Simon Williams hits the bull’s eye about what’s wrong with GBBF and why the London Craft Beer Festival is so much better

I don’t think I’ve ever read a blogpost I agreed with more than Simon Wiliams of CAMRGB’s take on the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia last week versus the London Craft Beer Festival, also last week, in Hackney. Read it here. Basically, the problem with the GBBF, 40 years on from the very first one in Covent Garden, is that it’s utterly unimaginative, dull, unengaging and uninspiring. Too much of the beer is too samey (mind, that’s a reflection of the state of the British small brewing scene), and while there are interesting and challenging beers to find, it’s a pain in the butt trying to track therm down. What’s more, reports suggest that if you go at the end of the week, all the most interesting beers will be long sold out. It really needs a serious rethink in terms of presentation, approach, purpose: in particular, there should be far more involvement from the breweries supplying the beer than just turning up with casks and pumpclips and then buggering off. At the LCBF, in contrast, the beers are almost without exception challenging and exciting, the stalls are staffed by people from the breweries involved who are delighted to chat. Despite the room the LCBF was held in being far too hot, I enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the beers, far more than I did at the GBBF. I could say much more, but Simon has said it all, and very well.

The porter in Majorca tastes like what it oughter

If you want a single statistic that shows how the craft beer movement has become a world-wide phenomenon, let it be this: there are now seven eight craft breweries on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Miquel and Felipe Amorós of Beer Lovers brewery, Alcuida, Majorca

Miquel and Felipe Amorós of Beer Lovers brewery, Alcuida, Majorca

They are part of the spectacular rise in new small breweries which means  almost 300 craft breweries across the whole of Spain, 600 in France, 800 in Italy and so on.

Life is a little different on Majorca from, say, Italy, where Italian craft brewers are making much-admired pilsner-style brews: no Mallorcan brewer makes a lager, simply because they could not compete with the Spanish giants, Estrella Damm and Mahou San Miguel, on price, but all seem to make a wheat beer (“blat” in Catalan), which is evidently seen as the entry-level craft beer for locals, and there are pale ales, IPAs, and speciality beers. Most breweries seem to be bottle-only, although Beer Lovers in Alcuida, in the north of the island, kegs some of its pale ale. The quality is very occasionally dodgy, as you would expect from operations with hand-bottling lines, but then, of the last five pints of cask ale I was offered in London, one was cloudy as a wet weekend in Wicklow and another tasted like it had been brewed by Sarsons, so quality is not just a Mallorcan problem.

Sullerica Original, flavoured with rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms – 'flor de taronger' in Catalan

Sullerica Original, flavoured with rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms – ‘flor de taronger’ in Catalan

I managed to find beers from six of the island’s brewers, and generally the Mallorcan craft beers were a vastly better choice than their eurolager opponents. Several were excellent: I particularly liked the brews from the Sullorica brewery, in Sóller, in the west of the island, which makes a very good wheat beer flavoured with local lemon peel, and an equally fine amber ale, Original, which includes rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms, though I was disappointed not to find the beer brewed with bitter olives the brewery was apparently making last year. I also had a first-class sour cherry beer, Cor de Cirera, from the Cas Cerveser brewery in Galilea, about eight miles to the west of Palma, which is aged for a year in French oak barrels that had previously contained red wine from the Bodegas Son Puig in nearby Puigpunyent.

Of course, the vast majority of beer consumed in Majorca is still big-brand eurolager, or, if you’re in somewhere like the fake Irish bars of Cala D’Or, keg Guinness. You can find Mallorcan craft beers in some of the island’s large supermarkets, in specialist shops, in restaurants that like to offer Mallorcan food and in Majorca’s craft beer bars, though I’d advise you to check out the brewers’ websites for advice on where their beers are available bewfore you go hunting. I was lucky and met a Barcelonan beer blogger called Joan Vilar-i-Martí, of the Catalan beer blog Birraire.com, earlier this year in Poland, who sent me details of Mallorcan brewers and bars. I only managed to visit one of the bars he recommended, Lórien in Palma: I normally keep at least the length of three or four bargepoles between me and bars with names taken from Tolkein, but this small, dark, hidden-away place, now 25 years old, is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city: the beers on draught when I was there included examples from Italy, mainland Spain (from Pamplona, an excellent sour wheat beer, though definitely not the “hefeweizen” it claimed to be) and Ireland.

The outside of the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcuida

The outside of the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida

I also visited the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida, in the north of Majorca, which was founded in 2012 by Miquel Amorós Crawford and his brother Felipe, sons of a Mallorcan father and a mother who is half Welsh and half English. The brewery is down a narrow street, hard to find even with the help of Google Maps, in the heart of the attractive centre of old Alcúida, in a former barn built of the local honey-coloured limestone, attached to a house that has been owned by the family for 300 years, and it was not until I was ten yards from the front door and smelt the unmistakable aromas of mashing malt that I knew I was close to my target. Originally, the barn, which still has troughs on one wall for animal food, “was where the horse and cart were kept – it was full of stuff, so we emptied it, and added a bit – we couldn’t touch much, because all the old buildings are protected,” Miquel says. “We put in a new floor, but the floor had to be like the old house’s floor, the walls have to be built of the same old stone.”

The brewery name is in part a pun on their surname – “amorós” literally means “loving” in Catalan – and was chosen because it would be easy to understand and pronounce, by Mallorcans and tourists. They could have chosen a locally based geographical name, Miquel says, but they didn’t want one of those: “We wanted to escape from all those products that are being sold because they’re Mallorcan rather than because they’re good.” The name “doesn’t sound so strange to us,” he says, though he admits that “there are people who like it a lot and people who don’t like it, who say, ‘why an English name when you’re based in Majorca?”

Miquel is a semi-reluctant professional brewer: “I tell everybody, I prefer drinking beer to brewing it,” he says. “We were home-brewers, but I was working in construction, and that was badly hit by the recession, while my brother was a translator, and Google Translate means that’s not a good job to have nowadays. So we made some numbers, we visited a few breweries and we decided to get into the brewing business. Come back to me in two years and I’ll tell you if we were right or wrong!”

The brewhouse at the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcuida, with the lauter tun/whirlpool in the foreground

The brewhouse at the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida, with the lauter tun/whirlpool in the foreground

The brewing equipment – combined mash tun and kettle, and alongside that a combined lauter tun-whirlpool, plus in the front room of the barn three small conical fermentation vessels – comes from a firm in Catalonia that previously made kit for wineries . The boom in small breweries in Spain, now up to nearly 300, has been a blessing to such manufacturers, after the bodegas stopped expanding in the recession. Brewing capacity is 750 litres at a time, with brewing currently taking place once a week during the summer months, less during the island’s quiet season. There is actually a well inside the barn itself, but it smells musty, and Miquel says Mallorcan well water is not normally suitable for brewing: Beer Lovers actually tanks 3,000 litres at a time from a well in a place called Can Sales, around seven miles to the west, at the end of the Sierra Tramontana, which runs up the island, where the water has apparently spent less time travelling through Majorca’s limestone rocks, and needs no treatment to make darker beers with and only a little tweaking for pale ones.

The porter in Majorca that tastes like wot it oughter

The porter in Majorca that tastes like wot it oughter

The brewery produces both bottled and keg beers, and their beer is on tap in a few bars in Palma. It makes five different beers, the original three, Blat, a Belgian-style wheat beer, and the brewery’s best-seller (“It wouldn’t be a beer I would have done as a home brewer, but this is a business, you’ve got to brew the beer people will buy, not the one you like”, Miquel says); Broll, a pale ale (“sales are growing, and if in one or two years we sell more of the pale ale I it will be mission accomplished!”), and Bram, an amber ale, “difficult to sell in Majorca, people see dark beers, they’re a bit taken aback”, plus, now, a porter, made just twice a year with English malt from Crisp (the one beer I tried at the brewery – a fine, deep ruby-brown drink with chocolate and coffee in the depths that enabled me to justify the joke in the headline*) and Llop, Catalan for “wolf”, an IPA that Miquel confesses began as an accident after they over-hopped a batch of the amber ale. Miquel and his team decided to dry-hop the beer as well before releasing it, and it found enough of an audience for them to have brewed six more batches since. “For me it’s the best one we’ve got”, he says. Most of the malt, except for the porter, comes from Weyermann in Germany via the Spanish mainland: “there’s plenty of barley in Spain, but the maltsters are owned by the big companies, so you can’t buy it even if you want,” Miquel says. All the bottles, incidentally, carry a full list of the malt and hop varietiers found in the beer inside – other brewery please copy.

The first stage, Miquel says, was to make sure they were happy with the standard of the beers they were making. The next stage, which they are working on now, is “to be easy to find. People come here, they try the beers, they like it, they ask, ‘where can be get hold of our beer,’ and that’s the difficult question. The most difficult part is distribution.”

The brewery is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays, when Miquel and his team showcase the suitability of their beers to be matched with food. It certainly matches extremely well: right after my visit to the brewery I had a lunch of gambas (prawns) in a garlicky, buttery sauce with a bottle of Broll in a restaurant 100 or so yards away that was marvellous. As news about Beer Lovers spreads, Miquel is also finding holidaying brewers from Denmark, Germany and other countries – and beer writers like me – arrive on the brewery doorstep.

The brewery’s major problem, like other small concerns, is distribution: Miquel is still struggling to find one who an do a good job for craft beer in a culture that, despite a growing number of craft beer bars, is still heavily biased towards drinking the same very few big names. Still, when Beer Lovers started there were two small breweries in Majorca – now there are seven or eight.

My personal suggestion to the brewers of Majorca, for what little it may be worth, is to do what Sollerica appears to be trying to do, and Cas Cerveser, and make distinctively Mallorcan beers using Mallorcan ingredients: beers that could not come from anywhere but Mallorca.

* Punning on the old Heineken ad from the 1980s

'Rossa' English bitter-style bottle-conditioned ale from the Pla brewery, named for Es Pla, the flat plain of central Majorca, in Algaida, about 15 miles east of Palma

‘Rossa’ English bitter-style bottle-conditioned ale from the Pla brewery, named for Es Pla, the flat plain of central Majorca, in Algaida, about 15 miles east of Palma

A wheat beer from the Talaiòtika brewery in Porreres, a small town in the middle of Majorca

A wheat beer from the Talaiòtika brewery in Porreres, a small town in the middle of Majorca

Cor de Cirera sour cherry beer, a lovely brew, aged in former red wine barrels for a year, made by the Cas Cerveser brewery in Galilea, Majorca, about eight miles west of Palma

Cor de Cirera sour cherry beer, a lovely brew, aged in former red wine barrels for a year, made by the Cas Cerveser brewery in Galilea, Majorca, about eight miles west of Palma

Moli Balear wheat beer, flavoured with coriander and bitter orange beer and brewed in Campanet, about six miles south-east of Alcuida. The label shows a typical Mallorcan windmill.

Moli Balear wheat beer, flavoured with coriander and bitter orange peel and brewed in Campanet, about six miles south-east of Alcúida:although this gives the impression of being brewed in Majorca, I’m told by a reliable source that it’s actually from the Huyghey brewery in Belgium. The label shows a typical Mallorcan windmill.

Strange Tales of Ale – ideal summer reading for the beach-bound beer fan

Of all the different styles of books about beer, the old-fashioned anecdotal ramble, as exemplified by John Bickerdyke’s classic Curiosities of Ale and Beer from 1889, or Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles from the 1970s, seems to be the rarest. I’m delighted, therefore, to be able to add to the genre with Strange Tales of Ale, a collection of 28 stories involving beer, brewing, breweries or pubs in some way.

Regular readers of this blog will have come across many – though not all – of the stories in Strange Tales of Ale here over the years, as the book is a bit of a “best of Zythophile” collected between hard covers. There’s the Great London Beer Flood of 1814, of course; the story of Spitfires ferrying beer to the D-Day troops in their fuel tanks; why England’s aristocrats brewed beer that was meant to be laid down and only drunk after 21 years; the mystery of the yard of ale; the true origins of the Red Lion as a pub name (with a picture of the attractive Art Deco innsign from the Red Lion, Fulwell, my local); the most notorious brewer in history; what to order in a Victorian public house; the history of the ploughman’s lunch; what Pliny the Elder really said about hops; how the Dove in Hammersmith got its tiny public bar; pea beer; the British National Dinner, and others that are among my personal favourites from the 300-plus posts, totalling more than 600,000 words, that I’ve stuck up here over the past eight years. There are a couple you might not have read even if you have been a Zythophile follower since 2007, on Dutch Schultz, the beer baron of Brooklyn (here’s a beer trivia question for you – which New York brewer, born in Leeds, was played on film by Bob Hoskins?) and on “the brewery that salami-sliced itself to death”.

If you’re looking for some beery holiday reading for yourself, or a birthday or Christmas present for someone you know likes beer, and reading, can I recommend STOA? Indeed, I’d hope you don’t even have to like beer to enjoy the book: the tales are in themselves engrossing, from the link between beer and bridal gowns to how the Jerusalem Tavern near Smithfield became the Trigger’s Broom of pubs to potboys in literature and art.

Strange Tales of Ale is published by Amberley Publishing, and costs £12.99 hardback, £7.80 as an ebook (unlike Amber Gold and Black, my last book, from a different publisher, I get rather less of a royalty on the ebook version of STOA than on the Finnish forest version, so I’m happier for you to go traditional …) You can support small businesses and buy it from my good friend Paul at Beer Inn Print here or if you don’t mind tax-dodging conglomerates you can put more money in my pockets by buying it though my Amazon Associates page here. (Or, if you’re in North America, The Dove(s), Hammersmith circa 1880

A rare picture of The Dove, Hammersmith – then still the Doves – when the landlord was Samuel Richardson Gamble, the name on the (birdless) signboard, some time between at least 1874 and January 1881, the month the licence was handed over to Henry Thomas Saunders. The window to what became the smallest public bar in Britain is on the right of the door. If you look at a modern picture of the pub, you can see the bracket for the innsign is still the same piece of wrought iron, albeit with a bit missing …