Thursday, 23 September 2021

Interesting times for cask ale

There’s been quite a bit of worry recently about the future of cask ale – or real ale, as many prefer to call it. Cask’s share of the beer market has declined in recent years and then it took another big hit from the Covid-19 lockdowns. That’s because almost all cask ale is sold via pubs, and they were closed. 

Wild Card's hazy cask Pale
Cask also faces other challenges though. Many drinkers expect it to cost less than keg craft beers, for example, even though it can be just as expensive to produce and typically requires more care in the pub to get it conditioned and to serve it just right. 

Even before the pandemic, some brewers had been talking about the need to increase the price of a cask pint to restore a bit of profit margin. Others had largely or wholly moved to keg as it was the only way they saw to make a decent return – and of course the pandemic-driven move to selling bottles and cans, instead of draught beers, has accelerated that shift. 

Similarly, the uncertainty involved in the post-lockdown reopening of pubs seems to have encouraged many to reduce the number of cask pumps in use – and some to drop cask altogether. Pub visitor numbers are both down and unreliable, by all accounts, so I can see it’s a risk – after all, once you tap a cask, it needs to sell within days, whereas a keg can stay good for weeks. 

The paradox is that demand for cask doesn’t seem to have fallen as much as the more pessimistic brewers had feared or expected. Twice recently, I’ve spoken with London-area brewers who say their cask sales are up, in part because others have dropped out of the business. 

'Small pack' at Brockley
The first was Wild Card which now has its own pub, The Tavern on the Hill, near the brewery in Walthamstow. As well as several of Wild Card’s keg beers, this popular local has two of its cask ales on handpump, usually the simply-named Pale and Best. In fact, these two beers were created for the pub – many of the regulars are cask drinkers, so when the brewery took the pub over, it either had to buy cask ale in from elsewhere or brew some itself! 

Wild Card co-founder William Harris said that although the majority of each 20hl cask brew is sold via The Tavern on the Hill, “people really want cask from us, partly because a lot of firms have pulled out from it. Mostly it’s cask-led pubs looking for suppliers, and it’s mainly a London issue – outside London there’s still plenty of cask around.” 

And then on a visit to Hither Green, near Lewisham, I discovered that Brockley Brewery was also nearby. In the brewery taproom I was surprised to find that as the (inevitable, these days) cans on sale, they had four cask ales on draught, all dispensed by gravity from casks in the coldstore, and to learn that Brockley's production is now around 50% cask. The story was similar – it’s picked up cask sales volume from other breweries who have dropped out of the business. 

Is all of this good news or bad? I’m not really sure, but I do find it interesting – as in the apocryphal ‘curse’, “May you live in interesting times.” 

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.