Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result.

It was … OK.

What your great-great grandfather drank (if he was a Dane)

What your great-great grandfather drank (if he was a Dane)

And that, of course, was entirely the point. The Re-brew project, which culminated in a tasting in Copenhagen last week, was a celebration of the unexceptional, a tribute to the work of the Carlsberg scientist Emil Christian Hansen, whose invention 133 years ago of pure yeast cultivation enabled brewers for the first time to produce guaranteed standardised beers, so that the buying public could be sure the pint they were about to open would be as good as yesterday’s, and the one the day before, and the one tomorrow, without exception. That the world’s beer drinkers appreciated this can be easily demonstrated by the wealth amassed by the Jacobsens, owners of Carlsberg, and the way Carlsberg became literally a name known in every household, not only in Denmark but around the world.

Standing in the huge pillared conservatory at JC Jacobsen’s former home in Valby, Copenhagen, sipping the re-brewed 1883-style beer, a clear, clean, bright, copper-coloured Vienna-style lager, slightly sweet, a tiny bit lacking in condition, made with a barley variety called Gammel Dansk, literally “Old Danish”, and lightly hopped with Hallertau Mittelfrüh (the records showed only that the hops game from the Hallertau region, so the variety was a guess) while Carlsberg’s chairman, Flemming Besenbacher, and CEO, Cees ’t Hart, made speeches and photographers bumped elbows trying to get shots of Eric Lund, head brewer at Carlsberg’s laboratories, filling glasses from a wooden cask (hence the lack of condition), it would be fair to wonder what the fuss was about. This was certainly not a beer to knock anyone’s socks off.

SONY DSC

Eric Lund pours the beer, with Flemming Besenbacher and Cees ’t Hart on the left, and a thirsty crowd on the right: the keen-eyed will spot Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, as well as beer writers Jeff Evans, Stephen Beaumont , Jay Brooks and Ron Pattinson (and, er, Pete Brown’s forehead, I believe …)

But sock-knocking potential was not what this beer was ever about. The aim of Hansen – and his boss – was to give Carlsberg drinkers value-for-money consistency, and that’s what they got. In isolating the pure strain of yeast that was then used to make the beer in the bottle from 1883, and every other bottle of Carlsberg lager since (more or less: today’s Carlsberg yeast has apparently changed only slightly, genetically), Hansen invented modern industrial brewing. If the phrase “industrial brewing” makes your lip curl like a wine drinker on first encountering a Belgian brown sour, I’m afraid you don’t really understand beer. Dismissing mass-market beers is like dismissing the Ford Focus and saying F1 racers are the only valid form of motor car. Some terrible crimes have been committed under the banner of industrial beer, that’s true. But overall, industrial beer has brought more happiness to the mass of humanity than craft beer ever will, and EC Hansen is a vastly more important person in the history of beer than Ken Grossman. (Not least because Hansen’s boss, JC Jacobsen, refused to keep the Carlsberg lab’s findings for the company’s sole profit, and made the science – and the pure Carlsberg yeast strain – available to any brewer who wanted it.)

Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, portrayed in his conservatory – see the pillars – as the thoroughly modern scientific brewer, with miscoscope, retort and books – that top one is Pasteur's Etudes Sur La Bière

Jacob Christian Jacobsen, founder of Carlsberg, portrayed in his conservatory – see the pillars – as the thoroughly modern scientific brewer, with miscoscope, retort and books – that top one is Pasteur’s Etudes Sur La Bière

Even so, and accepting that bottle of 1883 lager’s importance in the history of beer, was it worth reproducing the beer inside it? It’s fun for geeks like me, as I told the Danish newspaper Politiken, to taste “hvad vores oldeforældre drak. Her kan jeg i så høj grad som muligt dele en oplevelse, de havde. Det er en forbindelse tilbage i tiden.” (except in English, of course.) It was fun for all those involved at Carlsberg, too: Birgitte Skadhauge, vice-president for research at Carlsberg, who was in overall charge of the project, told me that everybody at the company was very excited about it, and I’m sure that’s accurate. The level of detail in reproducing the old beer was fanatic: the brewing liquor, for example, was first purified and then mineral salts added to match the water from a 68-feet-deep well dug out in January 1883, that is, exactly contemporary with the yeast.

The excellent internal PR available from this sort of venture should never be underestimated. If, as a Carlsberger, you get fed up with sniping from the beer snobs who only rate (in all senses) brews from “craft” concerns, it’s great to get involved in something with history and heft, something no small brewery would have the resources to pull off, in time or money or technological expertise, something that underlines the history the company has, and its importance in the history of beer brewing as a whole. Carlsberg’s influence goes beyond its perfection of techniques to isolate and propagate pure yeast strains that even the tiniest craft brewer today benefits from. For example, plenty of craft brewers make their wackiest beers with Brettanomyces yeast, but Brettanomyces was first properly discovered, studied and named by someone working in the Carlsberg labs in Copenhagen.

An 1883 Carlsberg beer bottle

An 1883 Carlsberg beer bottle

I’m sure when the research guys went to the Carlsberg Foundation, which controls the company, and said: “We’ve found this old beer bottle from 1883, the year EC Hansen perfected pure yeast cultures, that still seems to have viable yeast cells in – wouldn’t it be a great idea to recreate an 1883-style lager with it, and can we have the cash to do so?”, the foundation immediately spotted the trumpet-blowing possibilities, both inside and outside Carlsberg’s walls, and happily opened the corporate wallet. The 140th anniversary of the foundation itself, in 2016, was approaching, and here was something that could be tied in with the anniversary, and used to make Carlsberg people feel good about Carlsberg, as well as, hopefully, make other people feel good about Carlsberg. They could make a film about it (warning – contains scenes of me in a pub), they could fly in loads of journos who would surely say nice thinks about how clever Carlsberg was, and they could round it off with an excellent meal for 140 people prepared by a man who used to work at Noma in Copenhagen, probably the best restaurant in the world, with the Crown Prince of Denmark turning up to sprinkle his royal blessing over us. (Strangely, the last and only other time I was in a room with the Crown Prince of Denmark was when he was promoting another Danish brewer entirely, Mikkeller, during a Danish Trade Week in Hong Kong.)

And so we have it. Loads of effort for, um, something that wierdo beer geeks like me, and plenty of people at Carlsberg, certainly enjoyed, but you can watch the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont and the Californian beer writer Jay Brooks struggle to be complimentary about the result here. I wonder what, say, the 15 or so journos flown in from Israel, or the guy from the paper in Malaysia, both places where Carlsberg is an increasingly big player (and wants to be bigger), thought when they tasted this new/old beer. “Is that all there is?”, I fear.

Karrysild: very tasty, but at £9.20 for one small open sandwich, it needed to be

Karrysild: very tasty, but at £9.20 for one small open sandwich, it needed to be

Still, I’d like to thank Carlsberg very much for enabling me to have another great night in the Taphouse with what must be the finest line-up of beer writers ever gathered around a Copenhagen bar table, including not just Stephen Beaumont and Jay Brooks but Jeff “Beer Bible” Alworth and Stan Hieronymus, also from the US, Pete Brown from the UK, Evan Rail from Czechia and Ron Pattinson from the Netherlands. And I certainly found more challenging beers to drink in Copenhagen than Carlsberg’s Re-brew project. The next day I tried a lunch-time trip to Mikkeller’s new-ish Øl & Brød cafe, just up the street from the original Copenhagen Mikkeller bar in Viktoriagade, where I had an excellent karrysild smørrebrod –slightly spiced herring open sandwich on rye bread with a lightly poached egg – accompanied by a small glass of Hvedegoop, a fine wheat-based barley wine from Mikkeller and Three Floyds, followed by what was basically rhubarb crumble à la danoise, with a small glass of Mikkeller passionfruit Berliner Weisse, which went absolutely brilliantly together, the tartness of the rhubarb and the sourness of the beer complementing each other superbly, a marvellous example of a beer-and-food pairing where the sum was considerably greater than the two pretty-good-on-their-own parts. The one downer was that lunch for one, albeit a very tasty lunch for one, cost me 306 kroner – £32 for one small sandwich, a bowl of crumble and two small beers.

SONY DSC

Amber ale with – yes – real amber in it, and two other Ny Nordic Øl beers as well

To put that in context, my ticket to the Copenhagen Beer Festival later that afternoon, including 20 beer tokens, only cost me 325kr, and as a Camra member I was given more beer tokens for free: indeed, I had so many tokens in the end, I gave quite a few away to Stephen Beaumont, who was returning to the festival the next day. The Copenhagen fest is “American-style”, meaning you only get “tasters” of 10cl (for standard beers) or 5cl (for strong beers): that’s fine for some of the stuff on offer, but nothing like enough for the more drinkable beers. There were some 80-plus stalls, serving mostly Danish beers, and staffed, frequently, by the brewers themselves (something Camra still mostly doesn’t get right), though there was at least one Polish brewer represented, some Americans (Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, Rogue, Widmer and others) at least two or three German (Schneider, Crew Republic, a microbrewery in Munich), quite a few British brewers’ beers (Fuller’s, BrewDog, Sam Smith’s, St Austell, Wychwood to namecheck four), some Belgians, including Westmalle and, to my personal amusement, Grimbergen (apparently Carlsberg now how the distribution rights outside Belgium for Grimbergen: big brewers from the days of Watney’s more than 30 years ago have been trying to promote Grimbergen’s abbey-style brews, with no success, for the excellent reason that they’re not very good); several from Italy, notably Baladin and Del Borgo; O’Hara’s from Carlow in Ireland; at least one Faroese brewery; Einstök from Iceland; and one stall each from the Taybeh brewery in Palestine and the Alexander brewery in Israel (these two were at the furthermost ends of the hall, a converted locomotive shed, from each other, though I was told that in fact the brewers are friends, and I believe it – beer accepts no boundaries).

The crowd looked a proper cross-section of Danish society – much more so than you would see at the GBBF, with a fair number of smart older middle-aged couples, and a definite lack of large groups of men in their 30s. The beers were solidly “eurocraft” – almost 100 per cent keg or bottled (I saw only three handpumps), large numbers of imperial stouts and double IPAs – though with a Danish spin, thanks to the influence of the Ny Nordisk Øl movement and its emphasis on local ingredients, so that there were plenty of beers around with sea buckthorn, sweet gale and the like as their bitterers, rather than hops, and even one “amber ale” with real extract of (presumably Baltic) amber in it, Cold Hawaii (the name of a Danish surfing centre), from Thisted Bryghus: distinctly resiny, and not one I’ll rush back to.

Unlike Copenhagen, which I’d definitely rush back to: lovely city, friendly, welcoming people, great bars. And if Carlsberg decide their next revival will be the double brown stout they used to brew in the 19th century from a recipe JC Jacobsen’s son Carl apparently nicked off William Younger when he was apprenticed to the Edinburgh brewer, I’d even pay my own air fare …

For more of my take on the Re-brew project, go here

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

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

Why Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin is a superstar in Poland

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. 'Opiłek' means 'metal chip'

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. ‘Opiłek’ means ‘metal chip’

Wandering around the Festival of Good Beer outside the football stadium in Wrocław, southern Poland last weekend with the Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin, it was quickly clear I was in the presence of a genuine superstar. A stream of young Poles – mostly male, but including the occasional female – were rushing up to Simon, greeting him by name, shaking his hand warmly and asking if they could have their picture taken with him. During a break in the flood of fandom, Simon wryly told me that he wished he was half as famous back in the UK as he is in Poland. His YouTube video blog, Real Ale Craft Beer, has just under 10,000 subscribers and gets around a thousand views a day – respectable numbers. But while, clearly, many of those viewers come from the UK – after all, Simon is based in this country, and speaking in English – a surprising number come from Poland. The reason seems to be that in the past four years, Poles have developed a growing thirst for craft beer, and an equal thirst for information about the subject, and access to easily digested, enthusiastically delivered knowledge about new craft beers. That is what Simon’s beer-reviewing video website brings them, and they love it – and him.

Poland, you may be surprised to learn, is the third largest brewing nation in the EU, and looking to soon overtake the UK and move into second place. It produced around 40 million hectolitres in 2013, from 155 breweries, 96 litres per head per year, up 10.4% in four years, against 42 million hectolitres a year in the UK from 1,490 breweries, 66 litres per head per year, down 7.1% since 2009, and 94.3 million hectolitres a year in Germany, 107 litres per head per year, down 3.8% in four years, from 1,350 or so breweries.

From those figures you would be guessing that the Polish brewing scene is dominated by big concerns, and it is. SAB Miller has around 38% of the market through Kompania Piwowarska, including the Tyskie and Lech brands. Heineken has another 35% through Grupa Żywiec, and Carlsberg has 14% through its Polish subsidiary, which includes Okocim, leaving just 13% for the independent sector. But that independent sector is thriving: Tomasz Kopyra, the Polish beer blogger who invited me to the Wrocław festival (and who is even more of a superstar among Polish craft beer fans than Simon Martin – Tomasz has 50,000 followers on his own video beer blog and could not walk two yards across the festival grounds without being mobbed by people wanting selfies with him) told me that there were 500 new beers launched on the Polish market last year, a number that will certainly be exceeded by a considerable margin in 2015, when 100 new beers were launched in April this year alone.

Poland now has some 30 newly built craft breweries, and around 30 or 40 other craft brewer concerns contract-brewing their beers on the plant of older-established businesses. The beers they are brewing, just like the beers made by craft brewers elsewhere, largely reflect what is happening in the United States, with big, hugely hoppy IPAs and thumping stouts (though Poland has had a long tradition of very strong porters dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, when London brewers such as Barclay Perkins exported porter and stout to the Baltic region and local brewers were forced to compete with their own versions). Continue reading

A tale of two beer festivals: GBBF versus LCBF

If I had wanted confirmation that the “non-macro” British beer scene is now split into two separate camps, serving different constituencies, with remarkably little cross-over between them, considering that both sides are dedicated to the pursuit of terrific beer, two events a couple of weeks back could not have made it clearer.

In West London, the Campaign for Real Ale’s annual Great British Beer Festival at Olympia delivered the products of around 350 different cask ale brewers to some 50,000 people over five days. Meanwhile, over (almost symbolically) on the other side of the city in East London, at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green, the first London Craft Beer Festival, on for three days in a considerably smaller venue, served beers from just 20 brewers, (only four of whom were also at GBBF*), most or all of it dispensed from pressurised containers that would have kegophobe Camra members fobbing with fury.

The most remarkable contrast between the two events was not the rather different attitudes to the idea of how “good beer” could be dispensed, however, but the very different sets of people attending each festival. The GBBF crowds were a wide selection of the sort of drinkers you might find in any pub in a middle-class area, minus the families though mostly male and skewed, it appeared to me, towards the over-40s – indeed, I’d say the number able to get to Olympia using their Boris bus pass (ahem – like me) was considerably greater than in the pub population at large.

The GBBF crowd

The GBBF crowd: older, mostly male. Your dad’s beer festival

The LCBF crowd, in contrast, was in parts almost a parody of hipsterdom: man buns and “ironic” short-back-and-sides with beards, plenty of checked shirts and Converse All-Stars, and with the hipster “ironic band T-shirt” (where you display on your chest the image of a beat combo popular with teenyboppers in the late 1980s) replaced with the “ironic beer T-shirt” (Tusker lager – I must dig out my Foster’s Special Bitter T-shirt from 1994 …). There were far more women as a proportion of the audience at the LCBF, and the age range was considerably narrower (and younger) than Olympia: I was older than 95 per cent or so of everybody else at the Bethnal Green event by a good 20 years, and (unlike Olympia), while there were plenty of beards, I was wearing one of the very, very few showing any signs of grey.

your little brother's beer festival

The LCBF crowd: younger, hipper. Your little brother’s beer festival

Continue reading

Beerfest Asia Singapore: the sublime and the ridiculous

Brewerkz IPA 2Young Singaporeans love to PARTAAAY. Which means that while Beerfest Asia, held in the city every June since 2009, now places a hefty emphasis on craft beers from small producers, for very many of the more than 25,000 people who pour in over four days to the festival site, the 400-plus different beers available, from Sweden to New Zealand, and Japan to Belgium, are less important than the opportunities to get pissed with friends, wear very silly hats, listen to very loud music and dance on the tables.

This probably explains why no one seems to think it incongruous that alongside all the craft beers (such as the highly regarded and multi-awarded Feral Brewing from Western Australia, Mikkeller from Denmark via various other places, Hitochino from Japan, De Molen from De Nederlands, Stone from California, Moa from New Zealand and our own dear BrewDog) there was not only a large stand for Jagermeister, but big bars run by AB InBev (featuring Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser) and by Asia Pacific Breweries, the Far Eastern arm of Heineken, selling the Dutch brewer’s eponymous eurofizz, plus Strongbow cider, Desperado tequila beer, and Sol. Truly the sublime being served alongside the ridiculous. Continue reading

Hong Kong’s first ever beer festival

Beertopia at the Western Market

The Beertopia crowd around 3pm: already pretty full …

Until last weekend, Hong Kong had never seen a beer festival: not a proper one, with a choice of beers from a range of different brewers. Odd, perhaps, for the home of Asia’s oldest microbrewer, the Hong Kong brewery, still running after 16 years in Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island. But most Hongkongers don’t seen enthusiastic about beer except as a thirst quencher or a relaxer. And yet … since 2009, Singapore has been running a hugely successful beer festival, Beerfest Asia, which attracted 30,000 people over four days last year, to try 300 beers on 40 stands. So Asian cities CAN run successful big beer festivals.

Mind, Singapore, despite having a smaller population than Hong Kong, manages to support far more micro-brewers too: seven, Beer Avocado suggests. Hong Kong still only has two, albeit one is probably the only brewery dedicated to reproducing hand-pumped British cask-style ales in the whole of Asia, the tiny Typhoon brewery, founded by an airline pilot from Devon, Pierre Cadoret, in 2009.

But among the attenders at the 2010 Beerfest Asia in Singapore was a 28-year-old Canadian called Jonathan So, whose parents had emigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Jonathan had moved to Hong Kong to work for a software company, bringing with him an appreciation for craft beer picked up while a student at Columbia University in New York. The Singapore festival impressed him deeply: “I thought, ‘How come Hong Kong doesn’t have anything like this, even a fraction of its size?”

Continue reading

London’s brewing, London’s brewing …

The London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis, by Borough Market, a couple of Saturdays ago was a terrific event, thoroughly enjoyable. In one room were gathered a dozen or more (I forgot to count) stalls representing breweries from in and around London, with the brewers themselves serving their beers and happy to talk to the punters about them.

It was the kind of “meet the brewer” show common in the US but almost unheard of in the UK that we really should be seeing repeated across this country. And it’s good to see London’s brewers working together in the 21st century to support each other in exactly the same way their ancestors did almost eight centuries ago, when the Brewers’ Guild was founded at All Hallows’ Church, London Wall.

It was also good, for me, to see that the Brewery History Society had a stall there: the LBA clearly has an interest in London’s history as a world-class brewing city, and everybody needs to be reminded of this almost forgotten heritage. I’d argue that, historically, London has an excellent claim to be regarded as the greatest brewing city in the world. Yes, I AM a Londoner, so of course I’m biased, but I dare you to deny that over the centuries London has given the world more new beer styles than any other brewing centre on the planet:
Continue reading

Going for a Californian Burton

After I had met Matt Brynildson brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, on his way to make a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, for this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, I was eager to try Matt’s brew.

The problem with the Wetherspoon’s festival, though, is that with 50 beers on offer and no one pub able to do more than eight or so at a time, finding the one you want in any random ‘spoons outlet is, at best, five to one against: indeed, some pubs, I found last year, weren’t carrying any festival specials at all.

But since I was on the eastern side of the City on Friday night I decided the Masque Haunt in Old Street was worth a punt: despite the poor reviews you’ll find at that link, this is, as pubs underneath office blocks go, not bad, I’ve been drinking there for a dozen years and the condition of the beer is generally good, the customers are no more wacky than anywhere else in the City after 8pm when anyone normal has caught the train home*, and, most importantly, it offered a very good selection of beers during last year’s festival.

Result! Not only was the Haunt stocking Matt’s California Pale Ale, it also had two of the other three “international guest brewer” beers on tap, Baron’s Black Wattle Original Ale, with the Sydney-based brewers coming to Banks’s in Wolverhampton to recreate their beer (two more different places than “Sinny” and “Walverampton” it would be tough to think up) and Yona Yona from the Yo-Ho brewery in Kitasaku, Japan, being brewed at Banks’s.

Continue reading

GBBF: not all about the beer

The Great British Beer Festival isn’t about the beer. Well, OK, a large part of it is about the beer, there are hundreds of different brews on sale. How could it not be about the beer. But for me the beer isn’t the main pleasure: instead it’s the chance to meet a large number of pals without having to ring them up beforehand, because I know they’ll be going. I can predict who many of those I’ll share a beer with at Earls Court after an unplanned encounter around the bars will be. But there are always surprise stumble-upons, old pals recognised with a start. Plus beer!

Continue reading

Restive about festivals

I’ve been going to beer festivals for 30 years, I’ve served behind the bar at them, I’ve organised them, and I’m still not sure I really like them.

The problem is that whatever time you go, it’s always Friday night – that is, the bars are packed, it takes ages to get served, often the beers you want have run out, it’s frequently too noisy for conversation, and you can’t find a seat to sit down.

All the same, this is the first time in almost two decades that I’ve missed the opening of the Great British Beer Festival – having to fit in with someone else’s unbreakable holiday commitments meant I was on a Greek beach (of which more in another blog). One of the benefits of being a member of the Zythographers’ Union is that you get to blag your way in to the GBBF trade session on the Tuesday afternoon, which means there will always be a large number of people there I haven’t seen since, in some cases, the previous year’s GBBF, so that’s always fun. This year I didn’t get back to Britain until the Thursday night, so the one GBBF session I managed was Friday early evening.

Continue reading