Category Archives: Beer ingredients

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.

British brewers largely eliminated Brett from their beers before the First World War (though Guinness continued cultivating the yeast in its strong Foreign Extra Stout) and American brewers, if they had ever much used it, certainly forgot how to over the lost years of Prohibition, But in the past decade, inspired by a lust for Belgian-style beers, craft brewers in the US have been getting back into Brett, and the fashion has now been picked up in Britain.

Carnivale Brettanomyces was founded by Elaine Olsthoorn of the Amsterdam craft beer bar In de Wildeman and Jan “Beekaa” Lemmens of de Bierkoning, the Amsterdam craft beer shop in 2011. The pair were picking up on a growing interest in wild yeasts and sour beers, and by 2015 their event was attracting brewers from half a dozen countries outside the Netherlands, including five from the UK. This year the countries with breweries represented  included the Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic, the UK, the United States, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Belgium, and the other visitors came from all those places and another six, at least, countries as well (Denmark, France, Norway, India, Iceland and Italy).

‘Canal-view room” they said about my hotel in Amsterdam, and if you stood on a chair and twisted your head out of the window like a giraffe, it was …

The speakers at the different events were, too, a varied crew: a swath of American craft brewers, including David Logsdon of Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Oregon, Shaun Hill, brewer at Hill Farmstead in Vermont, RateBeer’s “best brewery in the world” for 2012, 2014 and 2015, and Jeffrey Stuffings of the Jester King brewery in Texas; several experts on yeast, including Troels Prahl, head of research and development at Whitelabs Copenhagen and Richard Preiss, founder of Escarpment Laboratories in Ontario, Canada; local brewers including Steven Vandenber, brewmaster at the Gulpener Brouwerij in Limberg, Chris Vandewalle of Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle in Lo-Reninge, West Flanders, reckoned to be the smallest brewery in Belgium, and Pierre Alex Carlier, brewer at Brasserie de Blaugies in the far west of Hainaut, Belgium; and three English beer writers – Ron Pattinson, who was lecturing on Scottish beers, Pete Brown, who was speaking about his new book, Miracle Brew, and, er me, delivering a talk for the second year running in Amsterdam, this time on “The Seven Ages of Porter”, with the intention of trying to cover as much of the little that is known about the role of Brett in porter as I could.

The two problems with Carnivale Brettanomyces are that with almost 70 scheduled events over three days, it means three, four or even five things you want to go to might be taking place at the same time, which inevitably, absent a handy space/time wormhole, results in having to miss some exciting happenings; and the events themselves cost upwards of €11 each to get into, with the three beer-and-food dinners €60 a plate. That quickly makes a probably already expensive trip to Hamster Jam even more wallet-bending. But hey, you’re getting to try beers that will sometimes be once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and you’re hearing from one of the best line-ups of brewing expertise ever gathered in one place.

Certainly, for me, the punch in the overdraft was utterly worth it: I’ve not enjoyed a beery gathering so much for a long time, lots of great conversations with eager, enthusiastic, experienced, knowledgeable, people, like Tom Norton of the Little Earth Project brewery in Edwardstone, near Sudbury, Suffolk. Tom has promised to send me some of his farmhouse sour beers, and since Jeff “Stonch” Bell described the brewery’s Brett Organic Stock Ale earlier this year as ” definitely the best sour beer I’ve had from the UK”, I’m keen to see them.

Inside In de Wildeman

I arrived in Amsterdam last week late (thanks, easyJet) and in a thunderstorm (thanks, dodgy Dutch weather), but I had been wise enough to book into a hotel in the Canal Belt near where the Keizersgracht (“emperor’s canal”) meets the Amstel, within non-arduous walking distance of Centraal station, which also meant within non-arduous walking distance of In de Wildeman, one of the bars serving as a main centre for the festival. I never got to In de Wildeman the last time I was in the city, and if my legs were bendy enough I’d be kicking myself, because it’s a tremendous little two-room dark wood bar with an excellently chosen range of draught and bottled beers and highly knowledgeable staff. (In how many other bars anywhere, if you asked the barman had he tried Stinking Bishop cheese, would he reply: “No, but it’s on my wish list!” and add that he wanted to try the same cheesemaker’s Hereford Hop cheese as well.)

“Men’s Love”, aparently

Ironically, because the bar was stocked up for the Brett fest, more than half the draught beers at In de Wildeman were from British breweries: Buxton, Chorlton, Burning Sky, Thornbridge, Cloudwater, Siren, Hawkshead. That’s a fair line-up for any bar anywhere, though, and after a nod to Amsterdam with a bottle of a saison called Mannenliefde (Dutch for “men’s love”, if Google Translate can be trusted) from the local Oedipus brewery, I moved on to an evening of sour ales from Blighty. All were very good, and the Generation V Brett DIPA from Buxton was outstanding: the first time I had an all-Brett IPA, from Evil Twin, I compared it to a “how hot can you stand” over-curried vindaloo, and said it was a style that wouldn’t catch on. I was wrong. This was a perfectly balanced brew, the all-Brett beer to give your mate who has never had one and is nervous as a bride.

That was I think, my first ever all-sour-ales evening: to be truthful I wouldn’t rush to stay off the non-sour ales all night again, but there’s a deservedly growing market for the category, and unlike mango juice IPAs it’s not a momentary fad. (“Category”, not style: discuss.)

Copper vessels in the former Heineken brewery

The next day, as I had time before my talk, I walked down to the former Heineken brewery for the “Heineken Experience”. It’s a slick multi-media production, the huge real-copper coppers, mash tuns and lauter tuns are still there, and I spotted only one substantive error in all the information on the walls – no, Heineken, you were not the first brewery to employ a chemist. It would have been good to have seen more about Amsterdam’s other breweries, and its pre-Heineken brewing traditions. Enjoyed my pint of H41, made with weird South American yeast, though.

My hour burbling about porter at the Waalse Kerk seemed to satisfy the audience, and post-talk I walked out to the De Prael bar to catch Chris Vandewalle of Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle. His talk on Saison brewing meant sampling some of his brewery’s beers, which include a strong 7 per cent blonde ale, a red cherry beer and an “Oud Bruin” brown beer. No messing about: just good, honest beer. Then it was a dash back to the Waalse Kerk to catch Derek Dellinger, “The Fermented Man“, talking about a year spent consuming only fermented foods, from yogurt to rotten shark buried in the ground in Iceland.

“I’m not eating that, it’s been in someone else’s mouth!”

Alas, the timetable meant I had to dash away to be at a goat dinner featuring beers from Jester King in a restaurant over the other side of the IJ, so I missed the end of the talk. Multiple parts of goat were then consumed: tongue, liver, shoulder. Let’s be fair and say I now understand why goat is not regularly on menus. The beers were fine, though: all in attractive 75cl bottles, mostly if not totally Belgian-influenced, and including a bière de miel made with Texan wild flower honey; Figlet, a 6.6 per cent farmhouse ale fermented with smoked Texas figs; Simple Means, a “farmhouse Altbier” with smoked malt; and Sing-Along Death Match, a collaboration with the German brewery Freigeist Bierkultur that included Texan honey again, this time cold-smoked with rosemary sprigs at a local barbecue before the beer was refermented on wild Mexican plums, Didn’t notice the plums myself, but I appreciated the effort …

Sing-Along Death Match

The next day I was back down the Waalse Kerk at 10am to catch Shaun Hill, Pierre-Alex Carlier, Phil Markowski, author of the now rather dated Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the European Tradition (its datedness a sign of how far we have come in the sour beer sector since the book was published in 2004) and brewer at Two Roads Brewing Company in Connecticut, and Chad Yakobson, author of The Brettanomyces Project and brewer at Crooked Stave Artisan Ales in Denver, talk about Saisons. Hurrah for Google Maps. Load up the app, tell it your destination, plug your earphones in and it takes you by the hand and leads you through the streets of a strange city like a native Amsterdammer. Its pronunciation of Dutch streetnames is that of a native of New York, unfortunately, but that’s amusing rather than a serious flaw. On my way, having not had breakfast, I went into a cafe to try to get some essential caffeine and carbohydrates, ordered a coffee to take away, looked at the menu and only then realised what sort of “coffee shop” I was in. Me: “Er – do you have any normal muffins, or only wacky ones?” Woman with partly shaved head and nose-ring behind counter: “Only wacky ones!”

Lars Marius Garshol

The last talk I was able to hear before I had to fly back was Norway’s very own Lars Marius Garsjol, talking about northern European farmhouse ales and kveik, that latter being Norwegian farmhouse yeast. I knew it was going to be fascinating – and it was. Even better, Lars had brought with him four examples of farm-made Norwegian ales for us to try, a unique and thrilling experience. His research is some of the most important currently taking place in the beeryverse, exploring a tradition of farm brewing in countries including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Russia that is centuries old and literally dying out, as its practitioners, who have inherited the farmhouse brewing tradition from their ancestors, all gradually pass away with nobody, today, willing to pick up the baton (or mash fork) and carry on. Among the many amazing practices Lars has uncovered is “raw ale”, brewing without boiling the wort, which was almost certainly the norm in pre-hop times (when there was no need to boil the wort) but which disappeared from mainstream brewing four centuries ago.

A reproduction of a carved wooden Norwegian farm brewer’s yeast catcher, for preserving yeast from one brew to the next

The practices of these inheritors of an ancient methodology are based, again, on centuries of tradition, and while often the brewers have no idea why they are doing what they do – “My grandfather always did it that way,” they tell Lars – it generally turns out that what they are doing is just what they should be doing to get the result they want, best practice probably worked out six or seven or more generations ago and continued in the family since. Lars described watching one Norwegian farm brewer measure the grain and heat the water for mashing, before mixing the two in the mashtun, all without weighing, or judging the heat of the water except by how much steam was coming off. When Lars measured the temperature of the mash: 74ºC. Six months later Lars returned, when the weather was now icy, and watched the same man measure the grain and heat the water for mashing under winter conditions. Lars took the mash temperature again: 73.8ºC. It was an excellent example of how the “pre-industrial” brewer was able, through skill and above all experience, to equal the industrial brewer in hitting the correct targets during the process of brewing. The greatest benefit thermometers and the rest brought industrial brewers at the end of the 18th century was that it enabled the unskilled to match the skilled. If you’re not already a regular reader of Lars’s blog, sign up, you’ll learn an enormous amount. Oh, and those farmhouse beers were tremendous, each one very different, from colour to flavour, but very drinkable.

That, then, was my Carnivale Brettanomyces 2017: everybody else’s would have been different, because nobody would have gone to the same set of events. If you’re a fan of sour, aged beers, it’s one of the best experiences on the planet, and Elaine, Jan (who invited me over to speak) and their colleagues must be thanked profusely for their efforts.

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

How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Václav Berka explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green
Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster, explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

I’ve taken part in many beer-related events in the upstairs room at the White Horse in Parsons Green, from tasting porter rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck to making a presentation on my historical beer heroes, but I never thought I would one day be helping to brew a lager there. Even more unlikely, this lager was made with genuine Plzeň well water – and it stood a fair chance of going into large-scale production.

The event was organised by Pilsner Urquell, the invitation came from Mark Dredge, to whom I am extremely grateful for such a fun day, it was called the London Brew-Off, and it involved three teams of beer enthusiasts, each put in charge of a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister brewing kit, handed four kilos of ground Czech malt, pointed to bags containing a selection of other speciality malts and eight or ten different hop varieties, and told to think up a recipe for a pilsner that would be good enough to go on public sale, using those ingredients, and then brew it. Our raw, hopped wort would be cooled, then have proper Pilsner Urquell yeast added, and be taken away for fermenting and lagering and, finally, bottling. On Tuesday July 15, that is, just over six weeks later, all the lagers the teams had made will be test-tasted, and the best one will be put into full-scale production – 30 hectolitres, 5,270 pints by Windsor & Eton Brewery, ready for the White Horse’s Euro Beer Fest in September. Continue reading How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Colonel Williams knocks ’em out

My apologies to the cask ale drinkers of South Wales. I may have inadvertently set free a beast among you.

I learnt today that Colonel Williams East India Pale Ale, the collaboration beer I brewed at Brain’s brewery last month, sold out in less than 16 hours when it went on sale in the Goat Major in Cardiff last week, the fastest-selling craft beer the pub has seen.

That’s good – it very much suggests that people were coming back for more than one pint after the first. But what is particularly surprising about that is that Colonel Williams is six per cent alcohol by volume. American readers may say: “So what?” But British draught beer drinkers simply don’t normally drink beers that strong in quantity. It appears that, completely inadvertently, I may have designed a beer that goes down like a session bitter, despite having almost a third half as much more alcohol than session bitters normally do. Dangerous.

Continue reading Colonel Williams knocks ’em out

How I brewed my own IPA at Brain’s

Big Brains
‘People who know beer have 14-foot brains’ – I’ll drink to that

You can’t be a credible beer blogger in Britain today, it seems, if you haven’t been invited to do a “collaboration brew” with a commercial brewery. Dredge and Avery have done one. Cole has done one. Brown has done several, as has Pattinson. So when the South Wales brewery Brain’s emailed to ask if I would like to come down and brew a beer of my own design on the 10-barrel “microbrewery” plant they’ve just had installed, my first question was: “What time is the train to Cardiff?”

Actually, it wasn’t, of course. My real first question was: “What stab at a historic recreation with at least some vague pretence of authenticity can I inflict on the drinkers of Wales?” Fortunately, Brain’s had narrowed down the choices by specifying that they wanted an India Pale Ale, as part of a series that would be following on from Barry Island IPA, designed by Simon Martin of Real Ale Guide and named in imitation of Goose Island IPA from Chicago. The follow-up question, therefore, was: “Is there any historic link at all to be found between India Pale Ale and Cardiff?” One troll through the byways of Google later and the answer was: yes, a little convoluted and obscure, but one with some lovely resonances.

One of Brain’s best-known pubs in Cardiff is called the Goat Major. This was the title of the man who looked after the goat that was the regimental mascot of the Royal Regiment of Wales. That regiment was an amalgamation of several other regiments, one of which (the one that began the tradition of a regimental goat) was the 41st Regiment of Foot. The 41st Foot was in Madras in 1831, in the middle of a 20-year posting to India, when it was granted a territorial affiliation, becoming the 41st (Welch) Regiment of Foot (sic – the regiment always preferred the old-fashioned spelling of “Welsh”). Undoubtedly the “Welch” affiliation came at the request of the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Edmund Keynton Williams, whose family were from Maesrhyddid, Bedwellty.

I have no evidence for saying that Colonel Williams and his fellow officers drank India Pale Ale while they were in Madras (the troops would have preferred porter), but as Pete Brown has said, sometimes a historian has to declare: “Garn! They must’ve.” It would be far more surprising to discover that they didn’t drink the beer that was the popular refresher of middle and upper class Britons in India at the time.

In 1843 the 41st (Welch) returned home after taking part in the 1st Afghan War, and was garrisoned for a brief while in South Wales. It would be fun, I decided, to try to imagine for the 21st century the kind of beer the officers and men of the regiment might have been given if, when they were back in South Wales, they had gone along to their local brewer and said: “We drank this great beer out in India – can you reproduce it for us?” I even had the name for it, in honour of the man who linked the regiment with Wales: Colonel Williams’ East India Pale Ale.

Continue reading How I brewed my own IPA at Brain’s

So what IS the difference between porter and stout?

One of the top 10 questions people who end up at this site put into search engines such as Google is a query about how to distinguish between porter and stout, something I’ve not actually tackled head-on yet. So – what difference is there between the two beers?

Er …

None.

Not now, anyway, not in any meaningful way. I’m not sure that there was ever a point, even when porter was at its most debased, when you could point to any truly distinctive difference between porter and stout except to say that “stout” meant a stronger version of porter. Indeed, for much of the past 300 years, to ask “what’s the difference between porter and stout?” would have been like asking “what’s the difference between dogs and Rottweilers?”

Since the revival of porter brewing, or to be more accurate, “the revival of beers being called porter”, even the “different strength” division has vanished, with several brewers making “stouts” that are weaker than their “porters”, I don’t believe it’s at all possible to draw a line and state categorically about dark beers being brewed today: “Everything over here is a stout and everything over there is a porter.” You can’t even draw a couple of meaningful Venn diagram circles and label one stout and the other porter: in terms of strength, ingredients, flavour and appearance, modern-day stouts and porters, I suggest, with the exception of “milk stouts”, occupy effectively identical spaces.

Continue reading So what IS the difference between porter and stout?