Monday, 9 March 2015

"Mikkeller's Big Book of Beer" by Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Pernille Pang

You can say what you like about Mikkeller, but damn, that is one successful brand. The beers are great, albeit with a few conceptual mishaps along the way. This book is similar, in that overall it's quite inspiring, but not without a few niggles.

There are the usual potted histories of beer, both ancient and modern, with a surprising (to me, anyway) hat-tip to the formation of CAMRA being a key point, as well the familiar story of the roots of American craft brewing. A big portion of the book is given over to a whistle-stop tour of the world's classic beers styles, along with a couple of Mikkeller beers that sit within that style, along with a couple of other examples. It's fair to say that most of the beers mentioned in the book are at the geekier end the spectrum, but equally there are mentions of Pilsner Urqell, Hoegaarden and Guinness as style exemplars.

There's a bit about ingredients, a bit about the brewing process, and then a load of recipes for homebrew versions of some of the beers the book. And not just the obvious Mikkeller beers - All Other Pale, Jackie Brown - but some of the trickier beers too - Beer Geek Bacon, anyone? A nice bonus is the inclusion of non-Mikkeller recipes - Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, Kernel Imperial Brown Stout, De Molen Hemel & Aarde will no doubt have brew kettles boiling everywhere.

Sure, there are a few howlers. Popular beer myths are retold. Almost every page had something that made me scurry off and check facts or assertions. In the homebrewing section, oxygenation is referred to as oxidation, which I'm assuming is just a remarkably unfortunate mistranslation. And no matter how many times I read this section on sour ales (exemplar: Rodenbach Grand Cru), I couldn't tell if was a deft linguistic game of logic, or just something that never got edited properly:

"As its name implies, a sour ale tastes sour like a lambic but, unlike a lambic, it is fermented with a traditional ale yeast and only then does get a mix of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast added. Unlike sour ales, wild ales are not necessarily sour. A subcategory of sour ales is wild ales, which are often paler and have Brettanomyces added. Unlike sour ales, wild ales are not necessarily sour"

Er, OK, let's just get to the summary, shall we?

This book is beer porn, a fetished, partial view of the beer world from one of its most successful niche operators. But equally, it's hard to know who this book is for. Beer historians and home-brewers may well wince at parts of it, but I guess it's not meant as a reference book or a how-to manual. It's the story and summary of an obsessed amateur's transition to an obsessed professional. Mikkeller have undoubtedly produced some amazing beers, and will continue to do so, albeit in the rarified upper strata of the beer world. It's Mikkel's view of the world of beer, and given his success, who am I to criticise?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

On Local Beer (And A Sudden Recant)

It was something I read over at Stan's blog that has had me thinking about local beer for months.The fundamental question that I kept coming back to was simple: what is local beer? It's a question that has spawned several long-lasting threads in my mind.

At one level, local beer is local beer. It's beer that is produced and consumed within a tight geographical locality. There are obvious geograhical constrraints to beer that is unique to, or celebrated as being from, a particular locality. Cantillon and Brussels, Schlenkerla and Bamberg. But that reply is too trite, too obvious - that means that all beer is local beer, and just by starting a brewery and brewing beer, you are making local beer. So that's obviously not quite right. And the extension of this is that if you become a successful brewery, and sell your beer nationally, or internationally, does that make you less of a local brewery, making less local beer? Is reach a factor in local beer?

So maybe it's more to do with engagement? So this takes the initial theory about local beer being just what it says on the tin, and adds how the community around the brewery engages with the beer, or conversely, how the brewery engages with the local community. So local beer isn't just about the beer, but it's how the brewery has been adopted by the people around it. Is engagement another thing to consider when talking about local beer?

That got me to thinking about other things that might have a local aspect. So football (that's soccer to my American readers) is something that over the last 50 years has moved from being a local phenomenon - geographically tight followers supporting a team made up of (relatively) local players - to a much more dispersed fanbase supporting a team with a much more geographically disparate membership. Can the same be said for beer? And can that beer be considered local?

Well, on the first count, I think it can. I cut my drinking teeth at a time when the beer business was largely simple and transparent (in relative terms). I drank at the Wyndham Arms in Salisbury when the Hop Back Brewery was in the back yard. The brewery eventually moved 10 miles down the road, but it's still a brewery making its own beer. But the beer business isn't like that any more. Start-ups now look to the export market as part of their business plan. It isn't even necessary to have a brewery to be a successful brewery - there are many globally celebrated "cuckoo" brands, and still more breweries who contract when capacity is exceeded. And that's all fine by me. You pays your money and takes your choice.

And are those international beer brands local? Well, this is where it gets messy, because what constitutes local has changed massively. In the relatively new world of the internet and social media (20 years old tops, and more like 10 years if you view Facebook as a key factor), you find communities that are geographically dispersed, but still hugely engaged with certain brands. And this operates across all sectors, from macro, to craft-macro (say Sierra Nevada) to craft-niche (say Mikkeller and Evil Twin). While these communities aren't geographically tightly located, they have their homes online, and essentially function as a locally engaged community.

Which brings us to the surprising conclusion that local beer is alive and well, but it means a variety of different things to a variety of different people, because the meaning of local has been changed by technology.

At least, that's what I thought until I saw it written down just now. But when I read the last bit back, it sounded like so much nonsense that I'm not so sure any more. So does a beer have to have genuine, geographically local support before it can be called local beer? Or is it less local the more widely that engagement is dispersed?

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Golden Pints 2014

If only to move that repulsive photo from the top of the blog, I thought I'd post my Golden Pints 2014. As a general caveat, please be aware that (a) I don't get out much, and so drink the vast majority of beer bottled, at home, and (b) I make my living buying and selling much of the beer I'm about to praise.

Best UK Cask Beer: the cask beer that I've enjoyed most consistently this year has been served in Tapped Leeds. They serve their cask beer under air pressure (I think), and slightly cooler than most places. If I had to pick one beer, the pint of Wild Beer Co Bibble I drank at Tapped during the Wild Beer Meet The Brewer was memorable, even if I did have a cold when I drank it.

Best UK Keg Beer: Magic Rock Cannonball gets my money every time

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer: the day-old Magic Rock Cannonball that we had at the first BeerRitz Meet The Brewer was certainly notable. This year I've bought more beer for personal consumption from The Kernel, with their Mosaic IPA being a particular high point. In fact, at one point I found myself scouring the internet to see if I could buy more when it ran out, something I rarely do these days. The Siren Craft Brew "Discount" (cedar-aged single hop IPA) series were all pretty outrageous, with Middle Finger Discount (Mosaic hops again - there's a theme developing here) being my favourite of the three.

Best Overseas Draught: it seems as though my palate has finally matured as I really enjoyed drinking draught Cantillon at Borefts Beer Festival this year.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: having failed to track down a can of Heady Topper in Amsterdam this year, and not having had access to a lot of really fresh American imports that seem to appear on Twitter regularly, I'd have to go for Tilquin Oude Geuze

Best Collaboration Brew: pretty much all of the Siren Craft Brew collabs have been amazing, with Middle Finger Discount being the best for me. Their head brewer Ryan Witter-Merithew also deserves a medal for the Rainbow Project, which this year looks set to be absolutely stunning. And Buxton Brewery are also doing some amazing things too.

Best Overall Beer: Magic Rock Cannonball. World-class IPA, brewed locally, served fresh.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: Siren/Stillwater When The Light Gose Out is about the coolest bottle of beer I think I've ever seen.

Best UK Brewery: I love The Kernel for their consistency and purity of purpose, Magic Rock for their sheer world-beating class, and Siren for their restless innovation.

Best Overseas Brewery: I haven't drunk widely enough this year to have an opinion on this. I guess Tilquin by default, although of course, they are blenders rather than brewers.

Best New Brewery Opening 2014: pass.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Friends of Ham, for having the courage to move forward and expand when it would have been easy to stay the same

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2014: Bundobust. Craft beer, amazing food.

Best beer and food pairing: anything at Bundobust

Beer Festival of the Year: I only went to Borefts

Supermarket of the Year: Sainsbury's recently ran a promotion on Duvel which meant it was cheaper than buying it through the usual wholesale channels. That was quite good.

Independent Retailer of the Year: BeerRitz Leeds

Online Retailer of the Year: I concur with Boak and Bailey -

Best Beer Book or Magazine: pass [edit: I'm an idiot -  Brew Britannia was excellent, sorry Ray and Jessica]

Best Beer Blog or Website: all of the ones on my blogroll, with preference to Boak and Bailey and The Beer Nut. Although this post by Adrian Tierney-Jones moves me every time I read it.

Best Beer App: don't use any, so pass

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer: Chris Hall is pretty good value

Best Brewery Website/Social media: pass. I'm starting to think I don't really understand social media.....

Thursday, 11 December 2014

What's Wrong With This Picture? Pub Toilet of the Year, The Horseshoes, Newmarket.

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will know that I'm prone to flights of fancy and diversion from the subject of beer from time to time. In fact, over the past year this blog has sort of gone to rack and ruin, partly by virtue of me having nothing interesting left to say, and partly by me having less and less free time.

However, this moved me to write on so many levels. On one hand, the picture of the toilets in The Horseshoes, Newmarket, sent me into such a rage that I nearly didn't know where to start. I'd concede that the urinals might just about be classed as kitsch, some sort of Dutch (sorry Holland) pop art version of an Ernie Cefalu piece filtered through the banal postmodernism of Jeff Koons' mind - but only just. Your mileage may vary on that, and I can understand why.

However, what is that that thing in front of the sink? A pair of spread-legged female buttocks? Where to start with that. Not only did some 21st century grown-up designer conceive of this as being a good idea, but equally, someone saw it in a catalogue and thought "yeah, the big lip urinals are OK, but the splayed female buttocks are really going to give this refurb the edge." Yes, it's edgy, as in edgy and uncomfortable.

And then there's the text. First of all, the use of the word "strident" to describe any female colleague who has had the temerity to raise an objection to this cultural Chernobyl. Why is it that any woman with an opinion is referred to as "strident"? Oh yeah, it's because men hate a dissenting female voice. Why not go the whole hog and say "shrill", or "annoying"?

And what about "it's in the gents so they shouldn't see it anyway"? Yes, that's right, this is what men want in their toilets - some time spent away from the strident opinions of women, urinating into open mouths (I still think they are Dutch kitsch (sorry Holland)), before a quick handwash while bumping and grinding against a presented pair of female fiberglass buttocks (I wonder if they have a heater in them to make them more inviting?). Err, no, it's not OK to have this in the gents, away from the prying eyes and strident opinions of women because you know what? Not only is this offensive to women, it's also offensive to men. That bent-over fiberglass arse, placed for a comedy grind while you wash you hands (maybe it's to try and encourage men to wash their hands?) debases us all as human beings. It's not going to bring a smile to my face this Christmas, and I don't want to be friends with anyone who thinks it's funny.

In short, this whole thing is a fucking disgrace. The toilets are a disgrace, the article is a disgrace, the misogyny is a disgrace, and I think we all deserve better.

Link to original article

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Craft Beer in a Post-Craft World

A pair of blog posts over at Jeff Alworth's Beervana (here and here) has roused me from current torpor with a few observations. In fact, this started as a comment on the blog, but quickly spiralled out of control.

The first thought is that although there is a big difference in the legislation between the UK and US markets (see here for a summary of the US three tier system. In the UK, this doesn't exist), it seems as though in practice it doesn't make any difference. So when Jeff writes "But having an invisible layer in between the producer and retailer also offers an opportunity for hard-to-stop corruption", the important word in that sentence is "opportunity". In practice, this doesn't happen, it just adds another layer of sweeteners and kickbacks.

The big problem is that whenever anyone writes about the beer business, the tend to focus on the "sexy" bit - the beer - at the expense of the "dull" bit - the business. These two, as we've seen from Dann Paquette's accusations, are inseparable. You can make great beer, as in my opinion Pretty Things do, but if you can't get it to drinkers, why bother?

But this isn't anything new. In conversation with Garrett Oliver in (I think) 2007, he listed a few bars in New York who would call the Brooklyn Brewery regularly and say that they had a line available if the brewery wanted to let them have a few free kegs. Garrett's response when asked "What have you got for us?" was always "Great beer at a fair price". But if anyone thinks this sort of integrity will carry on as the number of craft breweries continues to rise, in the UK, the US and worldwide, think again. Have a look at what Sam Calagione says here. Anecdotally, every small brewer in the UK has a story about being undercut by another brewer offering cheaper beer of lesser quality, or worse still, being told by landlords and beer buyers that quality is less important than price.

You can expect a lot more of this as we move into the post-craft era. Uh-oh, there's a buzz-phrase that's going to annoy a few people. But heads up, because here's some bigger news. Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. I know, that's quite a rash prediction, but the beer business is going to stop being about beer, and become more about business.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. That doesn't sound very sexy, does it? It will get more consistent, more reliable, but ultimately, the technology of craft beer - focusing on quality and flavour without cutting corners to maximise profits -  has reached endgame. There is nowhere else to go. What this means is that craft beer will have to focus on the dull business of making great, reliable beer, giving people what they want every time. In short, they will become big brands, go mainstream, and flood the country - the world! - with great tasting, flavourful beer, free of production flaws, tasting the same every time you buy it. This is exactly what the top tier of UK craft beer producers has done - build a brand built around consistency and great tasting beer. Once the beer is good enough, you have to focus on the business end of things. Price. Distribution. Brand-building.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. It will be cleaner, more consistent, more reliable, less of a lottery. You might not like it, but Punk IPA will become the craft beer movement's Carling - a best seller, reliable, widely available, and reasonable priced. It's already happened. We all screamed "Judas!" when Punk IPA appeared in Tesco, but Bob Dylan's response to being called Judas was to simply say "I don't believe you, you're a liar" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!", and never looking back.

For earlier discussions of post-craft beer, please see Boak and Bailey, Pete Brown, The Pub Curmudgeon, and Justin Mason. They all (in the nicest possible way) focus on the sexy beer bit rather than the dull business bit.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A Night Less Ordinary with @friendsofham

So, who would turn down the opportunity to host two consecutive nights of beer and charcuterie at one of Leeds' most iconic buildings, the Corn Exchange? No, me neither. Thanks to Friends of Ham, 40-odd people (or 40 odd people, depending on who you sat next to) got to taste some unusual charcuterie paired with unusual beers.

The opener, ventrecina del Vastese was paired with a reception beer, Wild and Fyne's Cool as a Cucumber. To be fair, most people had finished the beer before the meat arrived - first beer of the night, glug and it's gone - but the fiery poke of the cured pork was gently soothed with the cucumber and mint session saison.

The air-dried mutton was lucky enough to be paired with Kernel London Sour. While the mutton was pretty lean and clean, that tell-tale note of lanolin that hangs around mutton was washed clean and crisp against the Berliner weisse styling of this beer.

When you agree to host an evening of "challenging" food and beer, you have to accept that not everything is going to be to everyone's tastes. The smoked lardo from Black Hand in Hackney had a good depth of flavour, but the short cure meant that it perhaps tasted and felt a little too much like what it was. Happily, Williams Bros/Heather Ale Alba Scots Pine Ale did a good job of restoring balance, giving a bold sluicing of sweet, piney goodness to challenged palates.

Do you like black pudding? Do you like chorizo? Then you'll love Black Chorizo! It's as simple as that, a perfect cross between two perfect types of sausage. Only challenging really if you're a bit squeamish about eating blood, although having typed that, it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be squeamish about. This was paired with Fantome de Saison, which differed hugely from bottles I've had in the past by not smelling like a pair of dirty goats copulating in an abandoned dairy. It was soft, redolent of strawberries and mangoes, and quite ethereal. Not challenging, but certainly less ordinary.

Magret of duck, cured and smoked over beechwood, was very easy to like, and my favourite charcuterie of the night. Happily, it was paired with Siren Americano, a beer which I don't have the full story behind, but could quite happily be described as an American MilDIPA. The nutty malt and coffee wove beautifully into the fatty, unctuous duck before oodles of hops show up to kick the shit out of you.

Guanciale is whole cured pigs cheek. Being a lover of this particular cut when you buy it prepared from a butcher, I was excited by this, but the reality was a bit much even for me, the whole cheek being a lot more fatty and challenging than the little nugget of muscle that most carnivores think of when they see the word "cheek" on a menu. The cure was good, but hadn't really masked the fact that pigs cheeks spend a lot of time being buried in the soil, rooting through all manner of things that you don't want to think about. I can see it working in a carbonara though, as knowledgeable host Cat from FoH explained that it was this cut, not pancetta, that was the classic carbonara ingredient. But that's sort of the point of these events, to be pushed outside of your comfort zone a bit. Happily, judicious application of Duysters Tuverbol, an unlikely blend of a triple and lambic from Drie Fonteinen, acted as cleansing balm to this. The picture here shows two guests modelling the guanciale - apparently, you do this to warm it up and improve the texture.

Just to show I'm not a total wuss, the final charcuterie was my favourite. Salamella al fegato is a sausage of heart and liver cured with orange peel, fennel and vino cotto (boiled wine must). It's the sort of thing that I happily spread on toast for breakfast when I'm in Spain, much to the disgust of my family. It's a bit haggis-y, and so what better accompaniment than a spirit, albeit a freeze-distilled one: Watt Dickie from BrewDog was the logical conclusion to a challenging evening, and actually a pretty decent foil to the ofally nice salamella del fegato.

Props go to the whole Friends of Ham posse for conceiving of the night, finding an amazing venue, and getting me to host it. And special thanks to everyone who came and ate, drank, and was merry.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

There they are, the seldom-seen kids, Boak (left) and Bailey (right) in full flow at North Bar. Except they're not really kids any more - they're properly grown-up and have just published a meticulously researched book about the last 40 years of British brewing. So precise has some of this research been that I half expected them to appear in white lab coats and carrying clipboards. But no - smart casual it was.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the pen sketches of all the major protagonists of the Society of Preservation of Beers from the Wood, of the early Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. A lot of the early players have reached almost mythological status, burnished to an aged sheen by long nights in smoky, coal-fired public bars. But as the zoom is pulled back to nearer the present day, the characters seem curiously less fully-formed, less sure of themselves, or just less engaging

Could it be that the major players and the key points from 40-odd years ago have had their histories validated more by being told and re-told, and passing almost into folklore, while the nearer you get to the present day, the less entrenched are the stories of the key players? Or is it that the major players in the recent history of beer simply aren't as interesting as those of even 20 years ago? Or perhaps their motivations are different, less concerned with a wider culture and more interested in some 21st century Cult Of The Self. After all, it's better to have someone tell stories about you than have to do it yourself. Or put it another way - Michael Hardman got an MBE for services to beer - can we see that happening to James Watt in 30 years time?

There's no doubt that this is a character-driven book, and this is it's great strength. The beer industry was (and is) full of great characters, and Boak and Bailey give the impression that many of them did it for the craic, for shits and giggles, and, in the internet age, teh lulz. Indeed, the more precarious the story - David Bruce and birth of the Firkin chain, Sean Franklin driving a taxi during lean times - the more engaging it becomes. More recent parts of the story seem to lack a bit of definition, but given that history is written by the victors, and the craft wars are still being waged, this isn't surprising.

Boak and Bailey are undoubtedly meticulous archive-diggers, but the recent present isn't particularly well archived yet. The modern story hasn't been told enough times that it can be re-told with any certainty or clarity, so at some point, this book stops being a record of what happened, and becomes part of the making of the story itself. How very meta.

If you're even vaguely curious about why you can get a beer that is as good as Brewdog Punk IPA in almost every supermarket in the UK, then this book has the answers. It's a fascinating tale of peculiarly British pluck and pioneering spirit, all washed down with lots of great beer. What more do you want?

It's about how British beer has turned half circle. The really interesting question is, where next?