Category Archives: Bars

Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.

den Lille Havfrue
If you’re in Copenhagen you do, really, have to go and pay your respects to den Lille Havfrue

Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark earlier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”). The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.

Hærvejs Lyng
Hærvejs Lyng heather beer: the ‘hær’ in Hærvejs is the same as the here in Hereford

Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick. There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.

Hø Øl, or 'Hay Ale',
Mark Hø Øl, or ‘Hay Ale’, once brewed in Britain

One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water. Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.

Xperimentet No 2, beiitered with sea wormwood ('strandmalurt' in Danish
Xperimentet No 2, bittered with sea wormwood (‘strandmalurt’ in Danish)

Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark: An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour. Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Continue reading Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

Micropubs: revolution in the making or just five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space?

The micropub movement – numbers now past 40 and rising, with new examples seemingly opening every week – seems to have avoided any sort of critical backlash so far, probably because it’s still very, very tiny (like the pubs themselves). But I fear it won’t be long before a definition of “micropub” appears based on a TripAdvisor review of the “original” micropub, the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent: “Five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London
The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

I say this as a card-carrying member of the Grumpy Old Man demographic myself, but that is the surprising aspect of the micropub “mini-boom” – it turns on its head every recently received wisdom about the way forward for the British pub, about how the wet-led boozer catering for old gits who are only interested in pints and chat is on its Last Orders, about how those pubs which fail to gastro-reinvent themselves are doomed to end up as supermarkets or blocks of flats.

The facts are, sadly, there to show that, across the board, places that stick to “LADs” – long alcoholic drinks – as their main attraction are putting up the shutters. It’s not just pubs: between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of social clubs in Britain fell by 417, or 3.1 per cent, a closure rate of eight a week (and with no help or hindrance from the pubcos, you’ll notice: you do NOT have to be a pubco tenants to find the current climate extremely chilly. ). But pubs are suffering, of course: over the same period, “wet-led” or drinkers’ pubs fell by almost 600, or 2 per cent, a rate of just over 11 a week. Many of those were town centre pubs, which are particularly feeling pain. Food-led pubs, meanwhile, nudged up slightly, from 11,334 to 11,357, while restaurants shot ahead, with a net gain for the year of 1,470 outlets. In other words, for every wet-led pub that closes, two and a half new restaurants open. That trend looks set to accelerate: between now and 2018 it has been predicted that the number of “wet-led” pubs will fall by 10 per cent, or about 2,900 boozers, while food-led pubs will increase in numbers by 7 per cent and restaurants by 5 per cent. (All figures from CGA Peach.)

Now, all the micropubs in Britain added together right now still don’t beat one month’s “wet-led” pub closures. But since a micropub – food-free, no keg offering, the sort of beer-only alehouse that was already disappearing before the Second World War, typically filled with unaccompanied men over 50, often in or near town centres – is a reversal of everything else happening in the pub market right now, we may eventually have to ask: “Is this just a few hobbyists, or have the big pub operators actually missed a trick?”

Indeed, the micropub movement looks to have produced its first home-grown entrepreneur, with James Mansfield, owner of the Medieval Beers brewery in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, opening a third micropub under the name “Beer Shack”, in the town that shares his name, to follow the first two Beer Shacks in Hucknall and Burnley respectively.

Could this be the sign that micropubs are moving from what could, even a few months ago, be dismissed as an eccentric hobby into the mainstream of British hospitality? There are, apparently, so many people now looking to open a micropub themselves that the Micropub Association has declared that “the micropub revolution is going bonkers”, and put a warning on its website that “due to the sheer numbers of enquiries we get from potential micropub owners, we are unable to give you any individual advice [or] enter into individual email discussions regarding the viability of the setting up of your micropub.”

The Association has just restated its definition of what a micropub is, moving from a declaration that it had to be small, in size, a conversion of an existing premises, primarily selling real ale, with “NO lager whatsoever”, and filled with “lively banter and chat with no music”. Today the Association says that “a micropub is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Is the micropub as a route to running your own pub business a threat to the traditional pubco tenancy? As the Micropub Association’s website points out, the would-be micropub landlord has a fair number of advantages over those looking to start up a “traditional” pub. The small size of a micropub means low costs and maximum use of space; no music means no costly music licences and no expensive sound system to pay for; no food means less work, fewer skills required, less space needed, no hygiene exams to pass, no additional costs because of the potentially expensive oversight by environmental health officials, and no “scores on the doors” rigmarole to deal with; no keg lagers or other keg beers means no complicated equipment and no need for bar space; the potential for low rates due to being rated as a shop rather than a pub; from that, low water rates, which are traditionally based on the rateable value; and if you keep turnover below £75,000 a year, the chance to save on 20% VAT. What’s not to like?

We won’t, I don’t think, be able to tell if the micropub movement really is a revolution or a fad until micropub numbers get into at least low triple figures, and we don’t see a rash of closures. But the fact that the movement has gone from a very slow start – the Butcher’s Arms opened in 2005, there were no more micropubs until 2009 and still only a dozen by the end of 2012 – to what looks like a (still small) rocket surge suggests that something extremely interesting may be happening.

How will it affect the rest of the pub business if micropubs really do become mainstream? Well, it could certainly cut back on the number of people looking to run a pubco tenanted pub, if they think they can start up a micropub all of their own for, probably, less money than acquiring a tenancy would cost. But a pub that takes in a year what the average JD Wetherspoon outlet takes in a fortnight is probably not going to worry too many big operators. And the big operators – and most other pubs – probably won’t be losing much business to the micropubs anyway, since the customers micropubs seem to be attracting look to be those who stopped going out to “ordinary” pubs 20 years ago, and stayed at home instead.

On the other hand, since the micropubs seem to be proving that there is a demographic out there which is not currently being served properly by the “mainstream” pub industry, and since new business is always welcome, it may be that big operators start to consider the advantages of running micropubs themselves. In just the way that Tesco, having captured the “big destination shop” supermarket sector, moved into town centres with smaller Tesco Metro stores to mop up what remained, could we see someone like Wetherspoon, having captured so many high streets, decide to move into the suburbs with a chain of “Spoons Local” micropubs?

(A variation of this article appeared on the Propel Info site)

The highs and lows of Hong Kong’s bar scene

La SalamandreIt is a truth universally acknowledged – in Wan Chai, at any rate – that a single man walking down Lockhart Road at night-time must be in want of a nice Filipina lady friend to be the Suzie Wong to his Robert Lomax. Hong Kong’s most persistent mama-sans will tug at your sleeve, trying to persuade you into their lap-dancing bars, where smiling young women from Manila or Luzon (so I am told) will attempt to get you to buy them drinks, at HK$300 – £25 – a time.

But while the image many people have of Hong Kong’s bar scene is probably based on Wan Chai’s pole-dancing clubs and places like the Old China Hand, where homesick expats can watch Six Nations rugby while washing down a full English breakfast with a pint of Stella, in fact the former colony’s drinking places are far more diverse and, sometimes, far, far better than anything you’ll find in Wan Chai. For the over-50 Westerner, Wan Chai is the place to go for a Friday night out. For anybody younger, Hong Konger or expat, the area known as Lan Kwai Fong, in Central, a couple of MTR stops to the west of Wan Chai, is now the wildly thumping heart of Hong Kong’s entertainment world: there is a whole grid of streets where practically everything is either a bar or a restaurant.

But drinking in Hong Kong is not just the Friday night rave scene in Lan Kwai Fong, either. While Hong Kong is not quite yet among the planet’s must-visit bar destinations, it has one of only two bars in Asia to appear in a list of “Great Craft Beer Bars Around the World” in a book by A Multiple Award-Winning Beer Writer due to be published in September, I can reveal (though I probably shouldn’t); it has the highest bar in the world, measured by distance from the ground; it has what must be one of the most unexpectedly situated craft beer bars in the world; and it has one or two of the world’s greatest beach bars. And while the beer in Wan Chai is generally pretty shoddy, if you know where to look you can find an impressive selection of terrific brews elsewhere in Hong Kong.

Agnès b Gough StreetIn fact Hong Kong is starting to be a place where you’ll discover great beer in outlets you’d never have thought had any interest in the idea. One of my favourite places to drink isn’t a bar in any conventional sense, but a French-style cafe chain run under the name of the Agnès b fashion group. They sell the usual sorts of French cafe foods – croques monsieur, baguettes, omelettes, pasta, salads, pastries and cakes – there’s a rather fine florist’s rammed into one corner, and an excellent range of nine or so organic, unfiltered beers from three breweries in the west of France that are the match of anything the best brewers elsewhere in the world can do.

Continue reading The highs and lows of Hong Kong’s bar scene