Saturday, 17 August 2019

A macrobrew lesson in the middle of the Med

Mahon's magnificent harbour
When we went on holiday last month to Menorca, in the Balearic islands of Spain – it’s the smaller counterpart of Majorca (hence minor/major) – I was curious to see what interesting beers I might find. I’d already had a look on Untappd which suggested there were a couple of breweries on the island, plus a couple of bottle shops, one in each of the main towns.

We were staying near the current capital Port Mahon (Maó in the Catalan dialect used locally), while at the opposite end of the island is the former mediaeval capital of Ciutadella. The switch from one to the other happened in the 1700s when the island was under British control, not Spanish, but it reflected changes in naval technology as much as nationality. The harbour at Ciutadella is closer to the Spanish mainland, but is shallower and far smaller than the magnificent 5km-long Mahon harbour, which was much better positioned and sized to suit an 18th century fleet of battleships tasked with controlling the Western Med. 

Anyway, quite how we missed Birra O’Clock in Mahon/Maó I don’t know – we must have walked almost straight past it. But that was on Sunday afternoon, so maybe it was closed and less noticeable, and anyway I’d have been more focused on keeping the kids from getting lost and/or run over.

So what I drank while there was what I found in the supermarkets. What I didn’t expect, even though technically we weren’t all that far from Spain’s craft beer capital of Barcelona, was that it was almost all macro and crafty macro. Sure there was variety – amber lagers, Märzens, a Hefeweizen and even a few ales of various sorts – but with just a couple of microbrewed exceptions, they were all from Damm, Mahou-San Miguel or Heineken Spain.

As for local brews, it wasn’t until we visited bottle shop Sa Bona Birra on a trip to Ciutadella that we found any, and that was from Sant Climent back near Mahon. Yes, they had beers from Barcelona micros as well, but they had beers from all over the world, as you’d expect in a specialist shop.

It reminded me just how much of a bubble the beer scene in, say, Barcelona actually is. But it also demonstrated how much the big brewers have invested in crafty brewing to ensure that outlets such as supermarkets have no need to go elsewhere in order to add a dusting of modernity and variety to their beer shelves. (Like washing powder manufacturers, they also grab for shelf space by having secondary brands for their generic beers – pretty poor stuff in the main.)

By chance, a week later I found myself chatting with one of the brewers from Mahou-San Miguel after we’d both spent the day judging in the International Beer Challenge. He confirmed that, as I already knew from elsewhere, it’s all about the extra margin on craft, not the sales volume. And it’s not about doing it on the cheap, either, although he noted that the Mahou Barrica barrel-aged strong lagers (the Bourbon one is rather good, by the way) are deliberately priced low to get shelf space and attention.

And clearly it works, with some of the crafty ones actually being pretty good – San Miguel’s Manila Vienna lager for instance, and Heineken Spain’s Cruzcampo ales (but not its eponymous Eurolagers), although yes, the real independents were on average rather better.

Interestingly, Heineken seems to have recognised the need to separate off its crafty element. It worked with a local hospitality group to set up a brewpub in Malaga called La Fabrica de Cruzcampo where its brewers can get creative. It then brews and bottles some of the results back at HQ for nationwide distribution.

Will this crafty-creative approach be a model we’ll see more of across Europe and elsewhere? I suspect so. The question is, how can real micros and independents respond?

Saturday, 20 July 2019

London's Summer of Beer

There’s a lot for the beer-lover to look forward in London over the summer. I guess it started with last weekend’s Ealing Beer Festival, under the giant oak trees and in the grassy surroundings of Walpole Park – and once again mostly in the sunshine this year. A great selection of cask beers this year, all in good-to-excellent condition.

Beer judging underway
Perhaps to show that any style can work in cask, my absolute stand-out there this year was a cask Belgian Saison – but then, the original farmhouse Saisons would have been cask, so why not? Called Go With a Smile, it was a collaboration between two small Kentish brewers, Boutilliers and Iron Pier. By coincidence, my second favourite was also Belgian – but not just in style this time. One of the two kegs on the foreign beer bar, it was De la Senne’s Jambe de Bois, an 8%er billed as the most bitter Tripel in Belgium. Lovely!

I wasn’t just there for the drinking, mind you – I was helping judge CAMRA London’s Champion Beer of London, along with assorted luminaries from the world of brewing and beer writing. For the record, the overall winners were:

Gold:  Five Points Railway Porter
Silver: Tap East’s East End Mild
Bronze: Wimbledon XXXK Vintage Ale

This weekend, there's still a few tickets left for tonight and tomorrow at Craft Beer Cares, which was the subject of my previous post, then in two weeks time on Saturday 3rd August there’s an open-day at the Weird Beard brewery in Hanwell, after which we dive into the week of the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia (August 6th-10th). That kicks off with the judging of Champion Beer of Britain on the morning before the Tuesday trade session.

The 2018 LBA festival in Fuller's sunny courtyard
Overlapping with GBBF this year, which I guess ought to make it easier for some people to get to both, is London Craft Beer Festival (9th-11th August). It’s back at the Tobacco Dock event space this year, and when last I looked there were still tickets left for all sessions. It’s typically £50 for each five-hour session, but unlike GBBF where most sessions are £11 but you buy beer separately, the LCBF ticket includes all your beer. Then again, your GBBF ticket covers twice as long, at ten hours.

And last for now, but not least, the London Brewers Alliance has announced the date of its 2019 summer beer festival: Saturday 14th September. Hosted in the courtyard and carriage house at Fuller’s Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, this is another all-inclusive event. Tickets are £35-ish including fees, and you can expect to find more that 50 of the capital’s brewers, each pouring at least two or three of their beers.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Charity beer fest returns for a 3rd year

Last year's event was very enjoyable
Craft Beer Cares, the festival where all beer is donated and all profits go to charity, is back for a third year. It's this coming weekend, Fri/Sat/Sun, at the London Fields Brewery event space in a set of railway arches just off the eponymous park in Hackney.

The sessions will run from 6-11pm Friday 19th, 12-5pm and 6-11pm Saturday 20th, and 12-5pm Sunday 21st July. Apparently there's still tickets available for all three days - they're only eleven quid (inc. booking fees), which gets you a festival glass and enough tokens for five halves or thereabouts. You can buy more tokens of course, and I assume there will also be food and merch for sale as in past years.

This year all the profits - that's £10 from every ticket since pretty much everything is donated, including the volunteer servers - will go to Hackney Winter Night Shelter. This is a charity that provides food and shelter for homeless people during the coldest months of the year. Last year, the festival raised over £10,000 for the London-based anti-violence charity Art Against Knives.

More than 30 breweries, representing some seven different countries, have so far offered beer for Craft Beer Cares 2019. They include:

Beatnikz Republic
Big Drop
Brew By Numbers
Brixton Brewery
Brooklyn Brewery
Collective Arts
Dry & Bitter
East London Brewery
Fierce Beer
Gipsy Hill
Hale Brewing
The Kernel
London Fields
Lost & Grounded
Magic Rock
NZ Beer Collective
Solvay Society
Stone Brewing
Toast Ales
Weird Beard
and Yeastie Boys
with more to be confirmed.

We already have our tickets for the Sunday - see you there?

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The beers we almost forgot

If you’re running a craft beer bar or specialist real ale pub that caters to aficionados, it’s relatively simple – in concept at least, though less so in execution! You offer a range of styles, rotating as often as you can manage, always with something new and/or weird – and also with a known-brand but unusual lager for your less adventurous visitors, or the non-aficionado friends and other halves.

But what about venues where craft beer isn’t the main or only offering, such as restaurants, cafés or ‘regular’ pubs. The constant chasing after fashion and novelty is a never-ending game. Constant novelty, but it’s a business model that’s tough to scale and make reliable. Even those brewers famed for their frequent special releases usually try to build up a solid baseline of regular beers as well, just like craft bars needs that regular tap for those customers who ‘just want a beer’.

I arrived late at this month’s Imbibe Live trade show at Olympia, but just in time to catch Mitch Adams’ final talk and tasting, “Back to the Future”. In it, he encouraged retailers in particular to forget modern beer trends and fashions for a moment, and instead pay attention to some of the beers – and perhaps more significantly, beer styles – that have dropped off the headlines, but still deserve some love.

In particular, he highlighted Helles & Vienna (golden & amber) Lagers, Hefeweizen, Golden Ale, West Coast IPA, and Tripel. I might quibble with one or two of his exemplars – Stiegl Gold isn’t my favourite Helles, I’m afraid – but others were excellent choices. Erdinger Weisse for instance, and Ska’s Modus Hoperandi for classic American IPA, while I'd say Brooklyn Lager is the best Vienna Lager in volume production. 

He’s got a very good point here, although as implied earlier I have no fears for lager. We’re seeing more and more craft lagers – it does seem to be lager that most ‘just-a-beer’ drinkers go for. So you make your craft lager a bit more malty and flavoursome than the big brands, easy drinking but nothing too scary, nothing too different…

The crafty (re)birth of lager

Even in Germany, where the craft beer movement grew up in large part in opposition to the industrialisation of beer, you can see this happening. German industrial Pils is yellow, fizzy, light-bodied and remarkably samey. Craft beer therefore set out to be the opposite – it’s at least hazy if not downright murky, amber-brown or even darker, malty, and comparatively heavy with aroma and flavour.

While that trend’s not gone away, more and more modern microbrewers are now producing a Pils or a Helles too. It’s partly that they have customers who want novelty, but familiar novelty, and partly the realisation that making a really good lager is hard. So if you want to show your skills as a brewer, it’s one way to do it.

Choose your guests

But while offering a regular craft lager for the ‘just-a-beer’ customers works for the specialist beer venue, what about the reverse – a ‘regular’ catering for aficionados? Maybe it should be a guest Vienna, or a blond lager and a West Coast IPA. And it can’t hurt to have bottles of a reliable Weizen and Tripel (or Dubbel) in the fridge.

What do you think – are we worrying too much? Does this happen already? Or is there still too much focus on fashion?

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Jubel gets crafty with the lager-top

Maybe you already saw Jubel’s attractive bright-yet-minimalist labels on the shelves in Sainsbury’s, but like me, you weren’t convinced by the idea of sweetened, fruit-flavoured beer. Flavoured beer is quite traditional though in some ways and places, so I was pleased when one of my local pubs announced a meet-the-brewer visit from Jubel Beer.

We had two varieties to taste, Alpine which is peach-flavoured, and Urban which has elderflower syrup added. They had just launched a third, Grapefruit, but it hadn’t reached London yet. I tried the Urban first and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s sweet – much too sweet for my liking – but the elderflower adds an intriguing grape-like note, with the result ending up like a cross between lager and a sweet white wine.

Alpine is less subtle, with in-your-face fruitiness and the rather light base-beer almost lost in the background. “Craft beer is all the thing now, but it’s too hoppy for some,” noted Jubel rep Adam, which I’m afraid I translated as ‘This is beer for people who don’t actually like beer, but still want to be seen drinking it.’

Life is peachy

Adam passes the beers round
Everything has to have an origin story these days, it seems, and as Adam explained, this one involves two students on a skiing holiday in the French Alps and encountering Demi Pêche, which is the local variant of a lager-top – beer with a dash of peach syrup.

He says they came back to London and, after graduation, initially tried renting brewing capacity and making something similar using peaches in the brew. That didn’t work well though, so they decided to make their own peach syrup. They added this to a contract-brewed gluten-free lager – one of the two founders is Coeliac, says Adam – and sold the result in bottles. (There’s also a YouTube version of this story.)

So why was I meeting Adam, who’s actually on the sales side, covering London and the South East, rather than one of the founders? That was down to their need for more production capacity and money for expansion, both of which came from picking up the whole operation and moving it to Cornwall, landing in Penryn, near Falmouth. This is just 20-odd miles from St Austell Brewery, and it helped them get a grant from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund, one of whose aims is to boost the economies of places like Cornwall.

Just a taste...
A launch across the south-west of England followed, and then a listing with Fuller’s (we were talking in The George IV, a big yet cosy Fuller’s pub in Chiswick). And then late last year came the big one – a nationwide launch in 600 Sainsbury’s shops.

Should you buy some? Well, if you or your friends are sweet-toothed and enjoy drinks such as the mixes of beer and fruit juice* produced on the Continent – and especially if they are Coeliac too – then give them a go. The elderflower one could also be interesting for anyone who like sweet white wines and wants to try something a bit different.

*Note that these are fruit-flavoured drinks but they are not ‘fruit beers’, as the fruit is not there during the brewing or fermentation. They are closer to shandies, or what the Germans more practically call a Biermix.

Monday, 17 June 2019

How can Innis & Gunn be both barrel-aged and available everywhere?

It’s rare to visit a brewery these days that doesn’t have a barrel-ageing programme of some sort. It might just be a dozen or so wooden casks stacked up in a corner, or it might be a dedicated storeroom or even a whole warehouse full of casks. For most though, barrel-aged beers are specialist small-batch products – a whisk(e)y cask is two hectolitres, and ought to yield enough to fill between 500 and 600 33cl bottles.

Dougal with samples of chips and beer
That’s scalable to hundreds of casks and hectolitres, which is tolerable for those speciality beers (700 hl of Duvel BA, say, or Goose Island BCBS). But what if your annual production is heading for 150,000 hectolitres, and you need to barrel-age pretty much all of it? If you’re Dougal Gunn Sharp, the boss of Scottish brewer Innis & Gunn, it means applying some science…

To start with, they developed the Oakerator, which circulated beer through treated oak chips in a tank. Then two years ago they switched back to using real Bourbon barrels – but barrels that had been broken into their staves, then turned into wood chips and toasted to differing degrees to “open up the wood” and yield different flavours. Both methods resemble the oak-chip techniques used by some large wineries and are used for the same reasons – to do more, and faster, with less wood. Though because in this case the brewers are also looking for Bourbon flavours, they don’t even have the option to use large wooden tanks.

Once the beer is on the barrel chips, “We apply different temperatures and pressures to get different flavours in, such as that Bourbon vanilla note. It’s like using a pressure cooker,” explained Dougal when we met at an Innis & Gunn beer matching evening in London last month.

Flavour targets

“We know exactly where we want to be, the flavours we want,” he added. “We’re about warm, smooth characteristics, but not too many of them. The starting beer is something of a blank canvas – not too hoppy, and brewed with our own yeast, selected for the flavours we want.”

Along the way, they have learnt a lot about what works when it comes to barrel-ageing. “For example, barrel-aging goes better with some styles than others – it needs some ‘weight’ to carry it,” he said, adding though that you don’t want to overdo it. As a result, most Innis & Gunn beers have quite a short aging period: “We don’t need longer than 5-30 days, though we could go to months [for certain beers].

“The timing also depends for example on the time of year – it really is quite a scientific process. The right flavours for us are vanilla, toffee and so on – once you leave the beer longer it begins to change and you begin to round off some of the more robust characteristics. The key thing here is to be able barrel-age a beer that isn’t 10 or 11%, without having to liquor it down.” (That’s to say, without having the aged version come out at 11% and then blend it down to a more saleable strength.)

The Innis & Gunn story combines serendipity with family history – Dougal’s father Russell was the head brewer who rescued Caledonian Brewery. Russell Sharp also had extensive experience in the distillery business, and he founded Innis & Gunn with his two sons – its name comes from their middle names – as a joint-venture with whisky producer William Grant, shortly before Scottish & Newcastle took control of Caledonian.

William Grant wanted ale to ‘season’ Bourbon casks before they were used to age whisky, the original plan being that the beer would then be disposed of. But workers who tried it liked it, and so a new business was born, one which is now run by Dougal after a management buyout a decade ago.

Looking back to when it all began , Dougal said that one thing the founders realised was that while a good product was essential, it wasn’t enough. “Beer at the time was unsophisticated compared to the wine industry,” he explained. “So we made it look different, and we got people to realise it wasn’t beer for just chucking down [your throat].” And it has to be said that they did a great job of getting the presentation right, from the name to the bottle designs.

Science for volume, age for speciality

The second release of Vanishing Point
The scientific approach has also enabled Innis & Gunn to considerably ramp up production – the company now produces six regular beers, of which only the lager is not wood-aged, plus a number of seasonals and specials. Most if not all of the latter are still aged in actual barrels, and many are primarily or exclusively for export, such as Vanishing Point, its delicious 11% Imperial Stout, which gets 12 months in first-fill Bourbon barrels.

The company currently contract-brews its volume brands at the Tennents brewery in Glasgow. However, for pilot brews, smaller runs and cask ales it has a 50hl brewkit at Perth-based Inveralmond Brewery, which it took over a few years ago. More ambitiously, it also has a £20 million project to build a new brewhouse in Edinburgh – part funded by private equity and part by crowdfunding – with the aim of bringing all production back in-house.

Whatever you think of the idea of using toasted barrel chips instead of real barrels, the resulting ales are both good quality and undeniably popular. They sell well not just in the UK but also in export markets, most notably Canada where it’s the number one imported craft beer*, but also in Sweden, the US, and elsewhere. Quite a success story both for beer and for barrel-ageing.

*In fact it’s so popular in Canada that the Innis & Gunn earlier this year announced plans to brew and keg several of its core beers at Brunswick Brewery in Toronto, using the same recipes, ingredients and processes as in Scotland. The two breweries have already worked together on a couple of collaboration brews, and plan to do more of those too.  

Monday, 10 June 2019

What's wrong with Bavarian Pale Ale?

It’s getting so that, when I see the words Bayrisch Pale Ale, I reach for my sink plug. Bavaria is famous for several beery things, but precisely none of them is Pale Ale.

I can see why they try – a crisp American Pale Ale is what most traditional German brewers seem to think of when they “Hmm, we really ought to do something about this Craft Bier fashion.” That or possibly an American IPA – but mostly APA.

It’s partly because Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been readily available there for a good few years now, so it has come to epitomise Craft Bier for many Germans. Of course, SNPA was just as enlightening for pioneering British brewers back in the 1980s, the difference perhaps being that they already knew how to brew ales, they were just trying to make them less old-fashioned.

To be fair, in a few parts of Germany ale is understood to a degree. I don’t count Cologne here, mind you, as modern Kölsch is a warm-fermented lager, nor do I count Hefeweizen, which bears only technical similarities with ale. But knowledge has survived in a few of the Alt (old-style, ie. top-fermented) traditions – and of course there are now many brewers who have trained abroad, in places where ale never died.

So I’m not dissing all German Pale Ales, not by a long straw. It’s just I can’t remember when last I had one from Bavaria (or nearby) that was any good. Just recently, the ‘not good’ list has included Hohenthanner Schlossbrauerei Bayrisch Pale Ale, and Perlenzauber German Pale Ale from Herrnbräu in Ingolstadt (yes, that Ingolstadt, the home of the Einheitsgebot), but there’s been others.

The commonest fault is vegetal or cooked sweetcorn notes, which means DMS. This is a big giveaway as far I can see, because while it’s a fault in ales, a bit of DMS is part of the character of many lager styles. It suggests to me that these are experienced lager brewers working off their patch and getting it wrong.

It’s ironic really. Most ale brewers I’ve spoken to acknowledge how hard it is to make really good lagers. Perhaps there are Bavarian brewers who believe that lager is therefore the pinnacle of the art, and that ale should therefore be easy by comparison.

Or perhaps they imagine it’s like making a Hefeweizen, just with a different yeast and without the wheat... That might explain why there’s so much loose yeast in there that if you want a reasonably clear pour, you’re going to have to leave 15% or 20% in the bottle. For Pete’s sake, either give it a light filter, or if you do want to bottle-condition, use a properly sticky yeast for it!

OK, rant over. As ever, please feel free to recommend good Bavarian ales – or even to disagree with me! – in the comments below. Cheers!