How a 12-year-old brewery is having to show it’s not too old to be down with the kids …

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

The answer, to stop you looking it up, is Twickenham, which despite not even being a teenager yet, today, after the sale of Meantime, bears the mantle of the capital’s currently longest surviving independent new brewery. Which is more of a burden than you might at first reckon.

The brewery produces some lovely, and deservedly highly regarded cask and bottled beers: Naked Ladies, named for a set of statues of nymphs in a public garden by the Thames, is an excellent and locally very popular American-influenced 4.4 per cent alcohol best bitter, firmly but lightly flavoured with Celeia and Chinook hops, a good session brew and a reliable banker found on bar tops across West London and, in its bottled version, in a large number of off-licences around its home area, including Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as Majestic Wine outlets nationally.

naked-ladiesBut the brewery’s full name – Twickenham Fine Ales – is a reflection of the astonishingly different environment in which it was founded, just a dozen years ago. We’ve forgotten, I think, how unlike today the British beer scene was when Tony Blair was prime minister and Michael Howard leader of the Conservative Party. Beer in Britain went through a complete spin-around in 2009/2010, and I suspect, we can only look back now, half a decade on, and think: “Wow – what happened there?” We all saw these new breweries opening from 2009 onwards, in London in particular, we all saw how they were highly influenced by what was happening in the United States, with massively hoppy beers, big stouts, sour beers, strange obscure offerings such as Gose, and oriented towards keg delivery, towards cans, towards 33cl bottles kept in the chiller, and I’m not sure we were able to see quite what a caesura, a total break, this was in the history of British brewing, what a revolution was happening around us. “Fine Ales”? Grandad, that’s so 20th century.

The problem for Twickenham in this new environment is that however good its beers, they look a little less than cutting edge alongside, say, Beavertown and its graphically furious cans. It is not through chance that Twickenham’s new West London rival, the Wimbledon brewery, sells its beers in 33cl bottles that sit without appearing out of place in the chiller cabinet together with craft beer offerings from around the world, while Twickenham’s ales, in their 50cl bottles, have to go and squat with the Wadworths, the Ringwoods, the Timothy Taylor’s – all beers your dad drinks.

The result, Ben Norman, Twickenham’s sales and marketing director, told me when I visited the brewery last week, was that bar owners today say to him: “I love your beers, but I can’t stock them – they’re not right for my outlets.”

Completely revolutionising the line-up is clearly not the answer: Twickenham’s current beers have too many (admittedly older) fans. So to try to get into bars where the brewery’s “old school” beers do not currently fit, it has just launched an entirely separate brand of “craft beers”, on keg and in 33cl bottles, with totally different imagery, and with the “Twickenham” name barely visible. The beers are being sold under the Old Hands brand, the idea being that even 12 years is four times the experience many London breweries currently have, with the tagline “Old Hands, New Brews”, and an emphasis that they come from “London’s oldest microbrewery”.

I’m strongly biased in favour of Twickenham: I’ve been a big fan since it opened in 2004 in premises less than half a mile from my then house. What I like about the brewery’s beers is the unfussed competence they exhibit: founder Steve Brown seems always to have been able to hire brewers who are totally on top of the job. Don’t necessarily trust me, therefore, when I say that the first batch of Old Hands beers is a terrific start that deserves to do very well: they may all be new styles to the brewery, but that “house competence” is still there, and not one is a disappointment or a distress.

Old Hands DIPA: nicely restrained

Old Hands DIPA: nicely restrained

I have to say, though, I’m not totally convinced about the branding: I’m a long way from the target audience, “typically younger craft beer drinkers”, being an untypically older craft beer and traditional ales as well drinker, but it seems to me that downplaying the Twickenham name is an error. The brewery has a reputation for quality, and making the Twickenham name more prominent would have helped introduce the Old Hands range to fans of Twickenham’s current, more traditional beers without putting off younger drinkers, I believe, while Twickenham’s reputation for quality brews would reassure everybody that the new line-up was worth risking an experiment.

Do, certainly, try for yourself. The Old Hands range has one beer designed to be a regular, Session IPA, 4.7 per cent abv, hopped with Mosaic, just 25 IBUs but buckets of flavour, as good a lower-gravity American Pale Ale as you’ll find in a very long journey, plus four others that will change regularly, according to Ben Norman, although I’ve tried them all and I reckon there are at least a couple that popular demand will insist be made part of the permanent line-up. The others, currently, are Strawberry Saison, 6 per cent, made with 300kg of strawberries, with the strawberries, as you would expect from Twickenham, perfectly balanced in a refreshing pale brew with just the right amount of tartness; Coconut Porter, made with 150kg of roasted coconut (a bugger to get out of the brewing vessels afterwards) and 50kg of cocoa nibs, which was extremely drinkable even for me, and I’m right at the back of the queue for the coconut beer fanclub; Rauch Beer, another style at the very bottom of my personal love-list, but made once again with Twickenham’s signature precision touch, so that again, even I enjoyed it; and a Double IPA at 8.6 pr cent, made with the help of the award-winning home brewer Fraser Withers from up the Thames at West Molesey, with Mosaic, Simcoe and (a new one to me) Azacca* hops, to give 70 IBU. Eminently drinkable, like all Twickenham beers, this is that almost paradox, a restrained DIPA. If other dippers are a hollering din, the Old Hands version is a pleasant and refined conversation on the virtues of masses of hops in a small glass.

We’ve not seen a shake-out yet in the London brewing scene, though numbers do now seem to have at least stabilised. While there will always be a market for the new (hence the decision to make Old Hands a revolving line-up), I can’t see anything but an increasing requirement for quality and reliability as the craft beer market matures, and not just because they’re my local brewery, I think Twickenham is in a great place to thrive with both its “dad” beers and its new “craft” line. And maybe they will eventually feel they can make the Twickenham name a bit bigger on the Old Hands labels …

* Named for the Haitian god of agriculture and developed by the American Dwarf Hop Association: a cross between the Japanese hop Toyomidori and an unknown variety, Toyomidori itself being a cross between Northern Brewer (a Golding descendant) and a wild American hop developed at Wye College in Kent and known as OB79, which appears in several hop family trees.

How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen

It’s a grand and globe-trotting life being a beer blogger. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.

I am honorable – it's official

I am the honorable  Martyn Cornell – it’s official

The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.

Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.

Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery?

The view from the bottom of the street where Joe's taproom is based. British readers will know the cartoon section in the opening credits of the satirrical programme Have I Got News For You, where one scene shows a Chinese lad in a paddy field suddenly surprised as skyscrapers burst up around him. He gives a grin and a thumbs-up, then starts coughing violenly as the piollution rolls out. That's the story of Shenzhen

The view from the bottom of the street where Joe’s taproom is based. British readers will know the cartoon section in the opening credits of the satirical programme Have I Got News For You, where one scene shows a Chinese lad in a paddy field suddenly surprised as skyscrapers burst up around him. He gives a grin and a thumbs-up, then starts coughing violenly as the pollution rolls out. That’s the story of Shenzhen

Finding Joe’s brewery, which is called BionicBrew, was its own adventure: I had downloaded and printed a map before I left Hong Kong, and the nice people at my hotel in Aberdeen, on the south side of the island, wrote instructions on it in Chinese: but the taxi driver I picked up at the Huanggong border crossing (after being stiffed 304 yuan – about £25 – for a one-day visa) still got wildly lost, leaning out of the window to shout questions at street cleaners in big conical hats and guards in security booths: you didn’t need to speak Putonghua to understand their replies, clearly variations on “never heard of it, mate.” Eventually it occurred to him to copy the address onto his phone and search for it on the Chinese version of Google Maps. Five satnav-guided minutes later and I was out of the taxi and in the street where BionicBrew’s taproom bar was based.

BionicBrew logoExcept that I wasn’t: I was actually in the next street along. But St Arnold was looking after me: in the mini-coach that has brought me from Hong Kong to the border I had met an American who teaches young Shenzhen science postgraduates at the local university how to write their theses and doctoral submissions in good scientific English. He knew the brewery, had been to its own beer festival two weeks ago, and had told me the taproom was based in a pedestrianised street lined with restaurants. This clearly didn’t match the alley I was now in: but when I walked round the corner, I found the target. No Joe, though: the shutter was down on the bar. He had not received my messages saying I had arrived in Shenzhen. Still, clouds, silver linings: while I waited for him in the Guangdong heat, I walked out into the main road and found a supermarket that was selling, to my delight, Snow beer. Not that Snow beer is delightful, it’s a bland straw-pale lager, but it’s the biggest-selling beer in China, and therefore the world, and I had never drunk it, as you can’t find it in Hong Kong. It’s a bizarre boast, I know, but I have now drunk the most popular beer on the planet and I bet you haven’t.

Dave Byrn

Dave Byrn of Pasteur Street Brewery, Saigon

When I got back to the bar, Dave Byrn had turned up, along with his sales manager from the Pasteur Street brewery, Mischa Smith, a rotund, chuckling former barman from Ontario via South Korea. Dave, previously of Cigar City Brewing in Florida, looks like the photograph you’d find in a picture dictionary under the entry “American craft brewer”: big, muscular, bushy-bearded and bald-headed. I had barely consumed any of my Snow when Joe arrived, accompanied by his brewer, a thin, blond, friendly Russian called Dmitrii Gribov – Mitch for short – from the city of Perm, in the Urals. A trestle table from outside the front of the bar was dragged into the shade in the centre of the street and a large jug containing an excellent American pale ale brought out from Joe’s bar, and as local children ran about playing ball games and ignoring the international collection of gweilos in their midst, we talked about the problems and promises of the Asian microbrewing market (number one threat: finding suitable premises; number one opportunity: the growing desire of increasingly wealthy consumers in the East for craft beer); how the rapid growth of Shenzhen means buildings are constantly being torn down and new, taller ones whipped up in their place (right opposite Joe’s street was a large open space where, he told us, a big and not particularly old building had stood until last month, when it was demolished to make way for something newer: in the distance, through the smoggy haze, more tall buildings, each accompanied by cranes, could be seen rising skywards); and why there was a brewpub called Peko immediately next door to BionicBrew’s bar (Joe actually leases the space to Peko, having decided the entire premises he was renting was too large for his own sole use.)

Joe outside the brewery entrance: that's the brewery 'dray' on the left

Joe outside the brewery entrance: that’s the brewery ‘dray’ on the left

Another jug of excellent beer later, it was time to walk the short distance to the brewery. This is easily the strangest brewery premises I have been in: two adjacent apartments on the ground floor of a tall and rather run-down block of flats in the middle of a residential area. When Joe was first shown round by the landlord, families still lived in them. Astonishingly, the other residents don’t seem to mind having a brewery in the heart of their apartment block, though apparently there were some complaints about the smell of hops when it opened, to Joe’s surprise: “That’s the best smell there is!”, he says. The space is cramped, but Joe and his team are making terrific beers from a mixture of home-made and manufactured-in-China kit.

Joe Finkenbinder in the BionicBrew 'brewhouse' (brewflat?)

Joe Finkenbinder in the BionicBrew ‘brewhouse’ (brewflat?)

Dmitrii Gribov inside the BionicBrew brewery

Dmitrii Gribov inside the BionicBrew brewery

Black plums, otherwise wu mei, Prunus mume

Black plums, otherwise wu mei, Prunus mume

Black sesaei seeds

Black sesame seeds

The collaboration beer we were there to brew was named in reference to the dispute between Vietnam and China over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, with each country claiming ownership of the two archipelagos. Since the islands are in the middle of the salty sea, then Disputed Waters needed to be a salty beer – a gose, Leipzig’s great contribution to world beer styles. And since this was East Asia, it needed Asian ingredients alongside the hops and malted wheat and barley. As an extra twist, this was a black gose, about which there is bound to be dispute (geddit?), so to go with the two per cent of melanoidin malt the added ingredients were black as well: black sesame seeds, black soy sauce, for saltiness and flavour, and dried black plums, which I believe were wu mei, otherwise known as Chinese plums, Prunus mume, used in Chinese medicine and described as sour, and astringent in flavour. (There was meant to be Vietnamese sea salt in the brew as well, but la la, the guys from Ho Chi Minh City had left it behind …)

Dmitrii stirs while I pretend to be a real brewer and add some of the grain

Dmitrii stirs while I pretend to be a real brewer and add some of the grain

Alas, alas, like Cinderella I had a midnight deadline, which was when my pumpkin coach, in the shape of a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787, was taking off from Hong Kong Airport to fly back to London, where I had to be at work the next morning. To allow for getting through the Shenzhen traffic and possible delays at the border, I needed to leave early, with just enough time to pour some of the malt into the mashtun and thus claim I too had collaborated in the brew, and no time at all, sadly, to go back to Joe’s bar and enjoy more beers and more chat about brewing. If you’re reading this in a few week’s time and you drank Disputed Waters, please leave a comment on how it tasted.

I’d like to thank Joe and his team for their tremendous hospitality and friendliness, which could not have been bettered (just like the beers), and also thank Jonathan So very much indeed for inviting me back to Hong Kong and providing me with free accommodation. If you’re in Shenzhen, or even Hong Kong, do go and visit the BionicBrew taproom, you won’t regret it.

Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Bank's Amber bitterMy local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the  knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

Continue reading

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am

Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I can rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading

When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.

colb-brown-stout-labelThe City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.

The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.

However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.

The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.

calvert-book-coverHurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.

Continue reading

Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Let’s get one potentially controversial point out of the way first: this is a £20 bottle of beer. If that shocks you, you’ve not been paying attention to what’s happening in the market: there are more expensive beers than that. Some of Thornbridge’s sour creations sell at £15 for a bottle half the size. And £20 is barely leaving the foothills in the Land of Wine: even my local corner offie, which will sell you 24 cans of Foster’s for £20, has half a dozen wines for sale at that much a bottle or more.

This is also a very rare bottle of beer: Goose Island has brewed not much more than a couple of thousand litres, around 3,600 (UK) pints, of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale, and only 600 bottles have made it to the UK, where they are on sale in fewer than a dozen London outlets, including The Rake by Borough Market (where it was launched last Thursday), Mother Kelly’s, We Bought Beer, the White Horse in Parson’s Green and Clapton Craft.

So: is it worth it? Certainly the bar has been raised once again in the “authentic old beer reproduction” high jump, after Carlsberg’s effort earlier this year in brewing an 1883 lager with revived 1883 yeast. And BYSPA is a considerably more complex drink than Carlsberg’s straightforward 19th century sipper.

The back-story first: Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s “brewing innovation manager”, decided early in 2014 that he wanted to reproduce an old British ale of some sort, one that involved ageing in oak barrels and finishing with Brettanomyces. A great many people make the sign of the cross when Goose Island is named, believing that, since it is now owned by AB InBev, all its works bear the Mark of the Beast. But for me, any company that lets one of its managers say: “Hey – I’m going to spare little expense in recreating an obscure beer from 140 years ago” cannot possibly be totally bad.

Ron Pattinson and Mike Siegel outside the Rake in Borough for the UK launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Ron Pattinson and Mike Siegel outside the Rake in Borough for the UK launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

So Mike S gets in touch with my mate Ron Pattinson, a man even more obsessed with old beer styles than I am, in Amsterdam, and Ron, thrilled that the Genie of the Brew Kettle had arrived to grant him one of his dearest wishes, says there is only one candidate: stock pale ale, the strong aged beer that was a speciality of the Burton upon Trent brewers (although plenty of others made it), kept for more than a year in barrel, a beer in the same family as, though rather stronger than, India Pale Ale, and a beer that effectively vanished before the First World War, killed off by changing tastes and rising taxes on alcohol. (“I was amazed I’d finally found someone to brew this beer for me – I’d tried loads of people before,” Ron says. “Mike was the first gullible idiot who took me up on it … it’s a completely unsustainable project financially.”)

The recipe Ron presented Mike was from Truman’s brewery in Burton, a batch of its P1(K) made in December 1877 from 100 per cent pale malt with 5.5 pounds per barrel of mixed one-third US Cluster and two-thirds Kent hops, original gravity 1069, final gravity 1012, alcohol by volume 7.54 per cent – so, very dry, well fermented out and massively hoppy. Although, as we will see, that same beer after a year in cask would have been rather different … (For ironists, incidentally, P1(K) was the ancestor of Ben Truman, one of the notorious keg beers of the 1970s alongside Red Barrel and Double Diamond. And if you were wondering about US hops at such an early date, British brewers in the 19th century regularly used American hops, to make up for a lack of British ones.)

After some tweaking, the recipe Goose Island went with in June 2015 used floor-malted Maris Otter, with 13 per cent of the fermentables coming from sugar; 3lb 15oz of hops per barrel, two thirds East Kent Goldings (5.9 per cent alpha acids) and one third US Cluster (9 per cent alpha acids); OG of 1063, IBUs of 95.5 and an abv of 7.29 per cent. The brewery then filled the beer into casks, pragmatically choosing fourth-fill ex-Kentucky bourbon barrels, in the absence of anyone able to supply the sort of Baltic oak casks a British brewer would have used in the 19th century (I told Mike at Thursday’s launch that it was still possible to get Memel oak casks made, in Lithuania, and Carlsberg had done so for its reproduction lager project, which rather angered him, I fear, since he looked at me and roared [he’s a big guy]: “Are you telling me I didn’t spend enough money reproducing this beer?”)

Ron Pattinson pontificates at the launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale in the Rake to an audience of geeks, bloggers, brewers and journos (none of those categories being exclusive …)

Ron Pattinson pontificates at the launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale in the Rake to an audience of geeks, bloggers, brewers and journos (none of those categories being exclusive …)

The beer Ron and Goose Eye have made is called Brewery Yard in recognition of the fact that Bass and its fellows would leave their stock pale ales outside in the yard for a year to mature, while the Brettanomyces that lived in the wood in every vat and cask in every British brewery munched away at the higher sugars that ordinary brewing yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, had left behind. (This is itself a not uncontroversial call: some, notably Steve Wellington of the White Shield brewery, insist only Burton Ale, the sweeter, fruitier beer Burton brewers made before India Pale Ale, was matured in the yards. However, Ron has pulled out enough evidence to convince me the stock pale ales went through this out-of-doors maturing.) Chicago’s climate being rather less temperate than Burton’s, they couldn’t leave Brewery Yard outside (unless they wanted to make ice-beer), so it was stored inside, and the Brett was added deliberately: B Claussenii, the variety Niels Hjelte Claussen found in a sample of English stock ale at the Carlsberg laboratories in Copenhagen in 1903 and identified as the yeast that gave stock ales and stouts brewed by British brewers their inimitable flavour. Over the 11 months and two weeks the beer sat in its casks, fascinating changed were occurring: the alcohol level climbed 15 per cent, to 8.4 per cent abv, while the bitterness plunged by more than a third, to 62 BUs, and the Brett added its own flavours and aromas as it multiplied in the dark.

Stolen without remorse from Ron's presentation, fermentation details – and a pic of the casks filled with maturing beer

Stolen without remorse from Ron’s presentation, fermentation details – and a pic of the casks filled with maturing beer

What is the beer like, 15 months on from when it was brewed? Lovely. This is a big beer, that, like a powerful red wine, I’d recommend opening and then leaving for a while, to let the flavours be drawn out: pour a glass, take a sip, and then leave it for 15 or 20 minutes before you return. The taste and the aroma will cover your tongue and fill your nose: the sourness is perfectly balanced, the bitterness not at all obtrusive, the Goldings contribute tangerine and mandarin, the Brett sweaty leather and earthiness, old dogs and tobacco, there’s raspberries and lemons and a touch of pepper. It begs to be accompanied by food: thick-cut steaks well-charred on the outside and still bleeding in the middle, heavy-gravy stews with garlic dumplings, roast venison and game chips … drink this, and you’ll want to pick up a Union Jack and start singing Rule Britannia. At Thursday’s launch strong cheeses were offered as accompaniments, and Brewery Yard will certainly hold its corner against the maturest Cheddar or bluest Stilton.

Overall verdict, then, hurrah for Ron and Goose Island, it’s marvellous to have a chance to try this beer, and it’s a terrific brew even ignoring the history. You won’t be wasting your £20. Mike Siegel says he wants to produce more old British beer styles, and I greatly want to try them. Yes, as Ed Wray said on Twitter, this is in large part a marketing exercise by Goose Island and AB InBev, who hope the halo effect from Brewery Yard will cast a happier glow over their other efforts. But if all their marketing efforts were as yummy as this one, I’d not have a problem.

• Addendum: a number of commentators have compared BYSPA to Orval. To the extent that they are both pale ales brewed with EKG and with Brettanomyces used for a secondary fermentation, there are similarities, though Orval uses a different strain of Brett (bruxellensis) and the Goldings are a dry-hop addition, not in the main boil. But side by side, they are clearly different beers, though related: Orval is darker and redder, more highly conditioned, while the BYSPA is fuller in the mouth, slightly oaky in a way the Orval definitely is not, sharper and more citric than the Orval, and the Brett character is much more forward, while in the Orval I drank it was definitely there, but more muted, more part of the choir than the featured singer.

Hopping down in Surrey

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, Farnham, Surrey

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, near Farnham, Surrey

Two years ago I helped plant what was Surrey’s first new hop garden for more than half a century, and this week I went down and helped harvest hops from that same hop garden.

Of course, “helped plant” is a wild and self-aggrandising exaggeration: I dug out and popped hop rootstock into fewer than a couple of dozen holes out of the two thousand in total that were made in the field opposite the Hogs Back Brewery’s premises in Tongham, near Farnham. And “helped harvest” is a terminological inexactitude of Melton Mowbray megapie proportions as well: I gathered maybe half a small plastic bag-full of fresh Farnham White Bine hop cones off the lower third or so of a couple of towering bines. Still, those cones then went into some of Hogs Back’s TEA – Traditional English Ale – to make a new, or at least rare style of beer: Fresh Green Hopped Ale. And after a couple of days to mature, it tasted … well, let’s wait to the end.

Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey

Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey

I was down in Surrey after an invitation from Rupert Thompson, Hogs Back’s chairman, to have a look at the hop harvest going on at Puttenham Farm, in Seale, near Farnham, and then have a “hop harvest lunch” in the shade of the bines at Hogs Back’s own hop garden. Puttenham Farm was, until Hogs Back’s plantings, the last of what had been a big and important hop-growing industry centred on Farnham. It still has 14 acres of hops, all Fuggles, and the growing demand for English hops, with resultant higher prices, has encouraged the owner, Hamptons Estate, to plant another 10 acres that are due to come on stream next year. The estate is also building a new oast house for processing and drying the hops, to replace the rather elderly facilities it uses now. (Mind, by far the most profitable way to sell hops is to people who want to decorate their homes/bars/restaurants with them: £23 a bine as decoration, against 50p for the kilo or so of dried hops each bine provides.)

Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers

Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers

Sixty and more years ago the hops would have been picked by travellers and other itinerant workers: today it’s students, earning some late summer holiday money before returning to college. This can cause problems: the hops have to be picked when the workforce is available to pick them, and Rupert and his team say that one of the things they have discovered since planting their own hops is that the cones often have the best flavours and aromas later in the year than many hop farmers would be harvesting them. Hogs Back sends its hops after they are harvested to Puttenham Farm to be processed and bagged into pockets marked with the traditional bell logo used on Farnham hops: ironically, being closer to Farnham itself, Hogs Back can have TWO bells on its pockets, while Puttenham, further away, can only have one. (Anyone starting a hop garden in Farnham itself would be entitled to three bells …)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The hops Hogs Back planted in its own hop garden are Fuggles, Farnham White Bine, the traditional local hop, which disappeared from Surrey 80 and more years ago, and the American hop Cascade. As it happens, one of Cascade’s parents is Fuggles, so it ought to feel at home in England (though its ancestors also include, probably, American wild hops of unknown provenance, via open pollination, hence its very American citrus flavours.) According to Miles Chesterman, Hogs Back’s head brewer, the Surrey-grown Cascades (which go into the brewery’s Hogstar lager) are the equal to any Americans, and he is turning away offers to buy some of this year’s harvest: Hogs Back wants it all, especially at current prices.

Hogs Back chairman gives a final look over the hop pickers' lunch at Tongham

Hogs Back chairman Rupert Thompson gives a final look over the hop pickers’ lunch at Tongham

In keeping with the “localism” of growing hops just across the road from the brewery, Rupert and his team laid on a lunch in the dappling shade of the hop garden that featured almost entirely local produce: Surrey cheeses and breads, Surrey scotch eggs and pork pies, and so on, all very fine indeed. The only “outsiders” were a couple of dried meats from Cumbria, if I remember correctly, made by Rupert’s brother, which, too, were terrific.

Fresh green hopped TEA

Fresh green hopped TEA

So, what is fresh green hopped ale flavoured with Farnham White Bines straight off the bine actually like? Excellent and fascinating: beautiful, clean, masses going on, slightly grassy/herby, spot of orange juice, tiny touch of liquorice, red apples, something faintly smokey and autumnal in the background, the sweetness of the beer seemingly brought out more by the raw hops: I’d strongly encourage brewers not just to make “green hop” beers by putting green hops into the copper, but “fresh green hop” beers, soaking the fresh hops in the brewed beer. (And when you put one of those soaked hops in your mouth – whoa!)

And now, a suitable musical ending from Shirley Collins and the Albion Band, “Hopping Down in Kent” – strictly the wrong county, but you’ll spot, I’m sure, that one of the pictures used in this YouTube video shows what is clearly a scene from Farnham.

Dutch treats

Portrait of Gambrinus at the van de Oirsprong brewery

Portrait of Gambrinus. ‘king of beer’, at the van de Oirsprong brewery in North Brabant

It must be very irritating being a Dutch brewer and seeing all the kudos the people next door in Belgium keep getting. What’s the big deal with those bun-munching bastards, they probably say to themselves in the Netherlands, seething over a late-night jenever chaser. The problem was, of course, that by the 1980s the Netherlands had just 17 breweries still operating, most of those concentrating on industrial-style lager, while Belgium still had more than 80 surviving breweries and a wildly varied brewing culture incorporating all sorts of oddities, many unique, such as lambic. Michael Jackson used 29 pages of his New World Guide to Beer in 1988 on Belgium and just eight on the Netherlands. If you were a beer writer, a beer tourist, Belgium was so much more interesting.

The Dutch beer scene has changed dramatically since then: there are now more than 400 brewing operations in the country (though admittedly half don’t have a brewery of their own, and use someone else’s kit to make their product), including some now highly regarded craft beer names.

Still, I’d held off visiting the Netherlands myself until an invitation came to speak at this year’s European Beer Bloggers and Writers conference in Amsterdam. The programme included several interesting-looking visits to Dutch breweries and at least one presentation I was almost desperately interested in hearing. And it seemed wrong that I had never been to a place that was no further from my home in London than Truro in Cornwall is.

Continue reading

The ballad of Baladin

It is a mark of the respect Italy has for beer, not just that there are now around a thousand new small boutique breweries in the country, but that you can take an MA course in beer styles at the University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo in Piedmont. Declaration of interest: three of the modules in the course, on IPA, porter and stout, are based on chapters from my 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black, translated into Italian, for which they paid me. And yet, despite Italy now being home to some of the most adventurous brewers on the planet, its craft beers are mostly scarcely known in the UK: there is one bar, The Italian Job, in Chiswick, West London, dedicated solely to the country’s small brewers, but apart from that I reckon all but the most dedicated British craft beer fans would struggle to name any Italian beers apart from Peroni (*spit*) and Moretti (*spit spit*), while they could reel out a long list of American ones.

Teo Musso and his cartoon twin, one of several Baladin staffers illustrated on the walls of the brewery offices

Teo Musso and his cartoon twin, one of several Baladin staffers illustrated on the walls of the new brewery offices

One of the oldest Italian craft brewers is Baladin, in Piozzo, not far from Polenzo, founded by the handsome and charismatic Teo Musso, 52, originally as a specialist beer bar in 1986 (distinctly cheeky, since Piozzo is in the middle of one of Italy’s best-known, and most beautiful, wine-making areas, Barolo, and Teo’s father was himself a grape farmer). Baladin moved down the supply chain into brewing its own beer ten years later, helped by the Belgian brewer Jean-Louis Dits of Brasserie à Vapeur. The original 500-litre (three-barrel) brewery kit was made out of repurposed milk vessels, and based in a garage alongside the pub.

All its bottled beers are bottle-conditioned, all, including the keg ones, are unpasteurised, and almost every one deserves hunting out, especially Xyauyù barrel, the rum-barrel-aged 14 per cent abv barley wine, dark, deep, rich, complex and harmonious, which leapt into my personal “top ten beers ever” the instant I first tasted it.

Another two decades later, and Baladin, which now has a chain of bars in Italy and more than 200 employees, is opening a fabulous new €12 million 50-hectolitre brewery on the edge of Piozzo, incorporating an old farm building and a formerly half-finished aluminum fixture factory, with lots of lovely shiny new kit from the Italian firm Meccanica Spadoni in Orvieto, Umbria (including an automated spice-adder), a line of huge 100-hectolitre wooden vats to produce the aged beers the company specialises in, and even a three-hectolitre pilot plant for students from the Gastronomic Sciences University to practice their brewing techniques on. Among the innovations is an automated storage plant for ageing bottles in, where a robot moves 2,500 pallets of bottled beer from floor to floor to give them the right length of time at the right temperature to ensure proper refermentation and maturation. The new brewery will enable Baladin to increase production from the current 20,000 hectolitres (12,200 barrels in British currency) to 50,000. (The old brewery kit is being sent to South Africa, for use in a project there.) Continue reading

The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

You would need to be living under an upturned barrel for the past year not to have spotted the phenomenal rise in reputation of Cloudwater Brew Co, the Manchester-based craft brewery started by James Campbell, formerly head brewer at the city’s Marble Brewery, and the hipster entrepreneur Paul Jones. Cloudwater is not even 18 months old, but already spoken of alongside Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock and other top stars of the British craft brewing scene. It was voted best new English brewery of 2015 by Ratebeer, and its beers, especially its collaborations, score extremely highly on rating sites.

Nobody gets that level of buzz without something extremely interesting going on, so I was eager to get down to the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham and hear Paul Jones talk about the rise of Cloudwater at one of the shop’s regular “Meet the brewer” sessions. Good beer alone is not enough to be a storming success in such a short time. Paul confirmed this with a presentation lasting an hour and a half which made it clear that Cloudwater’s rise is powered by a clear and focused vision on the beers it wants to brew and a ferocious dedication to critical self-analysis that means pulling every beer apart and analysing how closely it came to fulfilling the brief set out for it in terms of delivering to specification, and then working out what would need to be done next time to get closer to the brief. It’s a management philosophy I suspect springs from Paul Jones’s background in the engineering side of the music business, and it certainly looks as if Cloudwater has brought a level of conscious business and management sophistication to the British craft brewing scene that makes most new brewery start-ups look like shambling amateurs. Possibly because most new brewery start-ups are shambling amateurs, one might conclude. And again, I may be wrong, but I detect the influence of a music industry background in Cloudwater’s clear commitment to never stepping into the same stream twice: the idea that 2015’s beers are done and away, and all that matters now are 2016’s beers, just like last year’s musical hits are so last year.

The result is a regularly altering line-up of kudos-winning beers that have gained Cloudwater masses of publicity and a hugely dedicated following. Their popularity also makes the beers frequently hard to obtain: I had not been able to find any Cloudwater products before the Twickenham “meet the brewer” session. That makes my take on the beers unfair, since you really can’t properly judge a brewer on just one evening. It’s clear why they are so popular: almost all were sharply focused, clear, clean and faultless. Faultless to a fault, almost: “beautiful” is not the same as “characterful”. But I need to drink more Cloudwater brews over more evenings to decide if this is a valid criticism.

I was going to copy-edit Paul Jones’s Q&A presentation at Twickenham down to merely “long read” rather than “massive over-the-top read”, but I decided people would find something insightful in all he said – he’s a very articulate, enormously enthusiastic man – so here it is, complete: more than 9,000 words. Settle down with a beer: Continue reading