The mystery of the vanishing 2016 Vintage Ale

Vertical tasting: 20 years of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, in the Hock Cellar

If you haven’t bought your 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale yet, either to drink now, or to lay down for later, or to preserve as an investment (what with examples from the 1990s selling for up to £500 a bottle, and even the 2013 costing £40 a pop), tough tubas – there’s none left. Waitrose is totally sold out, so is the brewery shop. Luckily I had a hunch my local specialist, Noble Green in Hampton Hill, might have some, and I manage to snaffle their last five examples.

Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable. This was the one with Nelson Sauvin as both a boil hop and an FV addition, the first time, I believe, that Fuller’s has used New Zealand hops in VA, and it works brilliantly: there’s limes coming through, and passionfruit, and mandarins, and a little bit of that Nelson Sauvin elderflower, all beautifully integrated over creamy toffee and deep brown malt sweetness, with just enough bitter (40 IBUs) to hold everything together. You’ll drink one bottle, and enjoy teasing out all the flavours so much you’ll want another one to continue the analytical fun, and then at the end of that one you’ll stand up and wobble slightly and realise you’ve just drunk a litre of 8.5 per cent ale.

How the 2016 will develop as it gains more age remains to be seen, but Fuller’s had a gathering in the Hock Cellar at the brewery a couple of weeks back to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vintage Ale with a tasting of ten different examples going back to 1999, and all are still very drinkable. John Keeling, Fuller’s brewing director, who helped the late Reg Drury brew the first Vintage Ale in 1997, conducted the tasting and revealed a few secrets about the beer. Vintage Ale was, he said, an idea first put forward by the marketing department at the brewery – “they do get a good idea every 40 years or so.” However, Fuller’s knew something like Vintage Ale was possible after bringing out 1845, a bottle-conditioned strong ale made originally to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fuller, Smith and Turner partnership in 1995, and discovering that it actually tasted better at 12 months old than when it was new – “totally the opposite to every other beer at that time”.

John Keeling gives a brief history of Vintage Ale

A beer has to be specifically designed to age, Keeling said: “Most beers will not age properly.” After 20 years, Fuller’s now has considerable experience in how beers age, with the interplay of negative reactions – notably oxidation – and a whole series of generally more positive chemical changes, such as Maillard reactions between sugars and proteins, which happen at different speeds, while at the same time alpha acids are breaking down, reducing the perceived bitterness (and boosting the perceived sweetness) and adding extra complexity of flavour, the colour of the beer is darkening and “madeira” and “sherry” flavours start appearing, and eventually “cherry” flavours, which you can cerrtainly spot in the older Vas.. The different speeds that the “good” and “bad” reactions take place at gives a “cycle” to beer ageing, which explains why that bottle of 2013 VA may taste disappointing now, but one of its brothers will be terrific if left for another nine months – and a third bottle of the same brew will disappoint another nine months after that, which a fourth, left for longer yet, will again cheer and enchant as it comes back “on” … you can regard this lottery-like aspect of beer ageing as annoying or part of the fun, but it does mean you shouldn’t dump the whole batch just because one aged bottle is disappointing. It may be just at a poor spot in its cycle.

One important aspect of beer ageing is that temperature is important – and room temperature is the worst temperature to store beer at, Fullers has discovered. It appears the oxidation cycle at around 20C is happening too fast for the “good” cycles to compensate. Either keep the beer cool, or, counter-intuitively, keep it warm: with the warmer beer, the “good” reactions are speeded up more than the “bad” ones, so the oxidation is outpaced. (Doubtless this was the clue to the success of ship-borne India ales in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the oxidation of beer in the casks lagging behind all the Maillard reactions and so on made extra-fast by the warm Equatorial seawaters of the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.)

VA is always parti-gyled with London Pride, which raised a question: each year the recipe is altered slightly, with different hops and combinations of hops. Have Pride drinkers never noticed over the past two decades that every spring their beer tastes rather different, from the Fuggles and Target of 1999 to the all-Goldings of 2002 (that year’s VA was always a personal favourite, and it’s still wondrously smooth aged 15), the Goldings, Liberty and Cascade of 2014 and last year’s Nelson Sauvin, Goldings, Northdown and Challenger? I’d love to know if anyone has ever commented … see if you can spot the “Vintage Ale” gyle this year.

Extract from the brewing books Spring 1999

Extract from the brewing books 2016

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

The Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, South London

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

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

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

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

Matilda barley wine, served in a very attractive banded glass

Why Balham and why now? Goose Island looked seriously at opening something like the Vintage Ale House back home in Chicago, 15 years ago, John Hall says. “We were going to call it a brasserie, and it was going to concentrate on our high end beers, so we could concentrate on them, and let people know that they’re quite a bit different from other beers, they’re more like wine, they’re great with food, they elevate the whole experience. We didn’t do it because we had so many things on our plate. Then we talked about it in the last year or so, and what better place than to come here to London and do it. It’s going to take us a while to really create what we want here, this is the first run at it, so it’s going to be some learning and everything. Right now we’re selling less of our high-end than we hope to in the future, but as the word gets out, we’re going to have people coming here to understand that this is a unique experience. We have a very unique portfolio, with more beers for different situations.”

You’ll not, of course, see any hints anywhere in the Vintage Ale House of Goose Island’s ultimate owner today, AB InBev, which acquired the company in 2011: but why should you? Does a Jaguar F-Type have a badge somewhere saying it was made by a company ultimately owned by Tata of India, manufacturer of buses and trucks? And if AB InBev’s ownership of Goose Island puts you off, would Tata’s ownership of Jaguar put you off owning an F-type?

So, anyway, will the Vintage Ale House succeed? Mmmm, ah, well, dunno. I’m not totally convinced that the location is the best: even if Wikipedia says Balham has an “increasingly professional middle class population”, its success will be as a “destination” venue, and I don’t know how much of a “destination” Balham will appear to be to the average under-40 London foodie who is, I suspect, the target market. The building, a converted Victorian house just off Balham High Road, provides a combined bar/dining area/kitchen that is long and narrow and certainly not large. And while I want to hope that Goose Island is pushing at an open door, I think the next opening of a Vintage Ale House, planned for Brussels in the summer, is likely to do better just because the Belgians already understand beer-and-food.

John Hall, Goose Island’s founder, and Ken Stout, currently its president, in the Vintage Ale House in Balham

Still, I had a great time on Wednesday: loved the Sofie Mimosa cocktails on arrival, a mixture of orange juice, Grand Marnier and Sofie saison (rather than the traditional champagne), which had an impressive depth and heft, the character of the saison, which is part barrel-aged on orange peel, making this a rare (in my experience) cocktail to be talked about as you drink it. Most of my talking, though, was with John Hall and Ken Stout, whom I somehow managed to monopolise in the “interview” session before the dinner.

John admitted that he had “not remotely” foreseen when he started brewing English-style ales and German-style lagers in Chicago in 1988 that there would be a time when American beer styles would be the biggest world-wide influencers of what small brewers are producing, with American-style IPAs now made from Argentina to St Petersburg. His son Greg was the one who began experimenting, “not unlike the way chefs were”, and at the first Goose Island brewhouse they were brewing a new, different, experimental beer every week – 50 a year, “which was absolutely unheard-of, and using ten or 12 yeasts, which was also absolutely unheard-of.” When the Fulton Street brewery opened in 1995, the beers were Honkers Ale, IPA, a stout, a porter, and one lager. We were primarily an ale brewery.” The Belgian beers, starting with Matilda, followed soon after, and “we just started to add to it, as everybody else in the craft beer world did, but we were probably in the forefront for a lot of it.” Today Goose Island has three and a quarter acres of warehousing dedicated to its barrel ageing programme, equivalent to a block of land 125 yards square

He was, he says, “so heavily influenced by Michael Jackson – heavily influenced. He’s the one that probably gave me the passion, more than anything about it. More than once he would come over and we would sit down right in the pub, and he could recall every damned beer he ever drank. He had an extraordinary sensory ability, oh my goodness. What troubles me is that so many of the young brewers in the United States have no recollection and no knowledge of what Michael did in, for example, inventing and promoting the whole idea of beer styles.

The breakthrough in the UK came in 2001, when the late Glenn Payne, then beer buyer at the Safeway supermarket chain in Britain, “a wonderful, wonderful man”, rang John up “and said, ‘We like your beer over here.’ I’m going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We sent the beer over, and one of the thrills I had was to come over and drink one of my IPAs here in England. I couldn’t have imagined that.”

The in-the-bar kitchen at the Vintage Ale House

Ken Stout’s take on the growth of American influence on the global beer world is that American craft brewers “have taken the great beer styles of the Old World, and in some cases even resuscitated them, like porter, and put an American twist on them, riffed on them a little bit, and now we’re sending them back over, and the beer lovers of the UK and the rest of the world appreciate and enjoy what we’ve done to these beers.” Globally, he says, back-packers from around the world have come to the United States, explored the new beers they found there, and, just like John Hall did, returned to their homes and decided they want to reproduce the great beers they tasted overseas. “They see people running brewpubs, and they think, ‘People make a living doing this? How can I make a living doing this!’ There’s also something in the zeitgeist now, ‘Follow your heart, do something that moves you, that excites you.’ I think that feeds into it too.”

Porter-glazed beef cheek

In terms of the global explosion in the numbers of breweries, we are, he says, merely returning to 19th-century levels of brewery numbers – and against a background of much larger populations. John adds that it is also far easier now to acquire kits of the right size for a small brewery: in the days when Goose Island was beginning, it was giant kit or nothing. Thus the growth of the market has brought a virtuous circle of more demand for brewing kit encouraging more brewing kit manufacturers, driving down prices and encouraging more demand for brewing kit. Saturation, he thinks, is still a long way ahead: there are, after all, still almost twice as many wineries in the United States as breweries. Ken Stout believes the US could eventually reach 12,000 breweries. All the same, he warns: “It’s not good enough to open a brewery that’s local and that’s small. If the beer isn’t great, you’re not going to make it. Drinkers have too many other choices.

“When John and I were growing up the beer landscape was very different, so the first beers we would have tried were maybe a Pabst or Schlitz, or maybe an Old Style in Chicago. The kids today, their first beer might be a Goose 312, or a New Belgian Fat Tire, or a Sam Adams Boston lager, or a Sierra Nevada pale ale. But it’s not just beer in the United States. The American palate has changed in the last 30 years, beer being a big part of it: but we’re back to more full-flavoured, higher cocoa-level chocolates in the United States, ice-creams, cheeses … my first cup of coffee was Maxwell House, or Fulgers, something thin and mass-produced, but now a kid’s first coffee is going to be from Starbucks. It’s not just the young kids. There’s some generational dynamic in play, but I’ll tell you, the over-40 crowd is absolutely into craft beer.”

And THAT, I think, is something we can’t say about the UK beer scene. But that’s something for another post …

The formative beers of my teenage years

My teenage beer drinking involved plenty of quantity – I was a regular pub customer from 16 onwards, pubs being the place to meet my mates, and girls – but no appreciation at all of quality. This was not, forgive me, deliberate ignorance, but down to a lack of any kind of guidance. Today there are dozens of books about what beers to drink, and more every week, nearly. Then: nothing, nothing at all. The Campaign for Real Ale was only formed the year I turned 19, I had reached 21 when Frank Baillie bought out the Beer Drinker’s Companion and Richard Boston began writing about beer in the Guardian, and I was 22 when the first Good Beer Guide appeared. For my first five years of seriously drinking beer, therefore, while I was developing an awareness that some beers were much better than others, and some were actively awful, there was effectively nothing to explain why this was, nor anywhere to tell me where to find the good stuff.

I was nudged in the ribs into remembering the beers of my long-past youth by the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, who posted earlier this week about ten beers that influenced his teenage years and early to mid-twenties. Did I have ten beers I could say lubricated my pre-enlightenment drinking, and eventually led me to wider appreciation: or at the least, were important to me 45 years ago, even if eventually left behind, like my small and long ago disposed-off collection of early albums by Chicago, errors in taste that I can excuse by saying: “I was young – I knew no better”? Yes, and here they are

An 802 bus in Stevenage bus station advertising McMullen’s strong pale ale, No 1, some time around 1967. I would say with confidence that I have travelled on that exact bus, probably numerous journeys

Greene King IPA
Take-overs meant a plurality of pubs in the corner of North Hertfordshire where I grew up were owned by Greene King, and I probably drank its beers, brewed then in Biggleswade, most weekends from 1968 onwards. Stevenage was a new town, but its High Street had formerly been part of the Great North Road, and it had eight pubs in less than 600 yards, five of them owned by GK. Of the two GK pubs most frequented by teenagers, the Red Lion, a small and shabby two-bar ex-coaching inn run by a tall, elderly former News of the World darts champion with artificial legs and a fondness for rum-and-peppermint (I think he thought his wife wouldn’t be able to smell the alcohol on his breath), still had handpumps; the rather smarter Marquis of Lorne a little to the south (should be Marquess of Lorne, properly), where the varnish on the bar was fresher, the toilets considerably less like a biological warfare laboratory and the carpets much newer, served “top pressure” beer, cask-conditioned but then pushed to the glass by a cylinder of carbon dioxide. The bar taps for the top-pressure beer were miniature ceramic affairs clearly meant to look like full-sized pump handles. Camra put top-pressure service outside the limits, claiming it was no better than keg: I cannot, in honesty, say I remember the beer (which was always, incidentally, ordered as “bitter”, never “IPA”) tasting any different in the Red Lion compared to the Mar-kiss. Although Greene King IPA is dismissed today, it was a perfectly acceptable beer to grow up on.

McMullen’s Country Bitter
Many other local pubs were served by the brewery in the county town, McMullen’s. This is one of those long-running family-owned breweries (claiming to be 190 years old this year) you read very little about, for the good reason that the Hertford brewery’s beers are and have been for as long as I’ve known them entirely and totally uninteresting: the acme of meh. Still, it owned, and owns, a number of excellent pubs in the area, and I drank quantities of Country as a teen.

Rayment’s BBA
For reasons too complicated to explain here, Greene King owned a tiny brewery lost in the wriggling and deep-set lanes of East Hertfordshire called Rayment’s, which supplied a small number of tied houses and a much larger number of clubs and bars with an excellent session bitter called BBA. The youth centre where Stevenage Folk Club met had casks of Rayment’s BBA on the upstairs bar, and the teenage I would reel home after a session, hiccupping and singing “Oh Good Ale“. (The reeling was particularly bad if I had moved on to the second cask on the bar, filled with Abbot Ale. The great Richard Thompson, when asked by an interviewer how he had changed from the brilliant but shy lead guitarist who would hide on-stage behind the speaker stacks to the confident and in-command performer he eventually became, replied: “Six pints of Abbot helps!” Fortunately for me I was living at home, and my mother was happy to ease my Saturday hangover with a big FEB: two fried eggs, sausages, fried halved tomatoes, rashers, fried bread, fried mushrooms, and bottomless tea.) BBA was the first great beer I drank, a marvellously balanced brew, and it was a crime when the brewery was closed.

Rayment’s brewery in Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire, circa 1980

Watney’s Special
When I moved away to university, I still knew nothing about beer except that I liked drinking it, and it puzzled me that in the pubs of Brighton and Hove so much of the beer was undrinkable. This was because the local brewery, Tamplin’s, had been taken over by Watney’s, which was then at the height of its experimentation with finding ways to brew as cheaply as possible: maximising the use of raw barley, using continuous fermentation technology and so on. Watney’s multitude of tied houses had to stock the results, even though they were vile. If I was in a Watney’s house I normally changed to drinking

Draught Guinness
even though it was more expensive , and as my budget for food and drink was £5 a week, pennies had to be watched carefully.

Newcastle Amber
Out on campus, however, the beer in places like the arts centre seemed so much better. Everything is relative. Amber was Scottish & Newcastle’s cheap keg, cheaper than Tartan, its OG was about 1030, its abv barely above 3pc, but it tasted of beer, which is more than the horridly phenolic Watney’s Special did. (Amber was, I believe, the beer blended with Newcastle Star strong ale to make Newcastle Brown.)

Watney’s Party Seven
Canned beer was still quite rare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so this, or the smaller Party Four, was what you brought to parties: seven pints of, probably, Watney’s Star Light, an even worse and weaker beer than Special, if that is conceivable, in a can that required a special opener to punch two v-shaped holes in the top – an opener no one ever seemed to possess, so that too many cans had to be attacked with a pair of kitchen scissors, resulting in ceilings dripping beer. You could also buy Watney’s Party Four Mild, and other brewers had their own versions: Ansell’s Pipkin, Courage Jackpot. By the mid-1970s you could get Ruddle’s County in four-pint tins, which was actually a perfectly acceptable beer served that way, and Sainsbury’s sold an “own brand” four-pint can of what was Ruddle’s “blue” ordinary bitter. Then Tony Ruddle made one of the most disastrous corporate decisions of any small brewer and sold all his pubs – prat.

Foster’s Lager
In 1974 Foster’s was an exotic and hard-to-find import in the UK, available in striking large pint-and-a-quarter tins, and I stacked the fridge in the house where I was living in Brighton with them for the post-finals, off into the big world party. That was the first of a run of really hot summers, and an important lesson: if the weather’s very warm and the beer’s very cold, it almost doesn’t matter what that beer tastes like.

Greene King XX mild
The first Good Beer Guide I bought was the third, 1976 edition, when I was 23, and it encouraged me to start trying beers that were all around me but that, because they didn’t fall in the “bitter” category, I had ignored. Once I discovered XX, until I left Hertfordshire, I consumed considerable quantities of this 3pc abv black beauty. I remember a Camra branch “pub of the year” presentation night at the (happily still open) Plough, a rural beerhouse in the tiny and hard-to-find hamlet of Ley Green, on the Herts-Beds borders, where Greene King supplied a free firkin of XX. The lot went in less than 15 minutes: you could hardly have got rid of it faster than by simply opening the tap and letting it flow onto the cellar floor.

Fuller’s London Pride
The GBG also encouraged exploring: one September Saturday in the mid-1970s, after a QPR match at Shepherd’s Bush (did we win? Can’t remember), I walked down to the Dove by the riverside in Hammersmith for the first time, and had an epiphany with a pint of Pride on the sun-struck terrace overlooking the Thames. It was like drinking a cool, beautiful, delicately scented floral bouquet, while Yo Yo Ma played Mozart in the background and expert masseurs attended to your neck and feet. I have had other beery experiences as good, or almost, but that was probably the one that made me know how important beer was going to be to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

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

Cloudwater: no more cask

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

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

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

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

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

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

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

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

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

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

Beer can take you to some strange and unexpected places. 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? Continue reading

Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Bank's Amber bitterMy local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the  knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

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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 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

When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

In a shiny 12-storey building in Bishopsgate, on the edge of the Square Mile, is a company that represents the last faint echo of a time when one family ran the two biggest breweries in the world.

colb-brown-stout-labelThe City of London Investment Trust is, today, a £1 billion business with investments in everything from pharmaceuticals to mining, and power supply to media, and a record of increasing its dividend every year for the past half-century. But the firm started in 1860 as the City of London Brewery Co, and its roots lie in the brewing industry as far back as the 15th century.

The family that dominated the early history of the concern were the Calverts, landowners from East Hertfordshire, who married into ownership of, first the Peacock brewhouse in Whitecross Street, by the Barbican, on the northern side of the City of London, and then the Hour Glass brewhouse, three quarters of a mile away off Thames Street, by the river. In the middle of the 18th century these were the two biggest porter breweries in London, and, therefore, the biggest breweries in the world.

However, the Calverts today are much less well known than their rivals, such as Whitbread, Truman and Barclay Perkins, in part because the family name was taken off the business in the middle of the 19th century, partly because no physical trace remains of their brewing sites and partly because the firm they founded did not quit brewing so much as drift away from it. But one big reason for the Calverts’ current obscurity is the extreme difficulty involved in untangling the dense thicket that is their family tree, as the descendants of Felix, Thomas and Peter Calvert, the three sons of Felix Calverd (sic) the family’s 17th century patriarch, spread out and multiplied down the years.

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The Calvert family tree: double-click to enlarge

The common habit of using the same first names down and across generations means that after the first Felix Calvert, or Calverd, was born in 1596 there were 12 Felix Calverts, seven William Calverts and seven Peter Calverts in the 17th to 19th centuries. Thanks to cousin marriage, one Felix Calvert, 1729-1764, a partner in the Peacock brewhouse, had a father also called Felix Calvert, and both his grandfathers were called Felix Calvert as well, while his great-grandfather’s great-nephew, Felix Calvert 1735-1802 (who also had a son called Felix Calvert), was a partner in the rival Hour Glass brewhouse.

The result is that there has not been a book or article mentioning the Calverts and their breweries that does not have major facts wrong. One book from 2011 has six errors in one six-line paragraph. Another recent publication called a high-profile member of the clan, Sir William Calvert, “the grandson of Thomas Calvert”, adding: “though there is some confusion in various books”. Indeed: Thomas was actually the one son of Felix Calverd that Sir William was not descended from. Cousin marriage meant his father (another William) was the son of Felix junior while his mother Honor was the daughter of Felix junior’s and Thomas’s brother Peter. The Museum of London Archaeology managed to invent a completely fictitious member of the family, “Henry”, and get the date the family acquired the Hour Glass brewhouse totally wrong.

calvert-book-coverHurrah and thrice hurrah, then, for Patricia Richardson – herself a tenth-generation descendant of Felix the patriarch – who has pulled apart all the different Calvert strands and published a book that is a readable, illuminating and fascinating telling of what could more than easily have been an extremely confusing story. She has solved the problem of tracing all those Felixes, Williams, Peters and the rest by labelling the families of Felix Calverd’s three sons A, B and C, and then numbering each new bearer of an old first name consecutively within the stream, so that, for example, Felix Calvert 1729-1764 of the Peacock brewery is Felix Calvert B3, his grandfathers are Felix Calvert B1 and C1 respectively, and his distant cousin at the Hour Glass brewery, Felix Calvert 1735-1802, is Felix Calvert A4.

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