Sunday 27 May 2018

Ales Tales beer fest brings Belgium to London

Whether you subscribe to the belief that Belgian beer is something unique, or the one that it represents a window into an almost-vanished tradition that once dominated much of northern Europe, or perhaps the more esoteric one that it's heavily influenced by exported British beers of the 18th (or was it 19th?) centuries, there's no denying its variety and quality.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that so little of it – in the grand scheme of things – makes it across the Channel, and much of what does travel comes from the Belgian subsidiaries of multinational brewing empires. That's not to say the latter beers are all bad – far from it! Some are quite excellent – just that you rarely get to see beers from smaller, more local producers. Not only may they lack the production capacity, they lack the distribution muscle of the megabrewers.

Which is why I’m looking forward to the Ales Tales beer festival of Belgian beer (and food) in London’s Hackney next weekend. I’ve not been since it was an off-shoot of London Craft Beer Festival, back in 2014 I think it was. I remember walking in and thinking, “Ooh, I didn’t know they were here – and oh look, I’ve not seen their beer in ages!”

And even though I spent several days in summer 2015 touring Belgian craft breweries old and new, there’s still lots on this year’s list that I either don’t know, or am looking forward to reconnecting with.

In total they’re expecting 70 beers from 20 breweries at Ales Tales, ranging from classic Trappist brewer Westmalle through new twists on the classics from the likes of Fort Lapin and Dochter van de Korenaar, to modern craft idols such as Alvinne and Brasserie de la Senne (the full list is below). We are also promised Belgian food pairings, including fries (no doubt with mayo available) and cheese – although I fear these are probably not included in the ticket price!

The one gap is that I can't see a single Lambic producer on the brewery list! I know a couple of the participating brewers have experimented with Lambic in the past, but I don't think any produce it regularly. Without that, the organisers' claim to provide "the full Belgian experience" is just nonsense, so I really hope I've missed something – maybe there will be a bottle bar or somesuch.

Belgian hops, in the rain...
Still, the tickets look good value, even though the cheapest are now £42 (the £35 early-bird ones are sold out). In the modern vein, they’re inclusive tickets that give you a five-hour session to drink as much or as little as you can manage. The main sessions are the evening of Friday 1st June, then the afternoon and evening of Saturday 2nd. There’s also a trade session on the Friday afternoon which I hope to report from – and which presumably means we can expect to see these breweries here again, if they can get distribution arranged.

With LCBF having now moved off elsewhere, Ales Tales has even taken over its 2014 venue – which although called Oval Space is rather confusingly nowhere near The Oval.  Instead it’s just off Hackney Road near Cambridge Heath railway station.

Here’s what the festival’s press release has to say:

Ales Tales is the brainchild of two Belgians, Nicolas Tondeur and Sayuri Kasajima, it was created after the duo were unable to find their favourite Belgian beers in the local pubs and supermarkets of London.

Discussing the return of Ales Tales, creator Nicolas Tondeur adds: “We are thrilled to bring the festival back this summer, with new beers to taste, new breweries to discover and talk to. We can’t wait to show Londoners how vibrant the beer scene in Belgium is.”

Undoubtedly set to be one of London’s best curated beer events of the summer, Ales Tales is open to everyone from beer enthusiasts, curious novices and anyone interested in a fantastic day out with a friendly atmosphere.

And here's the brewery list:

New for 2018:
De Ranke
Brouwerij ‘t Verzet
No Science
Brasserie de l’Ermitage
De Plukker

Returning Breweries:
Brasserie de la Senne
Fort Lapin
Hof ten Dormaal
‘t hofBrouwerijke
Brasserie des Legendes
Brasserie de Cazeau
Brasserie de Bastogne
Siphon Brewing
Solvay Society
De Dochter van de Korenaar 

Monday 21 May 2018

Trebles all round for music-themed Signature

When I first came across Signature Brew, with its music industry-themed beers, I confess I thought it was a gimmick. I assumed it was another of those generic "Rock Pale Ale" type beers, contract-brewed and labelled with the name of a venue or a music promoter. And indeed, it did indeed start out by doing  collaborations with bands I'd never heard of, creating beers that were nomad-brewed at places such as Titanic and London Fields, and which never appeared anywhere I went drinking or beer-shopping.

It wasn't long before I realised my mistake. As time went by, I encountered more and more of their beers on sale – some were even cask-conditioned, glory be!! In the process, I discovered that they were accomplished core brews that were branded for Signature itself, not for a band.

Four regulars, plus 'special guests'
They all still had music-themed names though – it turns out Signature's founders come from the music industry, hence the brewery's tagline (hey, everybody has to have a tagline these days…) of "Brewing with Music."

Then this year, two things happened on the exact same day in March: first, the news came that Signature had won the 2018 Brewery Business of the Year award from the Society of Independent Brewers, and second, I encountered Anthology, their stunning 10% Imperial Stout, on draught at the London Drinker Beer Festival. I realised that this was now a real brewery, with real brewers – and with real ambitions!

So when the brewery's publicity chap got in touch with news that they were launching a 9.4% Triple IPA called Treble, and would I like a sample, I was intrigued. Well, OK, there may have also been elements of "Are bears Catholic?" and "Does the Pope...?"

When the beer arrived, he'd kindly added a few more samples, including one of Anthology. Perhaps to cock a snook at the beery establishment and the neo-Puritans, while the regular Signature Brews are now in 330ml cans, the specials are in 440ml 'extended editions' – yes, almost half a litre of Triple IPA goodness!

And very, very good it was, too. Treble's an almost glowing amber-brown, with a fine head and aromas of pine resin, touches of onion skin and toasted orange, and a hint of mango. At first it's rich and malty-sweet on the palate with dark marmalade notes, then drying resinous hoppiness and alcohol slide in. The bitterness is there, but pretty moderate in context. Lovely! (If you'd like some, it looks like it's still available, despite its 'special guest' status, as there's still check-ins popping up on Untappd.)

He also sent news of the latest band collaboration brew – yes, they're still doing them, this one is a Grapefruit Sour created with London alt-pop outfit Banfi. I love both good sours and grapefruit, but sadly couldn't make it to the launch event.

If you're in London over the coming late May bank holiday weekend though, you can catch up with Signature Brew at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick. There's a Signature tap-takeover all weekend with seven beers on, and on the Friday night there's also a tutored tasting of five beers – that last bit is ticketed and will cost you £11.37 (weird price, but it includes a booking fee). By chance, I noticed that the place currently has that Grapefruit Sour on tap. Hmm...

Friday 18 May 2018

Gluten-free beer tasting

To follow my blog on how gluten-free beers are made, I enlisted some selfless volunteers to help me taste several examples to see how they compared to standard beers. One was a coeliac who for several years has had little beer, apart from the occasional gluten-free light lager.

We started with a trio of barley-based beers. The first two say they use low-gluten barley and a brewing process that further minimises gluten, while the latter doesn't say how it's de-glutenised, which means it's probably Brewer's Clarex.

Bellfield Bohemian Pilsner: A golden beer with a very slight head and light aromas of dry hay, biscuit, a little sweetcorn – making it pretty close to style. The body did seem to me to be a little thin for a Czech-style Pils, but beyond that it is malty and dry-sweet, with light dry bitterness. It's a nice example of a lager, and was well liked by our coeliac taster.

Bellfield Lawless Village IPA: It's orange-brown and toasty, with touches of Seville orange and caramel, a note of grapefruit pith and a hint of lemon on the finish. Don't expect American hops or bitterness – this is a nice classic British-style IPA that you wouldn't know was gluten-free – and indeed, why should you?

Glebe Farm Wellington Bomber: Described as a Porter, it seemed more in the Brown Ale vein to me. It has aromas of toast, cocoa and a little cola, then the body was a little watery, with roasted malt, palate-drying cocoa, and a sweet, burnt sugar note. We found it a bit confused and thin; however, I suspect our bottle – bought from a farm shop – had suffered a bit of oxidation in storage.

We followed with a trio of non-barley beers, brewed instead from malted rice and other grains, including millet and quinoa. All are from Autumn Ales, and like the Bellfield beers were kindly donated by the brewer.

Alt Brew No.01: Labelled as a Bavarian-style Pilsner, it's light-bodied – certainly a lot lighter than the average Eurolager, and maybe even a bit thin. I don't think it's bitter enough for Bavarian Pils, but it went down well with the other tasters, who agreed it made a nice summer drink.

Alt Brew No.02: A Golden Ale, it pours a bright amber-brown with a lasting head. The nose is hoppy-fresh with a hint of citrus. Then there's crisp bitterness and lightly sweet, with a toasted edge and a slight astringency. This a nice zesty beer, and was the only one liked by all our tasters.

Alt Brew No.03: Brewing a dark and roasty Stout without barley is a challenge, but Autumn has come pretty close with this dark brown brew. It's a little thin compared to many other Stouts, and was too 'burnt' for some of our tasters, but for dark beer fans there's a light milky sweetness in the midbody, plus notes of bitter chocolate before an ashy-burnt finish.

Overall, even though these are such different beer styles, I think some conclusions are fair. As a regular drinker of all sorts, my favourite was the excellent Lawless IPA, while the Pilsners seemed not quite authentic. However, the latter were popular with the tasters who hadn't drunk much ale in recent years, but who still appreciated something better than Eurolager.

The one we all agreed on liking was the Alt Brew No.02. Yes, it's that classic golden ale crossover beer – well put together, and appealing to ale and lager drinkers alike.

Ultimately though, the most amazing thing is that while Autumn Brewing and Bellfield Brewery are special, in that they brew only gluten-free beer and don't rely on Clarex, this was just a sample of what's available now in terms of gluten-free beer. So whether you're a super-sensitive coeliac or simply have an intuition you're gluten-intolerant, at least now you can enjoy a decent beer. Cheers to that!

Sunday 6 May 2018

The brewers going gluten-free for health and profit*

There's been specialist gluten-free beers for a while now, often using the same gluten-free grains as the traditional sorghum and millet beers of Africa. However, few have managed to really replicate the aroma and flavour of beers made from malt, or indeed the range of beers possible with malt – light lagers were just about the only thing possible. Until relatively recently, that is.

Why does it matter? While gluten-free and wheat-free are lifestyle choices for some people these days, for those who have coeliac disease, gluten can genuinely and seriously damage your health.  So when you're diagnosed as coeliac, as a close relative of mine was, you need to give up gluten – and it's in an amazing number of things these days, one of them of course being beer.

Yes, there's the specialist free-from brands such as Greens, as well as obvious gluten-free (g/f) alternatives such as cider and wine, but it's not the same. So over the last three years or so I've been intrigued to see more regular breweries adding g/f beers – often as versions of their regular beers, such as Greene King's g/f IPA and Old Speckled Hen, and Damm's Daura range – and so I set out to learn more.

The first thing I learnt about was Brewer's Clarex – not to be confused with the many other Clarexes out there, which range from assorted pills to a form of acrylic glass. Brewer's Clarex is an enzyme that was originally developed to stabilise beer faster, but it was subsequently discovered that it also has a de-glutenising effect. It doesn't remove it all, but beer treated with it will typically have well below 20 parts-per-million (ppm) of gluten, which means you can legally call it gluten-free (once it has been lab-tested as such, of course), and it should be safe for all but the most sensitive of coeliacs.

This is how the majority of the new wave of g/f beers are made, and it means they taste little or no different from beer that hasn't been Clarexed. Indeed, the widespread use of Brewer's Clarex simply as a stabiliser also means there will be beers out there that are g/f for practical purposes but are not labelled or accredited as such, typically because the brewers don’t want the additional cost of testing, or can't guarantee every single batch will be below 20ppm. So if you were to taste-test g/f beer versus non-g/f beer, you could find you're accidentally comparing like with like!

However, even this process is not good enough for every coeliac. In addition, some, such as the coeliac founders of Edinburgh's Bellfield Brewery, argue that the by-products of de-glutenisation can themselves be harmful. So instead of enzymes, they use very-low-gluten barley malt, along with g/f adjuncts such as maize, in a brewing process that they say also minimises gluten.

I met Bellfield back in February at Craft Beer Rising, where beer seller Robert Shepherd said that the result of all this is beers that routinely test below 10ppm, which counts as 'gluten-absent'. (This level is not hard to find – Daura claims 3ppm, for example – but it’s unusual in a barley beer that's not been enzyme-treated.)

But what of the other g/f grains used in European-style brewing, such as maize and rice? Although they have been used for many years, they have not had great reputations – their main purpose is to add fermentables without adding body, making a 'thinner' beer, hence the beer-geek distaste for American Bud as "thin, tasteless rice beer".

It turns out though that does not have to be the case. When I met Peter Briggs (left) of Autumn Brewing at the PubShowUK earlier this year, he introduced me to a stout, a lager and an amber ale which are gluten-absent but still taste like all-malt beers – because they are malt beer. It's just not barley malt.

He uses malted rice, millet and quinoa (!), sourced from specialist maltsters in the US. Malting, where the grain is germinated then kiln-dried before it grows too much, is a key process in making beer. Not only does germination help convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars, but both it and the subsequent kilning also alter its flavour and colour. Indeed, the degree of kilning used can produce a broad range of drastically different results, from light lager malts to the dark roasted malts that give stouts and porters their colour and flavour. Peter reckons Autumn is (or was – who knows!) the first brewer in Europe to import these malts and brew with them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this – and the most positive thing to come out of the g/f lifestyle movement – is that it's boosted the availability of g/f beer for everyone, including the coeliacs who need it most keenly. Bellfield's Robert Shepherd even spun it into a business benefit for the g/f brewer: "Most beers can only reach around 90% of the market – there's people who can't drink them. We're both gluten-free and vegan, so we can reach 100%."

Coming up next: the coeliac's gluten-free taste test

*Profit? Maybe – I hope so, anyway. This is a tough market to operate in, because it normally involves extra production & testing costs and therefore higher prices, which makes it harder to also reach the mainstream buyer.