Category Archives: Beer styles

The woodbegoods

There’s an odd feeling, like you’re doing something slightly illegal, when drinking and discussion beers that would have been poured down the drain by every generation of brewers before this one for being irredeemably faulty. But 21st century brewmasters have discovered the flavour found in wood, and declared it good.

Unlike wine-makers, especially many white wine makers, and distillers, especially whisk(e)y distillers, brewers who have used wooden fermenting vessels and wooden casks always made it an axiom not to have any influence from the wood apparent in their beers. Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

Oak for casks, vats and brewing vessels was sourced from places such as Russia and Poland that were known for growing wood that would not impart any flavours to the beer. Casks were lined with “brewer’s pitch”, vats were scrubbed down so that when stock ales, porters and stouts were being matured in them, no tang of the timber would come through into the beer. Once fermenting vessels began being lined with metal, and steel and aluminium casks came in, wood flavours disappeared as a worry.

The introduction of wood flavours as a desirable characteristic, in the UK at least, was a serendipitous discovery springing from the wish of the Scotch whisky distiller William Grant in 2002 to add to its range of “cask reserve” whiskies, all finished off in casks that had previously held other alcoholic drinks, such as sherry or rum. Grant’s wanted a beer to fill casks with and enable it to make “ale cask reserve” whisky once the beer had been emptied out.

Dougal Sharp, then of the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, designed a malty, estery, sweet, not very hoppy beer he and Grant’s felt would give the casks a good foundation for maturing whisky in. The beer was aways meant to be thrown away once it had been in the casks long enough to impart flavour to the wood that could be absorbed subsequently by the whisky. But workers at Grant’s distillery sampled the beer, and liked the oaky, vanilla flavours it had picked up from the new wood so much that instead of disposing of it they started taking it home …

Intrigued, Sharp tried putting the beer into a blind tasting at the brewery, where it scored a consistent nine out of nine with the tasters. The “tweaked” version of their original brew for Grant’s that Dougal and his father Russell launched in 2003 as Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer has been so successful subsequently it has effectively launched a completely new category in the UK marketplace – wood-aged beer.

Which is why I was at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday for the Zythographers’ Union’s latest seminar, tasting different styles of beers aged in different ways in different types of cask, and listening to Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery, John Keeling of Fuller’s in London and Dougal Sharp himself talk about their wood-aged beer experiments and experiences.

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There Are No Favourites in Our House

Michael Jackson, whose funeral was yesterday, used to complain that people kept asking him what his favourite beer was. It annoyed him, I think, because it showed what a limited view the questioners had of great pleasures and deep enthusiasms, as if you could only like football by supporting one favourite team.

I have a favourite wine – Sauvignon Blanc for whites, Shiraz or Zinfandel for reds – and I have a favourite whisky (Lagavulin, thanks, though I wouldn’t spurn The Macallan). But what that shows to me is that I’m not a huge enthusiast for wine or whisky, and certainly not a real wine or whisky lover. Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker won’t have a favourite grape variety, and if I went into my local cigar specialist down the hill, I am sure the proprietor would tell me he doesn’t have a favourite cigar. Like Michael, I believe anyone who has a favourite beer doesn’t like beer that much (and Mr Jackson wouldn’t have had a favourite whisky; he showed as much enthousiasmos for, and knowledge of barley spirit as the undistilled version.)

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Top beer and cheese choices

As an example of truth in marketing, Charles Martell’s Stinking Bishop cheese is tough to beat – it really does stink enough to waken the dead, according to the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were Rabbit. which climaxes with Gromit reviving his master by waving a wedge of the cheese under his nose, whereupon the aroma of three-month-old unwashed socks drags Wallace back to life.

Stinking Bishop is the name of the pear, more properly called the Moorcroft pear, used to make the perry that is used to wash the rinds of the ripening Stinking Bishop cheeses at Mr Martell’s Laurel farm in Dymock, Gloucestershire. The washing with perry encourages bacterial growth on the rinds, and the bacteria produce the pong, though the cheese itself, made in part with milk from rare Gloucester cows, is delicious. It’s one of the few cheeses I’d hesitate to eat with beer: because of how it’s made, a sharp, dry perry is probably the best companion. However, a sulphury Burton bitter, particularly Marston’s Pedigree, also makes a good match: pong against pong.

Mr Martell’s other offerings include Hereford Hop cheese, covered in toasted, pressed hops, another cracking product just the crumbly side of firm. It makes excellent cheese on muffins, terrific for afternoon tea with Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter from Yorkshire, itself one of the most perfectly balanced matches of hop and malt flavours I know.

All beers go with cheese, the carbonation and the bitter hops preventing the palate from getting too clogged, though Yorkshire beers (and I say this as a southerner) do seem to pair particularly well with cheeses, especially with Yorkshire cheeses: try Swaledale with Black Sheep bitter for example (and if you can find the rarer ewe’s milk Swaledale, you’ll be eating sheep’s cheese with sheep’s beer …) Here’s half a dozen pairings, however, that include only one Yorkshire beer: some are not great beers, some are not great cheeses, but all are excellent combinations that are certainly grater than the sum of their parts.

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Pale Stout

Plugging different beer-related key words into the search facility in the Times newspaper archive 1785-1985 is continuing to turn up gold. In June 1843 a series of small ads began to appear in the newspaper for Bavarian Pale Stout – put that one in your BJCP guidelines – brewed, not in Munich, but by Beamish and Crawford of the Cork Porter Brewery in Ireland

… under principles personally explained by Professor Liebig to the manufacturers, and is remarkable for its purity and agreeable flavour, and produces a grateful and cheering effect, without exciting any irregular actions in the stomachs of persons even of the most delicate constitutions, or inducing the least drowsiness in those of sedentary or studious habits.

This is a late mention for pale stout, but it would not have seemed as surprising to early Victorian beer drinkers as it does to us. For 150 years or so after the word stout first began being applied to beer it was used simply as an adjective to mean “strong”. A poem from Scotland in the latter half of the 18th century called “The ale-wife’s supplication”, which urged George III to cut the taxes on malt and ale, included the lines:

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Inside the pale

The Times newspaper in London has recently completed the magnificent task of digitising its entire run of issues back to 1785, meaning every word, including all the advertisements, is now electronically searchable. This is a tremendous boon to historians, who will be greatly helped in finding the answers to many of the vexed historical questions of today, such as: is pale ale really a different drink from draught bitter?

Your man with his tent erected in the middle of the “pale ale and bitter are different styles” camp is Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™. In the latest edition of Beers of the World magazine, in a series of articles on beer styles, himself writes:

Let us begin by stating what pale ale is not. It’s not IPA – India Pale Ale – neither is it bitter. Pale ale stands between the two … Bitter, as we shall see later in the series, is an early 20th century beer, brewed to meet the demands of the new “tied pubs” of large brewers who wanted a draught “running beer” that could be served after only a few days of cellar conditioning.

However, the evidence points overwhelmingly towards pale ale and bitter being regarded as synonyms by both the public and brewers from the time the terms first appeared. (I won’t comment on Roger’s second claim, that 20th century bitter was a new invention that needed only a few days of cellar conditioning, until his promised piece on the history of bitter comes out).

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Waggle-and-Special

My third-nearest Young’s pub (which is named after the unpleasant, and unreadable, poisoned dwarf Alexander Pope, but I try not to let that damage my enjoyment of it) is currently selling draught Waggledance, the honey beer now, since all brewing of Young’s beers moved to Bedford, on its third brewery. This is not a beer I drink at home, but as I was in a pub I thought I’d experiment with Waggledance as a mixed beer. Young’s ales, since they have plenty of individual character, make excellent mixes, the best being a classic, Winter Warmer and Ordinary. This is the traditional “Mother-in-Law”, or old-and-bitter (no reference is intended here to any of my mothers-in-law, living or dead, and certainly not to you, Kate, as if …).

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FES three different ways

The arrival of increasing numbers of African immigrants to the UK in the 1990s meant that demand sprang up for Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the strong (7.5 per cent ABV) version of Dublin’s black brew, which is made in breweries across Africa, and is one of the biggest selling beer brands on the continent. Guinness had never sold FES in the UK (or Ireland), except briefly (under the name XXX) in the 1970s, but by the mid-1990s it was available in Britain, where it competed with “grey” imports of FES from Nigeria for the immigrant trade.

One of the unique aspects of FES is that it is brewed using a special roast barley, malt and hops concentrate, deeply black and amazingly bitter, invented in the early 1960s by Guinness scientists, and originally called Concentrated Mature Beer. Now, under the name Guinness Flavour Extract, it is sent out from Ireland to the 50 or so breweries around the world that brew FES, where it is added at the rate of two per cent GFE to 98 per cent pale locally brewed beer. The boom in Guinness FES sales around the world meant that in 2003 Guinness decided it could not make enough GFE in Dublin, and refitted the former Cherry’s brewery in Mary Street, Waterford to make six million litres of GFE a year, using 9,000 tonnes of barley.

Today, while FES is still imported from Dublin, the Nigerian version is now legitimately available here via proper import channels – with the result that you can find the Dublin version in Sainsbury’s, while Tesco has versions brewed in Nigeria. I say “versions”, because a study of the back labels shows there appear to be two different sorts of Nigerian FES. Both use sorghum, a traditional African grain (used to make traditional African beers), at the insistence of the Nigerian government, which wanted locally-grown produce in locally brewed and sold beer: you can’t grow barley in Nigeria. However, alongside the sorghum, some bottles of Nigerian FES in Tesco say they also contain wheat, while others say they contain maize.

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