Category Archives: Beer ingredients

Malt geezers: in which we look at everything from an Anglo-Saxon maltings to the most modern bit of malting kit in the country

That’s another one crossed off the bucket list … standing in a “live” floor maltings, watching the chemical magic that is barley enzymes turning starch into sugar in many millions of little seeds, all spread in a carpet four inches deep and probably 60 yards long and 15 yards wide. I grew up in Hertfordshire, where long, narrow maltings buildings can be found in most towns: there was one next door to my school, which had been acquired as overspill classrooms, so I can say I absorbed some of my education where malt was once made. I’ve been in plenty of disused floor maltings over the decades, in the UK and abroad, and I’ve seen a Saladin drum maltings in action, but never, until last Friday, a working floor maltings where malt is made in a way basically unchanged from the way it was made a thousand and more years ago.,

Floor maltings at Crisp’s in Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, loaded with a batch of Maris Otter barley

What I wasn’t expecting on the joint Brewery History Society/Guild of Beer Writers trip to Crisp’s maltings in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk was to be allowed inside the kiln, where the malt, once it has germinated enough, is dried off. These pyramidal structures, often topped with cowls that turn with the prevailing wind, are again familiar to anyone who has ever visited Ware in Hertfordshire, once the greatest malting town in the country, or Burton upon Trent, where multitudes of breweries had their own maltings. They are – or at least the one we were taken into – surprisingly spacious inside. Less surprisingly, it’s hot: but not that hot. To make properly dried pale malt takes about two and a quarter days of gentle heat. Too hot, to try to speed life up, and the malt will be too dark.

Inside a malt kiln at Crisp’s maltings at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk

Next up, though, was a wonderful piece of 21st century malting kit just installed at Great Ryburgh, the Speciality Malt Plant, the only one of its kind in the UK, and so new its products are not even on sale yet: two 20-feet-high towers wrapped in spiral tubes that take raw malt and then toast, roast, stew or bake it to produce the complete range of coloured malts, from amber through brown and chocolate to black. The towers will also make crystal malts and other speciality malts, continuously, at a rate of 1.5 tonnes an hour, with the kind of control over the colour of the final product impossible using batch production methods.

The new Speciality Malt Plant at Crisp’s Great Ryburgh maltings

Each tower has two off-balance electric motors attached that vibrate the assembly, shaking the grains of malt up the spiral tubes. In the tubes the grains are blasted with heat as they rise, making them darker and more toasty/roasty, with the changes in flavour – coffee, chocolate, burnt raisins, even liquorice – that come with browning the malt. (Malt trivia: so-called “chocolate” malt doesn’t have chocolatey flavours, but coffee-like ones: the name comes from the colour. Chocolatey flavours are more likely to be found in brown malt, one step backwards down the level of roasting.) As the first grain comes out the other end, after 50 minutes or so, its colour can be checked against spec, and the heat adjusted as needed for the rest of the run. Water can be injected into the first tower, which will mean green malt can be stewed on its way through and then converted into crystal malt. The system was originally designed by a Frenchman to dry wood pellets for burning in power stations, but is now used for everything from drying almonds and other nuts to roasting coffee.

The Maris Otter mother field, ‘somewhere in Norfolk’, where all the Maris Otter grain farmers will be planting in four years’ time is starting out

It all starts in a field, of course: and on the way back to Norwich our mixed group of hacks and historians took a side trip to the Maris Otter mother field, at a secret side “somewhere in Norfolk”. This is where seed is grown up in the first year of a four-stage process to produce the grain that is sold to farmers who grow the barley that is turned into malt that craft brewers around the world love because of the way it handles in the mash tun and because of the way the beers it produces develop in the cask. But why does it need a mother field? Because all organisms, if not watched, will fail to breed true, and in a few generations, with 36 seeds per head of barley, bouf! No more pure-bred Maris Otter, with all the genetic characteristics so many brewers love.

So the “mother field” seed actually comes from a one-hectare plot that has been rigorously vetted to ensure everything harvested from it is pukka pure seed of exactly the sort released by the Plant Breeding Institute in Maris Lane, Trumpington, near Cambridge, back in 1965, and the plants in the mother field will be vetted again: at least one mutation is found every year, and the offending barley plant pulled up out of the soil, taken round the back of a hedge and shot in the head. (More malt trivia: among the other varieties of barley released by the Plant Breeding Institute in the 1960s was one called Maris Baldric, which appeared on the agricultural stage in 1961: alas, it was a cunning plan that lacked longevity, and Maris Baldric eventually disappeared. A baldric, to save you looking it up, is a sword belt, the sort that goes over one shoulder and diagonally across under the other arm.)

All this trouble is necessary to get the required certificates that allow the seed to be sold to farmers. Maris Otter’s popularity among specialist brewers means that it has lasted as a commercial variety almost 55 years, though it came close to disappearing at one point, and its low yields in the field mean farmers have to be paid a premium to grow it. Still, there are plenty who will proclaim that Maris Otter grown in Norfolk soil, comparatively poor glacial till over chalk, and nurtured by Norfolk’s dry, sea-influenced climate, is a tough upbringing that results in the best malting barley in the world.

A 2,000-year-old gold coin from what is today Essex, showing what must be an ear of barley

And they’ve been malting barley in East Anglia for more than two thousand years, probably. Under King Cunobelin, the Catuvellauni minted coins in Camulodunum, modern Colchester, that showed what was pretty clearly an ear of barley on one side. If the Iceni, their neighbours to the north in modern Norfolk, were not also growing barley, and turning it into malt, that would be surprising. We know the Angles, who took over in the 5th century AD from the Iceni, or what remained of the Iceni after 400 years of Roman occupation, certainly malted, because a malthouse has been excavated in the last few years dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, around 800 AD, near the north-west Norfolk village of Sedgeford, 12 miles north of King’s Lynn. After learning about modern malting in the morning, the BHS/BGBW learnt about ancient malting in the afternoon, in a session with archaeologist Neil Faulkner, who has been uncovering the oldest known malthouse in Britain.

I think most archaeologists would accept that archaeology has, with a few very honourable exceptions, not been very good until quite recently when dealing with the evidence left behind by ancient malting and maltsters. Many archaeologists working on digs didn’t understand how malting worked, they didn’t understand the processes – steeping, couching, spreading on the malting floor, drying – and what structures were required to house and facilitate those processes, which meant they couldn’t work out what they were finding in the ground actually meant. In particular they were operating under the misapprehension that the kilns used to dry the malt were outside in the open, and they didn’t grasp that the malt to be dried would be on a floor above the kiln, lying, probably, on a haircloth, in a two-storey structure.

The remains of the Anglo-Saxon (or Angle, to be accurate) malthouse complex found at Sedgeford, in north-west Norfolk. © Neil Faulkner

Now, under prodding from those few archaeologists with actual experience of malting and brewing, such as Merryn Dineley, the archaeological mainstream is getting a lot better at seeing holes in the ground and working out what those holes mean in terms of ancient malting buildings. This has been helped at Sedgeford by the nature of the site: the maltings sat in a gully, and when it was abandoned it was swiftly covered with hill wash. That meant it was buried deeply enough for modern ploughing not to strip much of the archaeology away, as normally happens, meaning that the holes that represented where the clay-lined steeping tank was, where the kiln once was, where the posts that held up the building where the malt was dried were, are better preserved. So is other evidence such as the flat floor of baked clay that would have been used for germinating the barley after steeping and couching, burnt grains of malt, where the drying got out of hand and the toasting went too far, and burnt daub (as in wattle-and-daub), where the drying got really out of hand and burnt the whole building down: fire has always been a risk in maltings, and it looks as if, during the life of the Sedgeford maltings, it may have burnt down and been rebuilt two or three times.

What there isn’t is evidence for is brewing: what happened to the malt made at this maltings, which was a substantial operation, remains unknown. Three hundred years later, at the time of the Norman conquest, long after the 9th century maltings had vanished under the soil, two manors at Sedgewick were in the hands of Ægelmar, or Aylmer, Bishop of Elmham, 20 miles to the east, which was then where the diocese covering East Anglia was based. Within 30 years or so of the conquest the see was transferred, via Thetford, to Norwich, and in the 12th century, those two manors at Sedgeford were in the hands of Norwich Cathedral Priory, with malt from a later maltings at Sedgeford going to make ale for the monks at the priory. Was the ninth-century maltings, now being explored by archaeologists some 1,200 years on, built by the church? Probably, Neil Faulkner thinks …

To go with the talk on Anglo-Saxon maltings (just Angles on their own, strictly, of course, the Saxons, or East Saxons at least, being down south of the Stour) we had some reconstructed Anglo-Saxon ale, brewed with malted barley, wheat, oats and rye, flavoured with bog myrtle, sage, nettle tops, ale hoof and liquorice root and fermented with a Belgian yeast. I’ve no problem with the mixed grain bill, since brewing with oats, barley and wheat together was certainly happening in the medieval period, but all those herbs together, I suspect, was at least three and probably four too many: possibly even five too many. There are hints that brewers in Norwich at the end of the Middle Ages were using bog myrtle: I’d have just stuck to that, it grows locally and it was widely used in pre-hop brewing. And maybe a Norwegian farmhouse yeast …

Perforated tiles from a malt kiln at Crisp’s.

But that wasn’t the only fun at the seminar. We got to taste “malt tea” made from various types and grades of malt, courtesy of Crisp’s, which is a far better was of assessing and appreciating malt flavours than chewing the grains: crush the malt, pour water at 60ºC over it, let stand, serve. The Maris Otter tea was lovely, real depth of flavour, and the teas made from different grades of crystal and dark malts highly instructive. Crystal 150 still had a lot of biscuit evident, but with a bit of toffee too. Crystal 400 had tar, treacle and burnt raisins: this is the stuff for your hefty stout. Brown malt had the chocolate flavours, but the tea with 40 per cent black malt was the revelation: smoke, coffee, liquorice, masses of character. It would, I suggested, make a fabulous ice-cream ingredient.

We also had a talk from Chris Ridout of the John Innes Centre, the man who reintroduced Chevallier*, once one of the most popular malting barleys in the world in the 19th century. Dr Ridout revealed that the next heritage barley variety to be released will be Plumage-Archer, which I find terrifically exciting. Plumage-Archer itself is actually almost a century younger than Chevallier, first seeing daylight in 1905 courtesy of the Warminster maltster and barley breeder Edwin Sloper Beaven, but as the name implies, it is a cross of two (much) older varieties, both of them “landrace” types. Plumage comes from Sweden, where it was known as plumage-korn from at least the 1760s, while the birthplace of Archer is lost in the early mists of a summer’s day many centuries back: Beaven, who literally wrote the book on barley (Barley by ES Beaven, Duckworth, London, 1947), said he had “never been able to ascertain [its] origin,” (it was known in some places as “Archer’s”, which suggests a possible association with someone called Archer) but it was “probably the old common English narrow-eared barley of the country” – meaning if you want a barley type similar to the sort that 18th century and earlier brewers used, then one with Archer in its parentage is an excellent choice. I greatly look forward to tasting recreation brews made with Plumage-Archer: truly, this is a wonderful time to be a beer drinker.

Many thanks to the BHS, the BGBW’s Susanna Forbes and Ros Shiel and Frances Brace of Red Flame for organising the event, Crisp Malt and Greene King for helping to support it, and the Georgian Townhouse in Norwich for being the hosts.

*Malting trivia three: I had a chat with Dr Ridout after his talk, in which the spelling of Chevallier came up: the family name of the man who developed the strain was Chevallier, but the habit seems to have grown up in the 19th century to call the barley Chevalier, apparently to differential man and plant, and ES Beaven, writing in the 1940s, deliberately and carefully wrote about Chevalier barley and the Reverend John Chevallier of Suffolk, who introduced it to an eager world. When the John Innes Institute reintroduced the variety seven or so years ago, they had to choose which spelling to adopt when registering it, and decided to go with two Ls, on the grounds that, as Dr Ridout said, that was the way the Reverend John spelt his name. So, strictly, from a style guide POV, if you’re talking about the family, Chevallier; if you’re talking about the barley variety in a 19th or 20th century context, Chevalier is permissible, because that’s the version farmers and maltsters themselves regularly used; if you’re talking about the revived 21st century version, Chevallier. Although frankly …

AB Inbev’s new 1840 London porter and the hornbeam question

I am green – viridian. Ron Pattinson has been dropping hints every time I see him about his secret big new project with Goose Island in Chicago, and it’s now been revealed: a reproduction of a London porter from 1840, including authentic heritage barley, properly “blown” brown malt, and blending a long-vatted beer with a much younger version. Who do I have to kill to get hold of a bottle?

Of course, some people have knee-jerked in and slapped this down because it involves the Evil Empire, AB InBev, owner of Goose Island and, in the opinion of many, too many other formerly small craft breweries, from Four Peaks to Wicked Weed. The PC line is “I’ll never drink anything produced by a company that is fundamentally bad for, and opposed to, small independent operators and their survival.”

As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out Josh Noel’s deservedly award-winning book from last year on the take-over of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch – do try to get hold of a copy, it’s an excellent, even-handed and sympathetic analysis of what happened and why it happened. You’ll certainly put it down after 345 pages and conclude that AB InBev is indeed interested in nothing more, ultimately, than getting you to buy its product in preference to anybody else’s, and if that meant using its weight, wealth and power to crush the entire global craft beer scene, it wouldn’t care. But that’s what big corporations do: criticising them for wanting to dominate the world is like criticising lions for chasing down and killing wildebeest. It’s the nature of the animal. Run faster, wildebeest.

Ron Pattinson outside the Anchor, Southwark, about all that remains of the former Barclay Perkins brewery, once the largest in the world

And if AB InBev wants to spend silly sums of money flying my mate Ron, and Derek Prentice, former brewer with Truman’s of Brick Lane, then Young’s, then Fuller’s, and now Wimbledon, out to Chicago to advise on recreating an almost 180-year-old beer, and take enormous pains getting the ingredients and the methodology just right, in the hope that this will greenwash their corporation and get people like me to write admiringly about them, rather than attack them for trying to squeeze smaller rivals out of the market, then they’re partly correct: I’ll still criticise where necessary, but I’m also writing admiringly about the Obadiah Poundage porter project, because I think it’s wonderful to be able to drink this beer from the past, and I don’t believe very many other organisations would have the big wallet, or the commitment, to undertake such a recreation. This is an expensive beer made with unusual ingredients back in March last year, which was then left sitting around occupying valuable real estate in Chicago for a year before being blended with the newer version and put on sale. Most companies’ accountants would have been screaming themselves puce. If not AB InBev, who else would undertake such a journey?

Anyway, watch this fascinating 20-minute video about the project, listen to Mike Siegel, research and development boss at Goose Island explain it all, see if you can spot John Hall, founder of Goose Island, popping into shot uncredited occasionally, and then come back here and I’ll discuss a few interesting points that arise, so pay attention and listen out in particular for the mentions of hornbeam, there will be questions afterwards.

CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO

Derek Prentice, brewer at Truman’s in Brick Lane in the East End of London51 years ago, compares the street scene of today with that of 1841

I didn’t expect to find anything to criticise about the history when I watched that. I nodded along as Derek Prentice accurately recounted the role of porters in 18th century London, and as Ron described the change from the all-brown-malt porters of the early 18th century to the more complicated grain bills of later porters, with pale malt, “patent” black malt and “blown” malt dried and browned over faggots of hornbeam wood, and I sat awed as Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt in Massachusetts showed the making of just such a batch of “blown” malt over a fire of hornbeam. And then something strange happened. My subconscious popped up and said: “Hornbeam – are you actually certain about that?” So I checked.

For the past 18 months I’ve been writing what is meant to be the definitive history of porter and stout, and I’ve read several hundred books and articles to pull that together. All that information goes down into the subconscious, where, as is the way of the human brain, new connections are formed that the conscious mind is unaware of until something bubbles up from the id. Now, “maltsters made blown malt for porter by drying the grains over blazing hornbeam” is a solid received fact among historians of brewing. I never doubted it. Hough, Briggs and Stevens’s Malting and Brewing Science from 1971 says so: “dried in a fierce heat from a fire of hardwood faggots made from oak, hornbeam, ash or beech” (p166). Steeped in Tradition, a history of the malting industry from 1983 by Jonathan Brown says so: “These kilns were fired by wood, mostly and preferably oak, but beech, hornbeam and ash were also commonly used.” It makes sense: blown malt was a speciality of the maltsters of Ware and other towns in East Hertfordshire, and hornbeam, which burns with a bright, hot flame, is abundant in the woods of East Herts.

Grain being dried at high temperature over a hornbeam fire at Valley Malt in Massachusetts to make ‘blown’ or ‘snapped’ malt

But as my subconscious prompted me into confirming, if you go and look, you will not actually find any references to hornbeam being used by maltsters during the time that blown malt was still being made. Many authors do not specify any particular wood. Of those that do, William Black in his Practical Treatise on Brewing of 1844 says blown malt is heated with “faggots of dry, hard wood, commonly beech or birch; fir imparting a tarry taste.” (p26). Henry Stopes, who was the 19th century’s Mr Malt, spoke only of billet and faggot wood “generally of oak but occasionally of beech” in making the blown variety (Malt and Malting, 1885, p159). E.R. Southby’s Systemic Handbook of Practical Brewing from the same year says blown malt is “dried rapidly over a fire of beech or birch wood” (p215). Herbert Edwards Wright’s A Handy Book for Brewers from 1892 says blown malt is made by subjecting the barley to “a sudden blast of intense heat generated by heating up the kiln fire with oak or beechen faggots or billets” (p309). (Wright also says that the fire risk “and the high rates of insurance demanded in consequence” meant this was a variety of malt generally made only by specialists.)

So, what to say to Ron, Derek, Andrea and Mike: “Er, thanks for all the trouble you went to, guys, that was amazing, especially the hornbeam, but, um, you might have been better off with beech …” I’m not saying nobody ever used hornbeam to make blown malt: I think it’s very likely they did. It was available, in the right place, and has similar characteristics to both birch (which is in the same botanical family) and beech, which we DO known were used (indeed, the hornbeam is known in some parts of Britain as the “ay beech”, for its habit of keeping its leaves through winter, that is “for aye”.)

Mike Siegel, r&d manager at Goose Island, tries some Obadiah Poundage at the brewery’s barrel ageing warehouse. Where’s mine?

Best not to say anything to dampen the party, really. And let’s not mention that the American hornbeam that Andrea used is a slightly different species to English hornbeam: that would be taking my (deserved) reputation for picky pedanticism too far down the road. Nor let us question why an 1840 porter is named for a man who probably died at least 70 years earlier, the pseudonymous commentator whose letter to the London Chronicle in 1760 about the tax on beer provides historians with so much information about the history of porter. (Someone in the film wonders where the original “Obadiah Poundage” got his name from: “Poundage” is an old word for tax, and one of the many Obadiahs in the Old Testament was a porter “keeping the ward ” [Nehemiah 12:25].) And please, let’s not ask why you have to query every single damned received historical fact because too often what you thought was indisputably true isn’t indisputably true at all. No, there’s a much more important question than all that: where’s my bottle?

Fjord fiesta: the Norwegian farmhouse ales festival 2017

In Hornindal, in beautiful remotest Western Norway, if you tried to explain to the locals the fuss being made about cloudy New England IPAs, they would laugh, or look bemused. There are around a hundred or so people in the area who make beer, in a tradition going back hundreds of years. All of it is cloudy, and it likely always has been. This is partly, probably, because Hornindal is one of the centres of “raw ale”, rå øl in Norwegian, where the wort stays unboiled before fermentation. That is far from the only difference between what is called locally kornøl, literally “grain ale” (to differentiate it from other farmhouse brews such as birch sap beer – bjørkesevjeøl – or beer made just from sugar). All the beers are made with water that has had juniper branches boiled in it (but never the berries – too bitter). Hops are used lightly, if at all: a small bag of hops will be hung in the vessel that collects the wort. Perhaps most importantly, the yeast, known as kveik (a word that goes back to Old Norse kvikur, and seems to be related to the English word “quick” in the sense “alive”), will have been collected and dried from previous brews, and will give flavours quite unlike those from yeasts used by “mainstream” brewers. These are beers that push out the boundaries of the ale experience.

Now the rural brewing traditions of Norway are becoming more widely known, thanks in considerable part to the hard work of Lars Marius Garshol, whose writings have made him the Michael Jackson of gårdsøl (“farm ale”). Yeast companies are studying, and selling, kveik yeast, and commercial brewers in Norway are starting to make gårdsøl-style ales. The movement now has its own shop window, the Norsk Kornøl Festival in Hornindal, which has just been held for the second time, and I was privileged and honoured to be invited by the organisers to come and report on the event.

Continue reading Fjord fiesta: the Norwegian farmhouse ales festival 2017

Red beer, green lager, immature barley beer: the innovations I drank on a ‘jolly’ to Carlsberg

Beer made from immature “green” barley – who knew such a thing was possible? Or “red lager” made from actual red-coloured barley? And what does a beer taste like made with barley so controversial it caused a protest led by a marching band through the streets of Munich back in June?

One for the tickers: Plane Ale, from Mikkeller, only available at 35,000 feet on SAS flights. Thanks to the wonders of GPS-enabled smartphones, I can tell you I was six and a half miles above the small Dutch village of Rottum, in Groeningen province, while drinking this beer

If you’re one of the people who believes no beer writer should ever accept hospitality from a brewer, for fear of being corrupted, then you’ll need to stop reading this post now, because everything that follows was gathered on a trip to Copenhagen last week paid for by Carlsberg. I wasn’t on my own, of course: there were also a dozen or so beer writers and trade journos, and, more importantly from Carlsberg’s viewpoint, 250 or so assorted others including customers from key markets, staff from Carlsberg operations around the globe (I met some very nice men and women from Tuborg Turkey who insisted on having their pictures taken with me, having seen me in the film I was paid to appear in about last year’s Carlsberg ReBrew project, recreating an 1883 lager), people from PR and design companies who have Carlsberg as a client and mates of the Carlsberg Foundation (Carlsberg’s owner), all there to help celebrate 170 years since JC Jacobsen opened the Carlsberg brewery in the Copenhagen suburb of Valby.

The brewing kit at Warpigs, the joint-venture restaurant/brewery by Mikkeller and Three Floyds in Copenhagen’s meat-packing district

For unknown reasons, this trip has encouraged a mountain of scorn and mockery from the rigidly puritan, obsessively put on public record every free pint anybody ever bought you end of the beer-writing world, with the top of that mountain of scorn claimed as the moral high ground. There are a host of reasons for believing this is a stupid and nonsensical position to take, but here are just three before we return to the important stuff. If you believe you have responsibilities to your readers as a writer about beer, you ought to take every opportunity to uncover information they will find interesting. If that includes accepting a free trip from a brewer, and you prefer to insist that your integrity will suffer unless you stay at home, you’re badly letting your readers down by refusing to go and learn stuff on their behalf. Next, if you accept payment in magazines or newspapers for your writings on beer, what do you think the ultimate source of that payment is? The advertising budgets of those brewers you refuse to accept direct hospitality from, of course. Continue reading Red beer, green lager, immature barley beer: the innovations I drank on a ‘jolly’ to Carlsberg

Going wild (yeast) in Amsterdam

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.

Goats are part of the iconography of Carnivale Brettanomyces

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.

Continue reading Going wild (yeast) in Amsterdam

The mystery of the vanishing 2016 Vintage Ale

Vertical tasting: 20 years of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, in the Hock Cellar

If you haven’t bought your 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale yet, either to drink now, or to lay down for later, or to preserve as an investment (what with examples from the 1990s selling for up to £500 a bottle, and even the 2013 costing £40 a pop), tough tubas – there’s none left. Waitrose is totally sold out, so is the brewery shop. Luckily I had a hunch my local specialist, Noble Green in Hampton Hill, might have some, and I manage to snaffle their last five examples.

Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable. This was the one with Nelson Sauvin as both a boil hop and an FV addition, the first time, I believe, that Fuller’s has used New Zealand hops in VA, and it works brilliantly: there’s limes coming through, and passionfruit, and mandarins, and a little bit of that Nelson Sauvin elderflower, all beautifully integrated over creamy toffee and deep brown malt sweetness, with just enough bitter (40 IBUs) to hold everything together. You’ll drink one bottle, and enjoy teasing out all the flavours so much you’ll want another one to continue the analytical fun, and then at the end of that one you’ll stand up and wobble slightly and realise you’ve just drunk a litre of 8.5 per cent ale.

How the 2016 will develop as it gains more age remains to be seen, but Fuller’s had a gathering in the Hock Cellar at the brewery a couple of weeks back to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vintage Ale with a tasting of ten different examples going back to 1999, and all are still very drinkable. John Keeling, Fuller’s brewing director, who helped the late Reg Drury brew the first Vintage Ale in 1997, conducted the tasting and revealed a few secrets about the beer. Vintage Ale was, he said, an idea first put forward by the marketing department at the brewery – “they do get a good idea every 40 years or so.” However, Fuller’s knew something like Vintage Ale was possible after bringing out 1845, a bottle-conditioned strong ale made originally to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fuller, Smith and Turner partnership in 1995, and discovering that it actually tasted better at 12 months old than when it was new – “totally the opposite to every other beer at that time”.

John Keeling gives a brief history of Vintage Ale

A beer has to be specifically designed to age, Keeling said: “Most beers will not age properly.” After 20 years, Fuller’s now has considerable experience in how beers age, with the interplay of negative reactions – notably oxidation – and a whole series of generally more positive chemical changes, such as Maillard reactions between sugars and proteins, which happen at different speeds, while at the same time alpha acids are breaking down, reducing the perceived bitterness (and boosting the perceived sweetness) and adding extra complexity of flavour, the colour of the beer is darkening and “madeira” and “sherry” flavours start appearing, and eventually “cherry” flavours, which you can cerrtainly spot in the older Vas.. The different speeds that the “good” and “bad” reactions take place at gives a “cycle” to beer ageing, which explains why that bottle of 2013 VA may taste disappointing now, but one of its brothers will be terrific if left for another nine months – and a third bottle of the same brew will disappoint another nine months after that, which a fourth, left for longer yet, will again cheer and enchant as it comes back “on” … you can regard this lottery-like aspect of beer ageing as annoying or part of the fun, but it does mean you shouldn’t dump the whole batch just because one aged bottle is disappointing. It may be just at a poor spot in its cycle.

One important aspect of beer ageing is that temperature is important – and room temperature is the worst temperature to store beer at, Fullers has discovered. It appears the oxidation cycle at around 20C is happening too fast for the “good” cycles to compensate. Either keep the beer cool, or, counter-intuitively, keep it warm: with the warmer beer, the “good” reactions are speeded up more than the “bad” ones, so the oxidation is outpaced. (Doubtless this was the clue to the success of ship-borne India ales in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the oxidation of beer in the casks lagging behind all the Maillard reactions and so on made extra-fast by the warm Equatorial seawaters of the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.)

VA is always parti-gyled with London Pride, which raised a question: each year the recipe is altered slightly, with different hops and combinations of hops. Have Pride drinkers never noticed over the past two decades that every spring their beer tastes rather different, from the Fuggles and Target of 1999 to the all-Goldings of 2002 (that year’s VA was always a personal favourite, and it’s still wondrously smooth aged 15), the Goldings, Liberty and Cascade of 2014 and last year’s Nelson Sauvin, Goldings, Northdown and Challenger? I’d love to know if anyone has ever commented … see if you can spot the “Vintage Ale” gyle this year.

Extract from the brewing books Spring 1999
Extract from the brewing books 2016

A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

Jacques Cartier
Jacques Cartier supposedly pictured learning from a Canadian First Nationer how to save his men from scurvey: but the chap with the buckskin suit and the metal axe with the tepees in the background looks like a Plains Indian 1,500 miles and 220 years away from home rather than a Huron

Early European explorers in North America had to be shown the healthy properties of the spruce tree by the existing inhabitants. When the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier overwintered in Quebec in 1535-36 on his second visit to the land he had named Canada, almost all his men fell ill with scurvy through lack of fresh food, leaving just ten out of 110 well enough to look after the rest. Huron Indian women showed them how to make tea and poultices from the bark of a local tree, which quickly returned them to health. That tree was probably White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, a member of the cypress family, rather than spruce. But later French settlers turned to spruce trees, a better source of Vitamin C, and thus a better way to combat scurvy, the curse of long-distance voyagers, than cedars. The secretary to the new French governor of Cape Breton Island, Thomas Pichon, writing in 1752, noted that the inhabitants of Port-Toulouse (now St Peter’s) “were the first that brewed an excellent sort of antiscorbutic [“la bière très bonne” in the original French], of the tops of the spruce-fir”, “Perusse” or “Pruche” in Pichon’s French.

Continue reading A short history of spruce beer part two: the North American connection

A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?
Danzic circa 1700: are those kegs of spruce beer on the quayside?

Spruce beer is made from the tips of spruce trees. Except that the connection is not as simple as it appears: it is pretty much a coincidence that spruce beer and spruce trees have the same name.

There are actually two traditions of spruce beer in Britain: the older, the Danzig or Black Beer tradition, only died out very recently, while the other, which could be called the “North American tradition”, was hugely popular in Regency times, and included Jane Austen among its fans, but disappeared nearly 200 years ago on this side of the Atlantic.

The first mention of “spruce beer” in English is from around 1500, when Henry VII was on the throne, in a poem called Colyn Blowbolles Testament, in which a hung-over drunkard is persuaded to write his will. Colyn lists the drinks he wants served at his funeral, including more than a dozen types of wine, mead, “stronge ale bruen in fattes and in tonnes”, “Sengle bere, and othir that is dwobile”, and also “Spruce beer, and the beer of Hambur [Hamburg]/Whiche makyth oft tymes men to stambur.”

Norway spruce
Norway spruce

The fact that spruce beer and “the beer of Hambur[g]” were mentioned together is because both came from North Germany. The name “spruce beer” is an alteration of the German “Sprossen-bier”, literally “sprouts beer”, more meaningfully “leaf-bud beer”, since it was flavoured with the leaf-buds or new sprouts of Norway spruce, Picea abies, or silver fir, Abies alba. “Sprossen” was meaningless to English-speakers, but in early modern English the similar-sounding “Spruce” was another name for Prussia, from which country’s main port, Danzig, Sprossen-bier was exported. “Sprossen-bier” became in English the more understandable “Spruce beer”, meaning, originally, “Prussian beer”. (Chaucer called the country “Sprewse”, and it was being called “Spruce-land” as late as 1639.)

Meanwhile English had to wait more than a century and a half after the beer was named to get its own word for Picea abies, the tree known as Fichte in German and gran in Norwegian. When the tree did get an English name, first mentioned by the naturalist John Evelyn in 1670, because it, too, like the beer, came to Britain via Prussia, it was called the “Spruce”, short for “Spruce fir”, that is, “Prussian fir”. Thus “spruce beer” is not actually named for the spruce tree, and “spruce beer” in English is around 170 years older as a phrase than “spruce tree”. (The adjective “spruce” meaning “neat” or “smartly dressed” probably also comes from “Spruce” meaning Prussia, via “Spruce leather”, leather from Prussia that was a favourite, it appears, among Tudor dandies.)

Continue reading A short history of spruce beer part one: the Danzig connection

Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

I gave a presentation in Denmark to a conference called to discuss “Ny Nordisk Øl” – “New Nordic Beer” – on “Beer and terroir from an international perspective” on Friday November 7. This, slightly tweaked, expanded in a couple of places and cut in a couple more, is that presentation.

The brewers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are already enthusiastically making beers that reflect the place they are made, using local ingredients: you can read about some of those beers here. But what the Ny Nordisk Øl movement is doing is just part, albeit a tremendous part, of a wider movement to get away from internationally reproducible styles of beer, a movement that is finding expression in North America via campaigns such as “Beers made by walking about” and by brewers such as the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, the Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois and Plan Bee brewery in New York state, in Italy, in New Zealand, and in Australia, most eloquently by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall brewery in Tasmania.

As I researched for my presentation, it became clear that the “place-based beer” movement is a growing global phenomenon, albeit as yet those engaged in it often seem unaware that others are fighting a similar crusade. This is a long blog but, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating in its implications for the future of craft beer.

Beer and terroir coverBefore I begin talking about beer terroir, it would be best to say exactly what I mean by the term in the context of brewing, what I think you need in order to be able to say that a beer has characteristics that fall under the name “terroir”, and some of the problems of trying to talk about “beer and terroir”.

There are plenty of complicated ways of defining “terroir”, and what it takes for “terroir” to be reflected in a beer. But the one I like best was said by an American craft brewer who said he was attempting to achieve in his beers “the essence of here”.

How do you achieve “the essence of here”? In beer, there are, I hope you will agree, six major variables that affect the “hereness” of a beer: Continue reading Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

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