Wednesday 23 October 2013

Medieval schmedieval...

Spurious claims to history and tradition are ten a penny, but sometimes one comes along that's so egregious and annoying that there's nothing for it but to start digging. So it was when a Facebook friend highlighted the launch of Heverlee Blond Lager, a beer variously promoted as being based on a 12th century monkish recipe and as a Belgian Pils style lager.

Ah yes, that would be the mysterious medieval Belgian Pils that pre-dated the 1842 Bohemian version by 700 years.

Initial comments from others on Facebook highlighted that it was only launching – for now – in Ireland and Scotland. That was the first clue: it turned out it's from Dublin-based C&C, which is mainly a maker of industrial ciders, most notably Magners, but which also owns Scotland's Tennents brewery, and those lands are pretty much its home turf.

Joris Brams discusses Heverlee Lager
That then took me to an interview in The Scotsman with Joris Brams, the MD of C&C's international division and the man behind the new beer. Born in Belgium, not far from Heverlee which is now a suburb of Leuven, he has a background in beer, having worked for both Scottish & Newcastle and Alken-Maes (though apparently not AB-InBev, which is headquartered in Leuven). In the interview he describes missing authentic Belgian lager during his time in Scotland – as well he might, because the UK version of Leuven's most famous export, Stella Artois, is a licensed fake.

The Heverlee website picks up the theme: "Returning to his birthplace of Leuven, our master brewer embarked on a mission to rediscover and recreate this classic bygone taste. Exploring the abbey library he learned of a light, fresh tasting lager and used descriptions of the ancient beer to create Heverlee."

Ah yes, those would be the ancient times before the accountants took over and cut the typical lagering period from months to days.

Oh, and just to top it off, they claim that this 4.8% Belgian Pils is actually an Abbey beer as it's "brewed in association with" Heverlee's Park Abbey. Honestly, what a load of marketing clap-trap – it's just a blond lager that's essentially been brought in to add a high end 'premium Pils' offering to the Tennents line.

On the plus side, it really does appear to be Belgian, for now at least. I've not been able to discover which brewery is responsible, although Brouwerij Haacht, a few miles outside Leuven, reputedly brews the 'real' Park Abbey beers, Abdij Van 't Park Blond & Bruin, both at 6% ABV.

So what's it like? Interestingly, the beer geeks at Ratebeer haven't discovered Heverlee Blond yet. I can only assume that the Ratebeerians of Scotland and Ireland don't visit Tennents pubs very often. Over at Untappd things are different and the beer has over 100 check-ins. Here's some of the verdicts:

Incompetent lager.
Standard Belgian lager.
Quite a smooth & creamy texture - not bad actually.
Awful. Just as bad as Harp if not worse.
Hint of Saison yeast flavours, sweet, but pretty ordinary.
Cold, smooth but no depth. Better than average lager.
Clean, clear lager but nothing more and nothing less, a lager.

I'm not sure which is more annoying – the marketing clap-trap, or the fact that papers such as The Scotsman swallowed it whole.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Exactly what is exacting?

Nonsense like this - from brewpub chain Gordon Biersch, which I visited this afternoon in Broomfield - makes me go "Grrr!"

"Exacting standards"? All it does is specify the usable ingredients, very generally.

The beer was OK, but it reminded me too much of just how average the average German brewpub is.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Signs of a healthy beer culture

So the other day Boak & Bailey wrote a thought-provoking article on the signs you might look for to tell if somewhere has a healthy beer culture - apparently where they live in Cornwall now qualifies - and I found myself thinking about where we lived in Germany... I thought about discussing it in a reply, but then after seeing Leigh's response about Leeds realised it merited a post of its own. So here we are!

1. There is a drinking establishment within walking distance of where you live where you like to spend time, and which serves decent beer.
Depends on your definition of "walking distance" - Lüneburg is a medium-small town (~75,000 residents) so nowhere is very far. Maybe 25 minutes walk to somewhere decent?

2. If you are skint, there is an acceptable drinking establishment within walking distance which sells decent beer at ‘bargain’ prices.
Nope, pretty much city (or even London) prices - maybe €7-8 a litre.

3. If you fancy something special, there is a pub or bar within reach on public transport (WRPT) which sells imports and ‘craft beer’. 
The closest would be in Hamburg, about an hour by public transport on a good day. Is that WRPT?

4. The nearest town/city centre has a range of pubs serving different demographics, and offering between them a range of locally-produced beers alongside national brands.
Yes, and no, unless you count Hamburg (30 miles away) as local.

5. There is a well-established family/regional brewery. 
Not since Carlsberg killed off Kronen.

6. There are several breweries founded since 1975.
Two brewpubs, and a small brewery in a village not far away.

7. There is at least one brewery founded since 2005.
That village one, but it's tiny and has no regular tap.

8. There is a regional speciality — a beer people ‘must drink’ when they visit.

9. There is an independent off licence (‘bottle shop’) WRPT.
Yes, with a fairly good range of German (only) beer.

10. There is a shop selling home brewing supplies WRPT.
Hamburg again.

11. There is at least one beer festival in the region.
Hamburg again - and not really regular. Good, though! Oh, and a mock-Bavarian Oktoberfest, but I don't count having a choice of two beers as a festival.

Of course, as they note at the end of their article, their list is a bit UK-specific. It did make me think about what I had missed about London while I was in Germany however.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Colorado is where the beer is...

Back in Colorado for the first time in several years, it's great to see – or be reminded – just how mainstream good beer has become here.

I didn't even have to go looking for somewhere to find a good range of interesting beer. The bar in my hotel, The Tap Room at the Interlocken, Broomfield, boasts around two dozen craft beers, all of them brewed in Colorado. They range from light hoppy pale ales through wheat beers, ambers and powerful IPAs, to the likes of Great Divide's superb 9.5% Yeti Imperial Stout and Boulder Beer's new 9% Oktoberfestbeer, Dragonhosen.

Sure, there's still industrial light lager about in Colorado too – while it produces more beer than any other US state, much of that is down to both Anheuser-Busch and Coors having big breweries in Colorado. Indeed, what's now the Molson-Coors HQ in Golden has been there for 140 years and is the largest brewery in the world. Sad to say, the only “beer” in my hotelroom minibar is Bud Light.

But there are also well over 100 smaller breweries – although some of them are hardly small, with New Belgium producing not far off one million hectolitres a year – and the state has been a major hub for the reinvention of American brewing tradition over the last 40 or so years. It has even seen one of its brewers (or brewery owners at least), John Hickenlooper who co-founded the Wynkoop brewpub, elected first as Mayor of Denver and now Governor of Colorado.

It's also tying in with a keen localism. As well as the hotel focusing on local beer, the company whose factory I toured yesterday, Spectra Logic, had arrange for local brewery Twisted Pine to present its beers at serving tables all around the building. There was wine as well, but it was hard to find. Craft beer, it seems, is the preferred drink of the local IT intelligentsia –and the Denver/Boulder area has a lot of high-tech, much of it, like Spectra Logic, in the data storage business.

Denver is also only one of the state's craft brewing centres, with the aforementioned Great Divide plus a number of smaller breweries and brewpubs, some of which I'll be visiting later this week; it also hosts the annual Great American Beer Festival which opens on Thursday. Others include Boulder (eg. Avery, Boulder Beer), Longmont (eg. Left Hand) and of course Fort Collins (Odell, New Belgium).