Friday, 31 December 2010

The Golden Pints & 2010 Reviewed

Despite running one of the best beer shops in the UK, I don't really write about retailing a lot. The reason for this is that I want to be seen as a beer writer rather than beer retailer. That might make me sound insecure about the trophies on the sideboard, but that's why I rarely mention Beer-Ritz on here.

But being so close to the action brings you some fantastic insights into the beer market. I thought I might share some of these observations, based on what people have been buying at the shop. This isn't necessarily meant to be extrapolated to the beer-drinking populace as a whole, but there are some interesting trends apparent.

British beer is on the up: this year, people bought more British beer than ever before, particularly at Christmas, when they were buying presents for others. And I don't mean just from the usual suspects (BrewDog, Marble, Thornbridge - although they sell very well), but also generically as a category, from Hook Norton Old Hooky to Ilkley Mary Jane. I think that this signals a turning point for British beer, and people are finally realising that it is simultaneously a great national and also a local product.

Belgian beer is on the wane: fifteen years ago, Belgian beer (and I'm talking all across the board, from Leffe to Trappist to Palm to De Dolle) was new and relatively undiscovered. Five years ago, interested peaked, and today, it's a declining sector. There are certain niches that defy this trend, but overall, there isn't any growth left in Belgian beer in the UK.

American beer is on the verge of going stellar: Sierra Nevada have doubled the volume of imports into the UK each year for the last four years. People like American 'craft' beer because it is largely tasty and uncomplicated. I'm not talking Lost Abbey, I'm talking Odells, Flying Dog, Brooklyn et al. American craft brewing is also showing its most profound influence yet on British brewing.

My Golden Pints for 2010

Best UK Draught Beer - Roosters Nectar
Best UK Bottled Beer - Kernel Citra IPA
Best Overseas Draught Beer - Dogfish Head / Birra del Borgo My Antonia
Best Overseas Bottled Beer - Surly Furious (canned)
Best Overall Beer - Surly Furious
Best Pumpclip or Label - any of Johanna Bashford's BrewDog labels (although Kernel's no-design aesthetics are superb too)
Best UK Brewery - Kernel
Best Overseas Brewery - Sierra Nevada still do a wider range of things better than so many other breweries
Pub/Bar of the Year - The Grove, Hudderfield
Beer Festival of the Year - GBBF
Supermarket of the Year - Waitrose
Independent Retailer of the Year - modesty forbids
Online Retailer of the Year - modesty forbids
Best Beer Book or Magazine - anything by Adrian Tierney-Jones
Best Beer Blog or Website - Stuart Howe's 'Brewing Reality'
Best Beer Twitterer - @simonhjohnson
Best Brewery Online - BrewDog
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year - pigeon crostini and Worthington White Shied
In 2011 I’d Most Like To - get another book commissioned and brew more beer
Biggest Red Herring - the "keg revolution" and confusing modes of dispense with styles of beer

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Into The Dark

You might have noticed a certain chill in the air of late - -11°C has been my personal record. This unusual meteorological phenomenon is technically called "winter", and it has to be said, it has been kicking arse and taking names this year.

I have to admit to having sneaked the odd IPA of late, but I do succumb to the cliché of drinking darker beers in colder weather. It just seems to make sense. This pair of lovelies have been sent to me by their respective breweries. When better than the longest night of the year to tuck into some dark beers?

The Sambrook's Powerhouse Porter (5%abv) is described on the label as being "our modern take on this great London beer style". If by "modern" they mean "not left to go stale in a wooden vat for 18 months", then it's a great success - Powerhouse Porter is free from any trace of staleness and 'characterful' infection. I guess it's also modern in the sense that the hop character is pushed a little more to the fore than one might expect, but the dark malt lends plenty of backbone around which to build the gently leafy hops. It's nice, very drinkable, and if I had another bottle, I'd drink that too.

Sadly, it's a night of singletons, so onwards to the Windsor & Eton Conqueror (5%abv), a beer in that none-more-hip style of black IPA. Whatever you think of the oxymoronic name - black India pale ale? - it's a fun style of beer. The style seems to rest on the use of carafa malt, giving a dark malt flavour without roasted bitterness, and prodigious late-hopping with American C-hop varieties. Call it what you will - black IPA, India black ale, Cascadian dark ale - I like it, and I like this example too. It's medium-bodied, with the soft malty sweetness flick-flacking into heady hops on the palate, finishing with a hint of chicory coffee and IPA hop dazzle. Lovely.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The New William Worthington Brewery

Worthington White Shield might be the ultimate comeback kid. It's a beer that has had a peripatetic history, but has in recent years found itself back on home turf in Burton Upon Trent. I recently went to Burton for the opening of the new William Worthington brewery that Molson Coors has installed in the National Brewery Centre.

Worthington White Shield is an IPA, of that, there can be no doubt - hey, it even says so on the bottle. In the world of beer, there is perhaps no other term that has been bandied about and applied to so many different beers that it has become almost meaningless. Depending on who you talk to, and IPA might be a pale, low %abv beer, it could be a coppery, mid-strength beer with a mouth-puckering dryness and complex earthy flavour, or it may be a high alcohol riot of sweet citrus fruit. You could argue that historically, White Shield, and other IPAs of that style, are the most 'authentic' (*alarm bells*). But of course, times change, and we, the 21st century beer drinker can cope with a bit of ambiguity. We don't drink labels, we drink beer, right?

That Molson Coors has slowly been investing in the White Shield brand (currently part of the Different World Drinks portfolio) can only be seen as A Good Thing. It's easy to view big brewing companies as nothing but industrial beer producers, but with White Shield, it seems that Molson Coors has cottoned on to the fact that they have a gold ticket - a heritage brand that is never going to sell gazillions of units, but adds an interesting thread to their story. So when, just before dinner, Mark Hunter, CEO of Molson Coors (UK) addresses the guests and says "Our roots, history and tradition help to define who we are today. We want to delight the world's beer drinkers, and make sure that we have the right beer for every occasion", it would be easy to view this as a lot of cynical marketing guff. Except for one thing.

I asked how long this £1million project had taken to complete - I mean, how long does it take to install a brewery in a museum, next to a glass case of breweriania? The answer staggered me - three years. It took three years to get this project completed - and there was more than a little corporate opposition. That's three years of people saying 'hmm, maybe' and 'hmm, I don't know' and 'ermm, I'm not sure'. Someone, or some people, drove this project to completion. By contrast, the Molson Coors take-home draught beer system was 6 months, start to finish - and that was a totally new concept.

But the result of this dogged determination is a stable of historic brands that are coming back to life. White Shield is now brewed on "the big plant", as brewing legend Steve Wellington (right) calls Molson Coors Burton brewery. So the new 20 barrel plant is going to be used to brew beers that Molson Coors want to revive - Red Shield, Worthington E, P2 Stout, and No 1 Barley Wine. In fact, for the time being P2 and the very rare No 1 will be brewed in the original musuem brewery - Molson Coors are yet to be convinced of the demand for such beers. I asked Steve if they were ready to take the leap of faith and brew bigger quantities of these beers, he said "Oh, I'll take any leap offered to me". Looking at that photo of him, it's clear that he's not short on fight, passion or enthusiasm for his vocation. Add to this the fact that Steve really wants this to happen - he's a man who has been known to 'mishear' a no as a yes - and it's only a matter of times before these rarer beers follow White Shield's return to prosperity.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Taste of Beer

I recently wrote a piece for the journal of the Brewery History Society. It's a special Michael Jackson memorial issue, and features some of the great and the good of beer writing (and myself, obviously). The roll call of other writers is: Pete Brown, Roger Protz, Martyn Cornell, Jeff Evans, Mark Dredge, Carolyn Smagalski, Tim Webb and John Richards. It should be out soon (I think it's the winter edition), so why don't you visit their website, have a look around, and perhaps even join.

But that wasn't what I was going to write about today - the title reminded me, as it's also the title of the piece I wrote for the journal. What I was going to write about, or more specifically ask about, is how people feel about flavour additions to their beers.

I've been mucking about with a bit of homebrewing recently, and have just made a creamy oatmeal porter. I tried to make a chocolate orange porter by adding tangerine peel to the brew kettle, but the flavour hasn't carried through. It's still a tasty beer, but it doesn't quite have the citrussy lift I was after.

Then I thought, hang on, maybe I can just dry hop this beer with a load of citrussy hops (Amarillo, maybe). Looking around a few homebrew forums, I saw that people were adding actual Terry's Chocolate Orange to get the desired effect, or even adding a shot of Cointreau at bottling. PAH! I sneered, PAH!, that's cheating. And then I realised that I was putting tangerine peel in the beer in the first place, so maybe I was cheating too.

So the question is, when does a flavour ingredient in beer become 'cheating'? Belgian witbier is customarily spiced with coriander and dried orange peel, so we all accept that. Does the point where the ingredient is added make a difference to your perception of it being acceptable? Do you like a little shot of espresso in your stout? Is hibiscus flower an interesting addition, or annoying frippery? If hops make a beer grapefruity, why not just add grapefruit juice? Barrel-ageing is becoming an accepted practice, so why not just add a shot of whisk(e)y to the beer at bottling?

Or do you not care a jot, and think as long as it tastes good, why would anyone care?


Saturday, 4 December 2010

Open It! - Lexington Brewing Co. Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

I promise this won't degenerate into a lot of virtual willy-waving about who has the most interestingly-stocked cellar, but I've just been down to mine and crikey, I've got a lot of old tat down there.

Sure, I have some interesting bits and pieces. There's some of the last vintage of Gales Prize Old Ale from the Horndean Brewery, a couple of aged Orval, a Marble Decadence, and so on. Arguably, any of these would be a better choice of beer for Open It! than the bottle in front of me. But in some ways, I have more curiosity about this beer than anything else in my cellar. I sort of know how the Orval will be, and that the Gales POA is going to be a disappointment - horribly flat and sour, a shadow of the great vintages that Gales produced through the 1990s.

The only thing I know about this beer is that it came from Andreas Falt at Vertical Drinks, after a trip to the USA. He handed it to me and said that he thought I might find it interesting. I even had to look up the brewery on RateBeer, although I didn't look at any tasting notes (although I couldn't help but notice the score - 65 overall, and 92 for the style). And so because I knew nothing about the beer, I kept looking at it wondering when I was going to open it, until Open It! came along.

Straight from the freezing cellar, it pours golden and pin-bright. As it warms up, a little vanilla oak and spirit lifts from the glass along with a faint hint of something bacterial - lacto? aceto? The palate is - as the admen love to say - clean and crisp, and the finish is vaguely plasticky, reminiscent of sucking air in through an old chewed Bic biro. Mercifully, the finish is fairly short.

Maybe I should go and grab that Marble Decadence?