Thursday 25 August 2016

Family fun at Fuller's

Photo: Fuller's
We've been to the annual Open Day at Fuller's a few times now, and they've all been good fun. "Dray" rides - actually a passenger cart, but drawn by real, huge, dray horses - and craft activities in the Hock Cellar for the kids, plus brewery tours and beer for the grown-ups, and live music and a BBQ for everyone. What's not to like?!

One year they even had a fire engine in attendance, for the kids to sit in and try on helmets, etc - at least until it and the crew got called away... This year there's also a 10k Fun Run that same morning.

Anyway, it's on Saturday 3rd September from 11am to 4pm. I hope I don't need to explain where! But if I do, check out the Open Day website linked above. :)

Saturday 20 August 2016

Does Dutch beer define itself?

Waiting for the bus into Amsterdam this morning, for the second day of the 2016 European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference, I was thinking about the Dutch craft brewers – both new and old – that we’ve met so far. The first question that came to my mind was whether there was some common thread that could hint at a "Dutch identity" for craft beer – and the second was whether that first question was actually redundant...

Yesterday we had an informative session about the history of Dutch brewing. One of the presenters, Michel Ordeman, is “Head of Church” at Jopenkerk, a brewery-restaurant in Haarlem created by microbrewer Jopen, but is also co-founder of the Campaign for Netherlands Beer Styles. The other, Rick Kempen, is a long-time Untappd friend of mine who works for beer distributor (and conference co-sponsor) Bier & Co.

Jasper gets animated
Among other things, they brought up the story of how the late-mediaeval towns collected ingredient lists from brewers to ensure only permitted things were used and that tax was paid. Sadly the tax rolls don’t record the actual brewing processes, but Jopen has still used them to recreate versions of those herbed and spiced beers, such as Koyt and Gruit.

Among the other brewers we met, styles such as Witbier and Saison were much in evidence, alongside the inevitable (and often very well executed) IPAs, Porters and barrel-aged Stouts. Some half-dismiss the former as Belgian, and yet all these beers – Gruit ales, spiced wheat beers, farmhouse ales – are part of a shared tradition right across northern Europe. Today’s national borders are still relatively new in this part of the world.

An interesting aside was that we also met two or three craft Pilsners. Craft brewers have tended to ignore Pils in the past, says Jasper Langbroek of Kompaan in The Hague, because Pils was what the industrial brewers called their yellow lager. Now though, Dutch microbrewers have rediscovered the real thing (or at least the real thing as it exists today, because all beer styles evolve!) on visits to Bavaria and the Czech Republic.

“Four years ago we said we wouldn’t brew Pils, then we were on holiday in Germany and tasted the local beer, so the next time a customer asked us for Pils we decided to do this,” explains Focke Hettinga of the Zwolse Pils that he brews with his wife as – the beer is named for their home town of Zwolle. The anti-industrial thread is still visible in both Kompaan Pils and Zwolse though – both are notably fuller-bodied than the megabrews, with Kompaan adding a percentage of wheat malt and Zwolse’s extra malt and hops making it remarkably rich and warming for the style.

Both brewers had wheat beers too – Hettinga Bier was pouring its Ijssel Wit, a very nice zesty and spicy example of the style, while Kompaan had gone instead for an American Wheat Ale, using US ale yeast and more hops for a lighter more bitter body and less Hefe fruitiness. Add the hoppy Wits we met elsewhere and it’s clear this is a style with a lot of room to play.

We also met a couple of excellent Farmhouse Ales (Saisons to many, but that really confuses American tourists in Germany, where Saisonbier simply means the current seasonal beer) during the live beer-blogging session – this is beer-tasting as speed-dating, with each brewer given 5 minutes to introduce themselves and their beer.

Saison5 from Utrecht’s Brouwerij Maximus was a nice example – dry, hoppy-bitter, lightly funky and refreshing – but the star of the show here was the Brettalicious from Oersop in Nijmegen. It’s a hybrid Bretted Saison, matured in their foudres (wooden vats) with a mix of brettanomyces and lactobacillus bacteria – the former add complex funky flavours and the latter a light tartness, as of Berliner Weisse for example.  Not to everyone’s taste for sure, but I found it quite delicious.

Friday 19 August 2016

Beers of Brabant

As a historian I’d been well aware of Brabant as one of the major Duchies of medieval Europe, but apart from occasionally noticing the name on “Welcome to...” road signs while whizzing through the Low Countries, I have to confess I’d not really been aware of its modern existence. Until this week, that is, when VisitBrabant invited me and several other beer writers & bloggers to, well, visit Brabant and discover its beer.

While you might not have connected the two before, it turns out Brabant – which includes Eindhoven, Breda and Tilburg, as well as its ‘capital’ of De Bosch – has a long brewing heritage. From our base at the aptly-named Hotel Central in Den Bosch (aka s’Hertogenbosch, which means the Duke’s Forest), we first sallied out to Koningshoeven Abbey, the home of La Trappe, one of the original Trappist breweries. More on that in a later post. Keen cyclist Nathalie from VisitBrabant then lead us on an hour-long bike ride to the village of Oirschot – it’s a great country for cycling, being relatively flat and having plenty of dedicated cyclepaths, and luckily we had great weather.

Kroon memorabilia
Oirschot was formerly home to Kroon, one of the few regional Dutch brewers to survive the massive waves of consolidation during the 20th century. It was finally bought in the 90s and closed in 2000 – oddly enough it was a victim of its new parent Brouwerij Bavaria subsequently also linking up with La Trappe and not needing the Kroon brewery any more.

Then two years ago, a new brewery called Brouwerij Vandeoirsprong opened on the Kroon site, aiming to combine traditional styles with a bit of new-wave pizazz. We liked the Vandeoirsprong taproom, and from what I hear so do the locals, flocking at weekends to what’s now the village’s only brewery – it of course had over a dozen before the closures of the late 1800s. Why did they close? Newly fashionable Pils, in large part – if you had no cool caves nearby, the shift to lager beers required significant investment in refrigeration equipment. As elsewhere, many smaller breweries could not afford this and closed or sold up, a process exacerbated by the large brewers wanting to expand by consolidation and acquisition.

Vandeoirsprong taproom
Anyway, the taproom is in the old bottling hall and has an industrial chic, all white tiles and concrete. There is also a brewery museum with the old Kroon brewkit and all sorts of other gear and memorabilia, it’s only labelled in Dutch for now but I think that will change. The beer garden too is littered – oops, I mean decorated! – with old brewing gear such as wort coolers.

If I’ve one caveat about Vandeoirsprong, it’s that they might be trying to produce and sell too many beers too soon. I think they had eight of their own on tap, and while the Hop-Wit and OPA were pretty clean and tasty, some of the others seemed a little rough around the edges and needed work. But it is only their first full season in operation, their brewer is still learning, and I’m sure they will all improve.

The third brewery of the day was back in Den Bosch. Stadsbrouwerij van Kollenburg t’Kolleke is the house-brewery at Cafe Bar le Duc. It’s now the only brewery in the old city, although there is a large Heineken factory on the outskirts – again, there would have been dozens in the Middle Ages. Brewer/co-owner Jan van Kollenburg sells around 80% of his production sells through his bar, with the rest being a mix of bottled off-sales, and supplies to others bars around town of a new beer called Jheronimus, produced to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of eponymous local artist Hieronymus Bosch.

Shiny shiny at t'Kolleke
Bar le Duc has the look of a classic old cafe, all brown wood and beery memorabilia. As well as an excellent local food menu and Jan’s beers on tap, it also has guest beers and a bottle list – the primary focus for both being the Low Countries with just a few outliers, such as the one American Trappist beer and a beer each from Spain and Germany. The house beers were variable, but the intriguingly herbal Blond and the Dubbel with liquorice were both pretty good, as was the Jheronimus.

Den Bosch looks like a really good city for beer bars - as well as Le Duc there's several more in the old city, including to my surprise a bar belonging to top English brewery Thornbridge. Maybe that's why all the other bars around have little or no British beers!

Technically we’re in North Brabant, the only quarter of the old Duchy that stayed in the Netherlands when Belgium split off in 1830 – the actual history is more complex, this is the simple version! The other Brabants are even more beery, in particular Flemish Brabant which contains several well-known abbey breweries (eg. Affligem, Grimbergen) and whose capital of Leuven is the home of Stella Artois. Nathalie mentioned that as well as the touring cycle routes on her side of the border, there is a Trappist cycle route that visits the Belgian Trappists as well as La Trappe. Now there’s a good way to build up a thirst!

Caveat: we all paid for the tour ourselves, however we were at the same time the guests of VisitBrabant who booked the beer tastings and covered our hotel stay. 

Thursday 18 August 2016

Going Dutch

It’s the European Beer Writers & Bloggers Conference this coming weekend, and I'm looking forward to seeing friends old and new. This year we are in Amsterdam, I’ve actually been here in Holland (yes, Nord-Holland, not just the Netherlands) since Monday, and nice it is too.

Maibock x Weizen, anyone?
At least the beer isn’t as flat as the landscape, though there isn’t too much else to say about a choice of Amstel, Heineken and Hertog Jan – the latter is the local AB-InBev property, and is probably the least uninteresting of the three!

Yesterday I discovered a few more: several from Texels, plus Sanctus Adalberti which claims to be an abbey beer from nearby Egmont – until you read the label and discover it’s really brewed in Belgium (at De Proef, the contract brewery also used by Mikkeller and many others). Oh well!

All were drinkable, although none really stood out. I will try a couple more of the Texels when I get the chance though, as they show promise.

Saturday 13 August 2016

The march of the little brown bottles

A seismic change is underway in the German beer industry, and few things demonstrate it as clearly as this: the original doppelbock, the classic Paulaner Salvator, is now in 33cl bottles.

The standard size for Salvator, like almost every other German beer, has been a half-litre bottle - or latterly for some, a 50cl can. There were a few exceptions - Einbecker for instance, with its stumpy 33s, the flip-top 33s of Flensburger, and of course the little green bottles of Becks - but at least they had an individual look. But more and more now, instead you see the brown long-neck 33 that's become an international standard.

It certainly looks like the Craft Beer revolution over the last few years in Germany has played a big part in this change. Perhaps to position their beers more as connoisseur items, or maybe to disguise their higher prices (which, to be fair, are at least partly due to using more and higher-quality ingredients), the new-wave craft brewers have generally preferred the smaller bottles. And when the macrobrewers went crafty, such as the cloudy brown Kellerbiers of Köstritzer, Krombacher and others, they too went into 33s.

That the German macrobrewers are also now shifting their mainstream products - some Pils brands have been available in both sizes for a while, but only a few - is telling. Again, part of it will be to increase revenues - selling a 33 for 99 cents is €3 a litre, versus maybe €2.20 a litre last year.

Another part though will be the changing expectations and preferences of drinkers, especially as beer becomes less of a generic commodity and more individual. Few people want to quaff a half-litre of something special; instead we prefer to savour something more like a half-pint, which for the Imperially-challenged is 284ml.

My one sadness in this will be if it turns good beer into less of a sharing experience. A 50cl bottle can easily be shared between two or three, or four at a pinch. Try sharing a 33 four ways and you start to look like craft geeks at a ticker-fest...

Sunday 7 August 2016

Norman de Biere, or She aims to Conquer

I’ve taken part in several Battle of Hastings re-enactments, so it was bound to pique my curiosity when I was contacted by a Normandy brewery about to launch its vegan beers into the UK market using 1066-themed branding. More curious still was its Franglais name – Le Brewery – and French-free website.

So it was off to The Rake, the pioneering craft beer pub by London’s Borough Market, for the UK launch, to try the beers and meet the people behind them. It turns out Le Brewery is an expat operation, set up by Steve Skews in 2001 with help from brewing consultant David Smith, who also developed the recipes. They sourced a second-hand 10 barrel brewkit in Britain and shipped it over to Normandy to brew mainly for the British expat community there.

April enjoys Lady Edith
What’s changed now is the ownership. Steve was looking to retire, while entrepreneur April Chandler was looking for a farm – she had moved to France with the intention of growing organic vegetables. To switch from farming to brewing vegan beer and importing it back into the UK as a health drink is not an obvious career route, but it’s one that April is doing her very best to make work.

It helps that she has the zeal of a convert – to beer, that is. A health enthusiast who has written a book on workouts and another on cocktails, the latter focused on good quality, healthy ingredients, she used to think beer was beer. She says that all changed when she met Steve and he helped her realise just how natural and healthy is craft ale (the French call it Biere Artisanale, which Le Brewery has wittily anglicised to Art Is An Ale).

“I didn’t understand at first, because I didn’t come from the beer world.,” April says, “but then I brewed with Steve and it was like, Gosh!” So with David Smith still advising, Le Brewery is back in production with a professional brewer and a range of eight beers; they also have a cider made for them locally in the semi-sweet Normandy style.

Only the cider, called Queen Edith, and two of the beers – Mysterieuse Lady and Norman Gold – are coming to UK supermarket shelves though. Norman Gold is a classic golden ale, with light dry and spicy notes over a sweetish malt body, while Mysterieuse Lady is rather more unusual, being an elderflower ale with a high proportion of wheat in it. Very perfumed and a little sweet in the finish, it’s smooth, lightly fruity and had an interesting distant tartness.

Le Brewery's Norman Gold
Le Brewery’s production is real ale, most of it bottled-conditioned in 75cl cider bottles with champagne corks and wire ties, plus a small amount of cask ale for those few bars in Normandy that know how to look after it – again, it tends to be an expat thing, says David. The two beers for the UK are not brewed in Normandy, however, nor are they real ales. The UK trade will get 330ml bottles containing filtered beer brewed at Wadworths. (April says she plans to import other beers in the range for specialist beer shops – Le Brewery already exports to the US.)

I’m not normally a fan of licence-brewed beers. Whether it’s Russian-made Carlsberg, Sam Adams from Faversham, or Bud and San Miguel brewed just about anywhere, it suggests to me that the brand is more important than the beverage. Still, while Le Brewery is definitely trying to build a brand, you have to cut it some slack because you can’t supply the likes of Tesco from a 10-barrel kit. They would have to contract the UK-bound brews out somewhere, and I guess that given the customs issues it makes more sense to contract-brew in England rather than France.

I expect the beers to do well – “free-from” products are in vogue, they’re well made with a twist of individuality, and they look good. It helps too that April is a professed optimist. For instance, faced with the prospect of Brexit, her reaction is that maybe it will ease the crap she has to deal with from assorted customs regimes. Her take is that the EU and the Single Market are too much orientated to favour the big corporations, and that leaving could change that*.

It’s also really nice to see another brewer commercially promoting proper beer as what it is: a healthy, natural product. Sure, Le Brewery isn’t the first to do it, but another voice in the choir is always welcome. Cheers, April!

*I can’t help thinking though that the real issue is simply scale and regularity. From what I hear, once you are exporting a full pallet – or better yet, a full lorry – and doing it regularly, things smooth out.

As an aside, this highlights that, with the exception of the personal import allowance, the Single Market is a flat lie as far as the drinks business is concerned. Even commercially exporting beer from Germany to the Netherlands can be a challenge, never mind getting it across the Channel. The tax and duty regimes around Europe are so wildly, utterly, ludicrously different – usually for no reasons other than fear, emotion and religion – that it’s impossible to harmonise.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Beer beer beer...

It's the 24th Egham Beer Festival this weekend - it's not 24 years old, mind you, they get the number by holding it three times a year. If you're in the London area I thoroughly recommend it. It's held in the Egham United Services Club, which is just a short walk from Egham BR, and it's all real ale (there's a discount on entrance for CAMRA members). There's eight ales on handpump in the club itself, with dozens more on handpump and a gravity stillage in the yard out back.

One of the things I like about it is that it usually features an excellent variety of beer, including several rarities or festival specials - this year there were two or three breweries I'd never even heard of before! The other thing that marks it out, but I hadn't quite put my finger on until now, is just how well kept the beers are. Even the stuff outside is usually in tip-top condition. Sure, there's the occasional duffer, but they're a tiny minority.

My favourite beers of the festival were all London or Thames Valley brews, as it happens. Husk Pale, from Silvertown in East London, was peachy-malty with hints of white wine and an astringent bitterness. Shadow of the Beast from Elusive Brewing, a very recent start-up located near Siren Craft Brew in Finchamstead, was a gorgeously rich Black IPA, burnt-bitter with treacle and pine notes, and Dove Tree was a fascinating collaboration brew from two of my 'locals', Park Brewery in Kingston, and Kew Brewery - badged as a White IPA, it had aromas of peach and bergamot over a dry-bitter yet creamy-textured and fruity body.

The only regret was that some of the most intriguing beers in the festival programme had not yet been broached when I was there on Friday afternoon. The festival runs until Sunday though, so you may still have a chance to catch them!