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.

The problem for Twickenham in this new environment is that however good its beers, they look a little less than cutting edge alongside, say, Beavertown and its graphically furious cans. It is not through chance that Twickenham’s new West London rival, the Wimbledon brewery, sells its beers in 33cl bottles that sit without appearing out of place in the chiller cabinet together with craft beer offerings from around the world, while Twickenham’s ales, in their 50cl bottles, have to go and squat with the Wadworths, the Ringwoods, the Timothy Taylor’s – all beers your dad drinks.

The result, Ben Norman, Twickenham’s sales and marketing director, told me when I visited the brewery last week, was that bar owners today say to him: “I love your beers, but I can’t stock them – they’re not right for my outlets.”

Completely revolutionising the line-up is clearly not the answer: Twickenham’s current beers have too many (admittedly older) fans. So to try to get into bars where the brewery’s “old school” beers do not currently fit, it has just launched an entirely separate brand of “craft beers”, on keg and in 33cl bottles, with totally different imagery, and with the “Twickenham” name barely visible. The beers are being sold under the Old Hands brand, the idea being that even 12 years is four times the experience many London breweries currently have, with the tagline “Old Hands, New Brews”, and an emphasis that they come from “London’s oldest microbrewery”.

I’m strongly biased in favour of Twickenham: I’ve been a big fan since it opened in 2004 in premises less than half a mile from my then house. What I like about the brewery’s beers is the unfussed competence they exhibit: founder Steve Brown seems always to have been able to hire brewers who are totally on top of the job. Don’t necessarily trust me, therefore, when I say that the first batch of Old Hands beers is a terrific start that deserves to do very well: they may all be new styles to the brewery, but that “house competence” is still there, and not one is a disappointment or a distress.

Old Hands DIPA: nicely restrained

Old Hands DIPA: nicely restrained

I have to say, though, I’m not totally convinced about the branding: I’m a long way from the target audience, “typically younger craft beer drinkers”, being an untypically older craft beer and traditional ales as well drinker, but it seems to me that downplaying the Twickenham name is an error. The brewery has a reputation for quality, and making the Twickenham name more prominent would have helped introduce the Old Hands range to fans of Twickenham’s current, more traditional beers without putting off younger drinkers, I believe, while Twickenham’s reputation for quality brews would reassure everybody that the new line-up was worth risking an experiment.

Do, certainly, try for yourself. The Old Hands range has one beer designed to be a regular, Session IPA, 4.7 per cent abv, hopped with Mosaic, just 25 IBUs but buckets of flavour, as good a lower-gravity American Pale Ale as you’ll find in a very long journey, plus four others that will change regularly, according to Ben Norman, although I’ve tried them all and I reckon there are at least a couple that popular demand will insist be made part of the permanent line-up. The others, currently, are Strawberry Saison, 6 per cent, made with 300kg of strawberries, with the strawberries, as you would expect from Twickenham, perfectly balanced in a refreshing pale brew with just the right amount of tartness; Coconut Porter, made with 150kg of roasted coconut (a bugger to get out of the brewing vessels afterwards) and 50kg of cocoa nibs, which was extremely drinkable even for me, and I’m right at the back of the queue for the coconut beer fanclub; Rauch Beer, another style at the very bottom of my personal love-list, but made once again with Twickenham’s signature precision touch, so that again, even I enjoyed it; and a Double IPA at 8.6 pr cent, made with the help of the award-winning home brewer Fraser Withers from up the Thames at West Molesey, with Mosaic, Simcoe and (a new one to me) Azacca* hops, to give 70 IBU. Eminently drinkable, like all Twickenham beers, this is that almost paradox, a restrained DIPA. If other dippers are a hollering din, the Old Hands version is a pleasant and refined conversation on the virtues of masses of hops in a small glass.

We’ve not seen a shake-out yet in the London brewing scene, though numbers do now seem to have at least stabilised. While there will always be a market for the new (hence the decision to make Old Hands a revolving line-up), I can’t see anything but an increasing requirement for quality and reliability as the craft beer market matures, and not just because they’re my local brewery, I think Twickenham is in a great place to thrive with both its “dad” beers and its new “craft” line. And maybe they will eventually feel they can make the Twickenham name a bit bigger on the Old Hands labels …

* Named for the Haitian god of agriculture and developed by the American Dwarf Hop Association: a cross between the Japanese hop Toyomidori and an unknown variety, Toyomidori itself being a cross between Northern Brewer (a Golding descendant) and a wild American hop developed at Wye College in Kent and known as OB79, which appears in several hop family trees.

How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen

It’s a grand and globe-trotting life being a beer blogger. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.

I am honorable – it's official

I am the honorable  Martyn Cornell – it’s official

The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.

Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.

Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery?

The view from the bottom of the street where Joe's taproom is based. British readers will know the cartoon section in the opening credits of the satirrical programme Have I Got News For You, where one scene shows a Chinese lad in a paddy field suddenly surprised as skyscrapers burst up around him. He gives a grin and a thumbs-up, then starts coughing violenly as the piollution rolls out. That's the story of Shenzhen

The view from the bottom of the street where Joe’s taproom is based. British readers will know the cartoon section in the opening credits of the satirical programme Have I Got News For You, where one scene shows a Chinese lad in a paddy field suddenly surprised as skyscrapers burst up around him. He gives a grin and a thumbs-up, then starts coughing violenly as the pollution rolls out. That’s the story of Shenzhen

Finding Joe’s brewery, which is called BionicBrew, was its own adventure: I had downloaded and printed a map before I left Hong Kong, and the nice people at my hotel in Aberdeen, on the south side of the island, wrote instructions on it in Chinese: but the taxi driver I picked up at the Huanggong border crossing (after being stiffed 304 yuan – about £25 – for a one-day visa) still got wildly lost, leaning out of the window to shout questions at street cleaners in big conical hats and guards in security booths: you didn’t need to speak Putonghua to understand their replies, clearly variations on “never heard of it, mate.” Eventually it occurred to him to copy the address onto his phone and search for it on the Chinese version of Google Maps. Five satnav-guided minutes later and I was out of the taxi and in the street where BionicBrew’s taproom bar was based.

BionicBrew logoExcept that I wasn’t: I was actually in the next street along. But St Arnold was looking after me: in the mini-coach that has brought me from Hong Kong to the border I had met an American who teaches young Shenzhen science postgraduates at the local university how to write their theses and doctoral submissions in good scientific English. He knew the brewery, had been to its own beer festival two weeks ago, and had told me the taproom was based in a pedestrianised street lined with restaurants. This clearly didn’t match the alley I was now in: but when I walked round the corner, I found the target. No Joe, though: the shutter was down on the bar. He had not received my messages saying I had arrived in Shenzhen. Still, clouds, silver linings: while I waited for him in the Guangdong heat, I walked out into the main road and found a supermarket that was selling, to my delight, Snow beer. Not that Snow beer is delightful, it’s a bland straw-pale lager, but it’s the biggest-selling beer in China, and therefore the world, and I had never drunk it, as you can’t find it in Hong Kong. It’s a bizarre boast, I know, but I have now drunk the most popular beer on the planet and I bet you haven’t.

Dave Byrn

Dave Byrn of Pasteur Street Brewery, Saigon

When I got back to the bar, Dave Byrn had turned up, along with his sales manager from the Pasteur Street brewery, Mischa Smith, a rotund, chuckling former barman from Ontario via South Korea. Dave, previously of Cigar City Brewing in Florida, looks like the photograph you’d find in a picture dictionary under the entry “American craft brewer”: big, muscular, bushy-bearded and bald-headed. I had barely consumed any of my Snow when Joe arrived, accompanied by his brewer, a thin, blond, friendly Russian called Dmitrii Gribov – Mitch for short – from the city of Perm, in the Urals. A trestle table from outside the front of the bar was dragged into the shade in the centre of the street and a large jug containing an excellent American pale ale brought out from Joe’s bar, and as local children ran about playing ball games and ignoring the international collection of gweilos in their midst, we talked about the problems and promises of the Asian microbrewing market (number one threat: finding suitable premises; number one opportunity: the growing desire of increasingly wealthy consumers in the East for craft beer); how the rapid growth of Shenzhen means buildings are constantly being torn down and new, taller ones whipped up in their place (right opposite Joe’s street was a large open space where, he told us, a big and not particularly old building had stood until last month, when it was demolished to make way for something newer: in the distance, through the smoggy haze, more tall buildings, each accompanied by cranes, could be seen rising skywards); and why there was a brewpub called Peko immediately next door to BionicBrew’s bar (Joe actually leases the space to Peko, having decided the entire premises he was renting was too large for his own sole use.)

Joe outside the brewery entrance: that's the brewery 'dray' on the left

Joe outside the brewery entrance: that’s the brewery ‘dray’ on the left

Another jug of excellent beer later, it was time to walk the short distance to the brewery. This is easily the strangest brewery premises I have been in: two adjacent apartments on the ground floor of a tall and rather run-down block of flats in the middle of a residential area. When Joe was first shown round by the landlord, families still lived in them. Astonishingly, the other residents don’t seem to mind having a brewery in the heart of their apartment block, though apparently there were some complaints about the smell of hops when it opened, to Joe’s surprise: “That’s the best smell there is!”, he says. The space is cramped, but Joe and his team are making terrific beers from a mixture of home-made and manufactured-in-China kit.

Joe Finkenbinder in the BionicBrew 'brewhouse' (brewflat?)

Joe Finkenbinder in the BionicBrew ‘brewhouse’ (brewflat?)

Dmitrii Gribov inside the BionicBrew brewery

Dmitrii Gribov inside the BionicBrew brewery

Black plums, otherwise wu mei, Prunus mume

Black plums, otherwise wu mei, Prunus mume

Black sesaei seeds

Black sesame seeds

The collaboration beer we were there to brew was named in reference to the dispute between Vietnam and China over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, with each country claiming ownership of the two archipelagos. Since the islands are in the middle of the salty sea, then Disputed Waters needed to be a salty beer – a gose, Leipzig’s great contribution to world beer styles. And since this was East Asia, it needed Asian ingredients alongside the hops and malted wheat and barley. As an extra twist, this was a black gose, about which there is bound to be dispute (geddit?), so to go with the two per cent of melanoidin malt the added ingredients were black as well: black sesame seeds, black soy sauce, for saltiness and flavour, and dried black plums, which I believe were wu mei, otherwise known as Chinese plums, Prunus mume, used in Chinese medicine and described as sour, and astringent in flavour. (There was meant to be Vietnamese sea salt in the brew as well, but la la, the guys from Ho Chi Minh City had left it behind …)

Dmitrii stirs while I pretend to be a real brewer and add some of the grain

Dmitrii stirs while I pretend to be a real brewer and add some of the grain

Alas, alas, like Cinderella I had a midnight deadline, which was when my pumpkin coach, in the shape of a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787, was taking off from Hong Kong Airport to fly back to London, where I had to be at work the next morning. To allow for getting through the Shenzhen traffic and possible delays at the border, I needed to leave early, with just enough time to pour some of the malt into the mashtun and thus claim I too had collaborated in the brew, and no time at all, sadly, to go back to Joe’s bar and enjoy more beers and more chat about brewing. If you’re reading this in a few week’s time and you drank Disputed Waters, please leave a comment on how it tasted.

I’d like to thank Joe and his team for their tremendous hospitality and friendliness, which could not have been bettered (just like the beers), and also thank Jonathan So very much indeed for inviting me back to Hong Kong and providing me with free accommodation. If you’re in Shenzhen, or even Hong Kong, do go and visit the BionicBrew taproom, you won’t regret it.

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am

Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I can rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading

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.

Ron Pattinson and Mike Siegel outside the Rake in Borough for the UK launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Ron Pattinson and Mike Siegel outside the Rake in Borough for the UK launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

So Mike S gets in touch with my mate Ron Pattinson, a man even more obsessed with old beer styles than I am, in Amsterdam, and Ron, thrilled that the Genie of the Brew Kettle had arrived to grant him one of his dearest wishes, says there is only one candidate: stock pale ale, the strong aged beer that was a speciality of the Burton upon Trent brewers (although plenty of others made it), kept for more than a year in barrel, a beer in the same family as, though rather stronger than, India Pale Ale, and a beer that effectively vanished before the First World War, killed off by changing tastes and rising taxes on alcohol. (“I was amazed I’d finally found someone to brew this beer for me – I’d tried loads of people before,” Ron says. “Mike was the first gullible idiot who took me up on it … it’s a completely unsustainable project financially.”)

The recipe Ron presented Mike was from Truman’s brewery in Burton, a batch of its P1(K) made in December 1877 from 100 per cent pale malt with 5.5 pounds per barrel of mixed one-third US Cluster and two-thirds Kent hops, original gravity 1069, final gravity 1012, alcohol by volume 7.54 per cent – so, very dry, well fermented out and massively hoppy. Although, as we will see, that same beer after a year in cask would have been rather different … (For ironists, incidentally, P1(K) was the ancestor of Ben Truman, one of the notorious keg beers of the 1970s alongside Red Barrel and Double Diamond. And if you were wondering about US hops at such an early date, British brewers in the 19th century regularly used American hops, to make up for a lack of British ones.)

After some tweaking, the recipe Goose Island went with in June 2015 used floor-malted Maris Otter, with 13 per cent of the fermentables coming from sugar; 3lb 15oz of hops per barrel, two thirds East Kent Goldings (5.9 per cent alpha acids) and one third US Cluster (9 per cent alpha acids); OG of 1063, IBUs of 95.5 and an abv of 7.29 per cent. The brewery then filled the beer into casks, pragmatically choosing fourth-fill ex-Kentucky bourbon barrels, in the absence of anyone able to supply the sort of Baltic oak casks a British brewer would have used in the 19th century (I told Mike at Thursday’s launch that it was still possible to get Memel oak casks made, in Lithuania, and Carlsberg had done so for its reproduction lager project, which rather angered him, I fear, since he looked at me and roared [he’s a big guy]: “Are you telling me I didn’t spend enough money reproducing this beer?”)

Ron Pattinson pontificates at the launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale in the Rake to an audience of geeks, bloggers, brewers and journos (none of those categories being exclusive …)

Ron Pattinson pontificates at the launch of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale in the Rake to an audience of geeks, bloggers, brewers and journos (none of those categories being exclusive …)

The beer Ron and Goose Eye have made is called Brewery Yard in recognition of the fact that Bass and its fellows would leave their stock pale ales outside in the yard for a year to mature, while the Brettanomyces that lived in the wood in every vat and cask in every British brewery munched away at the higher sugars that ordinary brewing yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, had left behind. (This is itself a not uncontroversial call: some, notably Steve Wellington of the White Shield brewery, insist only Burton Ale, the sweeter, fruitier beer Burton brewers made before India Pale Ale, was matured in the yards. However, Ron has pulled out enough evidence to convince me the stock pale ales went through this out-of-doors maturing.) Chicago’s climate being rather less temperate than Burton’s, they couldn’t leave Brewery Yard outside (unless they wanted to make ice-beer), so it was stored inside, and the Brett was added deliberately: B Claussenii, the variety Niels Hjelte Claussen found in a sample of English stock ale at the Carlsberg laboratories in Copenhagen in 1903 and identified as the yeast that gave stock ales and stouts brewed by British brewers their inimitable flavour. Over the 11 months and two weeks the beer sat in its casks, fascinating changed were occurring: the alcohol level climbed 15 per cent, to 8.4 per cent abv, while the bitterness plunged by more than a third, to 62 BUs, and the Brett added its own flavours and aromas as it multiplied in the dark.

Stolen without remorse from Ron's presentation, fermentation details – and a pic of the casks filled with maturing beer

Stolen without remorse from Ron’s presentation, fermentation details – and a pic of the casks filled with maturing beer

What is the beer like, 15 months on from when it was brewed? Lovely. This is a big beer, that, like a powerful red wine, I’d recommend opening and then leaving for a while, to let the flavours be drawn out: pour a glass, take a sip, and then leave it for 15 or 20 minutes before you return. The taste and the aroma will cover your tongue and fill your nose: the sourness is perfectly balanced, the bitterness not at all obtrusive, the Goldings contribute tangerine and mandarin, the Brett sweaty leather and earthiness, old dogs and tobacco, there’s raspberries and lemons and a touch of pepper. It begs to be accompanied by food: thick-cut steaks well-charred on the outside and still bleeding in the middle, heavy-gravy stews with garlic dumplings, roast venison and game chips … drink this, and you’ll want to pick up a Union Jack and start singing Rule Britannia. At Thursday’s launch strong cheeses were offered as accompaniments, and Brewery Yard will certainly hold its corner against the maturest Cheddar or bluest Stilton.

Overall verdict, then, hurrah for Ron and Goose Island, it’s marvellous to have a chance to try this beer, and it’s a terrific brew even ignoring the history. You won’t be wasting your £20. Mike Siegel says he wants to produce more old British beer styles, and I greatly want to try them. Yes, as Ed Wray said on Twitter, this is in large part a marketing exercise by Goose Island and AB InBev, who hope the halo effect from Brewery Yard will cast a happier glow over their other efforts. But if all their marketing efforts were as yummy as this one, I’d not have a problem.

• Addendum: a number of commentators have compared BYSPA to Orval. To the extent that they are both pale ales brewed with EKG and with Brettanomyces used for a secondary fermentation, there are similarities, though Orval uses a different strain of Brett (bruxellensis) and the Goldings are a dry-hop addition, not in the main boil. But side by side, they are clearly different beers, though related: Orval is darker and redder, more highly conditioned, while the BYSPA is fuller in the mouth, slightly oaky in a way the Orval definitely is not, sharper and more citric than the Orval, and the Brett character is much more forward, while in the Orval I drank it was definitely there, but more muted, more part of the choir than the featured singer.

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

Will Big Lager one day go the same way as Big Porter?

I gave a talk at the Victorian Society’s “Beer and Brewing Study Day” yesterday in the Art Workers’ Guild building in Bloomsbury on “The Decline and Fall of Heavy Wet”, “heavy wet” being a 19th century slang expression for porter. I described how in 1843 the Scottish journalist William Weir called porter “the most universally favoured liquor the world has ever known,” and declared that “porter drinking needs but a beginning: wherever the habit has once been acquired, it is sure to be kept up.” But even then, the dark, hoppy, bitter beer that had been a favourite of everybody from dockers to dukes for more than a hundred years was in decline, losing sales to mild ale, a sweeter pale drink. Within 40 years mild ale had completely eclipsed porter as the favourite style of most beer drinkers, and mild was to remain number one until the 1960s – when it too, was turfed off the throne. The beer that replaced it, however, bitter, had barely three decades at number one before falling to the growing popularity of lager, which became the biggest seller in the 1990s. And I finished with this question for the audience: is there any reason why Big Lager should not, one day, follow Big Porter – and Big Mild – into oblivion?

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at th rear and protect the wearer's jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) - from the anonymously-written Real Life in London, 1821

Tom and Bob order quarts of heavy wet at a club for coal heavers (note the fantail hats, which hang down at the rear and protect the wearer’s jacket from the coaldust from the sacks they carry on their backs: the president of the assembly, on the far left, has turned his hat around) – from the anonymously written Real Life in London, 1821

Big Porter really was big. Those who brewed it became astonishingly wealthy. Samuel Johnson was talking about the opportunities available to the purchaser of a London porter brewery when he spoke about becoming “rich beyond the dreams of avarice”. Samuel Whitbread, who ran one of the capital’s biggest porter breweries, in Chiswell Street, was “said to have been worth a million at least” when he died in 1796, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine, a fortune equivalent to perhaps £1.5 billion today. The porter brewers’ wealth brought them considerable influence: all seven of the biggest London breweries had multiple members of parliament among their partners.

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

Samuel Whitbread, porter brewer, worth £1m in 18th century money

In 1823, porter output in London hit 1.8 million barrels, after a continual rise that had lasted 50 years. But this was its peak: by 1830 porter production would be down 20 per cent on its 1823 level. What was replacing it was mild ale, made for quick consumption, slightly stronger than porter, pale in colour, unaged and therefore sweeter, less acid than porter. A House of Commons select committee on the sale of beer in 1833 was told that the London drinker “will have nothing but what is mild, and that has caused a considerable revolution in the trade, so much so that Barclay and Perkins, and other great houses, finding that there is a decrease in the consumption of porter, and an increase in the consumption of ale, have gone into the ale trade; nearly all the new trade is composed of mild ale.”

In the early 19th century, ale brewers and beer (that is to say, porter and stout) brewers were still different concerns in London, with the ale brewers much smaller than their rivals. But as the demand for ale grew, so the ale brewers grew too, boosting companies such as Charrington in the Mile End Road and Courage at Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Tower. Charrington’s trade increased almost 2 1/2 times between 1831 and 1851, for example. In 1814 it was producing just 16,510 barrels a year, all ale, when Barclay Perkins, then London’s leading brewer, was making 257,300 barrels of porter: by 1889 Charrington’s output had risen to more than 500,000 barrels a year, level with Barclay Perkins.

A couple of ads for Charrington's XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

A couple of ads for Charrington’s XX ale in 1829 this is pale ale in the earlier sense of a lightly hopped but strong pale malt liquor, not the heavily hopped India Pale Ale: these ads are actually from an Australian newspaper

The porter brewers responded by moving into the ale market, particularly after the Beerhouse Act of 1830 dramatically increased the number of available licensed outlets. Whitbread, then the third or fourth biggest brewer in London, whose production was entirely porter up to 1834, started brewing mild ale in 1835. Ale quickly rose from nowhere to more than 10 per cent of Whitbread’s production by 1839, and more than 20 per cent by 1859, when Whitbread’s porter sales had dropped by almost 30 per cent compared to 25 years earlier. At Truman’s, then fighting with Barclay Perkins to be London’s biggest brewer, the swing from porter was stronger still, with ale making up 30 per cent of production by 1859.

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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.

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Shall we call this new British beer style – Hoppy Light Ale?

A new British beer style is being born as you read this. Indeed, “being born” is almost certainly wrong: “building up bulk” is probably much better, since it’s been on bar tops, arguably, for at least 15 years, albeit without being properly recognised and catalogued as the fresh branch in the evolution of pale ale that it is.

Redemption Trinity light ale

Redemption Trinity light ale: a classic modern Hoppy Light Ale

This new style of beer is, effectively, the British equivalent of the American “session IPA” or “Indian session ale“, though not inspired by those beers, which are still often stronger, at 5 per cent abv or more, than a British session beer would ever be. Instead the new brews take the floral, tropical hoppiness of a typically strong standard American Pale Ale or IPA and presents that at a much more comfortable UK session strength, 4 per cent alcohol by volume and below.

As with all truly sustainable movements, this has been an example of push and pull: demand was pushed by the makers, individual brewers deciding that they wanted to brew just such a beer, crossing true sessionability with dramatic New World hop flavours, and pulled by consumers, drinkers who had been converted to loving American hops and were very happy to find drinks with all the American IPA taste assertiveness they wanted but low enough in alcohol that they could comfortably have several pints over an evening, not something that is possible with your usual Seattle or San Diego hop soup thumper.

As the trend spread, it seems to have escaped recognition as a different style of British beer, not the least reason being, I suspect, that there wasn’t an easy name to apply to this new family of brews, the way Golden Ales, the last new British beer style, could be badged and corralled back in the 1980s when they initially arrived, with a name based just on their colour. Mark Dredge was one of the first to spot that there was actually a new movement happening, putting a selection of similar low-gravity but hop-filled British brews into a chapter in his 2013 book Craft Beer World and calling the category “pale and hoppy session beers”. His examples included Moor Revival (3.8% abv, brewed with Columbus and Cascade hops); Cromarty Happy Chappy (4.1%, Columbus, Cascade, Nelson Sauvin and Willamette); Hawkshead Windermere Pale (3.5%, Goldings, Fuggles, Bramling Cross and Citra); and Buxton Moor Top (3.6%, Chinook and Columbus). Mark also gave an excellent definition of the category: Continue reading

Why Greene King doesn’t care that the haters hate its IPA

Hard luck, haters: Greene King knows you don’t like its IPA, you think it’s too bland, “not a real IPA” at 3.6% abv, and it doesn’t care at all. Not the tiniest drop. In fact it’s probably quite pleased you don’t like it. You’re not its target market – it’s after a vastly larger constituency. If you liked its IPA, it’s fairly sure those people that Greene King would most like to capture to and in the cask ale market, young people, people still with a lifetime of drinking ahead of them, wouldn’t like it – and for that reason, the Bury St Edmunds crew have no intention of changing their IPA just to make you happy. In fact they’re not changing it at all – except to shake up its look, and put £2m in media spend behind it.

Greene King IPA new look

The new look

Of course, it’s not just Greene King IPA that has hosepipes of vitriol directed at it by the Camra hardcore. Any widely available  cask ale gets the same – Fuller’s London Pride and Sharp’s DoomBar are equally hated, without the haters apparently being able to work out that the reason why these beers are widely available is because lots of people actually like drinking them, even if the haters don’t.

Indeed, it’s the popularity that is prompting the Bury St Edmunds crew into its current push. To its obvious delight, and, I suspect, slight surprise, Greene King has discovered that the flood of new young drinkers coming into the cask ale market find Greene King IPA just the sort of beer they want: there’s more to it that can be found in a pint of lager, but it’s still reasonably safe and unthreatening.

At a launch on Monday night in a bar near Oxford Circus in London to announce a new look for Greene King IPA, and other initiatives including a new website to educate licensees and bar staff on cellar management and how to serve the perfect pint, Dom South marketing director for brewing and brands at Greene King, quoted figures from a survey done last year for the Campaign for Real Ale showing that 15% of all cask drinkers tried cask ale for the first time in the past three years, and 65% of those new drinkers are aged 16 to 24. “We’re seeing a complete revolutionary shift in the drinker base coming into cask ale, which is exciting, because it means that this category, for the future, is in rude health,” South said. And where does Greene King IPA fit in here? “When you look at what those young drinkers want, from a cask ale brand, or just a beer, the three things a new young entrant wants are, first, something that feels right to them, a reflection of themselves, that makes them feel good about drinking the beer,” South said. “They want something a little bit modern, a little bit contemporary. The second thing is, they expect the beer to taste good – but let’s face it, too many pints in the UK are served sub-standard.

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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