Category Archives: Beer

Takeover bid for London’s biggest brewer

It’s a little-known fact that the biggest brewer in London is Anheuser-Busch. Far more people have seen the brewery than know it’s run by A-B: it’s right by the finishing line on the Thames at Mortlake for the annual Oxford versus Cambridge University Boat Race, one of the televised highlights of the British sporting year.

A-B acquired a lease on the brewery in 1995, four years after its previous owner, Grand Metropolitan, had sold off all its brewing assets after the government’s Beer Orders of 1989 saw all Britain’s then big brewers begin to split brewing from pub owning.

The site already brewed, under licence, all the Budweiser sold in the UK, where the beer is one of the leading premium bottled/canned lagers, with something like three per cent of the UK beer market, and Anheuser-Busch obviously decided it was worth running its own production facility. While the other Grand Met breweries went to Courage, therefore, which was then bought by Scottish & Newcastle in 1995, Mortlake flew the A-B flag, albeit leased from S&N.

Grand Met had inherited the Mortlake brewery when it took over Watney Mann in 1972, and Watney’s had acquired it more than 80 years earlier, in 1888. The brewery is sometimes said to descend from the monastery brewhouse at the Mortlake Manor House, owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury, and to date back to the 15th century. However commercial brewing on the site does not appear to have started until some time after the Manor House was pulled down in the 18th century.

The brewery that Watney’s acquired had developed out of two separate small breweries both mentioned in 1765. These were amalgamated in 1811, and after several owners had come and gone the business was being run in the mid-1850s by Charles John Phillips and James Wigan.

Under Phillips and Wigan the brewery prospered, gaining a high reputation for its bitter ales, and it was extended and rebuilt in the late 1860s: a roundel with the initials “P” and “W” can still be seen on the high brick wall that faces Mortlake High Street. Wigan left the partnership in 1877, and the Phillips family continued to run the brewery until Charles John Phillips retired in 1889.

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Why Tony Naylor is being a prat

If you’re going to build a rant, the foundation needs to be dug out of solid, properly researched facts. Which is why Tony Naylor is being a prat.

I’m very sorry to diss a fellow beer writer and freelance journalist, especially when he was writing on the Guardian‘s drinks blog with such excellent intentions – to promote good, properly brewed lager.

However, while plugging the pleasures of pils, Tony attempted a big dump all over real ale, insisting, with no evidence at all:

For years now, perries, ciders, real ales and stouts (and many other things which hardly anybody in the real world actually drinks) have received acres of press and undue prominence in gastropubs and good restaurants. If food literate folk enjoy a pint at all, it is a pint of real ale and not lager.

Tony – that’s just crap, I’m sorry. For years now, people in this country who have talked about beer and food pairings have talked about lager on an equal footing with ale. To pull one example off my shelves, Roger Protz’s The Taste of Beer, from 1998, has a section on food and beer pairings which includes Munich Dunkel, Viennese amber lager, Czech Pilsener, Bock beer and wheat beer. Indeed, you can go back to 1956 – long before Mr Naylor was born, when lager was less than two per cent of beer sales in Britain – and Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer, and find lager given as a suitable pairing with dishes such as roast pork, veal and chicken, and creamier, sweeter cheeses.

Tony then goes on to insist:

no-one … stands up for the joys of lager. Is it snobbery? Plain ignorance? Or some kind of evil, beardy, bitter-drinking conspiracy?

Well, no one stands up for lager except Pete Brown or Roger Protz or Ron Pattinson or me, among a horde of others, some bearded, all bitter drinkers as well as lager drinkers. Indeed, the latest edition of the Guild of Beer Writers’ newsletter has just hit my doormat, and on the back page is a piece about how Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire is going to be distributing the highly regarded unpasteurised lagers made by its near-neighbour, the Taddington brewery: beardy bitter drinkers promote real lager horror..

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Do we need new glasses?

I’m not sure it’s altogether good to be the person whose name pops up when the question is asked: “Who can we get to burble on for 20 minutes about the history of beer glasses?”, but at least it got me drinking at someone else’s expense in the Met Bar in Old Park Lane, where the manager boasts that every top celebrity worth naming has parked their A-list posterior on his surprisingly shabby red leather banquettes. (And drinking at someone else’s expense is definitely what you want to be doing at the Met, when a small bottle of Meantime pale ale, £1.50 or so in Waitrose, is £8 – that’s not quite £14 a pint.)

My invitation to the Met Bar was to add a little history to a tasting organised by Spiegelau, the Austrian glassware company, to promote their new range of beer glasses.

Each of the glasses has been designed so that, in theory, it brings out the best in a particular beer style, or range of styles. The 500ml, slightly waisted, wide-mouthed glass is best, according to Georg Riedel, president of Spiegelau, for strong English ales and helles-style lagers. The tall wheat beer glass is made for – well, you can work that out. A stemmed tulip-shaped glass has been designed for Pilsner-style lagers, and is also good for Belgian ales, Spiegelau says.

But does the shape of the glass really make a difference? Yes, I was surprised to find it most definitely does, and not just to the aroma. Of the four beers at the tasting, the biggest change from glass to glass was with the Innis & Gunn, the oak-aged beer from Scotland. The “wheat” glass accentuated the vanilla/oaky elements in the beer, the “pilsner” glass in contrast brought the toffee/caramel notes right up front, but the “ale” glass, while delivering a distinctly thinner mouthfeel, allowed much more of the complexity in the beer to come through.

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Binge drinking: a brief history

I love etymology. To binge, the Oxford English Dictionary reveals, was originally a Lincolnshire (and, it implies, East Midlands generally) dialect word meaning “to soak (a wooden vessel)”.

The metaphorical extension of meaning from soaking wood to soaking yourself was an easy journey, and by 1854 a book called A Glossary of Northamptonshire Words had recorded this figurative use for the word: “A man goes to the alehouse to get a good binge, or to binge himself.”

A dictionary of slang published in 1889 said of “binge” that it was used at Oxford to mean “a big drinking bout”. By the early 20th century the word was being used for parties at which large amounts of drink were consumed, with no particular sense that there was anything to criticise: the OED has a quote from 1922: “This is only a binge . . . just a jolly old bachelor-party.”

The word also took on secondary meanings, “to encourage”, and “to liven up”, as in a quote from the children’s novel National Velvet, published in 1935: “The information having been looked over and binged up here and toned down there . . . Reuter sent round the world the following message . . .”

It was probably from this sense of “livened up” that General (later Field Marshal Lord) Montgomery used to ask his officers in the Second World War: “Are you 100 per cent full of binge?”, according to The Times in 1942. Monty meant, apparently, were they full of spirit – zing – and confidence in their own ability and fitness, rather than whisky-ed up to the hairline. It was not a use that caught on.

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Watch out for Fuller’s whisky beer

Some time in the next couple of months or so, when things get a little quieter for the summer, Fuller’s brewery at Chiswick in West London is going to be brewing its own version of Gale’s Prize Old Ale for the first time.

The current version, reviewed enthusiastically here, was brewed at Gale’s brewery just before it closed in 2006, then shipped to Chiswick for maturing, before being primed and bottled late last year and released in the spring.

It’s a deliciously sour-sweet dark Old Ale, 9 per cent alcohol by volume, in a style that almost disappeared, and I am delighted John Keeling, Fuller’s director of brewing, is continuing to make it available for future years.

John has solved the problem of reproducing the microflora and fauna found at Gale’s Horndean, Hampshire home, which gave the beer much of its particular flavours, by saving 40 hectolitres of the Gale’s-brewed POA to add to the maturing Fuller’s POA. The beer will be kept in tanks for 12 months, then bottled and released some time around October 2009 – with 40 hectolitres again held back for priming the next batch …

Meanwhile Fuller’s is also due to finally release its whisky beer some time in the coming month. I spoke about the problems Fuller’s had with HM Revenue and Customs over trying to sell a beer that has matured in former whisky casks here _ funnily, Scots brewers don’t seem to have the same difficulty in getting permission to do the same thing.

The problem is that whisky leaches out of the cask into the beer, raising its alcohol level. However, John Keeling says, the brewery has found that if it releases the whisky cask-matured beer at a lower ABV than the beer was when it originally went into the casks – water it down, in other words – then the brewery can put it on sale.

Golden Pride, 8.5 per cent abv, was the beer that went into the casks, so Fuller’s will be selling its whisky beer at 7.5 per cent, the taxman will be happy and so, I am sure, will the customers be: I see that when I tried Golden Pride matured in ex-Glenmorangie casks at the Thornbridge brewery seminar on wood-aged beers last October I described it as

indisputably changed by its experience, with an oaky sweetness, and citrus and orange more noticeable than in the “straight” beer, it would make a good “after dinner” winder-down.”

Bring it on.

Categorical nonsense

The Procrustean nonsense of defining rigid categories that every beer must fit into is well illustrated by The Leveller, one of the brews with Civil War-themed names from the Springhead brewery, at Sutton-on-Trent, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire.

The Leveller is brewed, like almost all Springhead’s beers, with Maris Otter malt, plus, in this case, some roasted malt and some amber malt as well – enough to give a mid-oak colour, but not as dark as a brown ale and without the ruddy cornelian hues that are apparent in darker bitters and dark winter warmers.

While Northdown hops bring a fair degree of bitterness to the party, the roast grain is present in sufficient quantity to give a distinct toasty, almost coffee flavour, which kicks the beer out of the circle marked “bitter” (though Camra, apparently unable to find another home for it, awarded The Leveller a runner-up place at the Great British Beer Festival in the “best bitter” category.)

If The Leveller isn’t a bitter, though, it doesn’t have the sweetness, or the rotundity of mouthfeel, or any hint of chocolate, that might let it slip comfortably into the circles on the Venn diagram of beer styles marked “brown ales” or “milds”.

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Twenty beers before lunchtime

The time is 10am and there are 20 different beers to be drunk before lunchtime. It must be another supermarket beer judging.

I judged for the twice-yearly Tesco Beer Awards quite a few times, but this week’s was the Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, and although Sainsbury’s has brought in the same PR team to organise the entries and judging as previously ran its rival’s event, the Morrice Partnership, there are several significant differences between the two contests.

For a start, the beers in the Tesco judging were drunk “blind”: nobody except the organisers knew which brewery produced which numbered beer. But Sainsbury’s deliberately has “shelf appeal” as one or its judging criteria, alongside flavour, aroma, appearance and aftertaste, believing, correctly, that no shopper will pick up a beer and take it home to find out how good it is without initially being attracted by the packaging. So all the bottles bore their labels.

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The Prize goes to Fuller’s

When Fuller’s announced in 2005 that it was acquiring Gale’s of Horndean, I couldn’t get very upset, in large part because I was angry at what Prize Old Ale had been allowed to become.

This should have been a proud and heavily promoted flag-carrier for British beer, about the last survivor of the “strong old ale” type made by almost every brewery in the country in the 19th century, still bottle-conditioned at a stomping nine per cent alcohol by volume and still, amazingly, available in corked bottles.

By the beginning of the 21st century, however, there was something very wrong: when you opened the bottles the ale inside was utterly flat, showing no condition at all, and the flavour was one-dimensional and over-sweet. Gale’s apparently bottled Prize Old Ale without adding extra priming sugar or yeast, relying on the yeast cells still in the beer, and the unfermented sugars that remained after the primary fermentation, to bring it into condition. Obviously, whatever the yeast used to do in the bottle in the past, it wasn’t up to the job any more. But nobody at Gale’s seemed to care, and what should have been a triumph was a disaster and an embarrassment.

The news that one last brewing of Prize Old Ale had taken place at the Gale’s brewery in Horndean just before it closed in March 2006, and the fermented beer had then been trucked up to Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick for maturing, gave me a little hope. At Horndean the beer was apparently matured for six to 12 months. Fuller’s looks to have taken at least 19 months: the last Horndean Prize Old Ale was only bottled in December last year, given the three months that Fuller’s likes to give its bottle-conditioned ales before it puts them on sale (believing they take that long to settle down after bottling), and they were released to the public in March.

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The Lego(TM) ale conner

I’ve just put up a new myth page on this site completely debunking the story that medieval ale conners ever sat in puddles of drink in order to test it – so it’s a bit naughty to plug this page, which tells the (totally inaccurate, remember) story of the ale conner and the leather breeches test, using Lego figures, and is just simply terrific. Click on the links below to see the pics:

How to be an ale conner

Are you fed up with cleaning up other people’s mess? Want a job that’s a bit less smelly? (and a bit more sticky!) Do you like drinking beer and wearing leather trousers? Then you should become an ale conner! These vignettes will teach you the basics…

1) Find a place that serves ale

2) Buy a pint of ale to test

3) Pour half the beer onto a wooden stool

4) Sit on the stool (and drink the rest of the ale!)

5) After 30 minutes stand up – if your leather trousers stick to the seat then the ale contains too much unfermented sugar. Fine the brewer (and confiscate the ale!)

Enjoy – but don’t forget, ale conners never did sit in puddles of ale.

How to convert a lagerboy

Fuller’s was not the only brewer with a viral ad on the stocks for last year’s Rugby world cup: the Wychwood chaps had one lined up for their Hobgoblin beer called How to convert a lagerboy.

The video shows a chavvy lager-drinker wearing a Burberry baseball cap and slumped at a table, Suddenly a goblin runs up and, rather than attempt to convert the lagerboy by force of argument, boots him hard up the aris, making him soar over the bar of some nearby rugby goalposts, in a “conversion” Jonny Wilkinson would be delighted with.

However, Rupert Thompson, Wychwood’s MD, confessed last might that he bottled out of releasing the video on the net, fearing that it might be misinterpreted – and certainly some beer bloggers would not have been impressed.

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