I’ve been going on holiday with my family to the Mani, in the middle “finger” of the Peloponnese, pretty regularly since 2006: it’s a beautiful, almost entirely unspoilt place, the beaches are broad and sandy, the sun almost continuous, the people are friendly, the food is excellent, locally sourced and cheap. The beer, until now, has generally not been up to much, but when it’s 32ºC almost anything cold and wet will do. All the same, I was thrilled to discover this year that a local entrepreneur, Takis Kapetanéas, has opened a craft brewery on the edge of the small fishing village of Agios Nikolaos, in the Western Mani, just five minutes down the road from the seaside village of Stoupa, where we always stay.
Greece now has 45 breweries, up from 35 two years ago, 13 in 2009 and a mere five at the start of the century. Most are still tiny, however (indeed, the Mani Brewery, despite being one of the newest is the second-largest “craft” beer brewery in the country), some have struggled and closed, such as the Messinian brewery, near Kalamata, opened in 2009, which made beer under the similar-sounding Neda brand, but which closed a couple of years or so back; and beer remains down the list of priorities for Greek drinkers: for comparison, the country is said to have some 500 different brands of ouzo, and 3,500 wines.
The brewery’s founder, Takis (short for Panagiotis) is in his early 40s and proudly Maniot born and bred: the “-éas” at the end of his family name is the universal ending for surnames in the Messinian Mani, and the brand name of his beers Nema, is a Maniot dialect word meaning “gesture” or “nod”, while the brewery logo features the tower houses found in almost every Maniot village, where, in the past, families would retreat to defend themselves against their enemies – generally rival families from the same village.
Takis, who worked in the property business before he became a full-time brewery
owner, says he “fell in love” with beer on his travels abroad, and became
a “long-time” home brewer, always with the ambition to open his own
brewery. The brews currently being made at the Mani Brewery, a 16 IBU 4.6 per
cent abv blonde ale and a 20 IBU, 4.6 per cent abv summer ale, are
“pragmatic” beers, Takis says: not the beers he would like to make
which would be well-hopped IPAs and stouts, but the ones he knows will sell in
the Greek market, where 99.5 per cent of the beer on sale is pale euro-lager.
The blonde is
an excellent, refreshing, unfiltered, unpasteurised easy-drinking top-fermented
ale, best served well-chilled: citrussy, slightly sweet, made with the local spring water, treated as necessary
(Mani tap water is unfit for drinking, containing four times more fluoride than
EU recommendations, but the springs in the region provide nicely lime-hard brewing
liquor), Magnum hops, Greek pils malt from the Vergina brewery in Thessaly and
a touch of Vienna and carapils,. It’s a great beach or poolside beer. The
summer ale, paler, slightly bitterer, slightly hoppier, is a little more
complex, and a fine companion for the generally unfussy, excellent-value Greek food,
all made from local ingredients, found in the many family-run restaurants in Ag
Nik and its larger neighbours, Stoupa and Kardamili, where you can still dine
very well for under €14 a head, including drink.
Takis and John
Malcolm, an expat Scot in his 60s and another long-term home brewer who met Takis
through their mutual interest in making beer, and who is now one of two assistants
at the three-man brewery, offered a sample of the blonde ale that had been
souped up post-fermentation with masses of extra Citra hops, a beer closer to
the sorts they would like to educate local drinkers into appreciating. It was
tremendous: the pale malts giving an almost transparent underpinning, like clear
glass struts, to a beautifully sculpted structure of lemons, limes and mangoes
whirled together in a frothy, scented, just-bitter-enough delight.
The brewery itself, which opened in June last year just off the main road south from Stoupa, between the mountains and the sea, after a short period where Nema beers were being made by the Sparta brewery, on the other side of the Taygetus mountains that divide the Mani peninsula, is housed in a building that started as an olive oil factory, spent some time as a marble works and was later a disco, which has to be, surely, one of the most varied careers of any brewery premises on the planet. Today it holds shiny Chinese-made stainless steel brewing kit: 1,200-litre brew length, mash tun, copper, lauter tun, whirlpool and hop kettle, four fermenting vessels (three 25hl, one 12.5hl), pumps and valves computer-operated, it only brews top-fermented, unfiltered, unpasteurised ales, so no lagering tanks, and there is a very small bottling and kegging line, with CO2 flushing. The kit was manufactured by Tiantai, in Jinan, Shandong, China to Takis’s specifications, and Tiantai send its Mr Wu over to Greece to put it all together: according to John Malcolm, Mr Wu did not speak English, let alone Greek, and all communication with him was via Google Translate. How much the kit actually cost, the Mani Brewery won’t say (indeed, they were rather upset when I made a guess), although John Malcolm did reveal that it cost more to ship the kit from Piraeus, Greece’s main port, to Ag Nik than it did to get it from China to Piraeus.
Takis is coy about the whole source of the brewery’s funding, saying only that it is “local financing”. He has backing from a big local drinks distributor, and he has also had encouragement from Mythos Brewery, the Carlsberg subsidiary that supplies what is probably the best of Greece’s macro-lagers. The encouragement from Mythos, he thinks, is there because the company sees an operation like the Mani Brewery as expanding the market for beer in Greece, and Carlsberg would like to be able to introduce some of its more “craft” brands, such as Grimbergen (yes, I know, but that’s how Carlsberg sees it) into the country. The reasoning seems to be that if, through the availability of more craft beer from the likes of the Mani Brewery, the Greeks are persuaded to drink more unusual beers and less macro-lager and ouzo, then this will be good for Carlsberg as well.
It’s a brave
step to push unfiltered, unpasteurised, slightly hazy ales at a market that
doesn’t really understand such beers yet, and once, at least, in my multiple samplings
of Mani Brewery beers in numerous outlets over more than a fortnight it didn’t work – ironically,
at a restaurant in Ag Nik itself, where the beer in two consecutive bottles was
clearly badly oxidised. That was the only hiccup, however, and I report it
solely in the interests of honesty. Otherwise, if you’re in Greece, Nema beers
are worth grabbing wherever you see them. The beers of the Mani Brewery are available, on draught and/or in bottle, in almost every outlet in the region, and pushing up into Kalamata, the local big city. I greatly look forward to sampling
them again, and seeing what new brews Takis, John and the rest of the team come
The original version of this post contained a story that I was told by two different people, which Heineken Greece insists is totally false. It was alleged to me that after the Mani Brewery opened, Heineken Athens, brewer of leading brands of beer in Greece such as Alfa and Amstel, contacted all the local bars, restaurants and supermarkets and told them that if they started stocking the new brewery’s beers, Heineken would withdraw its own brands, plus the dispense equipment, from their premises. “Fine,” all the bar owners allegedly replied, to a Maniot. “Do you want to come and collect it now, or shall we just throw it out into the street?”
It appeared a fine example of how you should never try to bully a Maniot – they are descendants of the Spartans, and fought the Ottoman Empire for more than 350 years, eventually leading the revolt starting in 1821 that finally saw the Greeks re-establish their independence – and Heineken, unfortunately, has form: it was fined a whopping €31.45 million only five years ago (reduced on appeal to €26.73 million) by Greece’s Competition Commission for abusing its dominant position in the country’s beer market. However, the Mani Brewery was swift to distance itself as far as possible from the story, and after I contacted Heineken for a statement, Yiannis Georgakellos, communications and corporate affairs director at Athenian Brewery, Heineken’s Greek subsidiary, insisted: “The allegation that ‘Heineken Greece contacted bars and restaurants in the local area and told them that if they stocked the new brewery’s beers, Heineken would withdraw its own brands and dispense equipment from their premises’ is simply untrue.
“Over the last five years the number of local microbrewery brands available in the market has drastically increased. This is a positive shift for us, as it gives consumers more options, thus contributing to a thriving beer culture in Greece, which is one of our main objectives as well.”
I am happy to repeat Mr Georgakellos’s assurances that the story is false, and should anybody tell you this story, Mr Georgakellos wants everybody to know that Heineken subscribes to something called Speak Up, “a service available to anyone, internally and externally, who wishes to raise a concern about possible misconduct within our company. We encourage everyone to Speak Up in confidence and without fear of retaliation about any concerns they may have. We offer several Speak Up channels such as speakup.heineken.com through which people can raise questions and concerns. They include trusted representatives and an external Speak Up service (telephone and online) which is run by an independent third party and available 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Should you wish to know the differences between the craft beer scenes in London and Munich, Burchard Stock is a good man to ask. For two years he was a brewer with the pub brewery chain Brewhouse & Kitchen in Britain’s capital, ending up in charge of the Islington branch, close by the Angel: indeed, his pictures are still all over the venue’s website. Then in May this year he moved back to Bavaria to take charge of the Schiller Bräu operation, a “house brewery” in a restaurant on the ground floor of a modern hotel a short distance from Munich’s central station.
The Islington Brewhouse & Kitchen will sell you mac ’n’ cheese, beetroot burger in a vegan bun, or spicy Cambodian curry, with a hoppy American pale ale, a stout or a session bitter, all brewed on the spot. At Schiller Bräu, despite the modern interior, all tiles and distressed wood, it’s “traditional favourite dishes inspired by grandma’s kitchen”, and traditional beers inspired by grandpa’s Brauarei (sic), that is, “Schweinerei”, pork schnitzel covered in pretzel crumbs; “Bleede Kua”, grilled fillet of veal, and “Sauer macht lustig”, sour vinegar dumplings with onions, gherkins and radish, with, to drink, a selection of beers from the beautifully shiny brewkit at the front of the restaurant so solidly Bavarian, like the food, it will make any lederhosen-clad boarisch Mo fling himself into a chorus of “Ein Prosit!” immediately: Helles, Dunkel and Weißbier. And maybe a Maibock if it’s the right time of year. Don’t dream of offering anything that isn’t Reinheitsgebot-compliant, or they’ll have you outside and strung up on a lamp-post before you can say “Oans! Zwoa! Drei!”
Despite the conservatism of the drinkers in Freistaat Bayern, there are, in fact, more than twice as many “start-up” breweries in its borders, at 220-plus, than in any other single Land in Germany. At the same time it is the only state in the federal republic where the “traditional,” established breweries, of which there were 424 as of August last year, still outnumber the new ones: indeed, Bavaria has two thirds of all Germany’s old-established breweries, but only just over a quarter of the new ones (and just over 16 per cent of the total population). But Munich, which if it followed even the Bavarian average, ought to have around 25 new breweries, falls far short: nobody I spoke to seemed to known how many small breweries there are in the city, but it’s a handful, at best. The Big Four Munich breweries (counting the partly Heineken-owned Paulaner and Hacker Pschorr and the AB Inbev-owned Löwenbräu and Spaten-Franziskaner as one each) dominate, and one, the still independent Augustinerbräu, dominates most of all. For a city that boasts of its beerhalls and its world-famous 16-day-long celebration of beer, the Oktoberfest, the choice of beer, and beer styles, is more limited than in the average British corner shop.
Burchard, a mid-20s look-alike (he will hate me for saying this) for Harry Potter without the scar, says: ” A lot of people think Munich is the capital of beer. I think there was a time when that was definitely true. But what we have nowadays in Munich is basically four or five big old brands, while if you go to Berlin, you know, you have 50 small breweries and one big one, or Hamburg, which has such a variety of small breweries. There are plenty of people who say, ‘If you want to start a business that’s not going to succeed, start a brewery in Munich.’ I was impressed when I came here that this brewery was so young and doing so well. Everyone here drinks Augustiner: I think it’s 55 per cent of the Munich beer market, which is huge, and then another 40 per cent goes to breweries that are just copying Augustiner, so there’s not much left for others to claim.”
The Schiller Bräu brewery, on Schillerstraße, now two years old, is one of several “house breweries” based in hotels run by MK Hotels, which itself is owned by the Lindner Group, a large German construction company specialising in facades and interiors (its works include the Gherkin, 70 St Mary Axe, in London). Burchard says: “It’s a family-owned business, and at the beginning of this century the founder said, ‘I want to set up a hotel business.’ So he started a small hotel chain – I think we’re about 12 or 13 right now – and with the hotel group he also fulfilled one of his oldest dreams, which is owning his own brewery. With the first hotel they built they put in a brewery, in Mariakirchen, in Lower Bavaria, and there are now four hotels with breweries in.
“The beers vary depending on the location: in Mariakirchen, for example, they’re very, very, very traditional, because the Bavarians down there just drink the local equivalent of mild. Moving up to Munich, we’re still traditional, but from time to time we do a little bit more of a tweak. The more northern you go, though, the crazier it gets: In Remscheid, [near Dusseldorf], one of the other production sites, he’s doing quite similar stuff to what the people in London are doing, so watermelon ale and stuff like that – he’s into the craft beer stuff. But It depends on the people around you and who drinks your beer. The Bavarians are very conservative.”
“Here we have four standard beers: Helles lager, dark lager, wheat beer, and a lower-abv Helles, 2.5 per cent alcohol. Every month there’s a new seasonal coming out, so for this month it’s a Pilsener: this is where the brewer gets to vary things.” The local cut up the last time Burchard brewed a pils, though: they don’t like ’em too hoppy in Bavaria, unlike in Northern Germany. “This is how all the breweries in the group work: you have your core beers, and then every month you get a little special treat. After August we are going to have a Märzen, for the Oktoberfest, that will stay on for two months, and then we’re going to have a dark wheat beer, a dark doppelbock, a dark bock, a rye wheat beer, a Märzen again, a Maibock – pretty much a standard Bavarian selection. It’s just slightly different from what I was brewing in Islington,” he says, smiling. “We had real ales, we had a session lager, a really fruity American pale ale, oatmeal stout, Saison, witbier, sour biers, all the usual craft beer range.”
Burchard was born near Bonn, grew up in Berlin, and spent a couple of years in Munich. He started out wanting to study psychology, or social work, and applied to various universities in the south and west of Germany. “My mother told me that someone was studying social work at Weihenstephan, just outside Munich, so I looked it up on the internet, couldn’t find that course, but saw the brewmaster diploma course, and thought, ‘that looks really fun,’ so I applied for it almost as a joke.
“They gave me an offer of a place, so I thought I had better take a serious look at the course. It involved a one-year internship before the course, and I really liked the idea of that – earning money so I didn’t have to live off my parents’ money, and if I didn’t like the job, at the end of the year I could move on and go and study psychology after all. I was 18 years old, what did I have to lose?”
Before he could take up the course, Burchard did an internship at Oettinger, Germany’s biggest brewer, and “really really like the subject it, really enjoyed it, enjoyed my time a lot. I moved on to Munich to study at Weihenstephan, studied for three semesters and with every semester, for me, the fun was going out of the subject. I looked at it and I said, ‘If you finish that course and you become a Diplom Braumeister, as we call it in Germany, then in the end of the day you end up in a laboratory, overseeing everyone who is doing the brewing stuff, but basically having no hands on the beer any more.’ If I wanted to do that I could have done a business degree, and apply to a big brewery for a management post, or study microbiology and gone into a laboratory. That was not what I was looking for, but in the very beginning, when I applied, I had no idea how the business worked.
“So I quit the university at that point, went back to the beginning, did my apprenticeship in a very small brewery, Eschenbräu in Berlin, a really good brewery, I recommend anyone to go there. I finished my apprenticeship really quite quickly – in general you do a three-year apprenticeship, but since I had quite a bit of pre-knowledge from my studies I could finish it in a year and ten months, something like that. I came back to Munich and worked half a year for Paulaner, where I made my choice that I would never work in a big brewery again, because it’s, excuse my French, fucking boring, pushing buttons and observing and controlling, the practical work is missing. That’s what I really like in this job.
“So then I moved over to London for two years to work in Brewhouse and Kitchen, became head brewer in one of their branches, in Islington, and then came back to Munich and started here.”
The brewing kit at Schiller Bräu consists of a copper-clad mash tun/copper, lauter tun and whirlpool, plus three fermentation vessels and seven conditioning tanks down in the hotel’s cellars, where the beer is also stored in tanks when ready for serving. All the equipment was made by the highly regarded small-brewery specialists Caspary in the village of Hart, near Chieming, in the far south-east corner of Bavaria, who recently supplied the London Fields brewery with a 15-hectolitre brewhouse. Schiller Bräu’s kit cost €400,000, vastly more than the cost of the kit at Brewhouse and Kitchen, and it is considerably more sophisticated as well. While the kit in London was set up for single-step infusion mashing, the Schillerbrau kit will do multi-stage decoction as required, depending on the style of beer, though Burchard generally does what the Germans call the Hochkurz mash, literally “high-short”, where a portion of the mash, usually one third, is boiled for five minutes and then blended back in. The Helles stays in the conditioning tanks for at least a month, the dark lager and pils for the same time, the Weissbier “I think is good after two weeks, but usually it has three weeks, because the tank it’s served from isn’t empty yet.”
Burchard brews twice a week, in 900-litre batches, using malt from the Bavarian maltster Weyerman, while most of the hops are from the Hallertau, the yeast from Augustiner, 20 litres at a time, replaced every two to three weeks, and the water straight from the tap, with acidulated malt used if he ever needs to lower the pH. Almost all the beer is sold on draught, unfiltered and unpasteurised, with 96 or 97 per cent of the beer drunk on site, and only a very small amount put in bottles, growlers or mini-kegs for taking home. No other brewery’s beers are sold in the restaurant, apart from Schneider’s alcohol-free Weißbier.
The business, as it should be, is booming: ” It’s hard to find a table here if you don’t have a reservation. Around Schillerstraße there are a lot of hotels and you get a lot of tourists here, but I wouldn’t say tourists are our main customer group. We have quite a lot of regulars, who are typical Munich Bavarians, who have lived here a long time, they just want a regular pub, so they come together every week, sit down and have something to eat and drink a few beers.” Those beers are solid, down-the-line interpretations of Bavarian styles, not, perhaps, worth making a special journey for, but if you’re in Munich, definitely worth looking up.
And what about Munich itself as a beer tourism destination? It’s a tricky call, to be frank. You can go elsewhere in Bavaria and find better Helles, better Dunkel, and so on than anything the city’s big breweries offer. The Oktoberfest is a joke: six million people all drinking basically exactly the same beer. But the beer halls of Munich ARE worth seeing, and experiencing, for the architecture and the atmosphere, and you can watch elderly Bavarians gathered at the Stammtisch enjoying what beer should be all about – convivial chat. So no, you probably don’t know beer well enough until you’ve downed a Dunkel in the Hofbräuhaus. Even if it is full of Japanese tourists taking selfies with the brass band. And if you do go there, you’ll also be able to buy an HB-branded blue spotted handkerchief in the gift shop: that beats a T-shirt any day.
Should you be looking for something more beerily adventurous in Munich, let me point you to a place Burchard tipped his hat at for me: Meisterstück, a bar/restaurant in Weißenburger Straße, in the upmarket suburb of Haidhausen. Behind it is the Hopfenhäcker brewery, one of those rare Munich micros, producing beers you certainly won’t find at Oktoberfest – Indian Pale Lager, for example, or a witbier called Kill Bill (the brewery was originally called Hopfenhacker, “Hop Hackers”, without the umlaut on the A, but Pschorr enough a larger Munich brewery objected, so the name had to be typographically tweaked). Meisterstück sells more than just Hopfenhäcker beers, however, with eight or so draught beers, and 100-plus different bottles available to drink on the spot or take away. I only had time for one as I sat in the little “beer garden” behind the restaurant, which was not actually a “new small craft” brewery, but a dark, sweet and malty Kellerbier from the North Bavarian family brewery Zirndorfer (and, er, not actually that great, alas …).
Still, the next day I just had time, before leaving for Munich airport (which has its own brewery, natürlich) for a swift and delicious Dunkelweiß in the very lovely Schneider Bräuhaus in the heart of the city, and to regret that I had only arranged for a day to explore a tiny fraction of Munich’s attractions. Aufwiedersehen, München – I hope to be back.
This is a glass of something called Herr Axolotl, from Ale Browar of Poland, bought in a bar in the charming city of Wrocław. It is described as a Berliner Weisse with guava. I struggled very hard to find anything at all about it that might deserve the name “beer”. It looked like cloudy apple juice. It tasted a lot like very sour cloudy apple juice. It certainly didn’t taste as if it had ever been in the same postcode district as a hop. As I went further down the glass, there was something nasty lurking in the background, harshly sharp and unpleasant. I have become Old Man Yells at Cloudy Beer.
Nine days in Poland, on a return visit four years after I first travelled to the country to check out its craft beer scene, involved meeting large numbers of friendly, enthusiastic Polish craft brewers, beer geeks and bar owners and drinking considerable quantities of beer in an expansive range of styles, almost all of it of it well-made, some of it absolutely fascinating, rare and thrilling, and some of it pushing the envelope so hard it rips. I used to think I was on the far-left libertarian wing of the beer world, able to accept pretty much anything brewers came up with. But after walking into several Polish craft beer bars, looking at the menu on the wall, filled with opaque sours, fruit ales, vanilla ice-cream IPAs and the like and wondering if I should ask: “Um – do you have any beer-flavoured beer?”, I realise that I’m not actually as liberal as I thought, and that there is a line which, once crossed, I find myself saying: “You may be a brewer, but that’s not a beer.” Too many brewers, it appears, are chasing novelty at the expense of a decent drink.
Much of the reason for this realisation arriving in Poland rather than, say, Hoxton comes from the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is driven far more, I think, than other countries’ by novelty, which in itself is an artefact of the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is hugely enthusiastic but tiny – still less than one per cent of what is, admittedly, the third biggest beer market in Europe – which itself is down to the cost of craft beer compared to mainstream beer. A 50cl bottle of Tyskie is three or four złoty, when it’s 4.8 złoty to the pound. A bottle of craft beer is four times more expensive. Poland is still not a rich country, and most people can’t afford craft beer. Meanwhile those craft beer drinkers who do exist want something different every time they go up to the bar, which puts pressure on bar owners, who put pressure on brewers, who are aware enough about what goes on in places like the US to use trends such as New England IPA and barrel-ageing and souring and fruit beers to come up with an ever-changing variety of new products flowing from the fermenting vessels.
I was lucky enough to visit Browar Palatum, now three years old, the only proper brewery actually in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million people, where the owner, Łukasz Kojro, told me he makes more than 300 brews every year, each one different, because that’s what the market demands. Almost all of Palatum’s production is draught – the brewery has only a small hand-bottling side – and Łukasz is able to sell all he makes across Poland, even though the market is comparatively so small, and there are now some 250 actual craft breweries open and another 150 “cuckoo” or contract brewers using other people’s kit. Something helping Polish craft brewers is that because of the price problem, there is very little craft beer imported into Poland from outside: it’s too expensive.
But constantly having to think up new beers means that, inevitably, you’re going to get some that aren’t beers at all: at least not beers according to the definition I now find myself formulating after my Polish experience. This is, of course, pretty majorly subjective, and based almost entirely on what I like about beer and why I drink it, but it does have some grounding in measurable facts. A hopped cider, for example, is not, I hope, by anybody’s definition, a beer: nothing wrong with hopped cider, I’ve drunk some and it was good, but no grain, so not a beer. Similarly, just because it contains grain and hops, that doesn’t make it a beer automatically: if you can’t taste either grain or hops in the glass then I am very reluctant to call it a beer. If it tastes mostly of fruit juice, if you’ve put 600kg of mango into the fermenting vessel, as one Polish brewer boasted to me, then what you’ve got is fermented mango, that is, fruit wine, and not beer. If you drink it and enjoy it, fine, but I reserve the right to say: “No thanks, I like drinking beer.”
Let us not, however, give the impression that the Polish craft beer scene is entirely the preserve of the wild and the weird. There are plenty of straight-up, solid brews, from very good pilsners to fine pale ales. I particularly enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Pinta brewery’s Atak Chmielu (Hop Attack), 6.1 per cent abv, 69 IBU which was the first ever commercial “Polish craft beer”, in 2011, and which, when it appeared, blew every Polish beer drinker’s socks off their feet and away over the horizon. It’s now venerable enough to be described as “old-fashioned” after only eight years, but it’s an excellent American pale ale, and a safe call in any bar selling it while you contemplate what weirdness to try next.
Pinta, based way down in the south of Poland, 40 miles south-west of Krakow and 11 miles from the Slovak border, has grown from being a contract brewer to one of the largest independents in Poland and one of the thriving stars of Polish craft beers, along with Stu Mostów (“Hundred Bridges”) and Profesja of Wrocław, both of those only five or so years old, both, like Pinta, producing very well-made beers.
There are newer brewers doing impressive stuff too: Cześć Brat! (which means Hello Brother!, and which, surprise, is run by brothers Grzegorz and Michał Malcherek in the town of Jelcz-Laskowice, 15 miles south-east of Wrocław), for example. You’ll find one or two handpumps tucked over in a corner in many Polish beer bars, and one of the beers I kept finding being served on handpump when I was there was Cześć Brat’s 4 per cent abv tonka bean milk stout, Coś na Wieczór?, which means “Something for the Evening?”. Interesting beer flavouring, tonka beans, they contain a big hit of coumarin, which gives a similar taste and aroma to woodruff, and they’re also quite bitter, which in this case nicely counteracts the sweetness of the milk stout. (Cześć Brat!, as an aside, is another Polish brewer with terrific graphics, produced by a well-known Polish graphic designer: the brothers loved her work and wrote to her saying: “We’re only a small, poor brewer, but what do you charge?”, and she wrote back saying: “I like the idea of working for a brewery, so I’m not going to charge you very much at all.” Don’t ask, don’t get.)
The Hopium brewery, from the village of Nowy Drzewicz, south-west of Warsaw, won my unofficial prize for “best beer name of the Wrocław beer festival”, with Michaił Jakson, a “white Imperial Russian Stout”, not, you’ll conclude, a nod to the late beer writer. The beer was a bit of a Thriller, too: a strong (8.5 per cent abv) pale ale with coffee infused in during maturation, which I wouldn’t have expected to work had I not tasted it and enjoyed it. Hopium gives all its beers “celebrity pun” names, such as Al Apacino, an APA, Danny De Wheato, and Kwasko Da Gama, a fruit sour ale, kwas, pronounced “kvas”, being the Polish for “sour”. Quite a few of the beer names are puns on Polish celebrities unknown across the Oder, which puns obviously don’t travel. At least one, a mango fruit ale called Vincent ManGogh, is based on a mispronunciation I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about (for Americans reading this, it’s Van GOFF, not Van GO).
The beer I was most thrilled to discover, though, was one I had travelled to Poland specifically to find: Jopejskie, a revival of an obscure, strange, fascinating Polish beer style, more than 500 years old, which, bizarrely, was brewed in the North of England under the name Black Beer until 2013. I knew the Polish contract brewer Olimp had a version on sale in 100ml bottles, but as I wandered the Wrocław festival, where the 50-plus stalls are almost all run by the brewers themselves, I spotted that the Świdnica brewery, from the town of the same name some 30 miles south-west of Wrocław, was selling Jopejskie on draught – at 35 złoty (£7.30) for 10cl, when other beers were 10 to 13 zloty for 50cl. To save you turning on your calculator, that’s 13 times more expensive, and the equivalent of £41 a pint!
Not that you could possibly drink even half a pint: it was “only” 9 per cent abv, but had started out at a barely believable 50º plato, which if my maths is right is all of 1233 OG, and suggests a FINISHING gravity of around 1164, higher than almost all other strong beers begin at. Olimp is apparently very secretive about how it brews its Jopejskie, but Rafał Harchala of Browar Świdnica was entirely happy to tell me all: he starts with a strong Russian Imperial Stout wort and then boils it for 24 hours (24 hours!), to end up with something closer to tar than wort. This is then pitched with a standard lager yeast – the well-known 34/70, I believe – and left until the lager yeast cells wave the white flag, after which the brew remains in an open vessel for any wild yeasts to have a go if they think they’re hard enough. Finally the beer is kegged: the batch at the festival had been made in October last year, and was thus eight months old..
Even the wildest of wild yeasts eventually give up, however, and what is left is still sweet and treacly – and delicious. I confess to a tingle in my feet when I drank this: liquid history, chewy, powerful, filled with dark, deep flavours, simply fabulous. One of my best beer experiences of the past few years. Later I managed to find the Olimp version on sale in a shop in Krakow (39 złoty per 100ml bottle: I saw it in a bar for 49 złoty), and a very kind Polish-based home brewer, Tomasz Spencer, gave me a bottle of his home-brewed Jopejskie. So that’s three different versions of a beer I never thought I’d see: amazing.
There were some disappointments, and ironically the worst beer I had was in a brewpub in Krakow that claims to brew the finest British-style cask ale. Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the inspiration for a white RIS) held to a philosophy that it wasn’t his job to be unpleasant to people, but to encourage everybody, so perhaps it might be kindest to draw a discreet bartowel over these failings. But frankly, if you’re selling a “cask-conditioned bitter” you call “England’s Glory” to Poles, it really needs not to taste of unfermented wort and lack all condition. I tried the porter, to see if this was just one poor cask, and it was barely better: thin, little condition again, sweetcorn on the nose and something nastily sharp lurking in the background.
But apart from that, I had a terrific time: if you like beer tourism, Poland is now an absolutely must-visit destination. The Wrocław beer festival, outside the football stadium a tram-ride from the city centre, is one of the best in Europe, well-organised, a great selection of dozens of different Polish breweries, and a fine range of Polish street food to mop up the beer. The beer bars, in Krakow and Warsaw in particular, are almost uniformly excellent, and if the selections of beers are almost entirely Polish, well, those beers are good enough, and varied enough, that you won’t miss anything. Among the places I particularly enjoyed were Hoppiness, in the aptly named Chmielna (“Hop Street”) in central Warsaw and Maryensztadt in Warsaw Old Town; and Omerta in Krakow.
Many thanks to the guys at Crookham Travel for organising the travel around Poland and brewery trips in Wrocław and Krakow, and Tony Fox-Griffiths in particular for his impeccably researched guides to bars in those two cities; to Tomasz Kopyra and the crew at Festiwal Dobrego Piwa for the free beer and hotel accommodation in Wrocław (and more brewery trips); and to Tom Spencer for giving up his time to take me on a bar crawl of Warsaw. and organising yet another brewery visit. See you all again soon, I hope.
I wasn’t even mean to be in Brooklyn on the Tuesday. I had originally booked to go round the Brooklyn brewery on the Monday. But after I announced that I was going to be in New York, I was contacted by the American beer journalist and writer John Holl, who asked if I would like to appear on the beer podcast he co-hosts, “Steal This Beer”, which is recorded in a bar in Manhattan on Monday nights (of which more later.) So I switched the trip to Brooklyn to the following day – and on the Tuesday morning an email popped up saying that right after my visit that evening the Brooklyn Brewery was launching a collaboration imperial porter made with the Norwegian brewery EC Dahl’s, in honour of the Norwegian artist Håkon Gullvåg, and would I like to hang around to sample that, and a few other EC Dahl’s beers as well.
Carpe cerevisiam – if chance is going to put an opportunity like that in your path, it’s rude to step aside. Strangely, I had already drunk beers made with EC Dahl’s yeast: the homebrewers of Stjordal, whose brews were among those I sampled last year at the Kornøl festival in Hornindal in Western Norway, get their yeast from the Dahl’s brewery in Trondheim, though they make, and sometimes smoke, their own malt.
I have to own that the Brooklyn Brewery tour is not the best I have been on: it’s a small, cramped, working brewery, about all you get is a quick look at some fermenting vessels and some beer sampling, and most of the beer is produced elsewhere anyway. There’s a good big brewery tap, with a fine range of beers (including “London Black Gose” [sic] from London Fields, which, like EC Dahl’s, is a Brooklyn Brewery/Carlsberg joint venture now) and the brewery shop sells several rare (if expensive) beers, but if it hadn’t been for the EC Dahl’s launch, I might have had a disappointing trip.
That, however, was definitely worth the journey. The collaboration beer, named, simply, Gullvåg, had been matured in casks that had previously been used for Linie aquavit. I’m a big fan of Linie, which is matured by being shipped in ex-sherry casks from Norway to Indonesia and back, the four-month journey, crossing the equator twice, rounding and maturing the spirit, which is made from potatoes and flavoured with, among other herbs and spices, star anise and caraway. It has a flavour that seems to match very well with beer – one of my favourite long summer drinks is a mixture of dark ale, lemonade and a shot of Linie. The Linie influence was definitely noticeable in the Gullvåg imperial porter: liquorish/aniseed underneath the dominant dark roast. If you see it, definitely worth buying.
And then, while I was enjoying the beer, and admiring the paintings on the taproom walls that Håkon Gullvåg had created on old cask ends (you could still, just, make out the names of the distillers on some of the casks), someone cried: “Martyn!” Stap me, it was Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. I didn’t know he knew me from a hole in the floor, but I worked out later that we must have met on one of the Carlsberg trips regular readers of this blog will remember. “Would you like a beer?” he said, and you don’t turn down a man in his own brewery: nor do you have to wait long to get served, whatever the queue, since the brewery chairman can just walk round behind the bar and help himself, while the servers smile benignly.
The only awkward moments were when Steve asked me if I had spoken to Garrett Oliver yet. I’m still not sure Mr O, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, has forgiven me for my attack seven years ago on the Oxford Companion To Beer, which he edited, because of its very many errors. I always tried to make it as clear as I could that I did not blame Garrett, whom I admire greatly as a brewer and a writer and speaker about beer, for the problems with the OCB. He was badly let down by the publishers, left seriously under-resourced, and also let down by a tiny minority of the 140 or so people who wrote entries for the book that were seriously badly researched. So I had deliberately stayed out of his way –and yes, that IS a wide yellow streak up my backbone. Still, we had a reasonably friendly conversation, I think, about how the Kornøl festival is a must-visit event: watch out for Brooklyn Brewery brewing with kveik some time soon …
That was the second embarrassing moment on my first trip to New York (yes, shameful: not sure why I had never got there before). John Holl had asked me to bring along two beers to the podcast, since a regular part of the show is John and his fellow presenter, the New Jersey brewer Augie Carton, blind-tasting beers their guest brings along, using the black glasses of the kind breweries use professionally for tasting sessions, so that colour cannot affect opinion. I decided to bring them over two different views of British best bitter: the very traditional Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and one from my local small brewery, Twickenham Fine Ales’ Naked Ladies, which is a “best bitter” with one or two American hops in it, for a more up-to-date take. Unfortunately it was obvious straight away that the Tim Taylor’s was skunked. Ach. Still, Augie and John are pros, and were able to find plenty to say even about skunked Landlord. And they liked the Naked Ladies a lot, though they were dubious about the name, nor were they convinced by my explanation that the Naked Ladies are a much-loved set of statues in a Twickenham park. (You can listen to the podcast here – episode 187.)
I had asked people for suggestions of bars to visit in New York, but I didn’t get round very many: busy doing other things. Part of the aim for the trip was to look at old newspapers in New York library: while the British Newspaper Library’s holdings can be accessed anywhere, for a lot of early American titles, particularly those before 1776, and even more particularly those from New York before that date, you have to be physically in front of a computer screen in one of the Five Boroughs to get to call them up. Still, it did also give me the opportunity to see the original Winnie the Pooh, who lives with Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Kanga in a glass box in the children’s section in the main New York library building on Fifth Avenue: you have to go to the children’s library to pick up your library card (I have no idea why), so it didn’t look too creepy that an elderly bearded git was hanging around the kids’ books. I had always imagined that Christopher Robin’s toys would be in a big mahogany-and-armoured-glass case in the centre of a huge high-ceilinged room, possibly with a couple of armed guards in black uniforms looking suspiciously at people taking selfies with the Immortal Bear. In fact it’s a comparatively small display, and I’ve seen bigger children’s libraries in provincial English towns than the one in the Schwarzman.
Something called the “New York craft beer festival” was happening my first two nights in the city, so I thought that would be worth checking to try to see what was trending. Sour beers, no surprise; lots of cloudy IPAs, no surprise; wacky fruit goses and similarly wacky saisons (hibiscus?), no surprise; cider, that WAS a surprise; cucumber beers – utterly, utterly vile; double dry-hopping, very much a trend of the moment, for sure, even if every brewer you might speak to has a different take on what double dry-hopping involves (one bar I did get to was the Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street, and every other beer on tap seemed to be “DDH”); and surprise, no “brut” IPAs, which I had been expecting to see, having read that they were a big trend: I didn’t spot one the whole week. I’m ashamed to say that one of the beers I enjoyed most was Sweet Baby Java, an “espresso bean infused chocolate peanut butter porter” from DuClaw Brewing in Maryland, a coffee’d-up version of the same brewery’s Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter porter. Normally I don’t like “dessert” beers, particularly – PARTICULARLY – with peanut butter, but DuClaw seemed to have matched the sickly with a pleasing dryness: a check on the brewery’s website reveals that the hops here are Fuggles and Goldings, which may explain all. However, that was in the usual US beer festival two-ounce glass: even a third of a pint might have had me considering my verdict.
One minor beerfest hiccup: as I presented my ticket on the first night, the very large security dude at the door insists on seeing my ID. While I fished for my UK driver’s licence, I said something about my false bead being the giveaway, to which he responded with the line I’m sure he was taught was the correct response to all surly old gits cutting up about being asked to prove they genuinely were as old as they looked: “I respect my elders, sir.” I really, really wanted to say: “No you clearly don’t, or you and your employers wouldn’t be putting me through the ludicrous nonsense of having to prove I’m not actually a terribly haggard 20-year-old.” But as Paul Simon sings, “the man was large, a well-dressed six-foot-eight,” and I needed that wristband …
So there I was at the Barcelona Beer Festival talking to Jason Wolford, a native of Portland, Oregon, about the quantity of chamomile that goes into the chamomile pale ale made at his 8-Bit Brewing in Helsinki, using kit supplied by Oban Brewing of Fort William in Scotland, and thinking: “This is what craft beer is all about.” Except it’s not, of course: it’s also about sitting at a tiny bar in a farmhouse in the small village of Mediona, in rural Catalonia, drinking a hand-pumped cask ale brewed just yards away by a dreadlocked 50-something Catalan called Carlos Rodriguez that, with its straw colour and bitterness, would not be out of place in Strangeways, Manchester. It’s about eating cod ceviche accompanied by a beer brewed with plankton, specially to match the food. It’s about bumping into three separate people I wasn’t expecting to see in the bar at Edge Brewing in Barcelona – a Polish brewer who I had met in Wroclaw four years ago, a young woman from Mallorca I had met on a beer judging course in London, and the English beer writer Melissa Cole, in town to present a session at the festival on beer and food matching. It’s about chuckling at the sight of the pinewood-clad brewing vessels at the Vic Brewery in the Catalan town of the same name, because I last saw them in West London, where they were being used by Twickenham Fine Ales. And it’s about eating delicious goats’ cheese in the bright but chilly open air while drinking equally excellent beer made with the hops grown just to our left and barley from the fields a few hundred yards away below us, malted in the shed behind us, on the farm that is part of the Lo Vilot set-up in Lleida. Plus, of course, much more.
If beer tourism is a growing business – and the conversation I had with the young woman from Mallorca, who is looking to do a PhD in that exact subject, confirms it is indeed – then even so, Catalonia is probably not yet on most beer tourists’ “must see” list. The Catalan Tourist Board would like very much for that to change, unsurprisingly, which is why they paid for me and nine other beer writers to fly to Barcelona and be whizzed around the countryside in a wifi-equipped minibus on a no-time-to-catch-your-breath tour that took in 10 mostly very different craft breweries, 12 eat-till-your-eyes-glaze-over meals, countless beers (because I lost count – over 120, probably) – and a couple of wineries as well, because Catalonia is also the main production area for Cava, and home to 10 or so wine-producing areas in total (I was not a Cava lover before, but aged Cava, 15 years or more on its lees, I can now say, is very, very fine.) Oh, and a sausage factory. Because sausages. Come on, do you actually need to be given a reason for visiting a sausage factory (llonganissa, to be technical, like chorizo but flavoured with black pepper, not paprika) and marvel at several slatted floors of meaty, porky moreishness, slowly losing half its weight to the atmosphere, and gaining an attractive snow-white mould over its rind, as it hangs up to dry? And eating some while you’re there, since it would be terribly wrong to refuse.
There is a theory (which I thought up while in Catalonia) that as the craft beer revolution spreads around the world, and people in different countries realise there is more to be drunk than “industrial” lager, those places that react quickest and with most enthusiasm – and skill – to the opportunities for making different, interesting beers are the ones with an existing tradition of “foodiness”, of discriminating palates, dedication to fine eating, to artisanal food production. In the 16 years that the “World’s Best Restaurants” competition has been running, Catalan eateries have won the title seven times, been runners-up seven times, and come third on the remaining two occasions (the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, in the far north of Catalonia, and El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona). Nowhere else comes close to that record. It would be fair to suppose, therefore that Catalans have an excellent appreciation of the gastronomic arts.
All the same, the local craft beer scene has had a long, slow take-off since the Barcelona Brewing Company, the city’s first microbrewery, was opened in 1993 by a wild-bearded expat Liverpudlian, Steve Huxley. It closed after only a couple of years, but the brewing courses Huxley ran inspired a swath of Catalans to become home-brewers and then, in the first years of the new century, to start moving into commercial brewing. Huxley died of cancer in 2015 (his influence is commemorated though his face being on every token at the Barcelona beer festival), but the slow revolution he had helped start was now becoming unstoppable: by 2009 there were 10 or so new small breweries in Catalonia, in just four years numbers passed 40, and by 2016 a survey found more than 100, making in total more than three million litres of beer a year. However, that represented barely 1 per cent of total Catalan beer consumption: Catalans drank just under 37 litres of beer per head that year, but only 40cl of that was locally produced craft – one glass, all year.
Still, from small beginnings … every Catalan optimist will agree that there is clearly plenty of opportunity for the craft beer glasses to be full more and more frequently. And if the standards generally match those of the breweries we were taken to, all run by dedicated, enthusiastic people, Catalonia can expect craft beer consumption to rise at least steadily, if not rapidly. The problem will be convincing people in Catalonia who only know of industrial brewing, and who regard beer as merely a refresher to help the tapas go down and the conversation flow, that there are beers worth trying for their own sakes.
Unsurprisingly, since the US has been leading the growth in craft beer for the past two decades, the American influence on Catalan brewing is strong to the point of getting close to too much: imperial stouts and NEIPAs are nearly ubiquitous, and former Bourbon barrels, now filled with ageing beer, could be seen stacked in almost every brewhouse we visited. I love a good imperial stout, but they’re almost too easy: push the strength, roastiness, hops and sweetness all up to 11, and you’ll have something that will be cheered by practically anybody, craft beer noob or not. Around a quarter of the current “Top 100 Beers in the World” on RateBeer are imperial stouts, suggesting that making a popular super-strong black beer is not very difficult. (Making a great imperial stout IS difficult, however, and even then will not get you automatic recognition: just look at how comparatively poorly Harvey’s Imperial Double Extra Stout is rated.) But I suppose that if you’re trying to get your local drinking public to become craft beer aware, it’s easier to entice them into the tent with something not too difficult to understand. And imperial stouts do match very well with crema catalana, the local version of crème brûlée …
However, our quick zoom from the plains of Taragona to the foothills of the Pyrenees suggested there are plenty of Catalan brewers attempting to forge a truly local indigenous brewing culture, using locally grown produce – hops, barley, other grains, fruits, even grape must, to make “grape ales” – and locally found wild yeasts, and using resources such as barrels previously containing local wine, sherry, local spirits and the like. It’s also clear, from the amount of shiny kit we saw, that a great deal of money has been pumped into the Catalan craft beer scene in the past three or four years.
Barcelona now has enough top-rate craft beer bars to be easily worth a long weekend at the least: our own shoot round four or five venues was less a pub crawl than a pub gallop, but I would be very happy to go back and spend much more time (and my own money) in Garage, a long, thin city-centre bar with its own brewery right at the back, which produces a hazy IPA in cans called Soup, or BierCab, another long, thin bar with a fine beer range and an attractive-looking menu, or Naparbar, a mixture of ‘industrial’ and old-style, with 200 beers in stock and an emphasis on lambic and stout.
You’ll have to wait a year now for the next one, of course, but the Barcelona Beer Festival is definitely one of Europe’s best, with a strong selection this year of almost 500 beers (not all on at once) made by more than 275 breweries, from Moscow to California, an excellent gimmick in “guest festival” stalls, this year featuring the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Big Craft Day from Russia, Bières et Saveurs from Quebec and Craft Beer Perkelei! from Finland, and a series of talks and presentations ranging from meet-the-brewer sessions to beer-and-music matching to demonstrations of beer cocktails. If you can’t wait, Carlos Rodriguez organises a beer festival every year in his home village called Mostra de Cervesa Artesana de Mediona which will be on its 13th iteration this June, and which looks to be a cracker.
Seven craft beer breweries in Lleida, the westernmost of Catalonia’s four “provinces”, have put together the “Lleida artisinal beer route”, with a passport scheme that, when stamped by all seven, entitles the passport holder to “a special gift from the Association of Artisan Brewers of Lleida” – nature of gift unspecified. Unfortunately, the website is entirely in Catalan, and entirely unhelpful about the best route to take to get round all the breweries, and all the promotional material appears to be only in Catalan as well. Nor does it look as if anyone has updated the website since 2016. The Facebook page shows some more recent activity, but this looks like an excellent idea that is failing through lack of dedicated effort.
I never put my hand in my pocket the whole trip, so you may decide to regard me as an unreliable traveller for accepting a massive freebie. I don’t believe being given something free compromises you from telling others about it, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t be able to give some deserving people some publicity, or let you know some of the interesting stuff that’s happening in a part of the world you might not associate with advances in great beer. If you like beer tourism, Catalonia should definitely be on your “check it out” list. If you’re going to Catalonia on holiday anyway, don’t miss out on the beer scene. As yet, to my knowledge, no one has written a guidebook to the craft beer bars of Catalonia, but if you contact any of the brewers I’ve mentioned here I’m sure they will make recommendations in their local areas.
Many thanks indeed to Ariadna Ribas and Elisabet Pagès of the Catalan Tourist Board for all their considerable hard work in organising this trip, and look after everybody so well, it was a great experience, and grateful thanks to all the brewers, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers for their hospitality and generosity – may you all continue to thrive and prosper.