Goose Island hopes it’s laid a golden egg in Balham

The Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, South London

BAL-HAM, gateway, if the guys from Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co are correct, to a new form of gastropub/craft beer bar: yummy grub combined with rare brews. The very first Goose Island Vintage Ale House had a goosedown-soft opening in a former Be At One cocktail bar in Ramsden Road, SW12 a week before Christmas, and ramped up the publicity last week with a “launch beer dinner” attended by Goose Island’s founder, John Hall, and president/general manager, Ken Stout. I would love to hope that they’re right: if there was just one bar like a Vintage Ale House per London borough, then the beer revolution would have ended in victory, and beer would be back at the heart of British gastronomy, from which it was brutally evicted in the 19th century.

It’s a big irony, of course, that John Hall took the idea of the British pub, and British beer, to Chicago after a tour of Europe back in the 1980s, turned his original Goose Island brewpub into one of the stars of the American brewing revival, and is now returning to the motherland with a take on the British pub that could revitalise the original concept. Ken Stout, in a simile he admits to have borrowed from someone else, compares it to the “British Invasion” of the 1960s, when groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles took American music – the rhythm ’n’ blues of people like Muddy Waters and the country-influenced rock ’n’ roll of Arthur Alexander – back to the United States with their own twist on it, became a smash, and made music fans appreciate anew what they had. Now British beer fans are being taught to love the IPAs and heavyweight stouts their great-grandparents knew by American brewers who have reinvented these beers for the 21st century.

That analogy quickly falls over if you push it too hard, but it’s not totally wrong, and it has wider application than you might first think. The current Good Beer Guide lists more than 20 cask beers by British brewers called “American [something]”, another 20-plus that mention Cascade, the almost archetypal American “new” hop, in their names, and over a hundred IPAs, most, I’d give you short odds, inspired by American IPAs, that is, with big floral hop flavours. The American influence today on British cask beer is now undeniable – and let’s not even touch on the “craft keg” scene. So is Britain ready for what Goose Island says is the first dedicated exclusively American craft beer bar in the UK?

I’d love to believe so, because it provides a different and, I think, very good take on what a pub can be – and, actually, what a tied house can be. I’ve never felt having just one brewer’s products on sale has to be a barrier to complete customer satisfaction: choice is over-fetishised by beer geeks. What the Vintage Ale House offers is a place where beer, good beer, beer from a company that cares about beer, is absolutely central to the offer, but so too is good food – porter and molasses glazed beef cheeks, for example, enough to make any Hereford smile – that is designed to go with beer. Four Goose Island draught beers – IPA, Pils, Green Line pale ale and 312 Wheat – are available, but so are big 76.5cl bottles of the brewery’s seven different heavy-hitting barrel-aged Belgian-style ales, such as Sofie, a 6.5 per cent Saison, Matilda, a 7 per cent “Orval-alike” pale ale and Juliet, an 8 per cent Brett beer flavoured with blackberries. Other beers unique to the Vintage Ale House are promised, to maintain interest and bring people back. The vintage beers will hit you for between £18 and £23 a bottle, but that’s still (mostly) cheaper than the (limited) selection of wines, which start at £20 a bottle and climb to £35. At the same time, I am confident that if you like beer, you’ll love these beers in the context for which the originals styles were made: with food. If the Vintage Ale House finally encourages British pubs and bars to take beer and food pairing seriously as a core strategy John Hall should get a knighthood. I spotted Charlie McVeigh, boss of the small-but-expanding Draughthouse chain of gastropubs, at the launch, hopefully gathering some ideas, though since two of his ten pubs are in neighbouring SW11 he was probably mostly checking the new opposition: Draughthouse sells Goose Island beers. Continue reading

Your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies

In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.

But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.

Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:

“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”

Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.

“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”

Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking:

Do middle-aged men like reading stories about women like this because it turns them on?

But if you think this making-the-facts-up-to-fit-the-story policy is at all new, that we have only recently, after Brexit and Trump, shifted into a “post-truth” world, let me quote you George Orwell, writing 75 years ago about his experiences as a fighter for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War: Continue reading

Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

If you think the major problem facing the Campaign for Real Ale today is whether or not to embrace “craft keg”, or how to prevent more pub closures, then like the campaign itself you’re failing to acknowledge the elephant not just dominating the room but loudly trumpeting in your ear – the latest trumpeting being the news that Cloudwater, the highly regarded Manchester brewer barely two years old, is to give up making cask beer. That elephant is the one marked in big letters down both flanks “poor beer quality”, and despite Camra being founded 46 years ago to fight that exact battle, and – originally – that battle alone, it’s still a war far, far from won.

Cloudwater: no more cask

When Cloudwater started in 2015, the plurality of its output was in cask – 45 per cent, against 25 per cent in keg and the rest in bottle. Last year that was down to 23 per cent in cask, and the rest split almost evenly between bottle and keg. Now, with a new canning line starting up, co-founder Paul Jones says cask production is being halted, and the expected output for 2017 will be 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent bottle and can – with the aim to more than double annual turnover from £1.15million to £2.7 million and 13,000hl/8,000 barrels. Paul lists several reasons for dropping cask: the price the market will accept, which is less than the price it will accept for keg beer, despite all the expense of racking, handling and collection casks on insufficient margin; the fact that, tbh, Cloudwater finds the beers it can sell in keg and bottle more exciting than those it can sell in cask; and finally, and most pertinently to this debate, “another often encountered set of issues”, the quality problem. In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul complained that slightly hazy casks of keg were being “flatly refused” without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are “all too often good to go”.

Cask beer, Paul said, “should take pride of place in every bar and pub”, but it “requires not just the same skill and discipline as keg beer to brew but also requires excellent stewardship to be pulled in to a glass in a way that best represents the establishment, the brewer and the rich and varied heritage of cask beer in the UK.” He doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: Cloudwater doesn’t believe that the “excellent stewardship” is there at the point of sale in enough bars to present any cask beer it produces in the way that would give the best possible result for the customer.

It is not alone. I interviewed a number of leading names in the UK brewing world on the subject of beer quality recently, and they all agreed there is still a huge, huge problem. Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, another of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers.” Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, the most successful new brewery start-up in the past 45 years, and now owned by the Japanese brewer Asahi, has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the “cask ale” segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by “craft keg”.

However, he said, and this is a vital point regularly ignored, “all of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type. Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture. The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat. The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”

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How a 12-year-old brewery is having to show it’s not too old to be down with the kids …

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

The answer, to stop you looking it up, is Twickenham, which despite not even being a teenager yet, today, after the sale of Meantime, bears the mantle of the capital’s currently longest surviving independent new brewery. Which is more of a burden than you might at first reckon.

The brewery produces some lovely, and deservedly highly regarded cask and bottled beers: Naked Ladies, named for a set of statues of nymphs in a public garden by the Thames, is an excellent and locally very popular American-influenced 4.4 per cent alcohol best bitter, firmly but lightly flavoured with Celeia and Chinook hops, a good session brew and a reliable banker found on bar tops across West London and, in its bottled version, in a large number of off-licences around its home area, including Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as Majestic Wine outlets nationally.

naked-ladiesBut the brewery’s full name – Twickenham Fine Ales – is a reflection of the astonishingly different environment in which it was founded, just a dozen years ago. We’ve forgotten, I think, how unlike today the British beer scene was when Tony Blair was prime minister and Michael Howard leader of the Conservative Party. Beer in Britain went through a complete spin-around in 2009/2010, and I suspect, we can only look back now, half a decade on, and think: “Wow – what happened there?” We all saw these new breweries opening from 2009 onwards, in London in particular, we all saw how they were highly influenced by what was happening in the United States, with massively hoppy beers, big stouts, sour beers, strange obscure offerings such as Gose, and oriented towards keg delivery, towards cans, towards 33cl bottles kept in the chiller, and I’m not sure we were able to see quite what a caesura, a total break, this was in the history of British brewing, what a revolution was happening around us. “Fine Ales”? Grandad, that’s so 20th century.

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Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Let’s get one potentially controversial point out of the way first: this is a £20 bottle of beer. If that shocks you, you’ve not been paying attention to what’s happening in the market: there are more expensive beers than that. Some of Thornbridge’s sour creations sell at £15 for a bottle half the size. And £20 is barely leaving the foothills in the Land of Wine: even my local corner offie, which will sell you 24 cans of Foster’s for £20, has half a dozen wines for sale at that much a bottle or more.

This is also a very rare bottle of beer: Goose Island has brewed not much more than a couple of thousand litres, around 3,600 (UK) pints, of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale, and only 600 bottles have made it to the UK, where they are on sale in fewer than a dozen London outlets, including The Rake by Borough Market (where it was launched last Thursday), Mother Kelly’s, We Bought Beer, the White Horse in Parson’s Green and Clapton Craft.

So: is it worth it? Certainly the bar has been raised once again in the “authentic old beer reproduction” high jump, after Carlsberg’s effort earlier this year in brewing an 1883 lager with revived 1883 yeast. And BYSPA is a considerably more complex drink than Carlsberg’s straightforward 19th century sipper.

The back-story first: Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s “brewing innovation manager”, decided early in 2014 that he wanted to reproduce an old British ale of some sort, one that involved ageing in oak barrels and finishing with Brettanomyces. A great many people make the sign of the cross when Goose Island is named, believing that, since it is now owned by AB InBev, all its works bear the Mark of the Beast. But for me, any company that lets one of its managers say: “Hey – I’m going to spare little expense in recreating an obscure beer from 140 years ago” cannot possibly be totally bad. Continue reading

The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

You would need to be living under an upturned barrel for the past year not to have spotted the phenomenal rise in reputation of Cloudwater Brew Co, the Manchester-based craft brewery started by James Campbell, formerly head brewer at the city’s Marble Brewery, and the hipster entrepreneur Paul Jones. Cloudwater is not even 18 months old, but already spoken of alongside Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock and other top stars of the British craft brewing scene. It was voted best new English brewery of 2015 by Ratebeer, and its beers, especially its collaborations, score extremely highly on rating sites.

Nobody gets that level of buzz without something extremely interesting going on, so I was eager to get down to the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham and hear Paul Jones talk about the rise of Cloudwater at one of the shop’s regular “Meet the brewer” sessions. Good beer alone is not enough to be a storming success in such a short time. Paul confirmed this with a presentation lasting an hour and a half which made it clear that Cloudwater’s rise is powered by a clear and focused vision on the beers it wants to brew and a ferocious dedication to critical self-analysis that means pulling every beer apart and analysing how closely it came to fulfilling the brief set out for it in terms of delivering to specification, and then working out what would need to be done next time to get closer to the brief. It’s a management philosophy I suspect springs from Paul Jones’s background in the engineering side of the music business, and it certainly looks as if Cloudwater has brought a level of conscious business and management sophistication to the British craft brewing scene that makes most new brewery start-ups look like shambling amateurs. Possibly because most new brewery start-ups are shambling amateurs, one might conclude. And again, I may be wrong, but I detect the influence of a music industry background in Cloudwater’s clear commitment to never stepping into the same stream twice: the idea that 2015’s beers are done and away, and all that matters now are 2016’s beers, just like last year’s musical hits are so last year.

The result is a regularly altering line-up of kudos-winning beers that have gained Cloudwater masses of publicity and a hugely dedicated following. Their popularity also makes the beers frequently hard to obtain: I had not been able to find any Cloudwater products before the Twickenham “meet the brewer” session. That makes my take on the beers unfair, since you really can’t properly judge a brewer on just one evening. It’s clear why they are so popular: almost all were sharply focused, clear, clean and faultless. Faultless to a fault, almost: “beautiful” is not the same as “characterful”. But I need to drink more Cloudwater brews over more evenings to decide if this is a valid criticism.

I was going to copy-edit Paul Jones’s Q&A presentation at Twickenham down to merely “long read” rather than “massive over-the-top read”, but I decided people would find something insightful in all he said – he’s a very articulate, enormously enthusiastic man – so here it is, complete: more than 9,000 words. Settle down with a beer: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

A Copenhagen exclusive: Carlsberg fills a wooden cask with lager

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery. That swastika's a hit of an elephant in the room – er, road …

The Elephant Gate at the old Carlsberg brewery

If anyone ever declares again that keg beers cannot ever be as good as cask beers, I shall tell them of the night I spent at the bar of the Taphouse pub in Copenhagen with Michael Rahbek, brewer at Carlsberg’s Jacobsen brewhouse, while Jens Ungstrup, the beer manager at the Taphouse, poured us glass upon glass of porter and stout (and the occasional pale ale), all of them excellent, some of them stunning.

It’s hard to pick standouts, but they would certainly include the Carnegie 175th Anniversary Porter, brewed in 2011, still presenting masses of deep, dark chewy chocolate/roast malt flavour, and worth every krone of the £10.70 per 40cl glass the Taphouse charges; the milk chocolate stout from Brewfist in Italy, like chocolate mousse and cream; Jacobsen’s own Mermaid porter, brewed in 2013; and Michael Rahbek’s latest porter, made with four per cent of peat-smoked malt from the maltings at Denmark’s Stauning whisky distillery, a lovely beer even at a few weeks old, the peat smoke giving just the right level of background spice.

I also got to contrast and compare a couple more Jacobsen beers, the 2007 version of the Golden Naked Christmas ale (named for the type of barley used, I believe) and its 2016 iteration. The nine-year-old version reminded me strongly of aged Fuller’s Vintage Ale, which would be proper, since this is described as in the “English Strong Ale” style: the foundation of sweetness still there in the new beer has dried out after nearly a decade, and there’s a tart, aggressive quality coming through. Danes have a great love for Christmas beers, and Tuborg Julebryg is the fourth best-selling beer in the country, even though it’s only on sale for ten weeks a year, but Golden Naked is now apparently challenging its position as the top-selling yuletime tipple.

Michael Rahbek is clearly a hugely talented brewer, and a terrific man to have a beer-fuelled evening of conversation with, and I can’t thank him and Jens Ungstrup enough for one of the best nights in a bar I have ever had.

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yreast lager brewing

Emil Christian Hansen, pioneer of pure yeast lager brewing

I was in Copenhagen for my tiny contribution to the festivities celebrating the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory: my job was to give an outside beer historian’s perspective on the work done by Emil Christian Hansen at the laboratory in Copenhagen for a film being made about the event, and the special beer being brewed for the celebration using 133-year-old yeast resurrected from an old Carlsberg bottle. The plan is to to replicate as far as possible the first beer made that followed the precepts Hansen developed at the laboratory. Hansen, for those who don’t know, pioneered single-yeast-strain brewing, isolating from the mass of different varieties of yeast present in an old-style brew just the one that made the best beer and cultivating this pure strain up: and Carlsberg, instead of sitting on this technology, threw over any competitive advantage it might have gained, and gave it away to any brewer who wanted it – including, according to a letter of thanks found in the Carlsberg archives, one Mr Heineken of Amsterdam.

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Gabriel Sedlmayr, father of lager beer brewing

Mind, this followed on from the generosity of Gabriel Sedlmayr II of the Spaten brewery in Munich, the man who, in 1845, gave Carlsberg’s founder, Jacob Christian Jacobsen, his first lager yeast. Sedlmayr perfected Bavarian bottom-fermentation methods and then also handed over his secrets – and his yeast – to anyone who asked. If you go down Ny Carlsberg Vej (“New Carlsberg Way”) in Valby in Copenhagen, through the famous elephant gate, you will see on the wall of what was the Carlsberg brewery – closed 2008 – two busts in niches. One is of EC Hansen, the other Gabriel Sedlmayr. I doubt there is another brewery in the world that celebrates a rival in this way. (Spaten is now owned by AB InBev: one Carlsberg employee I know suggested, semi-seriously, that the Danish brewery ought to rescue Sedlmayr’s legacy by making an offer for Spaten that the Belgo-Brazilians could not refuse.)

I was filmed by Estonian TV in January, sitting in the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, for a programme about IPA: Baltic television viewers may be approaching peak Martyn Cornell. Filming for my slot in the Carlsberg programme took place in the Giniz bar, an “Engelsk inspireret Pub i midten af Valby”, and, fortified by a glass of rye porter from the Herslev brewery, one of my favourite Danish concerns, I attempted to sound convincingly erudite. Hopefully they won’t cut backwards and forwards in the final edit, and the beer in my glass won’t shoot up and down the way it does in the famous bar scene in Ice Cold in Alex. I think I got away with the act of appearing knowledgeable: at any rate, the film’s producer, Jesper Æro (to whom more thanks for making the process as painless for me as possible) didn’t throw me out of the bar and make me find the way to my hotel on my own, and instead invited me along to the next part of the filming.

This, I was very happy to find, was in the Carlsberg laboratory, where Erik Lund, the brewmaster at the lab, was filling one of the wooden casks that have been specially made by coopers in Lithuania for what is being called by Carlsberg the “Re-Brew” project. I’m guessing the casks are made out of the tight-grained wood once a favourite with brewers known as Memel oak, from the former name of the port in Lithuania (now Klaipėda) whence it was exported. Much care was taking with the filling: the cask itself, with a capacity of around 150 litres, was kept in a cold store before it was filled up, to ensure the beer would not get a shock when it was racked out of the cold lagering tank, and the cask was also flushed through with CO2 before the beer went in, to push out the atmospheric oxygen. Once filled, it was back into cold storage for another couple of weeks’ lagering.

After that, on 18 May, there will be a “tapping ceremony” at the brewery of this new-old beer, of which only 400 litres have been made. I’m delighted to say that, along with a fair number of other beer journalists, I’ll be there to try it: I’ll let you know how it goes.

Eric Lund at the Carlsberg laboratory fills a cask with ber from the lager tank that is as close to an authemntic 19th century lager as Carlsberg can get

Eric Lund at the Carlsberg laboratory fills a cask with beer from the lager tank that is as close to an authentic 19th century lager as Carlsberg can get

Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment

Is the Campaign for Real Ale about to have its Clause Four moment? For younger readers, Clause Four was the part of the constitution of the Labour Party that contained the aim of achieving “the common ownership of the means of production”, and it was when Tony Blair, Labour’s new party leader, and his allies managed to get that dumped in the dustbin of discarded socialist rhetoric in 1995 that New Labour was born. Traditionalists saw the policy celebrated in Clause Four, the rejection of capitalism, as the core principle that the Labour Party was founded upon. The Blairites saw this as outdated rhetoric that was damaging the party’s election chances, and dumping it as “revitalising” the Labour Party. Camra, you may have noticed, has now launched its own self-styled “revitalisation project”, designed to get a consensus on where the campaign, at 45 years old, should be going next.

The question being asked is “how broad and inclusive should our campaigning be”, and the choices offered in the survey on Camra’s website, frankly, are totally dishonest. There are six, and they are that the campaign should represent

  • Just drinkers of real ale, or
  • Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry, or
  • All beer drinkers, or
  • All beer, cider and perry drinkers, or
  • All pub-goers or
  • All drinkers
Andrew Boorde real ale campaigner

The Tudor physician Andrew Boorde (c 1490-1549), one of the earliest campaigners for real ale, who complained that while ale was ‘a naturall drynke’ for an Englishman, beer ‘doth make a man fat’.

But there isn’t a commentator that doesn’t know that four out of six of those choices are irrelevant nonsense, and the only real question Camra is asking is, “Look, are we finally going to ditch Clause Four start supporting craft keg as well as cask ale or not?”

Now, I’m aware that the support for cider and perry is controversial among some sections of Camra activists, and there are even some who question Camra’s pub campaigns, but it’s dishonesty through omission to stick those issues in there as if they were really a meaningful part of the debate about Camra’s future, and a disservice to the overwhelming majority of Camra’s membership not to make it clearer what this is really all about. In the 16-page document mailed to all Camra members about the “Revitalisation Project”, reference is made to Camra’s equivalent of Clause Four, that definition of “real ale” adopted in 1973, two years after the campaign was founded by four men who knew nothing, at that time about the technicalities of beer, only that they didn’t like the big-brand keg variety, which definition insists that the only sort of beer worth drinking is “matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed” and is “served without the use of extaneous carbon dioxide”.

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Caley’s self- crafted approach to being craft

Are you a mature but still lively Victorian brewery? Do you worry that younger breweries, with their weird American hop varieties, shiny stainless steel lauter tuns and one-off wacky recipes, are luring your customers away? Is your 150-barrel minimum brewlength too inflexible to make experimental brews on? Worry no more: install your own microbrewery on the premises, and you too can be hitting the bartops with mango-flavoured double IPAs and smoked malt saisons. Comes with clip-on manbun and removable extra-bushy beard for all brewhouse operatives …

That’s unfairly sarcastic: I have no problems at all with big brewers who respond to the craft micro-brewery challenge by bringing in their own tiny set-up: I had great fun playing with the 10-barrel mini-brewery Brains installed at its site in Cardiff. The Brains plant, like those installed at Shepherd Neame in Kent, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire and Adnams in Suffolk, is designed to brew short-run one-off beers for selling in the company’s pubs. The Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, however, has gone for something craftily different: an on-site microbrewery that is solely for experimenting with, making brews that, should they prove to be successful, will then be scaled up for commercial production in the main brewery.

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

The Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh in 1989

I last visited the Caledonian brewery more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, which was just two years after it had been the subject of a management buy-out to acquire it from Vaux, the Sunderland brewer, which had bought it in 1919. The brewery was founded by George Lorimer and Robert Clark in 1869, and Vaux took it over to supply the North East of England with Scotch Ale, a style of dark, fruity beer then very popular in the region. Edinburgh was once the third biggest brewing city in Britain, after Burton and London, and even in 1958 it has 18 surviving breweries. One upon one they closed: Vaux announced it wanted to shut the Caledonian in 1985. Fortunately for posterity, its then managing director, Dan Kane, an active Camra member, and his head brewer, Russell Sharp, felt there was enough demand for the traditional beer it made for the business to be viable on its own. In a regular irony, the lack of investment by Vaux over the years meant the Caledonian brewery still retained old-style equipment long replaced elsewhere, most notably open direct-fired coppers, which gave the brewery an excellent marketing story.

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewerry, Edinburgh, in 1989

Steaming wort runs into an open copper at the Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, in 1989

Despite a couple of fires at the brewery in the 1990s, those coppers are still there (though one is a replica, replacing a vessel lost in the fire of 1998, and they now appear to have suspended lids I don’t remember from before). Brewery manager Craig Steven says the now unique coppers give all the brewery’s beers a distinctive rotundity he always recognises in blind tastings. In 1991 the brewery launched a golden IPA using the name of another old Edinburgh operation, Deuchar’s, which had closed in 1961. That beer’s popularity was cemented with the award of the Champion Beer of Britain title by Camra in 2002, and it remains one of the UK’s best-selling cask ales. Then in 2004 the Caledonian Brewery lost its independence again, being bought by Scottish & Newcastle after S&N closed the old McEwan’s Fountainbridge brewery in Edinburgh. Just four years later the Dutch giant Heineken swooped on S&N, and Caledonian is now the second-smallest brewery (out of 165-plus) in what is currently the world’s third-largest brewing group.

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of ther Caledonian brewery

Marble bust of George Lorimer, founder of the Caledonian brewery

Which is why, presumably, they can afford to fly me up to Edinburgh, stick me in a four-star hotel, take me out for a very fine dinner in one of the Scottish capital’s best eateries, and all so I can see the new “Wee George” microbrewery (named for George Lorimer) and try the first beer to be scaled up and rolled out after trials on Wee George, an American-style IPA called Coast to Coast. There are those beer writers who would turn down being filled full of roast venison at a brewer’s expense in the belief that it would compromise their independence: I like to claim I’m not that cheaply influenced. (That is to say, you CAN influence me, but it will cost you lots …)

Talking of independence, Caledonian’s MD, Andy Maddock, who joined the Scottish brewer in March last year after six years as a senior sales and marketing man at Heineken, says his operation has an “arm’s length” relationship with its Dutch parent, allowing it to be entrepreneurial and to follow its own path as a “modern craft brewer”. There seems to be considerable fondness for the Caledonian brewery at the top in Heineken: they like its hands-on old fashionedness, and Michel de Carvalho, husband of Charlene Heineken, who inherited the business from her father Freddie in 2002, has apparently said Deuchars is his favourite beer.

Three Caledonian keg tapsThe advantages Caledonian has over most of its rivals, of course, are that as part of a huge conglomerate its financing is cheaper to arrange than a totally independent operator could manage, though it still has to have “all the rigour” in its budgets that any commercial operation has to have; and it can use its Heineken connections to get into other markets. Currently 95 per cent of sales are “domestic”, but in the next four to five years, Maddock says, he wants to see exports increasing, with Deuchars in particular and also Coast to Coast and the brewery’s new “craft lager”, Three Hop, being aimed at Western Europe. He also wants to see Caledonian’s beers making a bigger impact in the off-trade (“We haven’t punched our weight there yet,” Maddock says), and a greater awareness among drinkers that Deuchers is a Caledonian beer: it appears many Deuchars drinkers don’t actually know who makes it.

An original Deuchar's brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescuded from a pub in Bath

An original Deuchar’s brewery mirror, now in the tasting bar at the Caledonian brewery, rescued from a pub in Bath

On the other hand, they know why they drink it, or at least Caledonian does: “drinkability”, that mysterious characteristic no brewer knows for certain how to achieve, but which is vital for a beer to win a substantial slice of the market. Strangely, Caledonian is one of the few breweries I’ve visited where “drinkability” has been emphatically placed in the heart of the business strategy. Maddock says that the future of Caledonian will be based on a “modern” range, with beers such as Coast to Coast, that emphasises “distinctiveness and accessibility”, and a “traditional” range, led by Deuchars, where “drinkability is really important”. The idea, clearly, is that if you fancy trying one of those new craft beers, you can be reassured by the Caledonian name that it won’t be a frightening experience you’ll never want to repeat; and if you’re looking for something comfortable and more familiar, Caledonian has that for you as well. “Comfortable and familiar” are, frankly, far too under-rated among beer raters: most people most of the time don’t want to be challenged by their beer. Indeed, probably, most people don’t want to be challenged by their beer any of the time. “Predictable but not boring” is a great position for your brand to take, if you can capture it. “Predictable” also has to mean “predictably good”, of course, and part of that means making sure your raw materials are top quality: Caledonian has insisted for a long time on using what it says is the best malting barley in the world, from the east coast of Britain, both Southern Scotland and East Anglia, it also only uses whole-leaf hops, and it has now altered the way it buys hops, eschewing the traditional hessian hopsack for vacuum-packing in foil, believing this to keep the hops fresh for longer.

THe 'Wee George' microbrewery set-up at the Caley

The ‘Wee George’ microbrewery set-up at the Caley: note mini-hopback above the drain

So to Wee George: Caledonian’s answer to the fact that there are now 100 breweries in Scotland, very few of which can match it with the popularity of its “traditional” line-up, but at least some of which offer are going to have widespread appeal – “widespread appeal” being the market sector Andy Maddock and his crew would like to own most of, thank you. It’s a £100,000 collection of hand-assembled stainless-steel kit capable of producing just 400 litres at a time, around a thirtieth of the main brewery’s capacity, but it has its own filler that can be used to put the beer into bottle, cask or keg, and it even has a hopback, just like the “big” brewery. Hopbacks are an old-fashioned item of kit today, replaced almost everywhere by whirlpools, but brewers who have kept them have realised that a hopback can be a terrific tool for adding all sorts of flavour to your hot wort. The new kit went in on June 1, and since then it has been producing one beer a week – the first being a version of Deuchar’s IPA, presumably to see how different the recipe would turn out on the Wee George kit compared to the Big George kit. Scaleablity was a problem at first, but the Caley brewers are getting better, they told me, at working out what tweaks were likely to be needed to translate a brew from Wee George to the main brewery.

The first Wee George beer to make it from experiment to scaled-up bar-top brand, Coast to Coast, was pushed through in eight weeks, which shows that for a 146-year-old, the Caley can be nimble enough when it wants to be: most big breweries barely have a meetings cycle that short, never mind the NPD pipeline. The name comes from the combination of West Coast of American hops – Simcoe, apparently – with East Coast of Britain barley. It’s a perfectly fine craft-beer-with-training-wheels, I suspect there’s an as yet untapped market for such brews among people looking for a beer to have when you’re only popping in for one and you want something with more flavour that usual but not TOO much, and I’d give it a fair chance of doing very well. Though if I were any good at predictions, I’d be much richer than I am.

Many thanks to the Caley crew for taking me north to meet Wee George, and I look forward to tasting future roll-outs.

Mash run with Steele's masher, Caledonian brewery

Mash run with Steele’s masher, Caledonian brewery

Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed

Inside the drained mash tun, with the grains still waiting to be removed

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Filling a copper at the Caledonian brewery, 2015

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One of the three copper coppers at the Caledonian brewery

A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery

A lovely rocky head in a fermenting square at the Caledonian brewery

A steaming louvre over the copper room at ther Caledonian brewery

A steaming louvre over the copper room at the Caledonian brewery

Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015

Caledonian brewery, Edinburgh, 2015