If there is a more international, more fascinating, more illuminating, more must-not-be-missed beer celebration on the planet right now than Carnivale Brettanomyces in Amsterdam, let me know immediately, because it must be marvellous.
Carnivale Brettanomyces, now on its sixth year, calls itself a beer festival, but it’s more a three-day massively parallel series of dozens of different events – lectures, tastings, panels, tap takeovers and food-and-beer matching – across eight different venues around Amsterdam, involving, for 2017, almost 60 breweries from not quite a dozen different countries, and several hundred visitors from at least 17 , from Canada to India.
What is particularly thrilling, besides the skin-tingling geekery of hearing people discuss, and discussing, deeply obscure aspects of beer making, is tasting deeply rare beers: Norwegian farmhouse ales, saisons from tiny Belgian 10th-generation family breweries, pale ales you would otherwise have to take a trip to far-off rural Vermont and queue for three hours in the cold to get hold of.
As the name implies, the purpose of the festival is to celebrate Brettanomyces, the funky (literally) cousin to standard brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Most mainstream brewers, and all winemakers, shun Brett the way vampires flee from crosses, believing the aromas it brings to fermentations – sweaty socks, farmyards, damp leather – are definitely not those they wish to put in front of their drinkers. But Belgian brewers have been creatively using strains of Brett in everything from Lambics to pale ales (Orval, famously, has a touch of Brettanomyces) for centuries, and the yeast was actually first isolated from samples of English stock ales, and named, by the Danish brewing chemist Niels Hjelte Claussen, at Carlsberg in Copenhagen, in or shortly before 1903.
Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.
Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.
Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.
At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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→
This post has its roots in something my 14-year-old daughter said to me this morning, about how she would never drink tea or coffee. “You will,” I told her, thinking that, as with so many pleasures, the joys of the Chinese camellia and the Arabian coffee bush were hard to understand when you are only young. It would certainly be pointless brewing up a cup of roasty Sumatra for her now, and insisting: “Try this, you’ll like it!” How old was I when I began appreciating tea and coffee? Seventeen, at the earliest, I’m sure, maybe 18, and even then I still needed plenty of sugar in each cup. And yet, I was only 14 when I was handed my first pint of beer, by my father – a pint of Fremlin’s bitter, in the garden of the Rose in Bloom, Whitstable – and took to it immediately, instantly seduced by its uncompromising hoppiness.
So how old should people be when we thrust a glass of beer at them, declaring: “You must try this!” I’m pretty sure that for most, 14 would be too early. Alcohol – you’ve perhaps forgotten this – actually tastes horrible when you first try it. Most beers will be very bitter, to almost anyone not used to the drink. But at 16, when it’s legal, in the UK, to drink beer and wine in a pub or restaurant, provided it’s an accompaniment to food, I believe it’s essential to start introducing teenagers to good beer, to show them what the drink is capable of and, most importantly, to show them that what their mates might secretly be drinking – most probably mainstream lager – is definitely not the acme of the beery arts.
Right: what beers should you give a 16-year-old to show them beer’s range, without overwhelming them and making them run away? Here’s my pick of an educational nine, all (in the UK, at least) relatively easy to get hold of, all of which point up a particular lesson about beer. They should be presented in the order I’ve deliberately listed them, and no more than a couple a day: another very important lesson teenagers should have drilled into them is that alcohol is for enjoying, and getting drunk is not actually the prime purpose. Indeed, while the buzz, enjoyed safely, is an aspect of the appeal of drinking, being drunk shouldn’t, properly, be any part of the purpose at all.
Woodforde’s Wherry – English bitter Let’s start where I started, with an English bitter. I’ve spoken before about how I fell immediately in love with this beer the first time I tasted it, at a beer festival in Cambridge in the early 1980s. Other bitters are available, but Wherry manages to be both complex and easy to drink at the same time, a very tough trick. If you can, drink this with your 16-year-old in a pub (over a meal, to be legal). Ask them what they notice in the beer. Don’t lead them, unless they get completely stuck. Talk about the ingredients, mention that much of the flavour comes from the single hop, Goldings. Point out that at 3.8 per cent alcohol, this is a beer for easy sipping over a session chatting with friends, and yet, if you want to, you can notice all sorts of interesting stuff going on in the depths of the glass.
Sierra Nevada pale ale On next to a beer that looks not too dissimilar to the Wherry – somewhat paler – but provides a complete contrast in taste, aroma and intent. “OK, kid,” you can say, “you’ve had a gentle, friendly introduction: this is what happens when you let the hops loose.” Point out that, theoretically, both this and the beer before are part of the great superfamily “pale ale”. Ask your 16-year-old what differences, and similarities, they find between the two beers. Ask them what flavours they are finding, what those flavours remind them of. Tell them that, once again, there’s only one type of hop in there, this time Cascade. Talk about American hops versus European ones. Ask if this is a sipping and chatting beer, or something else. They will, I hope, be interested to know that SN pale ale is one of the most influential beers in the world, having inspired hundreds – thousands? – of brewers to make something similar.
Fuller’s London Porter For the second session with your 16-year-old, present them with something completely different, in appearance and flavour. Fuller’s porter is not my favourite porter, but for a teenager, it’s a good training wheels beer, slightly sweet, which will counteract the bitterness. Explain that the colour, and much of the flavour come from roasted grain. Ask what tastes and aromas they are getting, what the mouthfeel is like, and how that mouthfeel might differ from the two beers they had before. You might talk briefly about how this was THE beer of London’s working classes for more than a century, just to give them an idea of beer’s historical aspects. Ask them what foods they think this beer might go with.
Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout Finish off the session with something you’ll have to warn your 16-year-old they might well find horrible. Explain how this is the big daddy of the beer they’ve just had, with everything ramped up to 11. If they can take much more than a sip, ask them, again, to describe the flavours, and to say what similarities and differences they find compared to the porter. Tell them how this beer is stored for 12 months before being bottled, to let it mature. Slip in a bit of history again – how this was Catherine the Great’s favourite type of beer. Ask them how they would use this beer: as an aperitif, or an end-of-the day winder-down?
Orval Session three is a very brief introduction to Belgium. You don’t want to scare your 16-year-old too much. Still, the bitterness, and the funk, of Orval should, again, show them that “beer” covers a vast world of impressions and experiences. Ask them to sniff the beer and describe the aroma. Explain about the Brettanomyces yeast, how it imparts something some describe as “cheesy”, or “barnyardy” to the beer, and how the Brett means the beer tastes different as it ages in bottle.
Liefmans Kriekbier Then cheer them up with a beer that ought to appeal to any 16-year-old. Once again, this is designed to be an eye-opener as to the enormous range of flavours that can be found under the headword “beer”. Try to open the bottle out of sight, and don’t tell your teenager what’s gone into it: if they’ve never heard of cherry beer, this is likely to be a complete surprise to them. Ask them if they’d recommend it to friends. Tell them about cherry beer ice-cream (mmm – cherry beer ice-cream …)
Weihenstephaner Hefe-Weisse For session four, we can present our 16-year-old with something rather less challenging, though still likely to be outside the range of beers they might have been secretly drinking at parties while they thought your attention was elsewhere. Here’s where you can talk about yeast: explain to the teenager that the cloudiness of the beer is no fault, but a result of using wheat, and having yeast left unfiltered in the bottle. Tell them much of the flavour in the beer comes from the particular yeast used, and ask them, once more, what flavours and aromas they find. Ask them to say when and where this might be a good beer to drink, and if it would go with any particular sorts of food.
Budweiser Budvar Ease them down with something a lot closer to the type of beer a 16-year-old is likely to have encountered. Explain how this beer undergoes 90 days of lagering, and tell them what lagering is and what that maturation does to a beer. Ask them what they are finding as they taste the beer, and if they are getting an after-taste as they swallow. Ask them how this beer compares, in their memory, to other lagers they might have drunk. Talk a bit, if you like, about the difference between this and American Budweiser.
Stella Artois Finally, for the last lesson, take them down to the pub for a meal and order them a pint of Stella, or similar mass-produced lager. What? Yes – then ask them to describe anything they are getting off the beer, and tell them to compare it to the beers you have introduced to them. Hopefully, a lesson will have been learned that will last them the rest of their drinking life. Then ask them if they would like to replace the Stella with something else. If they say “no”, and it’s your 16-year-old, disown them immediately.