Category Archives: Bottled beer

Carlsberg’s new lager: the verdict is in and it’s ‘This is NOT the future of beer’

A few years back, when I was still involved in hospitality trade journalism, I would get occasional invites from Carlsberg to  PR gigs. One was to Wembley to see England play San Marino. The match itself was the predictable turkey-stuffing (5-0) but it was the entertainment beforehand we were particularly supposed to appreciate: Northampton’s Danes had taken over part of Wembley town hall and turned it into an “If Carlsberg did pubs” pub, with unlimited free pints of lager delivered on sushi-style conveyor belts, the Lightning Seeds as the pub band and Ian Wright, Paddy McGuinness and Jeff Stelling as pre-match pundits. It was quite fun, as quite fun goes, but the big drawback was the beer: Carlsberg.

Carlsberg’s rfevamped “Danish pilsner’ in a glass older than the marketer who thought it was a great idea to drop the word ‘lager’ from the product

I don’t have anything against big-corporation beer in itself, but I do have a big problem with dull beer: I can’t drink it. I have a very low boredom threshold with food and drink (and most other experiences, actually) and I would literally rather drink nothing than drink more than a couple of pints of beer with no interest. And that Carlsberg: it wasn’t actually bad, or faulty, it was simply a cypher, a blank hole where beer should have been. There was no pain in drinking it, but it was a hedonistic vacuum that actively repelled me, that made me not wish to experience this beery nothing.

The one upside, I thought, was that at least I wasn’t going to get embarrassingly drunk on free beer, since I couldn’t bring myself to bring it near my mouth. So I waited, faintly bored, until the drinking was over and we could go and watch the match – which was a similar sort of experience to the beer, ironically. Had it been a ten-nil walloping, that would have been good to watch. Had it been decent opposition, that would have been good, too. But five-nil against San Marino, a country with a population the size of Letchworth: meh.

So: come forward to the present day, and the Cobblertown-based Danes are now apparently admitting that, indeed, their beer really hasn’t been up to much: the San Marino of beerdom. In the run-up to a relaunch last month of the basic 3.8 per cent abv “Green” Carlsberg, the company started retweeting tweets from drinkers comparing the beer to drinking stale breadsticks, or the bathwater your granny died in, using the increasingly popular “beat us, we’re bad” strategy marketeers seem to think makes consumers love them because they’re apparently being deeply honest, for a change. Then its VP of marketing in the UK, Liam Newton, pulled on the sackcloth, dumped a pile of ashes over his head, threw himself on his knees and wailed: “At Carlsberg UK, we lost our way. We focused on brewing quantity, not quality; we became one of the cheapest, not the best. In order to live up to our promise of being ‘probably the best beer in the world’, we had to start again.” Actually, Liam, you used to say “Probably the best lager in the world”, you little fibber, not least because prosodically the two beats of “lager” make for a better-sounding slogan that the single beat of beer: cretic, trochee, spondee, cretic rather than the clunkier cretic, cretic, cretic,

Green Carlsberg is now calling itself a Danish pilsner, rather than a lager: presumably “consumer feedback” suggests “pilsner” sounds posher. Poor Bhavya Mandanna, head brewperson at Carlsberg UK, ventriloquised the following nonsense, courtesy of Carlsberg’s PR people: “Our new Pilsner has a fuller body and a perfect balance of bitterness and sweetness made possible through modifications to our brewing process and the addition of bittering hops in the brewhouse.” Wow, they’re adding bittering hops in the brewhouse! There’s innovative! Tell us more, Bhavya, and let’s see if you can say it while the PR man sits you in his knee with his hand up the back of your jacket as he swallows a pint of supposedly perfectly balanced lager: “Aroma hops with citrus and floral top notes give a greater depth of flavour whilst maintaining the light and refreshing qualities of Carlsberg.”

Enough guff. Just because PR people make it appear you’re as filled with marketing bollocks as they are, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a bad brewer. It’s only fair to put Bhavya’s new-style Green Carlsberg in a taste-off to see how it performs. I decided to pair it against Camden Town’s new “Weeknite Any Day” lager, a 3 per cent beer I suspect only escaped being called “Everyday lager” because that would have given the Portman Group the blue giptions for suggesting you could drink every day. And the result is (the envelope, please …)

The result, I’m actually disappointed to say, is exactly what a cynic might expect. The “new” Green Carlsberg, selling for £1 a 33cl bottle in your local corner offie (that’s £1.72 a pint), is scarcely less dull than its previous incarnation. It smells of almost nothing. It tastes of almost nothing. There’s a faintly meaty, metallic aftertaste that lingers for too long. More flavour comes through as the beer opens up in the glass, but so does a bitterness just hovering on the edge of unpleasant. A slight malt sweetness is present, but the main sensation is of something massively watered down. I’m bored even thinking about it.This is NOT the future of beer, and Carlsberg are only wasting time on what should be a controlled rundown of a beer in terminal decline.

Camden Week Nite: is this AB Inbev’s secret weapon in the fruity lager war?

Camden Town’s Week Nite, though, is a little bit of a revelation. It’s one of a growing number of what might be called “floral” or “fruity” lagers, cold-fermented beers made with hop varieties more normally associated with warm-fermented American IPAs – see, for example, Guinness’s Hop House 13 lager, hopped with Galaxy, a strongly flavoured Australian hop with lots of tropical fruit/peach aromas, Topaz, another Australian hop, with hints of clove and lychee and Mosaic, from the US, with more tropical/floral/citrus flavours – that are becoming increasingly popular – see, for example, Guinness’s Hop House 13, very likely to be already on a bar top near you just three years after its launch.

What this new style of lager is delivering is taste, something that, 20 years after the American IPA revolution, is finally becoming a mainstream demand, plus “cold refreshingness”’ something beers such as Carlsberg once had tied up and held down on the ground, but which is no longer enough. What Week Nite is delivering as well is relatively low alcohol: it used to be that a three per cent beer would have to be made with roasted or high-dried malts, like a brown ale or a dark mild or a sweet stout, to deliver flavour. Brewers are now discovering that it is possible to deliver flavour in a low-gravity beer with American-heritage hops:

Week Nite has Motueka, a New Zealand hop with Saaz in its family tree but also NZ hops to give a distinctly tropical fruits aroma, and Centennial, one of the classic American “C-hops”, adding more citrus flavours, as whirlpool hops, and it is then dry-hopped with Motueca and Centennial again, plus Cascade, another citrussy American C-hop, and left unfiltered and unpasteurised – but moves likely to increase the flavour in a low-gravity beer. The result is a somewhat austere beer with a restrained mango, physalis and passionfruit nose, mango juice in the mouth, just enough bitterness to hold it all up and the body of an ultra-marathon runner: not so much thin as wiry. That sounds harsher than I mean to be on this beer: for a three per cent alcohol brew it stands up very well, and it should hit the target market, people wanting something tasty that won’t lay them out, right in the eye. The 33cl can represents exactly one UK unit of alcohol: pace yourself and you could drink one of these every 40 minutes while staying totally sober.

You don’t have to stare too deeply into a beer-filled crystal ball to predict that (1) there will be a constant flow of launches of floral/fruity lagers, in the wake of Hop House 13, and (2) this poses big problems for the “standard” lager giants, who can’t reformat their existing beers, for fear of alienating their existing drinkers, but who are not recruiting new drinkers in enough numbers to maintain market share. The “lager louts” of the 1980s are now, to revive an old joke, becoming Saga louts, 30 years on, as they close in on their 60s, and nobody aged 18 wants to drink the beer a 60-year-old drinks. It looks like Carlsberg’s pet British micro, London Fields, has already had an attempt at a “fruity” lager with the launch of Broadway Boss, using a “traditional” hop in the boil but “a new American variety in the whirlpool to give it a lemony zing.” Unfortunately the whole first batch has had to be recalled after high levels of DMS in the final product, but they’ll be back …

What, then, do AB InBev and Heineken do, with so much invested in Stella, Budweiser, Fosters and the rest? Will we see the launch of Stella floral, of Fosters fruity, or will they try new brands entirely, using, perhaps, their recently acquired “craft” breweries as cover? Those of you at the back shouting “Camden Town is owned by AB InBev!” – yes, exactly. What we have here with Week Nite is a floral/fruity toe in the lager by AB InBev’s marketers, to see if anybody bites. If it doesn’t work, no problem: no embarrassment for the big brands. If it does, then woo-hoo, roll that baby out round the distribution network.

And on cue, *ding* into my email intray today comes a release from Shepherd Neame about its new Bear Island Triple Hopped Lager, hopped with Saaz, pretty much the standard “noble” lager hop, from Bohemia, somewhat herby, but also Challenger, a British hop with a touch of orange marmalade, and, that one again, Mosaic, for the floral/tropical/citrus delivery. There’ll be plenty more along soon.

The Portman Group is trying to destroy Britain’s proud history of strong ales

Fabulous reproduction of a classic 19th century brew that the Portman Group wishes to see banned

It is as well the Portman Group wasn’t around when Admiral Sir Edward Belcher was fitting out his expedition to the Arctic in 1852 to try to find out what had happened to Sir John Franklin and his gallant men, lost on their voyage in search of the North West Passage seven years earlier. The Portman Group would have tried to tell Sir Edward that the Arctic Ale he was taking with him to sustain his men, brewed by Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent to around 11.25 per cent abv and shipped in “reputed quarts”, a whistle under 75cl, smashed its guidelines, being 8.4 units of alcohol in a single container, or more than twice as much as was permissible. Sir Edward would doubtless have replied in sailorly fashion, leaving everybody’s ears severely scorched.

The Portman Group’s “Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks”, which has just been updated, is fundamentally an exercise in arse-protecting by the drinks industry, an attempt through “self-regulation” to persuade the government not to listen to the nanny-state neo-prohibitionists who would like, in lieu of total prohibition, as many restrictions on the sale of alcohol as possible, accompanied by as much tax as the market will bear. The group, the self-styled “drinks industry watchdog”, is there to assure politicians that the makers of alcohol are doing sufficient to prevent harm caused by alcohol for there to be no need for any more government legislation.

Unfortunately you can never satisfy the wowsers enough without banning alcohol altogether, and the Portman Group appears to be incapable of standing up to people like the neo-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies and pointing out that whatever harm alcohol does, it brings much pleasure to a far greater number of people than it hurts. The result is the pursuit by the group of policies that will actively reduce the legitimate pleasure possible, in particular, from the consumption of strong beers such as barley wines and imperial stouts, with their massive depths of flavours, apparently under the misapprehension that the only people who want to drink a beer over seven per cent ABV are tramps sitting on park benches, and that tramps need to be prevented from getting drunk

Duvel Barrel Aged: one of a range of strong bottled beers that faces a Portman Group red card

SIBA, the small brewers’ group, has been getting seriously upset at changes in the new guidelines over the strength of beers, with its chief executive, Mike Benner, declaring that they “threaten new, innovative speciality beer styles like Imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles,” and “SIBA is disappointed the Portman Group is pressing ahead to introduce new guidance, which says that ‘single serve’, non-resealable containers shouldn’t contain more than four units of alcohol.”

But this isn’t new at all: the attack on strong beers has actually been Portman Group policy for years – the guidelines already specifically stated that “putting in excess of four units in a non-resealable single-serve container indirectly encouraged immoderate consumption of alcohol, contrary to rule 3.2(f).” Carlsberg was found in breach of the guidelines in 2015 over its 500ml cans of nine per cent abv Special Brew, which contained 4.5 units of alcohol, which is why it is now only available in the UK in 440ml cans at 7pc abv, which is three units.

That ober dicta was based on the Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines, which, at the time, suggested no more than four units of alcohol for men per day. When the CMOs came out with new guidelines in 2016 which dropped the daily limit in favour of a weekly one, the rug was tugged sharply from under the Portman Group’s justification for ruling against Special Brew, since producers could argue that as long as a drinker wasn’t having a can every day, there was no problem. They haven’t said so, but I’d bet what worried the Portman Group after the CMOs changed their line was having to argue in court in support of a four-unit limit per can or bottle if they were challenged.

In its summary of the responses to the consultation document it put out before the new guidelines were formulated – I recommend reading it – the Portman Group declared that it has decided that in future “containing more than four units becomes a contributory rather than an absolute factor: if the producer is able to demonstrate that mitigating factors should be taken into account – for instance, premium quality of the product, whether the product is typically decanted/shared, price at which it is typically sold, accompanying promotional material, et cetera.” In other words, convince us you’re an aspirational, upmarket product, preferably designed to be shared, and not tramp juice meant for solitary sipping while surrounded by pigeons, and we’ll think about letting you off. So in fact the new guidelines represent a slight relaxation of the previous restrictions, and if Carlsberg were to print “please share responsibly” on cans of Special Brew it might, perhaps, get away with putting the size of the cans back to 500ml and the strength up to nine per cent again. (Errr – though probably not …)

A 12 per cent abv Thomas Hardy Ale in a 33cl bottle would just squeak in under Portman Group guidelines

However, the Portman Group is still declaring that “single-serve, non-resealable containers that contain upwards of six units will be difficult to justify, even with mitigating factors,” with this upper limit “in line with UK binge drinking measure which is currently set at six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women.” It says its research shows that while nearly two thirds of people think a 75cl bottle of wine is for sharing, fewer than half think the same about a 75cl bottle of beer, making that bottle “single-serve”, according to its rules, and thus a container that should not have more than six units of alcohol inside. If a 75cl bottle of beer is “likely” to be regarded as designed to be drunk by one person, this would rule out any beer over 8 per cent abv in a 75cl bottle.

Among the beers that break the new Portman Group guidelines, and therefore face a potential ban, by being stronger than eight per cent and sold in 75cl bottles, are beautiful brews from the US, such as Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops, or Local 2, Rogue’s XS Old Crustacean barley wine and Lost Abbey’s 10 Commandments; a rake of great beers from Italian craft brewers, who go for 75cl bottles in a big way – pun semi-intended – including the wonderful Xyauyù Barrel from the Italian brewer Baladin; and a fair number of beers from the Netherlands and Belgium, including Chimay Grand Reserve, De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (and several other De Molen beers), Duvel Barrel Aged (I had some of the third iteration of that earlier this week: excellent beer, like oak floorboards smeared with blood oranges), and Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux.

There are not so many examples of big beers in big bottles from the UK (indeed, not the least problematical aspect of this policy is that since it vastly disproportionally affects overseas producers, and the Portman Group is funded by UK producers, there is a very good argument for saying that it represents an attempt at an illegal restraint of trade – not that that may matter so much in a post-Brexit world). Sadly, unlike Belgium or the Netherlands, Britain has long lost that tradition of hefty strong stouts and barley wines in anything but nips: 33cl at best. Even a 12 per cent beer in a 33cl bottle just misses a rap on the knuckles from the Portman Group, at 3.96 units. But half a degree over that and you’ll be on the carpet and asked to explain yourself: what mitigating factors are there that we should wave you through and let your beer be sold to responsible adults perfectly able to make their own purchasing decisions without nanny hovering?

A £5 bottle of 12 per cent abv wine? No problem at all with that, sir – would you like it wrapped?

And if you’re thinking of reproducing great beers from the past such as Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, in the original style of bottle, to give a good change of some bottle-age (because smaller bottles age worse than larger onea, for a variety of reasons), fuggedaboutit: you’ll be red-carded as soon as some do-gooder spots your beer on the shelf and grasses you up to the lasses and lads at 20 Conduit Street. The result is, indeed, as Mike Benner says, that innovation by British brewers is being cramped: we had a long history in this country of super-strong beers, from the thumping pale ales that the squirearchy used to brew on their estates in the 18th century as a substitute for bandy during our many years of war with France to the huge Burton Ales we exported to Russia and (somewhat surprisingly) Australia, and, of course, all those thumping stouts that eventually earned the name “imperial”. But if the Portman Group prevails, anyone trying to reproduce those beers from the past in any bottle size worth laying down will have to prepare a lengthy brief justifying themselves for daring to exceed four units a bottle. It seems clear the “watchdog” is hoping its barking will scare away strong beers entirely.

I cannot avoid seeing a strong streak of snobbism in this. The Portman Group gives the impression that it still sees beer as an inferior drink, and beer drinkers as people who need protecting from themselves. My local off-licence will sell you two 75cl bottles of 12 per cent abv Spanish red wine for the equivalent of £5 a bottle. If someone were selling large bottles of 11.5 per cent Arctic Ale at that price, there would be howls, from the Portland Group to the Daily Mail. But it’s OK: wine drinkers are nice people like us, and don’t need to be policed.

Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

It’s a small error, as they go, but it has been around for at least 40 years, and it appears everywhere from Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer to the labels on bottles of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout, so let’s try to stamp it to death: Albert Le Coq was NOT a Belgian.

An advertisement for A Le Coq’s Imperial Extra Double Stout published in Estonia in the 1920s or 1930s

Le Coq is remembered as a 19th century exporter of Imperial stout from London to St Petersburg, whose firm eventually took over a brewery in what is now Tartu, in Estonia to brew Imperial stout on what was then Russian soil. The brewery is still going, it took back the name A Le Coq in the 1990s, and an Imperial stout bearing its brand has been brewed since 1999, though by Harvey’s of Lewes, in Sussex, not in Estonia. But every reference to the company founder, Albert Le Coq, apart from in the official history of the Tartu brewery – which is almost completely in Estonian – says he was a Belgian. He wasn’t.

In fact the Le Coq family were originally French Huguenots, who had fled to Prussia in the 17th century from religious persecution in their home in Metz, Lorraine, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. They prospered in their new home, operating mostly as merchants, though one, Paul Ludwig (or Louis) Le Coq, (1773-1824), the great-grandson of Jean Le Coq, born in Metz in 1669, rose to be chief of police in Berlin. It looks as if Paul had a brother, Jean Pierre Le Coq (1768-1801), born in Berlin, who was a merchant in Hamburg, and his branch of the family also became wine merchants, owning a winery in Kempten, near Bingen, on the borders of the Prussian Rhineland.

The year before Jean Pierre died he had a son, born in Berlin (although some sources say Bingen), called Jean Louis Albert, who became better known under the German version of his name, Albert Johann Ludwig Le Coq. Plenty of sources going back to at least 1939 claim the family company was founded as A Le Coq & Co in 1807, when Albert was just seven years old: there seems no documentary evidence of this, however. Nor is it clear when, and by whom, the wine business in Kempten was acquired. At any rate Albert was living in Kempten in 1827, when his eldest child, Andreas August, was born there. Continue reading Albert Le Coq is NOT a famous Belgian

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

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?

How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Václav Berka explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green
Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster, explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

I’ve taken part in many beer-related events in the upstairs room at the White Horse in Parsons Green, from tasting porter rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck to making a presentation on my historical beer heroes, but I never thought I would one day be helping to brew a lager there. Even more unlikely, this lager was made with genuine Plzeň well water – and it stood a fair chance of going into large-scale production.

The event was organised by Pilsner Urquell, the invitation came from Mark Dredge, to whom I am extremely grateful for such a fun day, it was called the London Brew-Off, and it involved three teams of beer enthusiasts, each put in charge of a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister brewing kit, handed four kilos of ground Czech malt, pointed to bags containing a selection of other speciality malts and eight or ten different hop varieties, and told to think up a recipe for a pilsner that would be good enough to go on public sale, using those ingredients, and then brew it. Our raw, hopped wort would be cooled, then have proper Pilsner Urquell yeast added, and be taken away for fermenting and lagering and, finally, bottling. On Tuesday July 15, that is, just over six weeks later, all the lagers the teams had made will be test-tasted, and the best one will be put into full-scale production – 30 hectolitres, 5,270 pints by Windsor & Eton Brewery, ready for the White Horse’s Euro Beer Fest in September. Continue reading How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

The stout that dare not speak its name

Sainsbury's Celebration Ale labelHave public perceptions of beer styles become so skunked that it would be a marketing disaster to call a beer by its proper name? On a rare trip to Sainsbury’s I picked up something from the supermarket chain’s current Taste the Difference beer range that it calls “Celebration Ale”, and which announces itself as “A rich, dark winter warmer”. It’s brewed by Black Sheep of Masham, which is a recommendation, for me, and since I couldn’t see McEwan’s Champion Ale on the shelves (a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale) I though it might make a good substitute.

I know I’m not the average supermarket beer shopper – I write a beer blog, for a start. So my expectations might well not be the same as everybody else’s expectations. But when I see a 6 per cent abv beer described as “a rich, dark winter warmer”, I’m expecting something ruby-coloured, fruity, strong and slightly sweet, though, hopefully, with a good bitter kick. Back home, however, when I opened “Celebration ale”, it poured dark brown-to-black, with a firmly chocolate-roast nose.

A look at the back label (printed, as is typical for back labels, in the tiny 4pt type that requires anyone over 45 to find their glasses) shows that this is in fact, as you’ve probably guessed, not an Owd Rodger-style ruddy ale but “a dark, velvety stout”. Indeed, the allergy-alert ingredients listing on the back reveals that “Celebration ale” contains “cow’s milk”. What that must mean is milk-derived (and unfermentable) lactose sugar: and there’s only one style of beer I know that contains lactose. Yes, “Celebration ale” is not just a stout, it’s a milk stout, albeit a milk stout that seems afraid to reveal itself as such.

Why? I can imagine Sainsbury’s corporate lawyers might fear the wrath of the neo-temperance army if they sold a product with the word “milk” in its description that contained alcohol (supermarket promotes beer to milk-drinking children shock! horror!), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Bristol Beer Factory promoting its own Milk Stout, with pictures of milkmaids and cows.

Is it the word “stout” that is the problem, fit today only to be printed in tiny letters on the back label, in case it frightens the shoppers? Is “stout” so completely associated with the Guinness-style product that Sainsbury’s fears that non-Guinness drinkers won’t buy a beer too clearly labelled a stout, and that Guinness drinkers will take the bottle back once they try it and find it’s nothing like the beer they’re used to?

Whichever, it’s a backwards step in beer education if a major UK supermarket feels it cannot describe properly a beer appearing under its imprimature, in apparent fear that the beer-buying public won’t understand accurate terminology. If you’re selling a milk stout, Sainsbury’s, call it a milk stout, not “Celebration ale” or “dark winter warmer”. THEN we can celebrate.

Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Why there’s no such beer as ‘English brown ale’

The man who invented brown ale …

The ability to deny the evidence of your senses is widespread. There’s the dictator insisting to television interviewers that his people love him, while across the country those long-oppressed people are taking up arms and waving the flag of liberation. And on a much less serious plane, there are people who will insist two beers that look totally different, taste totally different and are produced in totally different ways are variations of the same type.

It’s like setting up a category “horse” and insisting the seahorse and the clothes horse are its sub-categories. That’s slightly more ridiculous than insisting that Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale are sub-types of something called “English Brown Ale”. But it involves an identical confusion between “name” and “category”.

I don’t actually have any problems with the idea of “beer styles”. Labels can be very useful. But only if they’re meaningful. When I read that someone is going to be brewing “an English Brown Ale”, I have no idea what sort of beer they are intending to produce.

Look, here’s Newcastle Brown Ale, the urtyp “northern brown ale”, so-called. It’s “brown” only in the sense that if I had a pair of shoes that colour I would probably call them “brown”, if I didn’t call them “tan”. The beer is made – or was made, the method has changed, certainly since production was moved from Tyneside to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire – by mixing a low-gravity beer brewed at about 1030 OG (and sold separately for many years as Newcastle Amber Ale) with a matured, darker (from crystal malt and caramel) high-gravity beer to produce a blend with an abv of 4.7 per cent. The high-gravity beer gives fruity notes to the blend, and a final colour that is much the same as or only a little darker than many traditional English bitters, and certainly paler than, for example, Young’s Winter Warmer (which is a Burton Ale). The sweeter, maltier characteristics are more forward than you’d find in a bitter/pale ale, and there’s less of the hop apparent than would be found even in a Burton: bitterness, I believe is 24 IBU.

Then there’s Mann’s Brown Ale, the urtyp so-called “southern brown ale”. Brown? It’s almost black. That colour comes from roasted malt, and as you’d expect this is a beer with distinct chocolatey, roasty flavours (though less than you’d find in a stout or porter). It also has considerable sweetness (another one of the differences between this style of brown ale and stout – and Newcastle Brown Ale) and almost no hop character (brewers would use Mid-Kents and other non-premium hops for brown ales, and old hops as well, where the aromatic qualities had vanished but the preservative ones remained). Apart from the name also containing the words “brown ale”, Mann’s is utterly different from Newcastle Brown Ale. How can anyone with their brain not in “standby” mode think it works at all to ram these two very dissimilar beers under a single category called “English brown ale”?

Continue reading Why there’s no such beer as ‘English brown ale’