A couple of years back, in the summer of 2018, I was in an argument involving assorted brewers, beer retailers and beer writers over the relative merits of an imperial stout versus a German Hell. This is, of course, like choosing which is better between apples and potatoes, or judging the attractiveness of golf versus darts: a nonsensical exercise. Except that it was the finals of the International Beer Challenge, the last two beers standing were an imperial stout and a German Hell, and one of them had to be chosen as supreme champion.
The stout party insisted that their favourite was a totally cracking example of the style – which, it’s true, it was – and no other beer on the day came near it for in-your-face slapocity. The Hell-bent, of which crew I was one, countered by saying that a good imperial stout was a relatively easy task, but a perfect Hell, the everyday lager of south Germany, was a technical challenge very, very few brewers could master, the beer in front of us was a perfect Hell, faultless, refreshing, the sort of beer you could happily drink all day without becoming bored, and for those reasons, not least the difficulty in making a beer to the high standards that particular Hell had climbed to, it was a more deserving winner of the “overall best” title than the stout was.
I’m pleased to say that the Hellers won, and the ABK brewery,
from the small South Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren walked off with the palm: a
triumph for everyday drinking over the extremophiles. Nothing wrong with
extremophilia: but palate-blasting is, in my opinion, far from the heart of
A year later, and entirely co-incidentally, I received an
invitation to visit the ABK brewery, meet its brewmaster, the unforgettably
named Bernd Trick, and enjoy plenty of Swabian hospitality, much of it liquid. Despite
travelling to Germany several times, I had never been inside a German brewery,
so this was far too good to turn down.
ABK stands for Aktien Brauerei Kaufbeuren, literally “Kaufbeuren stock (or shares) brewery”, though you won’t find many of its shares available today. The business claims to date back to at least 1308, when a Kaufbeuren citizen called “Heinrich der Twinger” (I’m guessing this is “Zwinger” in Standard German, which would make him “Henry the kennelman”) left his “Sedelhaus” (Sudhaus in modern German, the room where wort is prepared) to the local hospital (which, as the Hospitalstiftung zum Heiligen Geist, the Holy Ghost Hospital Foundation, is also still going today). That would make ABK the ninth oldest brewery in Germany. Over the next 700 years it changed hands several times, acquiring Kaufbeuren’s other breweries along the way, until by 2006 it was owned by a pair of brothers called Hans-Theodor and Peter Ralf Stritzl.
In 2013 the Stritzls sold ABK to an Anglo-American conglomerate called ROK Group, now ROKiT. The principals behind ROKiT are John Paul DeJoria, a 75-year-old Californian who made his money as co-founder of the Paul Mitchell hair products company in 1980, adding to it Patrón Tequila, one of the first “premium” tequila brands, which was bought out by Bacardi for a not unpleasant $5.1 billion in 2018; and the Shropshire-born Jonathan Kendrick, who built up his own multiple millions by helping to launch Yokohama Tyres in Europe. ROKiT now has its fingers in pies just as diverse as tyres and tequila, to wit, telecoms, brewing and Formula 1. It has enormous ambitions in both: ROKiT has signed a deal with the Indian government that could see it sell 300 million handsets, while its plans for ABK see beer production rise from the current 90,000 hectolitres or so to three million hectolitres within the next five years. To help publicise both those efforts, ROKiT is the current main sponsor of the Williams F1 racing team, which is officially named ROKiT Williams Racing.
Over lunch in the sun outside the Goldener Hirsch hotel in Kaufbeuren, ROKiT’s marketing director, Bruce Renny, told me: “German beer is basically undervalued. We asked ourselves, ‘Why?’, and the answer is that every town has its brewery. They’re very regional, and yes, the local people are passionate about their beer, and it’s ‘much better than the beer in the town down the road’. That’s how the Germans are. So we thought that we need to find a brewery that we can partner with in some way that wants to see its beer sold more than 20 miles from the brewery gates. By happenstance we came across ABK.”
ROKiT wants to make the award-winning ABK Hell bier, 5 per cent abv, known in the town as “das Blau” because the bottle labels have always been blue, its route into the global beer market. “We’re ecstatic that we won the supreme champion title at the IBC last year with this beer,” Renny said. “We intend building the ABK brand – that’s why we’re here – and we have the heritage, in spades – 710 years of it – we have the authenticity of the area.
“But at the moment we can’t even supply Germany from here. Just to put it in scale, this year the brewery here will brew about 80 to 90,000 hectolitres of beer, and 60,000 hectolitres of soft drinks for the Kaufbeuren area. Just one of the big Munich breweries alone will be doing about 6 million hectolitres a year, and they’re about 100 kilometres away. So in order to compete on scale, we don’t have the capacity right here.
“We intend to go from 90,000 hectolitres to a million,
and to three million, within the next five years. Our key markets will remain
Germany, and in no particular order, the US, China, Britain, Spain. The economics
of it are that the transportation from Kaufbeuren to Rotterdam is a cost that Heineken
doesn’t have, because they’re there. So we’re competing against globally
well-known brands with a completely unknown brand, and we’re competing
adversely on cost of production. Where we can compete is on heritage and
“There’s room to expand here – the airfield is right opposite, that was an airforce base, and is now closed. That’s one option: to build a purpose-built modern brewing facility there.” But there will be no compromise: “The core values have to be rigorously protected, so everything will be literally Reinheitsgebot, right down to the type of hops that are used, so if we need to airfreight hops about, we’ll do so. There’ll be no scrimping. What must be achieved is that the Hell beer you drink in Beijing or in Boston or in Birmingham tastes exactly the same as right here in Kaufbeuren. There can be no compromise on that.”
Germany “will remain the biggest market for the next two or
three years. The next biggest target has got to be the US, particularly the hot
states. America’s so enormous anyway, there’s no point targeting Utah. We
target California, Texas, Florida, and that alone will occupy a million
hectolitres, just those three states.
“With the rise of the craft beer market in the States,
people now want beer to taste of something. That’s fine, you can create some
wacky recipe for beer and call it an aggressive hipster name, but you can’t buy
the heritage that we have, you can’t buy the story. That just exists, in an
almost unique fashion.”
Sales are taking off, Renny says: “Until we bought this
brewery, it’s fair to say that the beer had never been sold more than 20 miles
from the brewery gates, in 710 years. We’re now exporting a container a week
into Britain alone, we have hired two people to deal with exports to the UK,
one for Spain and one for Italy. Ideally in the UK we’re targeting small
chains, because they appreciate the brand. That will grow, and it’s growing
extremely fast.” The company sponsored the London Oktoberfest as the
exclusive beer, and “we intend to use that as a catalyst to get into the
At the brewery, of course, they are very happy to be under the control of a company with ambitions. “When we acquired the brewery in 2013, in the months coming up to that we were flying in and out, talking to people, and this didn’t go unnoticed by the employees and the town as a whole, that these Auslanders – everybody knew the brewery was struggling a little bit, and they feared the worst,” Renny says. “Jonathan, on the day we acquired the brewery, firstly, before the media, he gathered the local press, every worker together, and he gave them a speech where he said, ‘Firstly, all the jobs here are safe. We will never tell you how to make beer’ – they were massively reassured with that. ‘Secondly, in five years’ time your beer will be sold in Boston, Birmingham and Beijing, under the ABK brand.’ The Germans, being highly conservative and slightly suspicious perhaps, basically shrugged, and said, ‘Well, we’ll wait and see.’ Here we are five years later, and they’re ecstatic.”
You’ll perhaps think any opinion I have on ABK and its beers is irretrievably skunked, with me having taken the company’s shilling by accepting an invite to drink at their expense. But I didn’t know who they were in 2018 when I was one of the judges campaigning for its Hell to get the “best in show” crown. If you see the “Blue” on sale, try it, I’d be very surprised if you don’t like it a lot. I certainly hope it does at least half as well as ROKiT wants, because if it does that will be an indicator that the beer market really is more interested in taste over hype now.
There ARE smaller breweries that Poppyland, but not very many: the room that the 2½-barrel brewkit sits in measures about 160 square feet. Your living room is probably larger. So the “brewery tour” consists of standing in a corner and pivoting on one heel through 180 degrees. That’s it: you have now done the Poppyland experience. Maybe we should copyright it …
Poppyland, in West Street, Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast, named for the nickname given to the area around Cromer in the late 19th century, was founded by Martin Warren in 2011, and built a reputation for well-made and eclectic beers: Poppyland was probably the first brewery in the UK to brew with kveik, Norwegian farmhouse yeast, for example, and its smoked porter with smoked hops, smoked in the local fish smokery in Cromer has been very popular, while Roger Protz featured its East Beach IPA in his book IPA: A Legend in Our Time.
Martin has now decided to retire, and the brewery was bought by my brother Dave at the start of this year. It’s a small enough operation to really not need more than one man and his missus (the lovely Mandy) to run, but I have a small role as part-time adviser and consultant, probably much in the style of Harry Enfield’s Mr Only Me (“You don’t want to do it like that!”). I look forward to saying to Michael Turner some time soon: “Hello, Michael, I’m a family brewer, and you’re not …”
The brewery is in premises that were once a small garage operation, and the sign outside on the fascia that says “ALES GAS ’N LAGER” is an anagram of “ALLEN’S GARAGE”. Next to the room where the brewing takes place is another room where beer, currently, is stored, which has a tiny (really tiny) bar. The plan is to move most of the beer storage elsewhere and stick in a couple of armchairs and a pair of stools, so that a maximum of four people can be accommodated for beer tastings and the like. Unfotunately there are no lavatorial facilities on site, which limits the amount of hospitality that can be put on somewhat: I doubt the White Horse just up the road will be excited by people popping in from the brewery to use their loos …
Brewing has been slow to restart, not least because of the bureaucracy that has to be gone through. This includes, but is not limited to
● Signing up to the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme (this may involve a 45-day wait …)
● Obtaining a certificate of recognition to be a producer and holder of beer
● Obtaining a premises licence
● Obtaining a personal licence (this involves a police check, and passing an exam …)
● Obtaining permission to discharge waste
● Obtaining a licence to be a holder of acid
At the same time my brother has been undergoing a swift education in how to brew, courtesy of, among others Norfolk Brewhouse in Hindringham some 16 miles to the west of Comer.
So: hopefully, Poppyland should be ready to roll under its new owner within days. The first brew under the new management, my brother tells me, will be called Coddiwomple, which, he says, is an old English word meaning “to travel purposefully towards an as-yet-unknown destination”. I hae ma doots about that, but the motto of Poppyland since Martin Warren started it eight years ago has always been “adventures in beer start here”, and that’s certainly true. I’ll be keeping you up to date with our adventures, as we travel towards that as-yet-unknown destination …
So there I was at the Barcelona Beer Festival talking to Jason Wolford, a native of Portland, Oregon, about the quantity of chamomile that goes into the chamomile pale ale made at his 8-Bit Brewing in Helsinki, using kit supplied by Oban Brewing of Fort William in Scotland, and thinking: “This is what craft beer is all about.” Except it’s not, of course: it’s also about sitting at a tiny bar in a farmhouse in the small village of Mediona, in rural Catalonia, drinking a hand-pumped cask ale brewed just yards away by a dreadlocked 50-something Catalan called Carlos Rodriguez that, with its straw colour and bitterness, would not be out of place in Strangeways, Manchester. It’s about eating cod ceviche accompanied by a beer brewed with plankton, specially to match the food. It’s about bumping into three separate people I wasn’t expecting to see in the bar at Edge Brewing in Barcelona – a Polish brewer who I had met in Wroclaw four years ago, a young woman from Mallorca I had met on a beer judging course in London, and the English beer writer Melissa Cole, in town to present a session at the festival on beer and food matching. It’s about chuckling at the sight of the pinewood-clad brewing vessels at the Vic Brewery in the Catalan town of the same name, because I last saw them in West London, where they were being used by Twickenham Fine Ales. And it’s about eating delicious goats’ cheese in the bright but chilly open air while drinking equally excellent beer made with the hops grown just to our left and barley from the fields a few hundred yards away below us, malted in the shed behind us, on the farm that is part of the Lo Vilot set-up in Lleida. Plus, of course, much more.
If beer tourism is a growing business – and the conversation I had with the young woman from Mallorca, who is looking to do a PhD in that exact subject, confirms it is indeed – then even so, Catalonia is probably not yet on most beer tourists’ “must see” list. The Catalan Tourist Board would like very much for that to change, unsurprisingly, which is why they paid for me and nine other beer writers to fly to Barcelona and be whizzed around the countryside in a wifi-equipped minibus on a no-time-to-catch-your-breath tour that took in 10 mostly very different craft breweries, 12 eat-till-your-eyes-glaze-over meals, countless beers (because I lost count – over 120, probably) – and a couple of wineries as well, because Catalonia is also the main production area for Cava, and home to 10 or so wine-producing areas in total (I was not a Cava lover before, but aged Cava, 15 years or more on its lees, I can now say, is very, very fine.) Oh, and a sausage factory. Because sausages. Come on, do you actually need to be given a reason for visiting a sausage factory (llonganissa, to be technical, like chorizo but flavoured with black pepper, not paprika) and marvel at several slatted floors of meaty, porky moreishness, slowly losing half its weight to the atmosphere, and gaining an attractive snow-white mould over its rind, as it hangs up to dry? And eating some while you’re there, since it would be terribly wrong to refuse.
There is a theory (which I thought up while in Catalonia) that as the craft beer revolution spreads around the world, and people in different countries realise there is more to be drunk than “industrial” lager, those places that react quickest and with most enthusiasm – and skill – to the opportunities for making different, interesting beers are the ones with an existing tradition of “foodiness”, of discriminating palates, dedication to fine eating, to artisanal food production. In the 16 years that the “World’s Best Restaurants” competition has been running, Catalan eateries have won the title seven times, been runners-up seven times, and come third on the remaining two occasions (the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, in the far north of Catalonia, and El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona). Nowhere else comes close to that record. It would be fair to suppose, therefore that Catalans have an excellent appreciation of the gastronomic arts.
All the same, the local craft beer scene has had a long, slow take-off since the Barcelona Brewing Company, the city’s first microbrewery, was opened in 1993 by a wild-bearded expat Liverpudlian, Steve Huxley. It closed after only a couple of years, but the brewing courses Huxley ran inspired a swath of Catalans to become home-brewers and then, in the first years of the new century, to start moving into commercial brewing. Huxley died of cancer in 2015 (his influence is commemorated though his face being on every token at the Barcelona beer festival), but the slow revolution he had helped start was now becoming unstoppable: by 2009 there were 10 or so new small breweries in Catalonia, in just four years numbers passed 40, and by 2016 a survey found more than 100, making in total more than three million litres of beer a year. However, that represented barely 1 per cent of total Catalan beer consumption: Catalans drank just under 37 litres of beer per head that year, but only 40cl of that was locally produced craft – one glass, all year.
Still, from small beginnings … every Catalan optimist will agree that there is clearly plenty of opportunity for the craft beer glasses to be full more and more frequently. And if the standards generally match those of the breweries we were taken to, all run by dedicated, enthusiastic people, Catalonia can expect craft beer consumption to rise at least steadily, if not rapidly. The problem will be convincing people in Catalonia who only know of industrial brewing, and who regard beer as merely a refresher to help the tapas go down and the conversation flow, that there are beers worth trying for their own sakes.
Unsurprisingly, since the US has been leading the growth in craft beer for the past two decades, the American influence on Catalan brewing is strong to the point of getting close to too much: imperial stouts and NEIPAs are nearly ubiquitous, and former Bourbon barrels, now filled with ageing beer, could be seen stacked in almost every brewhouse we visited. I love a good imperial stout, but they’re almost too easy: push the strength, roastiness, hops and sweetness all up to 11, and you’ll have something that will be cheered by practically anybody, craft beer noob or not. Around a quarter of the current “Top 100 Beers in the World” on RateBeer are imperial stouts, suggesting that making a popular super-strong black beer is not very difficult. (Making a great imperial stout IS difficult, however, and even then will not get you automatic recognition: just look at how comparatively poorly Harvey’s Imperial Double Extra Stout is rated.) But I suppose that if you’re trying to get your local drinking public to become craft beer aware, it’s easier to entice them into the tent with something not too difficult to understand. And imperial stouts do match very well with crema catalana, the local version of crème brûlée …
However, our quick zoom from the plains of Taragona to the foothills of the Pyrenees suggested there are plenty of Catalan brewers attempting to forge a truly local indigenous brewing culture, using locally grown produce – hops, barley, other grains, fruits, even grape must, to make “grape ales” – and locally found wild yeasts, and using resources such as barrels previously containing local wine, sherry, local spirits and the like. It’s also clear, from the amount of shiny kit we saw, that a great deal of money has been pumped into the Catalan craft beer scene in the past three or four years.
Barcelona now has enough top-rate craft beer bars to be easily worth a long weekend at the least: our own shoot round four or five venues was less a pub crawl than a pub gallop, but I would be very happy to go back and spend much more time (and my own money) in Garage, a long, thin city-centre bar with its own brewery right at the back, which produces a hazy IPA in cans called Soup, or BierCab, another long, thin bar with a fine beer range and an attractive-looking menu, or Naparbar, a mixture of ‘industrial’ and old-style, with 200 beers in stock and an emphasis on lambic and stout.
You’ll have to wait a year now for the next one, of course, but the Barcelona Beer Festival is definitely one of Europe’s best, with a strong selection this year of almost 500 beers (not all on at once) made by more than 275 breweries, from Moscow to California, an excellent gimmick in “guest festival” stalls, this year featuring the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Big Craft Day from Russia, Bières et Saveurs from Quebec and Craft Beer Perkelei! from Finland, and a series of talks and presentations ranging from meet-the-brewer sessions to beer-and-music matching to demonstrations of beer cocktails. If you can’t wait, Carlos Rodriguez organises a beer festival every year in his home village called Mostra de Cervesa Artesana de Mediona which will be on its 13th iteration this June, and which looks to be a cracker.
Seven craft beer breweries in Lleida, the westernmost of Catalonia’s four “provinces”, have put together the “Lleida artisinal beer route”, with a passport scheme that, when stamped by all seven, entitles the passport holder to “a special gift from the Association of Artisan Brewers of Lleida” – nature of gift unspecified. Unfortunately, the website is entirely in Catalan, and entirely unhelpful about the best route to take to get round all the breweries, and all the promotional material appears to be only in Catalan as well. Nor does it look as if anyone has updated the website since 2016. The Facebook page shows some more recent activity, but this looks like an excellent idea that is failing through lack of dedicated effort.
I never put my hand in my pocket the whole trip, so you may decide to regard me as an unreliable traveller for accepting a massive freebie. I don’t believe being given something free compromises you from telling others about it, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t be able to give some deserving people some publicity, or let you know some of the interesting stuff that’s happening in a part of the world you might not associate with advances in great beer. If you like beer tourism, Catalonia should definitely be on your “check it out” list. If you’re going to Catalonia on holiday anyway, don’t miss out on the beer scene. As yet, to my knowledge, no one has written a guidebook to the craft beer bars of Catalonia, but if you contact any of the brewers I’ve mentioned here I’m sure they will make recommendations in their local areas.
Many thanks indeed to Ariadna Ribas and Elisabet Pagès of the Catalan Tourist Board for all their considerable hard work in organising this trip, and look after everybody so well, it was a great experience, and grateful thanks to all the brewers, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers for their hospitality and generosity – may you all continue to thrive and prosper.
Sitting 30 feet below the surface at a table in a workmen’s refuge dug out of the soft Bohemian sandstone, drinking unfiltered, unpasteurised lager made in 80-year-old open wooden fermenting vessels and poured from big copper jugs, I reflected on how long it had taken me to make this journey. Being a beer writer who has never visited the Czech Republic is highly embarrassing, like being an art historian who has never seen Florence. But every attempt I had made to get to the birthplace of pale lager, in more years of trying than I want to recall, had gone wrong: until now. Another tick on the bucket list, at last.
Two ticks, actually: one for finally getting to the Pilsner Urquell brewery, and its fabled caves, and another for finally drinking at U Fleků, Prague’s almost legendary home-brew pub, eulogised by Michael Jackson 40 years ago in the first edition of the World Guide to Beer and somewhere I had wanted to drink ever since I read about it. The gods of beer guided my hand: it turned out the hotel I had booked in Prague, based solely on a balance of cheapness and closeness to the city centre, was just two minutes from U Fleků (which looks to translate as “The Spot” – as in “hits”, perhaps …).
Reviews I had read years ago suggested the locals at U Fleků did not appreciate all the tourists disturbing their drinking, but on a warm Central European afternoon, parked at one of a dozen big black trestle tables in the pub’s tree-shaded central courtyard sipping a cool glass of Flekovské pivo, the only beer U Fleků makes, a typically fine Czech dark lager, I noticed no such vibe: possibly because the place was still pretty quiet, and tourists were the only customers. But the waiters were attentive, the beer both cheap (compared to West London) and excellent, the snacks first-rate (based on my deep-fried beery cheese) and even the twinkling elderly accordianist over on one side of the courtyard wasn’t too irritating. I need to go back when the place is busier and sample drinking in one of the pub’s big refectory table-filled rooms, all empty of customers when I was there, but it was a good start to my first visit to Prague. Continue reading Czeched out at last→
Whatever you think of Camden Town Brewery’s beer – and enough people like it to swallow more than 300,000 pints of Hells lager, Gentleman’s Wit and the rest every week – the company’s expansion in under seven years from nowhere to third-biggest brewer in London, with two of its beers, more than any other craft brewer, in the list of top 100 pub brands is hard not to hail.
Now it has made the biggest investment in a new brewery in London since Guinness revealed its Park Royal plant in 1936, 81 years ago. On Saturday Camden Town let the public have a first look round its 57,400 square feet production facility in East London which actually started brewing a month ago, and is capable of producing 200,000 hectolitres a year (122,000 barrels in Fahrenheit), more than ten times as much as the original railway arches brewery in Wilkin Street Mews, NW5, opened 2010, and with the potential to rise to 400,000hl a year. Several hundred people covering the spectrum from hipster to sceptical elderly real ale fan (he knows who he is), including families with toddlers in buggies, took advantage of the free tickets, and the offer of bars, food stalls, music, games, beer at £4 a pint and trips round the brewery (with one free beer), and ignored the rain, to travel to Ponders End to see what £30 million of shiny German stainless steel and other assorted high-tech beer-making equipment actually looks like. Continue reading A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery→
New Orleans is one of the few places in the world where walking the streets at all hours consuming alcohol from an open container is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. This is party city USA. Bars shut only when the last customer leaves, and will gladly sell you drink to go – and while that used to be, generally, cocktails such as the take-away daiquiri, or the infamous Hand Grenade (equal parts vodka, rum, gin, melon liqueur and pure grain alcohol, with a dash of pineapple juice, served in a hand grenade-shaped vessel), since a change in the law two years ago, that drink is increasingly likely to be a local craft beer.
I was in Louisiana ostensibly for a music tour: the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and then a trip out to the south-west of the state, where settlers expelled by the British some 260 years ago from Acadie, the French colony on the Atlantic Canadian shore, eventually settled and became known as Cajuns. The plans included an open-air Cajun crawfish boil, with music from masters of Cajun song and dance. But there was enough free time to fit in plenty of beer tourism as well, and multiple places to choose from. Louisiana may have almost the lowest number of breweries per head of any state in the union (only neighbouring Mississippi is worse), but the world brewery boom has not completely passed it by. The state now has 30 craft breweries, three times more than in 2010, and New Orleans is home to nine of them, after losing its only surviving large brewery, Dixie, to the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (The Jax brewery had closed in 1974). What is more, since New Orleans is one of the top eight tourist destinations in the United States, at least a couple of operators have started organising minibus tours taking in several local breweries at once, reckoning that the huge growth in interest in craft beer makes for a potentially lucrative niche alongside the other organised tourist attractions, such as paddlesteamer trips along the Mississippi and visits to spooky cemeteries and antebellum plantations.
You have to be prepared to be flexible here, since beer tourism is still at the toddler stage, and if not enough people book a tour, it will be cancelled at almost the last minute, which is what happened to one trip I had organised before I arrived in New Orleans. But I still managed to get to see eight different breweries, or more than a quarter of all that Louisiana offers, AND hear some wonderful music AND eat some fantastic food AND see some amazing, beautiful sights AND get soaked almost to my underpants in one of the drenching hours-long thunderstorms New Orleans is prone to.
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.
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.
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→
Are you a mature but still lively Victorian brewery? Do you worry that younger breweries, with their weird American hop varieties, shiny stainless steel lauter tuns and one-off wacky recipes, are luring your customers away? Is your 150-barrel minimum brewlength too inflexible to make experimental brews on? Worry no more: install your own microbrewery on the premises, and you too can be hitting the bartops with mango-flavoured double IPAs and smoked malt saisons. Comes with clip-on manbun and removable extra-bushy beard for all brewhouse operatives …
That’s unfairly sarcastic: I have no problems at all with big brewers who respond to the craft micro-brewery challenge by bringing in their own tiny set-up: I had great fun playing with the 10-barrel mini-brewery Brains installed at its site in Cardiff. The Brains plant, like those installed at Shepherd Neame in Kent, Hook Norton in Oxfordshire and Adnams in Suffolk, is designed to brew short-run one-off beers for selling in the company’s pubs. The Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, however, has gone for something craftily different: an on-site microbrewery that is solely for experimenting with, making brews that, should they prove to be successful, will then be scaled up for commercial production in the main brewery.
I last visited the Caledonian brewery more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, which was just two years after it had been the subject of a management buy-out to acquire it from Vaux, the Sunderland brewer, which had bought it in 1919. The brewery was founded by George Lorimer and Robert Clark in 1869, and Vaux took it over to supply the North East of England with Scotch Ale, a style of dark, fruity beer then very popular in the region. Edinburgh was once the third biggest brewing city in Britain, after Burton and London, and even in 1958 it has 18 surviving breweries. One upon one they closed: Vaux announced it wanted to shut the Caledonian in 1985. Fortunately for posterity, its then managing director, Dan Kane, an active Camra member, and his head brewer, Russell Sharp, felt there was enough demand for the traditional beer it made for the business to be viable on its own. In a regular irony, the lack of investment by Vaux over the years meant the Caledonian brewery still retained old-style equipment long replaced elsewhere, most notably open direct-fired coppers, which gave the brewery an excellent marketing story.
Despite a couple of fires at the brewery in the 1990s, those coppers are still there (though one is a replica, replacing a vessel lost in the fire of 1998, and they now appear to have suspended lids I don’t remember from before). Brewery manager Craig Steven says the now unique coppers give all the brewery’s beers a distinctive rotundity he always recognises in blind tastings. In 1991 the brewery launched a golden IPA using the name of another old Edinburgh operation, Deuchar’s, which had closed in 1961. That beer’s popularity was cemented with the award of the Champion Beer of Britain title by Camra in 2002, and it remains one of the UK’s best-selling cask ales. Then in 2004 the Caledonian Brewery lost its independence again, being bought by Scottish & Newcastle after S&N closed the old McEwan’s Fountainbridge brewery in Edinburgh. Just four years later the Dutch giant Heineken swooped on S&N, and Caledonian is now the second-smallest brewery (out of 165-plus) in what is currently the world’s third-largest brewing group.
Which is why, presumably, they can afford to fly me up to Edinburgh, stick me in a four-star hotel, take me out for a very fine dinner in one of the Scottish capital’s best eateries, and all so I can see the new “Wee George” microbrewery (named for George Lorimer) and try the first beer to be scaled up and rolled out after trials on Wee George, an American-style IPA called Coast to Coast. There are those beer writers who would turn down being filled full of roast venison at a brewer’s expense in the belief that it would compromise their independence: I like to claim I’m not that cheaply influenced. (That is to say, you CAN influence me, but it will cost you lots …)
Talking of independence, Caledonian’s MD, Andy Maddock, who joined the Scottish brewer in March last year after six years as a senior sales and marketing man at Heineken, says his operation has an “arm’s length” relationship with its Dutch parent, allowing it to be entrepreneurial and to follow its own path as a “modern craft brewer”. There seems to be considerable fondness for the Caledonian brewery at the top in Heineken: they like its hands-on old fashionedness, and Michel de Carvalho, husband of Charlene Heineken, who inherited the business from her father Freddie in 2002, has apparently said Deuchars is his favourite beer.
The advantages Caledonian has over most of its rivals, of course, are that as part of a huge conglomerate its financing is cheaper to arrange than a totally independent operator could manage, though it still has to have “all the rigour” in its budgets that any commercial operation has to have; and it can use its Heineken connections to get into other markets. Currently 95 per cent of sales are “domestic”, but in the next four to five years, Maddock says, he wants to see exports increasing, with Deuchars in particular and also Coast to Coast and the brewery’s new “craft lager”, Three Hop, being aimed at Western Europe. He also wants to see Caledonian’s beers making a bigger impact in the off-trade (“We haven’t punched our weight there yet,” Maddock says), and a greater awareness among drinkers that Deuchers is a Caledonian beer: it appears many Deuchars drinkers don’t actually know who makes it.
On the other hand, they know why they drink it, or at least Caledonian does: “drinkability”, that mysterious characteristic no brewer knows for certain how to achieve, but which is vital for a beer to win a substantial slice of the market. Strangely, Caledonian is one of the few breweries I’ve visited where “drinkability” has been emphatically placed in the heart of the business strategy. Maddock says that the future of Caledonian will be based on a “modern” range, with beers such as Coast to Coast, that emphasises “distinctiveness and accessibility”, and a “traditional” range, led by Deuchars, where “drinkability is really important”. The idea, clearly, is that if you fancy trying one of those new craft beers, you can be reassured by the Caledonian name that it won’t be a frightening experience you’ll never want to repeat; and if you’re looking for something comfortable and more familiar, Caledonian has that for you as well. “Comfortable and familiar” are, frankly, far too under-rated among beer raters: most people most of the time don’t want to be challenged by their beer. Indeed, probably, most people don’t want to be challenged by their beer any of the time. “Predictable but not boring” is a great position for your brand to take, if you can capture it. “Predictable” also has to mean “predictably good”, of course, and part of that means making sure your raw materials are top quality: Caledonian has insisted for a long time on using what it says is the best malting barley in the world, from the east coast of Britain, both Southern Scotland and East Anglia, it also only uses whole-leaf hops, and it has now altered the way it buys hops, eschewing the traditional hessian hopsack for vacuum-packing in foil, believing this to keep the hops fresh for longer.
So to Wee George: Caledonian’s answer to the fact that there are now 100 breweries in Scotland, very few of which can match it with the popularity of its “traditional” line-up, but at least some of which offer are going to have widespread appeal – “widespread appeal” being the market sector Andy Maddock and his crew would like to own most of, thank you. It’s a £100,000 collection of hand-assembled stainless-steel kit capable of producing just 400 litres at a time, around a thirtieth of the main brewery’s capacity, but it has its own filler that can be used to put the beer into bottle, cask or keg, and it even has a hopback, just like the “big” brewery. Hopbacks are an old-fashioned item of kit today, replaced almost everywhere by whirlpools, but brewers who have kept them have realised that a hopback can be a terrific tool for adding all sorts of flavour to your hot wort. The new kit went in on June 1, and since then it has been producing one beer a week – the first being a version of Deuchar’s IPA, presumably to see how different the recipe would turn out on the Wee George kit compared to the Big George kit. Scaleablity was a problem at first, but the Caley brewers are getting better, they told me, at working out what tweaks were likely to be needed to translate a brew from Wee George to the main brewery.
The first Wee George beer to make it from experiment to scaled-up bar-top brand, Coast to Coast, was pushed through in eight weeks, which shows that for a 146-year-old, the Caley can be nimble enough when it wants to be: most big breweries barely have a meetings cycle that short, never mind the NPD pipeline. The name comes from the combination of West Coast of American hops – Simcoe, apparently – with East Coast of Britain barley. It’s a perfectly fine craft-beer-with-training-wheels, I suspect there’s an as yet untapped market for such brews among people looking for a beer to have when you’re only popping in for one and you want something with more flavour that usual but not TOO much, and I’d give it a fair chance of doing very well. Though if I were any good at predictions, I’d be much richer than I am.
Many thanks to the Caley crew for taking me north to meet Wee George, and I look forward to tasting future roll-outs.
If you want a single statistic that shows how the craft beer movement has become a world-wide phenomenon, let it be this: there are now seven eight craft breweries on the Mediterranean island of Majorca.
They are part of the spectacular rise in new small breweries which means almost 300 craft breweries across the whole of Spain, 600 in France, 800 in Italy and so on.
Life is a little different on Majorca from, say, Italy, where Italian craft brewers are making much-admired pilsner-style brews: no Mallorcan brewer makes a lager, simply because they could not compete with the Spanish giants, Estrella Damm and Mahou San Miguel, on price, but all seem to make a wheat beer (“blat” in Catalan), which is evidently seen as the entry-level craft beer for locals, and there are pale ales, IPAs, and speciality beers. Most breweries seem to be bottle-only, although Beer Lovers in Alcuida, in the north of the island, kegs some of its pale ale. The quality is very occasionally dodgy, as you would expect from operations with hand-bottling lines, but then, of the last five pints of cask ale I was offered in London, one was cloudy as a wet weekend in Wicklow and another tasted like it had been brewed by Sarsons, so quality is not just a Mallorcan problem.
I managed to find beers from six of the island’s brewers, and generally the Mallorcan craft beers were a vastly better choice than their eurolager opponents. Several were excellent: I particularly liked the brews from the Sullorica brewery, in Sóller, in the west of the island, which makes a very good wheat beer flavoured with local lemon peel, and an equally fine amber ale, Original, which includes rosemary, lemon verbena and orange blossoms, though I was disappointed not to find the beer brewed with bitter olives the brewery was apparently making last year. I also had a first-class sour cherry beer, Cor de Cirera, from the Cas Cerveser brewery in Galilea, about eight miles to the west of Palma, which is aged for a year in French oak barrels that had previously contained red wine from the Bodegas Son Puig in nearby Puigpunyent.
Of course, the vast majority of beer consumed in Majorca is still big-brand eurolager, or, if you’re in somewhere like the fake Irish bars of Cala D’Or, keg Guinness. You can find Mallorcan craft beers in some of the island’s large supermarkets, in specialist shops, in restaurants that like to offer Mallorcan food and in Majorca’s craft beer bars, though I’d advise you to check out the brewers’ websites for advice on where their beers are available bewfore you go hunting. I was lucky and met a Barcelonan beer blogger called Joan Vilar-i-Martí, of the Catalan beer blog Birraire.com, earlier this year in Poland, who sent me details of Mallorcan brewers and bars. I only managed to visit one of the bars he recommended, Lórien in Palma: I normally keep at least the length of three or four bargepoles between me and bars with names taken from Tolkein, but this small, dark, hidden-away place, now 25 years old, is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city: the beers on draught when I was there included examples from Italy, mainland Spain (from Pamplona, an excellent sour wheat beer, though definitely not the “hefeweizen” it claimed to be) and Ireland.
I also visited the Beer Lovers brewery in Alcúida, in the north of Majorca, which was founded in 2012 by Miquel Amorós Crawford and his brother Felipe, sons of a Mallorcan father and a mother who is half Welsh and half English. The brewery is down a narrow street, hard to find even with the help of Google Maps, in the heart of the attractive centre of old Alcúida, in a former barn built of the local honey-coloured limestone, attached to a house that has been owned by the family for 300 years, and it was not until I was ten yards from the front door and smelt the unmistakable aromas of mashing malt that I knew I was close to my target. Originally, the barn, which still has troughs on one wall for animal food, “was where the horse and cart were kept – it was full of stuff, so we emptied it, and added a bit – we couldn’t touch much, because all the old buildings are protected,” Miquel says. “We put in a new floor, but the floor had to be like the old house’s floor, the walls have to be built of the same old stone.”