Reasons to be a cheerful beer drinker, part 16645

Fullers Brewers Reserve
Fuller's Brewer's Reserve

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker: and I’d like to submit as just one plank in the platform that supports this claim Fuller’s new Brewer’s Reserve, its 7.7 per cent abv whisky cask–aged ale.

Why is this the best time to be a beer drinker ever? Isn’t the dominance of mass- produced, lowest common denominator lagers and “extra cold” (that is, even less taste than normal) beers, the continuing decline in the number of old-established family brewers, ever-higher beer taxes, the ludicrous war on normal drinking under the pretext of attacking “bingers”, and the closure of a horrifying number of pubs every week enough to make this a deeply depressing time to be a beer drinker?

Well, that’s the bad news. But the real story, I believe, is the Everest of enthusiasm that exists among brewers in pursuing quality, exciting beer experiences, which is reflected in more innovation, more experimentation, more excitement in the brewing industry, even in comparatively conservative Britain, in the past five, ten, 20 years than in any comparative period, ever.

When the Campaign for Real Ale started 37 years ago, British beer consisted of bitter, mild, a few old ales and barley wines, a few brown ales and stouts, and the first, weak, imitation lagers. Since then we have seen the revival of porter, in increasingly authentic forms, the return of specialist stouts, the return of odd historic brews such as heather ale, and fruit ales, proper wheat beers, the broadening out of lager brewing in Britain to take in authentic Continental styles, the invention of an entirely new category in golden ales, and now the arrival of another previously unseen style, cask-aged beers.

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Wrecking the reputation of Griff Rhys Jones

Thanks to Griff Rhys Jones, one of the “myths” pages on this blog saw a sudden spike in hits last night and today, as large numbers of sceptics turned to Google to check out one of the claims in the gurning comedian’s new BBC television programme on The World’s Greatest Cities.

Dr Butler's head
Dr Butler’s head

The first episode was on London, and one of the places Griff visited (how does a man with such a Welsh name have such an English accent, btw?) was the Old Dr Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue, near Moorgate, in the City. The pub is named after William Butler, the physician to James VI of Scotland and I of England, and “Doctor” Butler (he never actually qualified), who died in 1618, was famous for inventing a “purging ale” that containing seven different herbs and roots, which was described in 1680 as

“an excellent stomack drink [which] helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink listed the ingredients as betony (a bitter grassland plant), sage, agrimony (a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass (a seaside plant high in Vitamin C, also used to make scurvy-grass ale), Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (a dandelion-like bitter plant that continues to be used in herbal cough mixtures) and horseradish, which were to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation.

The name “Butler’s Head” indicated that the pub sold the doctor’s ale (and not, as the programme last night apparently claimed, that he owned the pub – there were once at least two other Butler’s Heads in London, including one in Telegraph Street, the other side of Moorgate, which only closed in the late 1990s). Today the Dr Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue is a Shepherd Neame outlet, and last night’s programme showed the launch of a new “herbal” beer at the pub.

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Publican panics as poll goes pear-shaped

The Publican newspaper, written for pub managers and pub tenants in the UK, is having a small panic right now because the voting in the current poll on its website is going seriously in the wrong direction – and Publican staffers are now emailing around trying to drum up votes for the “right” answer.

The Publican is asking visitors to its website to vote on the proposition: “Should the government introduce a minimum price per alcohol unit?” Obviously, since pub people understandably hate the deep discounting and (alleged) below-cost selling of alcohol found in supermarkets, it expects an overwhelming “yes” from its readers. Unfortunately for the Publican, right now the vote is running 60:40 in favour of “no” – not the pro-pub message the newspaper wishes to present.

The result, apparently, is that “friendly” contacts are receiving emails from Publican staffers like the one below, from someone who, to protect them, will remain nameless:

Help me please!

We run a poll on our website but I think its been infiltrated by an anti-pub group who have corrupted the result. Can you help me by simply visiting the website http://www.thepublican.com/ and clicking ‘yes’ on the poll on the bottom left hand side of the screen. The idea is that a minimum price on alcohol will help stop chavs necking cheap tins of stella and causing bother on our streets. Please help me in this!

If you can get anyone else to vote yes too I’d be ever grateful – I might even buy you a four pack from Tesco.

Cheers

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Lager: the truth (or some of it)

A flyer for Allsopp's lager
A flyer for Allsopp's lager

If not actually unique (always a dangerous claim to make), it was certainly a very rare sight in the cellar bar at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday: four draught lagers on tap from four different British craft brewers, Meantime in Greenwich (its smoked bock); the Cotswold Brewing Company; Taddington, a new Derbyshire brewery, with Moravka; and Harviestoun (Schiehallion), and no draught ale at all. Thornbridge Hall, of course, has its own brewery, and it was also where the British Guild of Beer Writers held a successful seminar on wood-aged beers last year This year it was the first seminar on lager ever organised by the guild in its 20 years of existence (a shameful omission considering lager is the beer of choice for 70 per cent or more of British beer drinkers now) and prompted by the fact that, thanks to people like Alastair Hook at Meantime and Richard Keene of Cotswold, Britons generally are starting to realise there is more to lager than being fizzy, yellow and cold.

British beer writers, naturally, would like to claim that we knew that already. But even so there has been the unspoken feeling, I suspect, that lager was something they did “over there” (points across English Channel, North Sea and Atlantic) and we didn’t have to concern ourselves with it except when we went “over there” ourselves, where we could be free to pontificate about lagering periods and decoction mashing.

There was also, as Roger Protz, who was the first speaker at Monday’s seminar, made a point of saying, a misunderstanding among British beer writers for a long time that lager was a “new” beer, invented in the 19th century, “a modern style made possible by the new technologies of the industrial revolution.” In fact, as Roger illustrated, cold storing of beer was being practised in places such as Bamberg in the 14th century, and may well go back to the 11th century at Weihenstephan, near Munich. The documentary evidence for the depth of history behind cold-brewed lager beer, of course, has just been given firm scientific support by genetic studies of lager yeast that show it developed several hundred years ago, almost certainly in Bavaria.

Paul Buttrick, a former brewer with Whitbread, revealed that even Stella Artois used to receive a respectable 42 days’ lagering, against the seven to 11 days the beer receives today. Blame the accountants? However, if building a 300,000-barrel brewery costs £6 million for 40 lagering tanks in which the beer will be stored for two weeks, but £36 million for 240 tanks in which the beer could be stored for 12 weeks, and you can’t show a 12-week lagering period produces a beer so much better than a two-week lagering period that you could charge an appropriate premium to cover your costs, then you’ve got to give the accountants some sympathy.

At the same time, Paul said, technological advances have meant better handling for beer, giving greatly reduced oxygen levels in the final packaged product, so that a beer will remain fresh for three to four months after packaging, against the two to three weeks of 50 years ago. So “lager beer is certainly higher quality today – but does it taste better?”

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Twenty more beers before lunchtime

My normal reason for travelling to Parson’s Green in West London is to drink at the White Horse, still a fine place to find a wide selection of beers in a congenial setting (except if the upper middle classes bring you out in a rash, of course).

I was in Sloaneland yesterday, however, for the latest series of the Tesco Drinks Awards, when a very large number of bottled brews are subjected to blind tastings by teams of experienced judges, and me.

Like the similar Sainsbury’s awards, these are a big deal for the winning brewers, since they come with a guaranteed listing on the supermarkets’ shelves. For the retailers, the chance is there to find some great beers your rivals won’t have, and add to the differentiation between your supermarket and the one up the road – which is doubtless why Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, US readers) is now doing the same thing.

Unlike the Sainsbury’s awards, the beers in the Tesco judging are drunk “blind”, the bottles carefully wrapped in thick plastic to disguise their origin. However, the scoresheets, helpfully, now list the ingredients, down to the level of exactly what varieties of hops and types of malt went into each brew. This is fascinating in its own right, and it’s a shame and a scandal that all brewers don’t do this as a regular habit on their bottle labels.

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