Tuesday 27 June 2023

What the (Austrian) Hell?

Hell, or more properly Bavarian or Munich Helles*, has been growing in popularity across Germany for several years now. Pretty much every brewery that used to major on Pilsner** now offers a Helles too. 

So when I learnt that Austrian brewery Stiegl had also released a Hell, I was intrigued. Partly because Stiegl already has a Munich Helles-style beer in Goldbräu (5%), but also because Austria also has its own, slightly different, beer styles, including one called Helles. 

Which would Stiegl Hell (4.5%) turn out to be? As luck would have it, the nice folk at Stiegl’s UK importer, Euroboozer, stepped in to help me try to answer that question. They’ve just introduced Stiegl Hell to the UK market, so were kind enough to send some over, along with a branded glass. 

And it’s intriguing. It's pale gold with a light malty sweetness on the nose, along with just a touch of raw bread dough and a hint of floral perfume, all of which one might expect in a Munich Helles. But then on the palate it’s crisp and hoppy-bitter, with hints of dry grass and herbs from those ‘noble’ Central European hops – more like a Pilsner now, except that there’s also smooth malt with a slight sweetness, not the breadiness one might get in Munich, and just a touch of stickiness on the finish.  

I’d have this down as an Austrian-style Helles, then, but feel free to go and judge for yourself: I’m told Stiegl Hell is already available on draught from Frontier Pubs sites around London, as well as Bonehead in Birmingham and Junkyard in Nottingham, while retailers carrying the 500ml bottles include Beers of Europe. Expect that list to grow as Euroboozer pushes it more. 

*Hell or Helles simply means pale or golden, so it can be used in other contexts, while Munich Helles refers to the actual style of beer. German brewers tend to be cavalier about the distinction though... 

**Pils itself only came to dominate the German market in the 1970s, displacing Dortmunder Export. Coincidentally, that was also when Bitter lost out to Lager in Britain. 

Monday 12 June 2023

Brew//LDN '23 round-up part two

As well as enjoying the beers, of course, it was a great opportunity to talk with the brewers and brewery staff, both about the beer and about what’s going on in their parts of the industry. Magic Dragon was a new one on me – turns out it used to be Plassey, and it's Wrexham-based so I guess that explains the dragon! As I was enjoying a sample of his Black Tiger black IPA, head brewer Richard Lever mentioned that his beers had won SIBA and other awards, so we had a chat about what attracts microbrewers to competitions. 

"I enter the ones I like," he said. "I also want to find out how they do - if you don't put a beer in to be judged, you don't get feedback." He also mentioned that his beers are mostly cask but that this is changing: "We're quite new in keg, but we are starting to do more – North Wales is opening up to keg." 

How long, I wonder, before they're in the same position as London and other cities, of trying once again to rescue falling cask sales?
Some aficionados disregard Drygate as 'crafty macro' because it's part-owned by Tennents and does several supermarket-friendly brews, such as Disco Forklift Truck. It doesn’t help here that the latter recently had an ABV drop "to make it more approachable", which is typical macro behaviour. 

Yet at the same time the other owner is a bona-fide micro, Williams Brothers, and Drygate's beers are good regardless. As well as the regular brews, head brewer David introduced me to the latest in their one-off series, a rich and heavy 9% stout called Big Purple One.

Full of caramel, coconut and hazelnut notes, it’s his interpretation of a certain purple-wrapped hazelnut and caramel sweet found in a popular boxed chocolate assortment, and yes, it’s delicious. Somehow it manages to get the flavour right, yet actually be less sticky than the original, with a warmth that takes the edge off the sweetness. I’ll take a bottle of this over a handful of Q****** S***** any day!

Almost exactly six years ago, the legendary David Bruce toured myself and some fellow visitors around the shiny new brewhouse at West Berkshire Brewery, along with its then very newly installed million-pound bottling and canning line.

It was an impressive and ambitious setup, so I was saddened to hear a year or two back that WBBrew had hit financial trouble. I don’t know whether it was due to over-extension, a somewhat me-too product range, the pandemic, or more likely a combination of all of those.

Either way, it was very good to see that the brewery has survived. It was eventually bought out by the Yattendon Estate, which owns the surrounding lands, and has now been rebranded as Renegade, which was the name West Berks had used for its craft line.

I tried a couple of the Renegade brews that I didn’t recognise. Blackguard is a very nice creamy-burnt stout, while festival special The Void was something I’ve not seen before – a Cold IPA that’s also a Black IPA, a combination that I found worked remarkably well.

There’s a lot of confusion written and spoken about Cold IPA, but essentially it’s an IPA brewed to be crisper and cleaner. That typically means brewing it cooler, and sometimes with lager yeast, but it still has the malt bill and hopping of an IPA, which is what differentiates it from the hoppy lagers that some people call IPL (India Pale Lager).

Some claim it’s about showcasing the hops, and yes, the hop character does usually come through well, but what The Void showed me was that it can also make the malt character – in this case, a roasty-dryness with a burnt tang – come through a little more clearly. The result was unusual, with some unexpected but very pleasing characteristics. 

You can read part one here and more from Brew//LDN 2023 here Hungarian Voodoo is a sweet surprise and here Start-up brewer shows Spooky quality

Saturday 3 June 2023

Start-up brewer shows Spooky quality

One of several new breweries I met at BrewLDN was Spookton Brew Co. Based on the Wirral in Cheshire and less than a year old, it was one of the two runners-up for the festival’s Accelerator prize for best new drinks brand. 

Founder and former homebrewer Jon Pugh already has several Spookton brews under his belt, even though he doesn't have his own brewery yet – he currently uses the brewkit at Farm Yard Brew over the border in Lancashire.

It is very much a social enterprise – they donate 5p to a good cause for each can or pint they produce. Most recently Jon also did an Orange and Lemon Pale Ale for Brave Noise, the international movement which advocates for a safe and discrimination-free beer industry. Ingredients for this were donated by Crisp Malt and Lallemand Brewing, and the proceeds will go to Beers Without Beards, to help fund mentorships for women in craft beer. 

So, what about the beers? Among those pouring at Brew//LDN was No Worries If Not, which is nominally a West Coast IPA, with caramel notes, drying hoppy bitterness and a touch of toast, but also with a modern and very nice fruity-hoppy twist.

I also managed to get my hands on a couple of cans. Struggle Bus is a classic Black IPA – dry-sweet and burnt, roasty and piney, with a light malty stickiness on the finish. Lovely! After that, Spookton’s interpretation of Brave Noise is lighter, fruitier and more easy-drinking. There’s citrus and a touch of funk on the nose, then juicy-dry hops and citrus mark out this beery St Clements.

Sadly, I didn’t get to sample Octuple Threat, Jon’s 8% Double IPA, nor earlier brews such as his hazy IPA Imposter Syndrome or Gloom, his oatmeal stout, which I think are currently out of production. You can order the current range of four on Spookton’s website though, and they’re now in some bottle shops via distributor Eebria.