Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Drinking up a memory of Bass Cape Hill

Acquired at some memorabilia sale a few years back, this bottle’s been at the back of my fridge pretty much ever since. Until today I pulled it out – and suddenly realised that I was quite possibly involved, albeit peripherally, in what was brewed to celebrate. 

Some 35 years ago, I was invited to visit Cape Hill Brewery in Birmingham. Originally the HQ of Mitchells & Butler, or M&B as it was known in its brewing days, by the time I visited it was part of the Bass empire, and had just undergone a substantial refit. 

That refit included a new computer control system running on a pair of DEC VAX minicomputers, which was the reason for my visit as I was deputy editor of DEC User Magazine at the time. This system allowed them pretty much to program the brewery to brew what they wanted, batch by batch, whether that be Brew XI, Stones Bitter, M&B Mild or whatever. These days you can buy a home-brew machine that does the same and fits on your kitchen work-top, but this was sophisticated stuff back then. 

When Bass bailed out of brewing in 2000 the Cape Hill Brewery was sold, first to Interbrew and then to Coors, who closed it in 2002, just months after they’d bought it. It was demolished in 2005/2006 and housing built on the site. 

Fast forward to today though, and here’s a bottle of Cape Hill Brewery Celebration Strong Mild Ale from June 1987, and yes, it’s still drinkable and fairly pleasant! The cap was still tight, perhaps thanks to the foil cover, and while the beer has only a slight fizz, it’s also only slightly oxidised for its age. 

It’s dark and malty with a touch of gravy – that’s the oxidation – and a little sweet. There’s a slight hop character and not much bitterness, but then this is a Midlands mild, and it’s a little thin. No information on the ABV – the label just says it was brewed to O.G. 1055° – but given the sweetness I’d guess at maybe 5%. 

Anyhow, that's my glass of history for today. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Hoppy days down on the farm

Female hop plant
The 2022 hop harvest begins this week – or at least it does in the Weald of Kent, where Hukins Hops grows East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Challenger, Ernest, Bullion and other varieties – and where they invited a small group of beer writers and friends to be the guinea-pigs for a trial tour ahead of their first-ever Pick Your Own Hops event. 

Hukins Hops is a 50-acre family farm that’s been growing hops since 1900, although it was relatively recently that current boss Ross Hukins made the decision to focus entirely on hops. As well as dried and pelleted hops for both commercial and home brewers, they also sell fresh and dried hop garlands for decorative use. 

And this week they will also have brewers coming by to pick up the first fresh wet or green hops, which they typically aim to get into beer within 24 hours in order to capture as much as possible of the fresh hop character. There’s several Green Hop Beer festivals coming up, the biggest being in Canterbury in September. 

Poles and wires hold the hop bines up
One of the first things I noticed when we started walking through the hop fields was how quiet it was – our well-informed tour guide Dom, from UK Brewery Tours, said it’s like this for much of the year. Obviously the days of manual harvesting, when Londoners in their thousands would travel to Kent for a few weeks hop-picking, are long gone and it’s largely mechanised now, but it’s also that outside harvest and a few other activities, there is not so much to do. 

Then, once harvest starts, there’s several weeks of hectic activity before it quietens down again. One reason for growing several varieties of hops is that they ripen at slightly different times – for example Fuggles is first, then Challenger, followed by Ernest and Bullion, then UK Cascade, and so on – which smooths the harvesting and processing out a bit, but it is still pretty concentrated. 

Male hop plant
The next thing I noticed was how they grow. The overhead poles and wires are still there, not so different from 100 years ago, then each of the 320,000 plants on the farm has its own metal ground anchor from which compostable strings run up to the overhead wires. Most plants have four strings for four twisting shoots or ‘bines’, and Dom said that some varieties will grow up the strings naturally while others need training – twisting the shoots around the strings to encourage them to climb.

As well as differences in smell and taste, hop varieties also look slightly different on the bine – even before you notice the one in 200 oddities on the farm that are the male hop plants. Challenger cones are longer than Fuggles, for instance, and some kinds are bushier than others – although all were a little thin this year, due to the dry weather. Indeed, this year's hop harvest looks set to be down right across Europe, with Germany predicting a 20% drop.  

A twisting bine

But climate change is impacting hop-growing in other ways too. For instance, Dom says that traditional English Goldings and Fuggles now need irrigation, whereas the newer varieties are more tolerant. 

This adds yet more layers of complexity to the decision of what varieties to grow. Not only must the farmer try to anticipate the upcoming hop fashions, but they also need to think about what suits their terroir, what’ll incur extra costs and so on. Hukins is growing some experimental varieties but it takes three years for the character of a new variety to become clear, and while hops are perennial, the bines need replacing after about 30 years. If you get it wrong, as Hukins did a few years ago with Bramling Cross which didn’t sell, you have to grub out the plants and replace them. 

Anyway, come harvest the whole bine is cut at top and bottom, which only needs two workers on a tractor with a high ‘cherry-picker’ platform on the front. The cut bines go onto a trailer, string and all, and are trucked to a gigantic stripping machine. This separates the vital hop cones from everything else, all of which can go for compost, including the strings. 

Classic 1960s machinery
Although it’s housed in a modern building, Hukins’ stripper is more than half a century old! Sure, a modern computer-controlled one might be faster and quieter. But not only was it significantly cheaper to buy a vintage machine second-hand, it also means most problems can be fixed by a mechanic, without the need to call in a service engineer. 

Barring the small proportion that goes out green, as garlands or is sent off to be turned into hop pellets, the rest of an average year’s 50 tons of hops goes into the three huge driers – diesel-fuelled, sadly, unlike the rest of the farm which is solar-powered. Several hours at 57ºC drop the moisture content right down, leaving the dried hops ready for packing. 

Last on the tour, but far from least, was of course to taste the results. Dom presented us with samples of three different beers, each one made with a specific hop variety from the farm. The two stand-outs were a dank and rich-bodied bitter using Challenger and a smooth, coffee-tinged and herbal-hoppy London Porter made with East Kent Goldings (this turned out to be Five Points’ excellent Railway Porter).  

And with that, it was time to say thanks and goodbye. At first sight, Hukins Hops doesn’t look the easiest of places to get to (it’s an hour by train out of London Bridge, then a taxi) and the tour does involve quite a lot of walking over uneven ground, but it’s fascinating. But if you can drive you can make a day of it, as there's other places to visit in the area. Old Dairy Brewery (a Hukins customer) is not far and there's vineyards around as well, including several smaller ones alongside better-known ones such as Biddenden and Chapel Down.  

Friday, 12 August 2022

Beer hunting in Lüneburg

As my friend Paul recently reminded me via his blog, the North German mediaeval Hanseatic town of Lüneburg – where I used to live – remains a popular tourist destination for cruise passengers, coach parties and more. I’m a bit too late to help Paul, but if you’re visiting in the near future and are interested in beer, here’s a few ideas of places to look. 

There’s only two commercial breweries in town these days, both brewpubs. Brauhaus Nolte is quite a way out from the centre, so it’s unlikely a casual visitor will make it there – although if you do, it’s very much a local pub, with a traditional menu (think schnitzels, etc) and usually one light (Helles) and one dark (Dunkel) beer, plus maybe a seasonal special. This range is typical for a German brewpub. 

The bar at Mälzer
Much easier to find is the Mälzer Brauhaus, as it’s just a few metres off Am Sande, the big town square that’s actually a long rectangle. It’s spacious and rustic, with wooden beams everywhere and the brewkit taking pride of place. There’s even a small bar you can sit at if you want, though because the tapster is usually busy filling orders for the waiters, service will be faster if you take a table like everyone else!

As usual, two regulars plus maybe a third seasonal, though the tweak here is that the second regular also changes – a Marzen from October, and a Weizen from April. The first is a Pilsner, of course. It’s not cheap – well, we are in tourist-town here – but it’s a nice place to sit and eat, or just drink, there’s even free WiFi now. Beware though that, like a lot of German places, they don’t take Visa or MC, only cash or a German bank card. 

The 1902 brewhouse
Once upon a time there were more than 80 breweries in Lüneburg, and a few doors up from Mälzer is the only surviving one, now the town’s Brewery Museum. Before it was bought and eventually closed by Holsten, it was the Lüneburger Kronenbrauerei, or Crown Brewery. You can still find very drinkable Lüneburger Pils and Kronen Dunkel at the Krone Bier & Event-haus next door, but they come from Holsten in Hamburg now. 

It’s several years since I visited the museum, but the brewhouse (which dates from 1902) was a very interesting image of early 1900s and inter-war German brewing. It looks like it’s a lot more accessible now too, having been connected to the adjacent Ostpreußisches Landesmuseum* – when I visited, it was pre-booked groups only, and the guide had to open it up specially with a large key… Well worth a look if you have time. 

A five-minute walk from here will bring you to the Altstadt – the old town. Here you can stroll along Ob. & u. Ohlingerstraße (Upper and Lower Ohlinger Street) for the lovely old buildings, but from the beer perspective what I recommend is Anno 1900. It's nominally a traditional German restaurant – their motto is “eat like in your grandmother’s time”, and yes they mean the mythic past, not your actual grandmother’s time which whether British or German probably involved post-war rationing. The downstairs though is a nice pub full of wood, ‘found items’ and memorabilia, and complete with a Stammtisch – a table set aside only for locals. 

Anno 1900
The food was good the last time I was there, and so was the beer – which for a change involves darker beers as well as Pils. Aktien Landbier Fränkisch Dunkel is a regular on tap, and so are (or were) Aktien Zwick'l Kellerbier, Grevensteiner Original and Barre Alt. 

None of which are local, of course, and you’ll have a hard time finding much that is – unless you count maybe Ratsherrn and the various Holsten/Carlsberg brands, which are from Hamburg. There are a few more brewpubs and nanobreweries in outlying villages, but with only limited distribution. 

And while most larger supermarkets keep a range of national brands plus some Bavarians, sadly the pandemic and other factors have hammered the availability of modern German microbrewed beer. The town’s only specialist beer shop closed a few years back, and others have drastically cut back. For instance, I used to recommend Avenir café-deli for speciality brews, but now it has little beyond a few bottles from Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei – although that said, these are well worth trying, and the coffee is still good! (They sometimes have Wildwuchs beers too, but in my experience these vary a lot in quality, as do those of local brand LüneBräu which you might find in other shops.)

Franconia in Sand Passage
Easier to find, and worth a visit despite also having cut back is Sand Passage, ake Edeka Tschorn, back on Am Sande. Sadly most of the smaller brewery stuff has gone but there’s still a few (eg. Wendlandbräu is based in a nearby village and is pretty reliable), plus a selection of Franconian and Bavarian bottles, some of which can be hard to find up north. Most of these aren't on the main beer aisle though – head towards the deli counter where there’s an extra rack (see photo). 

Well, that’s about it. To be honest, if you have time and transport then the beer range is far better in Hamburg, which has several specialist shops. But you can still find something good to drink in Lüneburg, even if it’s not brewed especially locally. 

*East Prussia went to Poland after WW2, with its German population mostly exiled, which is why you'll find this museum of East Prussian and Baltic German history here in Lower Saxony instead.  

Sunday, 7 August 2022

The Ram Brewery, Sambrooks and the secrets of ancient brewing

It's been a busy week. It started with my first visit to the new Sambrooks Brewery, which is inside the old Young's Ram Brewery site. Much of the production brewery is out of sight in what was once a tun room full of porter tuns, and then later - if I remember rightly - Young's cask washing area. But there are also several vessels visible inside Sambrooks grand new taproom, which occupies two floors and has huge picture windows overlooking the plaza and beer garden outside. 

Tim describes Ajon brewing from East Africa 
The first reason to be here - apart from sampling Sambrooks' new and rather tasty session IPA, Sidekick, and its brand-new and excellent Oatmeal Stout - was a presentation from fellow Beer Writers Guild member Tim O'Rourke, on his research into surviving ancient brewing traditions, including meeting and in some cases brewing with traditional brewers. 

It really was fascinating for anyone into brewing history. He went through brewing traditions from all over the world, including the maize beers of Central and South America, millet, sorghum and banana beers from various parts of Africa, the Sake-like rice brews of Southeast Asia, and more. He then linked them to historical, archaeological and artistic evidence of ancient brewing. 

The two things that stood out for me were first, you know that story about women chewing the maize to make Chicha? It's a wind-up, a hoax, and one that generations of beer writers have eagerly swallowed - more eagerly than the Chicha, probably! Of course, if you think just how much grain is required for brewing, and how dry the special brewing maize is, you would not want to do anything other than mill or grind it - but chewing made for a more picturesque story, I guess...

Different malted grains
And the other was when Tim reminded us that, although every human culture has had alcoholic drinks of some sort, there's a big difference between beer and the likes of wine and cider which is that, despite the wishful thinking of some archaeologists and others, beer does not happen spontaneously. Fruit will ferment, and sometimes animals get drunk on it, but a bucket of wet grain will simply rot and go mouldy. 

The difference is that beer requires processing. Typically this means malting, which converts the starches to fermentable sugars, with the milled or ground malt then mashed in warm or hot water to extract those sugars. And this is almost certainly why burnt grains turn up in certain archaeological features, which were formerly assumed to be something to do with baking or cooking, but are now increasingly recognised as malting sites. Indeed, there's a growing understanding or recognition among archaeologists and historians that it was as much beer brewing as bread baking that encouraged humans to settle down and become farmers rather than hunter-gatherers. 

John Hatch shows us the tea-urn's new home
After the talk - and quite a bit of discussion among the beer historians present - I was fortunate enough to join a group touring both the old and new breweries. Our tour was led by John Hatch who, after working for Young's, was the one who kept the site's brewing tradition alive for several years while it was awaiting redevelopment, The consequence of his stalwart efforts is that the Ram Quarter retains its crown as the country's oldest verified brewery or brewing site. (It's not the country's oldest brewer - that's Shepherd Neame.)

His nano-brewery, built around a repurposed tea-urn, is still in use as a test brewkit for Sambrooks, although of course the old laboratory building that housed it and his little bar when last I visited, several years ago, has long gone. As well as seeing parts of the new Sambrooks Brewery, which moved here from a much larger site in nearby Battersea*, we also got to see parts of the old Ram Brewery which are now a brewing museum. These included the gleaming old coppers, an ancient well, and lots of breweriana.

Amongst the latter were photos of both the late Queen Mother and a youthful-looking Prince Charles pulling pints of Young's. Needless to say, she looked a lot happier and 'into' the task than he did. In fact, he looked downright nervous - here's hoping he has had a bit more practice since then, especially since he has his own Duchy beer range now.

After the tour it was back to the taproom for the Beer Writers Guild party, with pizza and more beers, both from Sambrooks and from various generous corporate Guild members, including among others the aforementioned Shepherd Neame, Timothy Taylor with Landlord and its fruity pale Hopical Storm, Salcombe showing its new Atlas SIPA, Krombacher UK with the eponymous classic Pils, and Hogs Back with its gorgeous but dangerous A Over T barleywine. 

My thanks to all of them - and yes, a good time was had by all!

*I understand that the old Sambrooks brewkit went to SEB (South East Bottling) in Broadstairs. Rumour has it some Sambrooks beers are now brewed there under contract.   

Saturday, 23 July 2022

Beer hunting in València part 2

What’s the chance that, two weeks after you go to a conference in a new-to-you location, you’re invited to celebrate a friend’s “significant birthday” – that’s one with a 0 on the end – via a weekend of events in that very same city? 

The best beer venue we found on this trip was Barbacana, which is the brewery tap for Cervezas Antiga whose beers I had enjoyed so much two weeks before. It’s a bit away from the old town on the way to the beach so it’s a good place to drop in and cool off on your way there. We liked it so much we visited again on our way back from the beach too! 

I think we got through ten different Antiga beers, on tap or in can or bottle, without a single dud. Their lightly estery and cidery Cream Ale (4.7%) was particularly good, as were the Belgian-influenced Blonde Ale (6%) and their Vienna-style Social Lager that drinks a lot lighter than its 5.5%. It’s a nice venue too, with friendly staff and a menu of bar snacks and light meals, street-food style. 

Our second favourite this time was Valencia’s international beer bar, Beers & Travels. This is clearly the place to go if you’re into Belgian or German beers, but it also has a decent range of Spanish and other brews, both in bottles and on tap. It’s where I found 1906 Galician Irish Red Ale (5%), a toasty and malty-sweet beer from the makers of Estrella Galicia lager, and another DouGall’s beer, their delicious lemony and piney IPA 4 (6%). 

They also have Sidra, or Spanish cider, on tap, but for my last one before the trek to the airport I went for more Spanish Märzen. This was another 6%er, namely Del Sur from Cervezas Alegría, a local brewery I’d not encountered before. It was a little unusual for Märzen, with biscuit and coffee notes alongside the sweet toasted malts, but rather good regardless. 

The rest of the time we just enjoyed the excellent birthday weekend events. These were mostly at mainstream venues, so they were less craft and more Mahou Cinco Estrellas and Estrella Galicia  – these big Spanish brewers do like their starry lager names. But we did manage to find a few more interesting things to drink as well. 

It started on the very first day, when we stopped for the set lunch at a randomly chosen backstreet restaurant, and saw Damm Turia on the menu. Barcelona-based Damm is a macro, and yes, its best seller is yet another Estrella lager, but like several other big Spanish brewers it has a notable German influence. Turia is its 5.4% Märzen, and while not exceptional, it’s pretty decent and reliable – and I find it more welcome on a hot day than a rapidly warming pale lager. Rather unusually, they also do a seasonal Double-Märzen, called Voll-Damm and weighing in at 7.2%. 

Something else you may see at some mainstream venues is more of the 1906 range from Hijos de Rivera, the makers of Estrella Galicia. Most likely is 1906 Reserve Especial, a 6.5% strong lager that’s malty-sweet and lightly toasty – they claim it's a Heller Bock, I have my doubts.

We also found a few local craft beers in a Consum supermarket – La Mari IPA, Borinot Tostada and B&B Hoppy Flower, for example. They were OK but nothing special – par for the course, I guess.  

Well, there you go – I hoped to add a few more good beer venues to the list, and while I guess two counts as “a few”, it’s not many! But if you add those to the ones in my previous Valencian travelogue, you have a pretty good number to aim at. Just be aware that some places don’t open until late in the afternoon, and some don’t open at all early in the week – presumably so the staff can sleep off a busy weekend. 

Overall, I was pleased with the local brews I found. Sure, some of the brewers are pretty obviously in it to make some money riding the craft bandwagon, but their beers were still well-made and drinkable. And with Spain not having much of a historical beer culture of its own, you’ll mostly find international beer styles, although there’s a few now working with local speciality ingredients, and even Spanish-grown hops.

This is a follow-on to my earlier post Beer hunting in València. 

Sunday, 17 July 2022

Beer festivals, beer judging, and meeting real people again – but with caution

 After two years of almost all such things being online, it’s both a huge pleasure and a slight shock to the system to come back to in-person beer judging, this week Champion Beer of London at the Ealing Beer Festival, and last week in a Kensington hotel for the World Beer Awards. 

A big part of the pleasure is of course meeting old friends and acquaintances, making new friends, and simply spending time with like-minded people. The shock was the same but in reverse - feeling out of practice in such an environment (although if truth be told, sometimes you wonder if you ever were in practice!). 

Ealing also brought the pleasure of arriving to find the beer festival centred on a circus-style big top. This housed all the bars and CAMRA stalls - and for that morning only, the tables for the beer judging. The rest of the week, the tables and chairs were as usual distributed across the enclosed parkland - and since the enclosure includes a few of Walpole Park’s mighty oak trees, there was at least some shade. 

Judging at Ealing
One of the benefits of judging at a beer festival is of course that once you’re done, there’s a beer festival to attend - and Ealing's a good 'un! That’s schedules permitting, of course, as I know one or two judges had to zoom off not long afterwards, in at least one case to prepare for the following days’ brewing. 

It’s also usually a shorter process, with one or two flights taking perhaps two hours, whereas the big international competitions are pretty much whole-day affairs. At WBA, for example, my table had nine flights, each of five beers, to get through - they’re tiny measures, to be sure, but each has to be assessed for flavour, aroma, quality in general, and trueness to style. You’d think brewers would get the latter mostly right, and yes, I suppose most did, but there were a few rather odd outliers! 

I mean, I don‘t have a problem with a brewer making what they want or enjoy - but to then claim it’s something different? And the country of origin was no guide here. We seemed as likely to get a stonkingly good, true-to-style brew from China as a dodgy one from Western Europe!

Judging at WBA
One way in which the two events were alike was the little bit of disappointment afterwards, when I realised how many more people had been there that I'd been hoping to meet, but somehow I had missed them. Then again, Ealing was a big open-air space and I had to leave by 5pm, while WBA was a big room with all the tables widely spaced. 

And the space was welcome. After my bout with Omicron last month, my sense of smell definitely diminished, which is not good if you want to judge beer. Thankfully, it didn't disappear completely, and after a week or 10 days, it had largely returned. Still, I have no desire for it to vanish again, so space and air circulation are good!

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Is beer better 'from the wood'?

I’d never been to a wood cask beer festival before last week. I was due to be at the third Woodfest organised by the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) back in May 2020, but of course it was cancelled due to you-know-what.

So I was delighted to discover that not only was Woodfest #3 back on for May 2022, but it was at the same venue they planned to use in 2020, namely the Turk’s Head pub in St Margarets, which for me is about three miles from home – the previous two Woodfests were way up in the north of England. Admission was a fiver, but in return most of the beers were under £4 a pint, which is relatively inexpensive for the area.

It’s a nice venue. The bars were in the pub’s function room, which is more like a village hall, complete with a small stage and its own bar – with handpumps, of course. It’s well known locally I believe for hosting a comedy club and other events of that kind, and also opens out onto a large terrace or beer garden which it shares with the pub.

It was rather strange seeing 35 wooden casks racked up on a stillage. You quite often see them in ones and twos, perhaps decorating the back of a bar or even doing duty as plant pots, but rarely serving their intended purpose of serving beer!

The selection was great, ranging from a few sub-4% milds – I enjoyed the Tigertops 3.7% Dark Wheat Mild, with its notes of liquorice and roast malt, and XT’s roasty and bitter 3.1% Pi Black Mild – to a 10.5% Imperial Stout from Trinity, sadly run out by the time I got there. I topped out instead with a boozy and woody 9.7% Barleywine, also from Tigertops, and Cheshire Brewhouse’s excellent 8.2% Gibraltar Porter.

In between were plenty of Bitters, Stouts and Porters, and a few less common ones. Kölsch from the cask – or ‘Kölsch vom Fass’ – is a seasonal regular in Cologne that’s rare in the UK, but here was Orbit’s 4.8% Nico, slightly confusingly labelled as ‘Koln Lager’. Meanwhile another London brewery, Mondo, had casked its 5% London Alt – here labelled simply as ‘Altbier’ – for a significant flavour upgrade on the bottled version I tasted a few years back. This soft and malty-sweet Alt vom Fass, with its drying and grassy bitterness, also put me in mind of the German fashion in recent years for Kellerbier.

Back on the British styles, the stars for me were Harrogate Brewing’s delicious biscuity, fruity and bitter-sweet 5.2% Beeching Axe IPA – oh, and one from the handpumps on the ‘normal’, ie. metal casks, bar: East London Brewing’s rich and boozy 9.5% Imperial Stout.

So who goes to a beer-from-the-wood festival? Well, my local CAMRA branch chairman greeted me from the admissions desk – it turned out that the branch had helped the SPBW organise the event, supplying glasses, wristbands and stuff. There were a few more local CAMRA members I knew around the place too, but most were SPBW members, some of whom had travelled quite a long way to be there. And while there definitely were women and younger men there, I'd say the SPBW demographic is on average somewhat older and less diverse than CAMRA's – though just as friendly, of course. 

And what of the festival’s raison d’être: those wooden casks? I suspect the challenge is that serving from the wood is not the same as barrel-ageing, and I do wonder if all the breweries understood that. Some of the beers I tasted felt overly woody – excessively so in one or two cases. Yet in others, there was a softness or lightness of touch that’s perhaps less evident with modern metal casks.

In short, my answer to “Is beer better from the wood?” is ‘Sometimes, but not always.’ And given that the results are almost always both interesting and drinkable regardless, I’m more than happy to carry on researching the answer!