Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Craft Will Eat Itself

I think we're at a really exciting time in beer appreciation.

The Cask Report shows cask ale holding steady in a difficult market. That's good news, although as has been mentioned elsewhere on the blogs, it's hardly call for celebration. It's not bad news, but neither is it good news. It's just news.

At this point, I'd love to write something like "cask ale is one of the UK's greatest gastronomic triumphs", but the problem is, that's only right some of the time. Cask is a form of dispense, it's not a style of beer, so to say that cask ale is holding its own in the market is talking about the success of a mode of dispense. Sure, with a great beer inside, a cask of ale is about as good as beer can get. But there is a lot of plain old boring cask ale about too. And no, I'm not one those people who has drunk too many American IPAs and suffered lupulin threshold shift. I still love ordinary brown beer - and there are good and bad ones of those too.

So how about talking about microbreweries? Again, this really just talks about volumes of production, without any reference to style or quality of the beer. There are good and bad micros just as there are good and bad macros. Sure, you can say you'd rather give your money to a small independent brewery than a large multinational, but again that's not really talking about the beer - it's about business ethics.

And what of craft beer? In the foreword to the latest Beer Advocate magazine, the Alstrom brothers started to describe their uneasiness about the word 'craft' as a designation of something good - essentially the same argument as above about microbreweries, but micros in the UK have a clear delineation along production volume vs. taxation lines.

Many people trumpet the rise in cask's market share as the victory of real ale over lager. Again, this is a bit lopsided, as lager is only a shorthand for industrial beer in this country. But of course, lager isn't really a description of a style, it's a description of a production process. If I was being cynical, I'd say that the victory of a mode of dispense over a brewing process is a low point in the history of beer appreciation in this country.

And bubbling away underneath all of this is the fact that volumes of beer overall are decreasing in the on-trade, and steadily rising in the off-trade. I think that volumes are presently about equal, but the streams are about to cross (sorry, poor analogy to use when talking about beer consumption). And in the off-trade, premium bottled ale growth continues to outstrip every other beer sector. Well, apart from the volumes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale imported into the UK, which have doubled every year for the last three years, and seem set to continue in that vein. Who will write The Bottle Report, I wonder [*twirls moustache, waggles eyebrows suggestively*]

Sierra Nevada are really the holy grail of good beer. In SN Pale Ale, they found that holy grail, a crossover classic with both geek and mass-market appeal. They went from brewing it in converted dairy tanks to brewing it in an industrial production facility, without ever once compromising on quality or flavour.

So, to summarise: Nobody wants to drink bad beer. A cask of beer can only, at best, be as good as what the brewer puts in at the brewery, and can often be sub-optimal. It's easy to confuse dispense and process with what you are drinking. Craft and micro are no longer synonyms for quality, if indeed they ever were. Small volume production beers can be bad, and large volume production beers can be good. It's complicated, isn't it, this beer appreciation lark?

As I said at the start, I think we're at a really exciting time in beer appreciation. But there is still a lot of work to do.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Now Drinking: BrewDog Chaos Theory

I've just completed my revision for my talk at the Hay Ale and Literature Festival. Not that I'm much of a one for cramming, but I did think it was at least worth looking up a few hop varieties and brewery locations of the beers I will be talking about. Hey, none of us are born with knowledge - did you think I absorbed it by osmosis from the beer?

I was one of those annoying university students who paid attention in lectures, and so revision was just that - looking over my notes and saying 'ah yes, I know that already'. Whether I manage to retain the same composure in front of a group of real ale fans tomorrow as I rhapsodise about Vienna lager, black lager, extra IPA, trappist ale and weizen doppelbock is another thing. Oh well,they can but boo and throw beer over me - that hasn't happened since a particularly disastrous gig at Salisbury Arts Centre in about 1991.

I should really be in bed by now, but I just received an exciting beer-related invite that, should it actually happen, should be a few days of extreme fun. Sorry to be annoying and go "ooh, I can't tell you what it is yet", but ooh, I can't tell you what it is yet. And like anyone who is reading this blog, I decided to celebrate exciting news with a glass of beer.

BrewDog's Chaos Theory (7.1%abv) is back by popular demand. It was inexplicably delisted about 18 months ago, for who knows what reason. My guess is that Nelson Sauvin became too fashionable to piss away on an everyday beer, not that there is anything dreary or mundane about Chaos Theory. It's their single hop Nelson Sauvin IPA, and it's a great glass of beer. I really like beers that suggest things without actually forming a committee and going on a march with a banner that says "LOOK AT ME! I'M STUFFED FULL OF INGREDIENTS!" and despite it's strength, Chaos Theory manages to do that. It's just beery enough to appeal to regular beer drinkers, but has enough subtle hop-derived fruitiness to be appealing.

Grab some while you can.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Circle Squared at York Beer Festival

There was a pleasing symmetry to a drinking experience this week at the York beer festival. No, it wasn't the surprise appearance of Saints & Sinners / Steel City Hopsession #2 at the festival (complete with shabby chic pumpclip), but I was surprised to find a cask of Birra del Borgo / Dogfish Head My Antonia. It was exciting because this has been one of my favourite beers of the year. From sampling it in 75cl bottle format, to drinking it on draught in Rome, to finally finding it on cask in Yorkshire, I'm starting to get the sensation that this beer just can't get enough of me. I half expect to turn on the tap to make a cup of tea and find it pouring out. That would be nice.

The first picture shows a couple of casks at the brewery in Borgorose. As I was being shown around, I asked who they were for, and the reply was a bit noncomittal - it was just to go to England. I can tell now why brewer Leonardo Di Vincenzo was so economical with the truth - clearly this had been casked exclusively for my enjoyment at York beerfest, and he didn't want to spoil the surprise. How thoughtful!

Seriously though, this is something of a coup, and down to Jamie Hawksworth and his sterling work in creating a series of iconic beer business in Yorkshire (Pivo, The Sheffield Tap, plus a wide and varied importing and wholesale operation). And while we're at it, thanks to Vertical Drinks for their importing of this great beer in a rare format. But still, it's something of a credit to Jamie that he came along and judged at the festival, toting a bottle of what I think might have been a pre-release of BrewDog's AB:03, a stunning, mellow red berry ale. BrewDog James had come to see me a couple of days previously and left me with a bottle, which I selfishly didn't bring to the beer festival to share with my fellow judges. Clearly to rectify this, I will have to travel with a bottle of beer about my person at all times - Jamie's generosity proved the maxim that beer is better shared.

But back to the point - casked My Antonia. It was a beautifully hazy golden beer, with an aroma of peaches and apricots. The Saaz snap that made the keg version so brilliant was there, albeit subsumed into a more rounded, fruity character. It was alarming easy drinking for 7.7%abv. I had a half, and then tried to slowly wean myself onto weaker beers, via Hardknott Infra Red (oddly chewy in cask), Crown Red Barron (again, weirdly full bodied - maybe red IPA is a blind spot for me), Marble Dobber (brilliant, but surprisingly bitter) and Five Towns Niamh's Nemesis (beer of the festival, but by my reckoning, not even close to the best beer I drank that day).

So, York beer festival - delivering beyond expectations, and providing closure to my peak beer drinking experiences. And I didn't even have to leave Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

When A Man Is Tired Of London, He's Ready For Yorkshire

I had a totally bonkers hour in Borough Market yesterday.

I popped into Brew Wharf for a quick refresher after a long afternoon's wine tasting (90 wines in about 4 hours - a new personal best). On the bar was Hopsession #2 (6.1%abv), brewed in collaboration with Steel City Brewing. Never one to shirk a challenge, I ordered a pint, and struggled through it. It's one of the hoppiest, bitterest beers I've had in a long time, deliberately unbalanced (we'll return to this later), and really close to being drinkable. I should have ordered a half.

After that, I needed a beer. Popping into The Rake, I found Dark Star Triple (8.5%abv). My notes read: "What madness is this? A limited brew that attempts to put all the mealy, hoppy goodness of a Belgian triple into a cask ale. Against the odds, it succeeds, with malty, yeasty sweetness leading, backed up by a brilliant herbal bitterness". My enjoyment of the beer was enhanced by an impromptu fitness session from regulars and staff - one-handed press-ups and door-frame fingertip pull-ups. Of all the things I expected to find at The Rake, the staff and customers all doing press-ups was fairly low on the list.

As I was finishing a second beer (Marble Chocolate, 5.5%abv, very nice too), who should arrive but none other than Gazza Prescott himself, of Steel City Brewing. We've never met before, so after quick intros, I told him I'd just had a Hopsession. He asked me what I thought, and I told him 'unbalanced'. Frankly, he couldn't have been happier. He hit the nail on the head by saying that it needed more aroma hop, and I suggested that they might have moved some of the hop additions from early to late. He gave me the sort of look usually reserved for the feeble-minded, and made it clear that there would be no funny business - the beer simply needed more hops, and later in the boil.

So, a crash course in mid-Atlantic pale ale design, and some low-key floor acrobatics in one of the best beer bars in London. You don't get that in Leeds on a Tuesday night (thank goodness).

Monday, 13 September 2010

I Am A Craft Beer Drinker

I love the Americans, and I say that totally without irony.

I love their earnest sense of straightforwardness. I love the way they are mostly without guile. I love the way they have so little holiday that they organise their fun so as to make best use of what little time they have. I love the way they know that they might only have time for a couple of beers, so they'd better be damn tasty, and medium-strong to boot.

I'm sure you've seen this video by now. I like it, but I'd love to see it remade with British craft beer drinkers. The dentistry wouldn't be as good, for a start. And I think quite a lot of us would struggle to stare into a camera and deliver the same sentiments with that sort of sincerity, that lack of irony, that wholesome earnestness.

Saturday, 11 September 2010


At the GBBF this year, I bumped into Dave 'Hardknott' Bailey about 20 minutes after the festival opened. I was trying to ease myself into an afternoon's drinking with a few session ales, but Dave had waded into the bigger American IPAs already. 'I've got a bit of a thing for stronger beers' he said, somewhat ruefully.

I know what he means.

Higher %abv beers pack a certain punch that weaker beers don't, and I'm not just talking about the alcohol. Whichever way they go - sweet malt sugars left unmetabolised by exhausted yeast or fully attenuated spicy dry beers - there's a depth of flavour there that a creatively mashed, well-hopped lower %abv never attains. There's a sweet spot for me around 6 or 7%abv where beers start to get really satisfying. Satisfying in the sense that they do actually feel nourishing. Maybe it's just that I'm dog-tired at the moment, and my body appreciates the extra carbohydrates of a slightly sweeter beer. Or maybe it just likes the gentle flush of alcohol.

Either way, there's no getting away from the fact that JW Lees Harvest Ale is both sweet and strong. In fact, it's such a sweet beer that it almost doubles as a dessert - figs and toffees, bananas and brandy all feature. And it's such a strong beer (11.5%abv) that it only really makes sense as a beer that closes a meal, or precedes bed.

The latter, in this case.

Tags: JW Lees, harvest ale, strong beer, hardknott

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

International Beer-Geekery

I had a very nice evening out last night. I went for a beer with Rick Kempen of Bier & Co, who was in town for the night. He very kindly brought me the bottles shown in the photo, and I paid him back with bottle of Fuller's Gale's Prize Old Ale 2007. As we swapped bottles in the pub, his colleague Gaius Voûte commented that we looked like a pair of beer geeks. We were pleased, but I don't think he meant it as a compliment.

There's something nice about making a gift of beer from home, whether that's me taking some proper Yorkshire beer down to the family in Wiltshire, or swapping beers in person with a foreign visitor. It reminds of the time in the late 80s that I used to visit friends in New York - I'd always take some English beer with me as a gift, although the 4 pint carry-out keg of Tanglefoot didn't travel too well. They let me take it on as hand luggage. No, honestly, they did - it was acceptable in the 80s.

Taking it a stage further, there's always the trading forums on Ratebeer and Beer Advocate if you really need to swap something to get something (you need to be logged in to view them). I've never done that, and would be interested to hear if anyone has any stories of success or failure either way - not for any journalistic (bloggeristic?) reason, but I'm just curious. Plus a Facebook buddy who lives near to Russian River has suggested we trade bottles (hi Will, if you're reading this). Obviously the cost of postage doesn't make financial sense, but I like the idea that beer geeks on different continents will happily send each other rarities at their own respective expense.

It could be like the Cameron-Obama beer summit, only with good beer.


Friday, 3 September 2010

Now Drinking: Crown Brewery Brooklyn Heights

Damn. Forgot to ask them to take the sparkler off.

For me, one of the most exciting trends in British brewing in the last few years has been the resurgence of the hop, or more specifically, cask ales with big American C-hop character. I've said it before, but the transatlantic conversation between American and European brewing culture has never been more excitable or exciting. Despite not getting to the pub as often as I'd like, I still think cask ale rules.

Brooklyn Heights wears its affiliations proudly on its pump clip. It's an unashamedly ballsy interpretation of an American Pale Ale. Most American Pale Ales (and IPAs) are designed to be drunk cold and force-carbonated - nothing wrong with that, but when you serve them on cask, that lack of dissolved CO2 makes the whole thing slightly sweet and sticky.

Happily, Stuart Ross of Crown Brewery (for it is he) knows what he's doing when it comes to cask ale. So rather than making a beer better suited to a quick bit of chill and zizz, he knows how to meld the hop-forward character of an APA with just the right fullness of malt body. The end result is a classic English ale that is both traditional and modern. It's trad because there's just enough earthy bitterness to it to please your old man, but at the same time, it's modern in it's marmalade-pith fruity character. There's just enough sweetness to it to balance the big, spicy bitterness in the finish.

Another classic from Crown Brewery. Great work, Stuart. And great work North Bar.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Two From The Back Of The Shelf

One of the nice things about having a cellar - a proper damp, cool underground room in the bottom of the house - is that it keeps beer close to serving temperature most of the time. It's like a big cool room, about 10°C, and so I can just wander down and find something ready to drink most of the time. And the nice thing about working in the trade, and being sent beer, is that there's usually quite a bit of beer down there. Inevitably, beer tends to stack up on the shelves in good times, and in lean times the shelves get emptied. So it is tonight, when having exposed the bottles at the back, I find a couple of forgotten bottles: Badger Cricket (aka Lemony Cricket, 4.4%abv) and Fallen Angel Hopped Up Cider (4.8%abv).

I've had Badger Cricket on cask while visiting the family down South. It's an ordinary brown beer (and I mean that in a good way) with pretensions to being a spring/summer ale by virtue of having lemongrass added to it. I have to say that on cask it suffers a bit from a surfeit of lemongrass, like the other lemongrass beer I've recently tried, Hopback Taiphoon. Happily, this beer appears to have suffered a bit in the bottling process - all of the perfumed nonsense is thankfully knocked out of the beer by rough handling on the bottling line, and what emerges from the bottle is a brown beer with a faint hint of lemon balm in the background. It's really good actually, and makes me wish I had another bottle. Sadly, my signature move of reviewing the last bottle in a free case deprives me of that option.

I have to say that I had zero hopes for Hopped Up Cyder, "A strong cider brewed from pure apple juice but with the addition of malt and a large dose of Sussex hops to give a unique fresh flavour not found anywhere else". As if that doesn't sound bad enough, the labels on their beers are the most unreconstructedly offensive crap I've seen in a long time. It really goes beyond laddish, postmodern or even post-ironic. They're just crap. Offensive crap.

So it pains me to say that Hopped Up Cyder actually isn't bad. I'd suggest attempting to create something that is halfway between a beer and a cider is doomed to failure. The tart dryness of the cider is suggestive of beer that has gone bad. The earthy bitterness in the aftertaste hints at an overly tannic finish. But neither of these dominate, and the end result is clearly a cider with a bit of of a wild yeasty bite to the finish, although the hop note in the finish does send one for something of a loop.