go for recycling they have to be removed. The most likely way to do that is burning them off, which of course generates more CO2 and associated pollutants than ink does, as well as producing extra slag in the can smelter which must be disposed of. All of which is increasingly unpopular. 

The thing I wrote about eight years ago as the Holy Grail of can labelling has remained elusive, though, and that’s the ability to print cans in much smaller quantities, ideally on-demand. It’s like being able to simply print a single copy of a document on the office colour printer, instead of having to go to a commercial printshop for a minimum run of 500 copies, all of which will eventually go into the paper bin. 

But now that hurdle too has fallen. At Brew//LDN this year I met not one, but two companies with access to the latest Hinterkopf inkjet printers, capable of printing full-colour, full-wrap designs onto a can, waterproof and heat-resistant, and with a minimum order quantity of one. And that’s what I am going to write about next

Tuesday 27 June 2023

What the (Austrian) Hell?

Hell, or more properly Bavarian or Munich Helles*, has been growing in popularity across Germany for several years now. Pretty much every brewery that used to major on Pilsner** now offers a Helles too. 

So when I learnt that Austrian brewery Stiegl had also released a Hell, I was intrigued. Partly because Stiegl already has a Munich Helles-style beer in Goldbräu (5%), but also because Austria also has its own, slightly different, beer styles, including one called Helles. 

Which would Stiegl Hell (4.5%) turn out to be? As luck would have it, the nice folk at Stiegl’s UK importer, Euroboozer, stepped in to help me try to answer that question. They’ve just introduced Stiegl Hell to the UK market, so were kind enough to send some over, along with a branded glass. 

And it’s intriguing. It's pale gold with a light malty sweetness on the nose, along with just a touch of raw bread dough and a hint of floral perfume, all of which one might expect in a Munich Helles. But then on the palate it’s crisp and hoppy-bitter, with hints of dry grass and herbs from those ‘noble’ Central European hops – more like a Pilsner now, except that there’s also smooth malt with a slight sweetness, not the breadiness one might get in Munich, and just a touch of stickiness on the finish.  

I’d have this down as an Austrian-style Helles, then, but feel free to go and judge for yourself: I’m told Stiegl Hell is already available on draught from Frontier Pubs sites around London, as well as Bonehead in Birmingham and Junkyard in Nottingham, while retailers carrying the 500ml bottles include Beers of Europe. Expect that list to grow as Euroboozer pushes it more. 

*Hell or Helles simply means pale or golden, so it can be used in other contexts, while Munich Helles refers to the actual style of beer. German brewers tend to be cavalier about the distinction though... 

**Pils itself only came to dominate the German market in the 1970s, displacing Dortmunder Export. Coincidentally, that was also when Bitter lost out to Lager in Britain. 

Monday 12 June 2023

Brew//LDN '23 round-up part two

As well as enjoying the beers, of course, it was a great opportunity to talk with the brewers and brewery staff, both about the beer and about what’s going on in their parts of the industry. Magic Dragon was a new one on me – turns out it used to be Plassey, and it's Wrexham-based so I guess that explains the dragon! As I was enjoying a sample of his Black Tiger black IPA, head brewer Richard Lever mentioned that his beers had won SIBA and other awards, so we had a chat about what attracts microbrewers to competitions. 

"I enter the ones I like," he said. "I also want to find out how they do - if you don't put a beer in to be judged, you don't get feedback." He also mentioned that his beers are mostly cask but that this is changing: "We're quite new in keg, but we are starting to do more – North Wales is opening up to keg." 

How long, I wonder, before they're in the same position as London and other cities, of trying once again to rescue falling cask sales?
Some aficionados disregard Drygate as 'crafty macro' because it's part-owned by Tennents and does several supermarket-friendly brews, such as Disco Forklift Truck. It doesn’t help here that the latter recently had an ABV drop "to make it more approachable", which is typical macro behaviour. 

Yet at the same time the other owner is a bona-fide micro, Williams Brothers, and Drygate's beers are good regardless. As well as the regular brews, head brewer David introduced me to the latest in their one-off series, a rich and heavy 9% stout called Big Purple One.

Full of caramel, coconut and hazelnut notes, it’s his interpretation of a certain purple-wrapped hazelnut and caramel sweet found in a popular boxed chocolate assortment, and yes, it’s delicious. Somehow it manages to get the flavour right, yet actually be less sticky than the original, with a warmth that takes the edge off the sweetness. I’ll take a bottle of this over a handful of Q****** S***** any day!

Almost exactly six years ago, the legendary David Bruce toured myself and some fellow visitors around the shiny new brewhouse at West Berkshire Brewery, along with its then very newly installed million-pound bottling and canning line.

It was an impressive and ambitious setup, so I was saddened to hear a year or two back that WBBrew had hit financial trouble. I don’t know whether it was due to over-extension, a somewhat me-too product range, the pandemic, or more likely a combination of all of those.

Either way, it was very good to see that the brewery has survived. It was eventually bought out by the Yattendon Estate, which owns the surrounding lands, and has now been rebranded as Renegade, which was the name West Berks had used for its craft line.

I tried a couple of the Renegade brews that I didn’t recognise. Blackguard is a very nice creamy-burnt stout, while festival special The Void was something I’ve not seen before – a Cold IPA that’s also a Black IPA, a combination that I found worked remarkably well.

There’s a lot of confusion written and spoken about Cold IPA, but essentially it’s an IPA brewed to be crisper and cleaner. That typically means brewing it cooler, and sometimes with lager yeast, but it still has the malt bill and hopping of an IPA, which is what differentiates it from the hoppy lagers that some people call IPL (India Pale Lager).

Some claim it’s about showcasing the hops, and yes, the hop character does usually come through well, but what The Void showed me was that it can also make the malt character – in this case, a roasty-dryness with a burnt tang – come through a little more clearly. The result was unusual, with some unexpected but very pleasing characteristics. 

You can read part one here and more from Brew//LDN 2023 here Hungarian Voodoo is a sweet surprise and here Start-up brewer shows Spooky quality