Category Archives: Beer

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.

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

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

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?

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

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 Snug beers and snug bars

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.

Continue reading When one family ran the world’s two biggest breweries

Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale
Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

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

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

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

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

Hopping down in Surrey

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, Farnham, Surrey
Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, near Farnham, Surrey

Two years ago I helped plant what was Surrey’s first new hop garden for more than half a century, and this week I went down and helped harvest hops from that same hop garden.

Of course, “helped plant” is a wild and self-aggrandising exaggeration: I dug out and popped hop rootstock into fewer than a couple of dozen holes out of the two thousand in total that were made in the field opposite the Hogs Back Brewery’s premises in Tongham, near Farnham. And “helped harvest” is a terminological inexactitude of Melton Mowbray megapie proportions as well: I gathered maybe half a small plastic bag-full of fresh Farnham White Bine hop cones off the lower third or so of a couple of towering bines. Still, those cones then went into some of Hogs Back’s TEA – Traditional English Ale – to make a new, or at least rare style of beer: Fresh Green Hopped Ale. And after a couple of days to mature, it tasted … well, let’s wait to the end.

Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey
Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey

I was down in Surrey after an invitation from Rupert Thompson, Hogs Back’s chairman, to have a look at the hop harvest going on at Puttenham Farm, in Seale, near Farnham, and then have a “hop harvest lunch” in the shade of the bines at Hogs Back’s own hop garden. Puttenham Farm was, until Hogs Back’s plantings, the last of what had been a big and important hop-growing industry centred on Farnham. It still has 14 acres of hops, all Fuggles, and the growing demand for English hops, with resultant higher prices, has encouraged the owner, Hamptons Estate, to plant another 10 acres that are due to come on stream next year. The estate is also building a new oast house for processing and drying the hops, to replace the rather elderly facilities it uses now. (Mind, by far the most profitable way to sell hops is to people who want to decorate their homes/bars/restaurants with them: £23 a bine as decoration, against 50p for the kilo or so of dried hops each bine provides.)

Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers
Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers

Sixty and more years ago the hops would have been picked by travellers and other itinerant workers: today it’s students, earning some late summer holiday money before returning to college. This can cause problems: the hops have to be picked when the workforce is available to pick them, and Rupert and his team say that one of the things they have discovered since planting their own hops is that the cones often have the best flavours and aromas later in the year than many hop farmers would be harvesting them. Hogs Back sends its hops after they are harvested to Puttenham Farm to be processed and bagged into pockets marked with the traditional bell logo used on Farnham hops: ironically, being closer to Farnham itself, Hogs Back can have TWO bells on its pockets, while Puttenham, further away, can only have one. (Anyone starting a hop garden in Farnham itself would be entitled to three bells …)

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The hops Hogs Back planted in its own hop garden are Fuggles, Farnham White Bine, the traditional local hop, which disappeared from Surrey 80 and more years ago, and the American hop Cascade. As it happens, one of Cascade’s parents is Fuggles, so it ought to feel at home in England (though its ancestors also include, probably, American wild hops of unknown provenance, via open pollination, hence its very American citrus flavours.) According to Miles Chesterman, Hogs Back’s head brewer, the Surrey-grown Cascades (which go into the brewery’s Hogstar lager) are the equal to any Americans, and he is turning away offers to buy some of this year’s harvest: Hogs Back wants it all, especially at current prices.

Hogs Back chairman gives a final look over the hop pickers' lunch at Tongham
Hogs Back chairman Rupert Thompson gives a final look over the hop pickers’ lunch at Tongham

In keeping with the “localism” of growing hops just across the road from the brewery, Rupert and his team laid on a lunch in the dappling shade of the hop garden that featured almost entirely local produce: Surrey cheeses and breads, Surrey scotch eggs and pork pies, and so on, all very fine indeed. The only “outsiders” were a couple of dried meats from Cumbria, if I remember correctly, made by Rupert’s brother, which, too, were terrific.

Fresh green hopped TEA
Fresh green hopped TEA

So, what is fresh green hopped ale flavoured with Farnham White Bines straight off the bine actually like? Excellent and fascinating: beautiful, clean, masses going on, slightly grassy/herby, spot of orange juice, tiny touch of liquorice, red apples, something faintly smokey and autumnal in the background, the sweetness of the beer seemingly brought out more by the raw hops: I’d strongly encourage brewers not just to make “green hop” beers by putting green hops into the copper, but “fresh green hop” beers, soaking the fresh hops in the brewed beer. (And when you put one of those soaked hops in your mouth – whoa!)

And now, a suitable musical ending from Shirley Collins and the Albion Band, “Hopping Down in Kent” – strictly the wrong county, but you’ll spot, I’m sure, that one of the pictures used in this YouTube video shows what is clearly a scene from Farnham.

Dutch treats

Portrait of Gambrinus at the van de Oirsprong brewery
Portrait of Gambrinus. ‘king of beer’, at the van de Oirsprong brewery in North Brabant

It must be very irritating being a Dutch brewer and seeing all the kudos the people next door in Belgium keep getting. What’s the big deal with those bun-munching bastards, they probably say to themselves in the Netherlands, seething over a late-night jenever chaser. The problem was, of course, that by the 1980s the Netherlands had just 17 breweries still operating, most of those concentrating on industrial-style lager, while Belgium still had more than 80 surviving breweries and a wildly varied brewing culture incorporating all sorts of oddities, many unique, such as lambic. Michael Jackson used 29 pages of his New World Guide to Beer in 1988 on Belgium and just eight on the Netherlands. If you were a beer writer, a beer tourist, Belgium was so much more interesting.

The Dutch beer scene has changed dramatically since then: there are now more than 400 brewing operations in the country (though admittedly half don’t have a brewery of their own, and use someone else’s kit to make their product), including some now highly regarded craft beer names.

Still, I’d held off visiting the Netherlands myself until an invitation came to speak at this year’s European Beer Bloggers and Writers conference in Amsterdam. The programme included several interesting-looking visits to Dutch breweries and at least one presentation I was almost desperately interested in hearing. And it seemed wrong that I had never been to a place that was no further from my home in London than Truro in Cornwall is.

Continue reading Dutch treats

The ballad of Baladin

It is a mark of the respect Italy has for beer, not just that there are now around a thousand new small boutique breweries in the country, but that you can take an MA course in beer styles at the University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo in Piedmont. Declaration of interest: three of the modules in the course, on IPA, porter and stout, are based on chapters from my 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black, translated into Italian, for which they paid me. And yet, despite Italy now being home to some of the most adventurous brewers on the planet, its craft beers are mostly scarcely known in the UK: there is one bar, The Italian Job, in Chiswick, West London, dedicated solely to the country’s small brewers, but apart from that I reckon all but the most dedicated British craft beer fans would struggle to name any Italian beers apart from Peroni (*spit*) and Moretti (*spit spit*), while they could reel out a long list of American ones.

Teo Musso and his cartoon twin, one of several Baladin staffers illustrated on the walls of the brewery offices
Teo Musso and his cartoon twin, one of several Baladin staffers illustrated on the walls of the new brewery offices

One of the oldest Italian craft brewers is Baladin, in Piozzo, not far from Polenzo, founded by the handsome and charismatic Teo Musso, 52, originally as a specialist beer bar in 1986 (distinctly cheeky, since Piozzo is in the middle of one of Italy’s best-known, and most beautiful, wine-making areas, Barolo, and Teo’s father was himself a grape farmer). Baladin moved down the supply chain into brewing its own beer ten years later, helped by the Belgian brewer Jean-Louis Dits of Brasserie à Vapeur. The original 500-litre (three-barrel) brewery kit was made out of repurposed milk vessels, and based in a garage alongside the pub.

All its bottled beers are bottle-conditioned, all, including the keg ones, are unpasteurised, and almost every one deserves hunting out, especially Xyauyù barrel, the rum-barrel-aged 14 per cent abv barley wine, dark, deep, rich, complex and harmonious, which leapt into my personal “top ten beers ever” the instant I first tasted it.

Another two decades later, and Baladin, which now has a chain of bars in Italy and more than 200 employees, is opening a fabulous new €12 million 50-hectolitre brewery on the edge of Piozzo, incorporating an old farm building and a formerly half-finished aluminum fixture factory, with lots of lovely shiny new kit from the Italian firm Meccanica Spadoni in Orvieto, Umbria (including an automated spice-adder), a line of huge 100-hectolitre wooden vats to produce the aged beers the company specialises in, and even a three-hectolitre pilot plant for students from the Gastronomic Sciences University to practice their brewing techniques on. Among the innovations is an automated storage plant for ageing bottles in, where a robot moves 2,500 pallets of bottled beer from floor to floor to give them the right length of time at the right temperature to ensure proper refermentation and maturation. The new brewery will enable Baladin to increase production from the current 20,000 hectolitres (12,200 barrels in British currency) to 50,000. (The old brewery kit is being sent to South Africa, for use in a project there.) Continue reading The ballad of Baladin

The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

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

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

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

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