I cannot lie, my stomach made a little flip when I walked into
the union room at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent on Wednesday. Here it
was: the most iconic fermentation system on the planet. The only example left,
out of – well, dozens, certainly, perhaps even hundreds, of unions in use in
breweries from London to Edinburgh back in the 19th century, though the most
famous sets of unions were in the breweries of Burton.
It is not a cheap method of brewing, and accountancy-led
brewing companies, combined with brewery closures, means that today Marston’s
is the only place where you can still find beer being made in traditional union
sets. Pictures don’t prepare for how big the union room is at Marston’s, packed
from wall to wall with sets of oak fermenting casks, each double row of 12
casks mounted under a long, deep trough, there to catch the excess yeast produced
in the fermentation as it spills out of the swan-neck pipes that rise up from
This being Wednesday, the unions had just been filled with
fermenting beer, which had already spent 48 hours in more conventional
fermenting vessels after the initial pitching of yeast into the wort. The
regime followed since a man called Peter Walker invented the union system in
the 1830s is that after that first fermentation has built up speed, the yeasty
wort is “dropped” out of the initial vessels, leaving behind trub and
other debris, and run into the troughs above the unions, before descending into
the union casks, each one of which hold 162 gallons – four and a half barrels
There, in the dark, the Marston’s union yeast gets into its stride, multiplying furiously as it turns the sugars in the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast loves life in the unions, and it increases so fast it foams up out of the casks and into the troughs in – from some of the unions last Wednesday – a constant creamy pour. The beer the yeast carries with it then runs back into the casks, leaving the yeast behind (to be, eventually, scooped out and turned into Marmite). Fermentation is effectively finished by the Friday, but the beer sits in the unions until the Monday, when it is run off to be packaged in cask, bottle or keg. Despite the expense, Marston’s brewers firmly believe the union system produced a beer with great stability and considerably enhanced flavours, and it is the only method used to make the brewery’s flagship Pedigree pale ale, as it was the main method of brewing in the many other breweries that once filled the town’s air with the beautiful scent of mashing barley, in the glorious past when Burton sent constant trainloads of IPA out around the world
And now, for the first time, Marston’s unions have been used to make an Imperial stout, the latest in the “Horninglow” series of one-off beers, which is why I was up in Burton, to talk to the head brewer, Pat McGinty, about the new beer, and also to have my first ever look at the Marston’s union room (shameful, I know. Call myself a beer writer?)
It’s not totally unknown to use unions to make porters and
stouts, and by coincidence only a few days before my trip to Burton I was
reading an article in a brewers’ trade magazine from 1878 by Charles Howard
Tripp of the Stogumber brewery, near Taunton, in Somerset about brewing porter
in unions. But I’m not aware of anyone making an Imperial stout that way.
Equally unusually, Pat McGinty has made this 7.5 per cent abv beer using
straight-up Burton well-water, rammed as it is with sulphates, which, conventionally,
is seen as terrific for pale beers but not so great for dark ones, where a more
London-like brewing liquor, with lots of calcium carbonate in, is regarded as
optimal. The reason for not altering the water chemistry, Pat says, is to
ensure this stout has a proper “Burton” character, which search for a
Burton character is the reason for brewing the stout in the unions, and fermenting
it with the standard Marston’s union yeast as used in making Pedigree. (The
yeast apparently got on fine with the dark grains and the higher OG of the
stout, though the brewers had to spend twice as long as they normally do, 4½
hours, cleaning the unions used for stout brewing, to ensure no contamination
of the next batch of Pedigree.)
To make up for the possibly unsuitable mineral profile, Pat
has used malted oats in the brew, to help round out the mouthfeel: the other
grains are pale ale malt, roasted barley, chocolate malt (Charles Howard Tripp
was keen on chocolate malt, which had only just been invented in his time, saying:
malt [gives] a capital rich and full flavour to the porter in which it is used”)
and malted wheat, while the hops are Challenger. The beer, which will, I
believe, be exclusive to Waitrose, was only two weeks old when we sampled it, unfiltered
and heavy on the roasty flavours, and it still had to be filtered, partially
carbonated and sent to the bottling plant, where each bottle will be seeded
with the same union yeast the beer was originally fermented with (the union
yeast apparently happily drops to the bottom of the bottle). It will then be
held on to for 14 days before being sent out for sale in stores, though Pat
McGinty suggests keeping the bottles for six to eight months to be “nicely
As well as a look at the union room we were also given the chance
to meet Marston’s last remaining cooper, Mark Newton, who spends most of his
time maintaining and repairing the union casks. That was fascinating, too, and
rather sad: Mark has trained up an apprentice, who now works elsewhere in the
brewery, but he is currently the last man in the town doing a job that once was
carried out by hundreds. Here’s a little photo-essay.
This is a glass of something called Herr Axolotl, from Ale Browar of Poland, bought in a bar in the charming city of Wrocław. It is described as a Berliner Weisse with guava. I struggled very hard to find anything at all about it that might deserve the name “beer”. It looked like cloudy apple juice. It tasted a lot like very sour cloudy apple juice. It certainly didn’t taste as if it had ever been in the same postcode district as a hop. As I went further down the glass, there was something nasty lurking in the background, harshly sharp and unpleasant. I have become Old Man Yells at Cloudy Beer.
Nine days in Poland, on a return visit four years after I first travelled to the country to check out its craft beer scene, involved meeting large numbers of friendly, enthusiastic Polish craft brewers, beer geeks and bar owners and drinking considerable quantities of beer in an expansive range of styles, almost all of it of it well-made, some of it absolutely fascinating, rare and thrilling, and some of it pushing the envelope so hard it rips. I used to think I was on the far-left libertarian wing of the beer world, able to accept pretty much anything brewers came up with. But after walking into several Polish craft beer bars, looking at the menu on the wall, filled with opaque sours, fruit ales, vanilla ice-cream IPAs and the like and wondering if I should ask: “Um – do you have any beer-flavoured beer?”, I realise that I’m not actually as liberal as I thought, and that there is a line which, once crossed, I find myself saying: “You may be a brewer, but that’s not a beer.” Too many brewers, it appears, are chasing novelty at the expense of a decent drink.
Much of the reason for this realisation arriving in Poland rather than, say, Hoxton comes from the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is driven far more, I think, than other countries’ by novelty, which in itself is an artefact of the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is hugely enthusiastic but tiny – still less than one per cent of what is, admittedly, the third biggest beer market in Europe – which itself is down to the cost of craft beer compared to mainstream beer. A 50cl bottle of Tyskie is three or four złoty, when it’s 4.8 złoty to the pound. A bottle of craft beer is four times more expensive. Poland is still not a rich country, and most people can’t afford craft beer. Meanwhile those craft beer drinkers who do exist want something different every time they go up to the bar, which puts pressure on bar owners, who put pressure on brewers, who are aware enough about what goes on in places like the US to use trends such as New England IPA and barrel-ageing and souring and fruit beers to come up with an ever-changing variety of new products flowing from the fermenting vessels.
I was lucky enough to visit Browar Palatum, now three years old, the only proper brewery actually in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million people, where the owner, Łukasz Kojro, told me he makes more than 300 brews every year, each one different, because that’s what the market demands. Almost all of Palatum’s production is draught – the brewery has only a small hand-bottling side – and Łukasz is able to sell all he makes across Poland, even though the market is comparatively so small, and there are now some 250 actual craft breweries open and another 150 “cuckoo” or contract brewers using other people’s kit. Something helping Polish craft brewers is that because of the price problem, there is very little craft beer imported into Poland from outside: it’s too expensive.
But constantly having to think up new beers means that, inevitably, you’re going to get some that aren’t beers at all: at least not beers according to the definition I now find myself formulating after my Polish experience. This is, of course, pretty majorly subjective, and based almost entirely on what I like about beer and why I drink it, but it does have some grounding in measurable facts. A hopped cider, for example, is not, I hope, by anybody’s definition, a beer: nothing wrong with hopped cider, I’ve drunk some and it was good, but no grain, so not a beer. Similarly, just because it contains grain and hops, that doesn’t make it a beer automatically: if you can’t taste either grain or hops in the glass then I am very reluctant to call it a beer. If it tastes mostly of fruit juice, if you’ve put 600kg of mango into the fermenting vessel, as one Polish brewer boasted to me, then what you’ve got is fermented mango, that is, fruit wine, and not beer. If you drink it and enjoy it, fine, but I reserve the right to say: “No thanks, I like drinking beer.”
Let us not, however, give the impression that the Polish craft beer scene is entirely the preserve of the wild and the weird. There are plenty of straight-up, solid brews, from very good pilsners to fine pale ales. I particularly enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Pinta brewery’s Atak Chmielu (Hop Attack), 6.1 per cent abv, 69 IBU which was the first ever commercial “Polish craft beer”, in 2011, and which, when it appeared, blew every Polish beer drinker’s socks off their feet and away over the horizon. It’s now venerable enough to be described as “old-fashioned” after only eight years, but it’s an excellent American pale ale, and a safe call in any bar selling it while you contemplate what weirdness to try next.
Pinta, based way down in the south of Poland, 40 miles south-west of Krakow and 11 miles from the Slovak border, has grown from being a contract brewer to one of the largest independents in Poland and one of the thriving stars of Polish craft beers, along with Stu Mostów (“Hundred Bridges”) and Profesja of Wrocław, both of those only five or so years old, both, like Pinta, producing very well-made beers.
There are newer brewers doing impressive stuff too: Cześć Brat! (which means Hello Brother!, and which, surprise, is run by brothers Grzegorz and Michał Malcherek in the town of Jelcz-Laskowice, 15 miles south-east of Wrocław), for example. You’ll find one or two handpumps tucked over in a corner in many Polish beer bars, and one of the beers I kept finding being served on handpump when I was there was Cześć Brat’s 4 per cent abv tonka bean milk stout, Coś na Wieczór?, which means “Something for the Evening?”. Interesting beer flavouring, tonka beans, they contain a big hit of coumarin, which gives a similar taste and aroma to woodruff, and they’re also quite bitter, which in this case nicely counteracts the sweetness of the milk stout. (Cześć Brat!, as an aside, is another Polish brewer with terrific graphics, produced by a well-known Polish graphic designer: the brothers loved her work and wrote to her saying: “We’re only a small, poor brewer, but what do you charge?”, and she wrote back saying: “I like the idea of working for a brewery, so I’m not going to charge you very much at all.” Don’t ask, don’t get.)
The Hopium brewery, from the village of Nowy Drzewicz, south-west of Warsaw, won my unofficial prize for “best beer name of the Wrocław beer festival”, with Michaił Jakson, a “white Imperial Russian Stout”, not, you’ll conclude, a nod to the late beer writer. The beer was a bit of a Thriller, too: a strong (8.5 per cent abv) pale ale with coffee infused in during maturation, which I wouldn’t have expected to work had I not tasted it and enjoyed it. Hopium gives all its beers “celebrity pun” names, such as Al Apacino, an APA, Danny De Wheato, and Kwasko Da Gama, a fruit sour ale, kwas, pronounced “kvas”, being the Polish for “sour”. Quite a few of the beer names are puns on Polish celebrities unknown across the Oder, which puns obviously don’t travel. At least one, a mango fruit ale called Vincent ManGogh, is based on a mispronunciation I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about (for Americans reading this, it’s Van GOFF, not Van GO).
The beer I was most thrilled to discover, though, was one I had travelled to Poland specifically to find: Jopejskie, a revival of an obscure, strange, fascinating Polish beer style, more than 500 years old, which, bizarrely, was brewed in the North of England under the name Black Beer until 2013. I knew the Polish contract brewer Olimp had a version on sale in 100ml bottles, but as I wandered the Wrocław festival, where the 50-plus stalls are almost all run by the brewers themselves, I spotted that the Świdnica brewery, from the town of the same name some 30 miles south-west of Wrocław, was selling Jopejskie on draught – at 35 złoty (£7.30) for 10cl, when other beers were 10 to 13 zloty for 50cl. To save you turning on your calculator, that’s 13 times more expensive, and the equivalent of £41 a pint!
Not that you could possibly drink even half a pint: it was “only” 9 per cent abv, but had started out at a barely believable 50º plato, which if my maths is right is all of 1233 OG, and suggests a FINISHING gravity of around 1164, higher than almost all other strong beers begin at. Olimp is apparently very secretive about how it brews its Jopejskie, but Rafał Harchala of Browar Świdnica was entirely happy to tell me all: he starts with a strong Russian Imperial Stout wort and then boils it for 24 hours (24 hours!), to end up with something closer to tar than wort. This is then pitched with a standard lager yeast – the well-known 34/70, I believe – and left until the lager yeast cells wave the white flag, after which the brew remains in an open vessel for any wild yeasts to have a go if they think they’re hard enough. Finally the beer is kegged: the batch at the festival had been made in October last year, and was thus eight months old..
Even the wildest of wild yeasts eventually give up, however, and what is left is still sweet and treacly – and delicious. I confess to a tingle in my feet when I drank this: liquid history, chewy, powerful, filled with dark, deep flavours, simply fabulous. One of my best beer experiences of the past few years. Later I managed to find the Olimp version on sale in a shop in Krakow (39 złoty per 100ml bottle: I saw it in a bar for 49 złoty), and a very kind Polish-based home brewer, Tomasz Spencer, gave me a bottle of his home-brewed Jopejskie. So that’s three different versions of a beer I never thought I’d see: amazing.
There were some disappointments, and ironically the worst beer I had was in a brewpub in Krakow that claims to brew the finest British-style cask ale. Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the inspiration for a white RIS) held to a philosophy that it wasn’t his job to be unpleasant to people, but to encourage everybody, so perhaps it might be kindest to draw a discreet bartowel over these failings. But frankly, if you’re selling a “cask-conditioned bitter” you call “England’s Glory” to Poles, it really needs not to taste of unfermented wort and lack all condition. I tried the porter, to see if this was just one poor cask, and it was barely better: thin, little condition again, sweetcorn on the nose and something nastily sharp lurking in the background.
But apart from that, I had a terrific time: if you like beer tourism, Poland is now an absolutely must-visit destination. The Wrocław beer festival, outside the football stadium a tram-ride from the city centre, is one of the best in Europe, well-organised, a great selection of dozens of different Polish breweries, and a fine range of Polish street food to mop up the beer. The beer bars, in Krakow and Warsaw in particular, are almost uniformly excellent, and if the selections of beers are almost entirely Polish, well, those beers are good enough, and varied enough, that you won’t miss anything. Among the places I particularly enjoyed were Hoppiness, in the aptly named Chmielna (“Hop Street”) in central Warsaw and Maryensztadt in Warsaw Old Town; and Omerta in Krakow.
Many thanks to the guys at Crookham Travel for organising the travel around Poland and brewery trips in Wrocław and Krakow, and Tony Fox-Griffiths in particular for his impeccably researched guides to bars in those two cities; to Tomasz Kopyra and the crew at Festiwal Dobrego Piwa for the free beer and hotel accommodation in Wrocław (and more brewery trips); and to Tom Spencer for giving up his time to take me on a bar crawl of Warsaw. and organising yet another brewery visit. See you all again soon, I hope.
I wasn’t even mean to be in Brooklyn on the Tuesday. I had originally booked to go round the Brooklyn brewery on the Monday. But after I announced that I was going to be in New York, I was contacted by the American beer journalist and writer John Holl, who asked if I would like to appear on the beer podcast he co-hosts, “Steal This Beer”, which is recorded in a bar in Manhattan on Monday nights (of which more later.) So I switched the trip to Brooklyn to the following day – and on the Tuesday morning an email popped up saying that right after my visit that evening the Brooklyn Brewery was launching a collaboration imperial porter made with the Norwegian brewery EC Dahl’s, in honour of the Norwegian artist Håkon Gullvåg, and would I like to hang around to sample that, and a few other EC Dahl’s beers as well.
Carpe cerevisiam – if chance is going to put an opportunity like that in your path, it’s rude to step aside. Strangely, I had already drunk beers made with EC Dahl’s yeast: the homebrewers of Stjordal, whose brews were among those I sampled last year at the Kornøl festival in Hornindal in Western Norway, get their yeast from the Dahl’s brewery in Trondheim, though they make, and sometimes smoke, their own malt.
I have to own that the Brooklyn Brewery tour is not the best I have been on: it’s a small, cramped, working brewery, about all you get is a quick look at some fermenting vessels and some beer sampling, and most of the beer is produced elsewhere anyway. There’s a good big brewery tap, with a fine range of beers (including “London Black Gose” [sic] from London Fields, which, like EC Dahl’s, is a Brooklyn Brewery/Carlsberg joint venture now) and the brewery shop sells several rare (if expensive) beers, but if it hadn’t been for the EC Dahl’s launch, I might have had a disappointing trip.
That, however, was definitely worth the journey. The collaboration beer, named, simply, Gullvåg, had been matured in casks that had previously been used for Linie aquavit. I’m a big fan of Linie, which is matured by being shipped in ex-sherry casks from Norway to Indonesia and back, the four-month journey, crossing the equator twice, rounding and maturing the spirit, which is made from potatoes and flavoured with, among other herbs and spices, star anise and caraway. It has a flavour that seems to match very well with beer – one of my favourite long summer drinks is a mixture of dark ale, lemonade and a shot of Linie. The Linie influence was definitely noticeable in the Gullvåg imperial porter: liquorish/aniseed underneath the dominant dark roast. If you see it, definitely worth buying.
And then, while I was enjoying the beer, and admiring the paintings on the taproom walls that Håkon Gullvåg had created on old cask ends (you could still, just, make out the names of the distillers on some of the casks), someone cried: “Martyn!” Stap me, it was Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. I didn’t know he knew me from a hole in the floor, but I worked out later that we must have met on one of the Carlsberg trips regular readers of this blog will remember. “Would you like a beer?” he said, and you don’t turn down a man in his own brewery: nor do you have to wait long to get served, whatever the queue, since the brewery chairman can just walk round behind the bar and help himself, while the servers smile benignly.
The only awkward moments were when Steve asked me if I had spoken to Garrett Oliver yet. I’m still not sure Mr O, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, has forgiven me for my attack seven years ago on the Oxford Companion To Beer, which he edited, because of its very many errors. I always tried to make it as clear as I could that I did not blame Garrett, whom I admire greatly as a brewer and a writer and speaker about beer, for the problems with the OCB. He was badly let down by the publishers, left seriously under-resourced, and also let down by a tiny minority of the 140 or so people who wrote entries for the book that were seriously badly researched. So I had deliberately stayed out of his way –and yes, that IS a wide yellow streak up my backbone. Still, we had a reasonably friendly conversation, I think, about how the Kornøl festival is a must-visit event: watch out for Brooklyn Brewery brewing with kveik some time soon …
That was the second embarrassing moment on my first trip to New York (yes, shameful: not sure why I had never got there before). John Holl had asked me to bring along two beers to the podcast, since a regular part of the show is John and his fellow presenter, the New Jersey brewer Augie Carton, blind-tasting beers their guest brings along, using the black glasses of the kind breweries use professionally for tasting sessions, so that colour cannot affect opinion. I decided to bring them over two different views of British best bitter: the very traditional Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and one from my local small brewery, Twickenham Fine Ales’ Naked Ladies, which is a “best bitter” with one or two American hops in it, for a more up-to-date take. Unfortunately it was obvious straight away that the Tim Taylor’s was skunked. Ach. Still, Augie and John are pros, and were able to find plenty to say even about skunked Landlord. And they liked the Naked Ladies a lot, though they were dubious about the name, nor were they convinced by my explanation that the Naked Ladies are a much-loved set of statues in a Twickenham park. (You can listen to the podcast here – episode 187.)
I had asked people for suggestions of bars to visit in New York, but I didn’t get round very many: busy doing other things. Part of the aim for the trip was to look at old newspapers in New York library: while the British Newspaper Library’s holdings can be accessed anywhere, for a lot of early American titles, particularly those before 1776, and even more particularly those from New York before that date, you have to be physically in front of a computer screen in one of the Five Boroughs to get to call them up. Still, it did also give me the opportunity to see the original Winnie the Pooh, who lives with Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Kanga in a glass box in the children’s section in the main New York library building on Fifth Avenue: you have to go to the children’s library to pick up your library card (I have no idea why), so it didn’t look too creepy that an elderly bearded git was hanging around the kids’ books. I had always imagined that Christopher Robin’s toys would be in a big mahogany-and-armoured-glass case in the centre of a huge high-ceilinged room, possibly with a couple of armed guards in black uniforms looking suspiciously at people taking selfies with the Immortal Bear. In fact it’s a comparatively small display, and I’ve seen bigger children’s libraries in provincial English towns than the one in the Schwarzman.
Something called the “New York craft beer festival” was happening my first two nights in the city, so I thought that would be worth checking to try to see what was trending. Sour beers, no surprise; lots of cloudy IPAs, no surprise; wacky fruit goses and similarly wacky saisons (hibiscus?), no surprise; cider, that WAS a surprise; cucumber beers – utterly, utterly vile; double dry-hopping, very much a trend of the moment, for sure, even if every brewer you might speak to has a different take on what double dry-hopping involves (one bar I did get to was the Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street, and every other beer on tap seemed to be “DDH”); and surprise, no “brut” IPAs, which I had been expecting to see, having read that they were a big trend: I didn’t spot one the whole week. I’m ashamed to say that one of the beers I enjoyed most was Sweet Baby Java, an “espresso bean infused chocolate peanut butter porter” from DuClaw Brewing in Maryland, a coffee’d-up version of the same brewery’s Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter porter. Normally I don’t like “dessert” beers, particularly – PARTICULARLY – with peanut butter, but DuClaw seemed to have matched the sickly with a pleasing dryness: a check on the brewery’s website reveals that the hops here are Fuggles and Goldings, which may explain all. However, that was in the usual US beer festival two-ounce glass: even a third of a pint might have had me considering my verdict.
One minor beerfest hiccup: as I presented my ticket on the first night, the very large security dude at the door insists on seeing my ID. While I fished for my UK driver’s licence, I said something about my false bead being the giveaway, to which he responded with the line I’m sure he was taught was the correct response to all surly old gits cutting up about being asked to prove they genuinely were as old as they looked: “I respect my elders, sir.” I really, really wanted to say: “No you clearly don’t, or you and your employers wouldn’t be putting me through the ludicrous nonsense of having to prove I’m not actually a terribly haggard 20-year-old.” But as Paul Simon sings, “the man was large, a well-dressed six-foot-eight,” and I needed that wristband …
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.
Kveik: a word we’re likely to be seeing a lot more of in the beer world. But what is kveik? Here are a couple of things it’s not:
Kveik is NOT a beer style. It’s the name given in parts of Western Norway to yeast used in the local tradition of farm brewing, it looks to be derived from an Old Norse word meaning “kindling”, as if the kveik kindled the fire in the brew, and it is apparently related to the English word “quick” in the sense of “alive”. In particular, kveik is NOT the Norwegian equivalent of Saison. Kveik is just one of half a dozen or so terms for “yeast” used in Norway, the others including barm (also found in Britain, of course), gjaer, gjest (from the same root as “yeast”) and gong, with kveik limited to the south-west of the country, but competing, even there, with the latter three words, which all had wider distribution.
Some similarities can be found in the brews made across the area where the term “kveik” is used: north of the Jostedal glacier they will generally be “raw” ales, that is, made without boiling the wort, and hop usage will be light to non-existent: generally restricted to leaving a bag of hops in the stream of wort running from the mash vessel. All will be made with water that has been boiled with branches of juniper in the pot, which gives a sharp, lemony/citric flavour to the ale, as well as helping to preserve against bacterial infection.
Kveik is NOT a particular strain of yeast, and saying “kveik yeast” is a bit tautological, although the term looks to cover a distinct family of yeasts. However, within that family are dozens, perhaps hundreds of different individual strains, and any one person’s kveik can contain between two and ten different individual strains. This use of multiple yeast strains appears to be important.
Some kveik are bottom-fermenting, some top-fermenting, and some intermediate, depending, basically, on where the brewer collected the yeast from at the end of fermentation. According to Lars Marius Garshol, who literally wrote the book on Norwegian farmhouse brewing, “in some areas, such as Sunnmøre and Nordfjord, there was a tradition that yeasts should be mixed every five years or so, and kveiks from those places show a much greater variety of yeast strains.”
Richard Preiss, co-founder of Escarpment Laboratories, based in Guelph, Ontario, whose company has done perhaps the most research into kveik of any on the planet, has suggested that these different strains need each other, that one makes a vitamin that the other ones need, and vice versa. According to Garshol, Preiss “always seems to get slower fermentations with single-strain yeasts from kveik cultures than [we see from others] with the mixed cultures. So they can survive without each other, but fermentation goes faster and easier with the help of the others. But doing an experiment to prove or disprove that in a way that’s reproducible by others is very difficult.”
That is not the most interesting fact about kveik, however. The aspect of kveik brewing that is most likely to ensure its adoption outside Norway is the range of flavours it is possible to get from the yeast, fruity and deep, which chime with the search for more flavour that seems to power much of the innovation in craft brewing right now. But there are other wonders: the high temperature tolerance exhibited by kveik strains, for example, many of which are happy fermenting at up to 40ºC.
Preiss, a tall, bearded and friendly Canadian, speaking at the Norsk Kornøl Festival in Hornindal, Western Norway, last month, revealed that his company had tested 25 different strains from samples of kveik supplied by Garshol, “and all of the ones we tested grew at 40ºC, while two thirds of them were tolerant to 42ºC, which isn’t normal in the larger world of beer: most people are fermenting at 20. This is remarkable. There are prominent yeast scientists that have engineered yeasts to work at 42ºC, and here’s a whole bunch of natural ones from Norway that do it too.
“This means that a home brewer who doesn’t have a lot of equipment, they don’t have a fridge to control the temperature, if it‘s 30ºC in a small city apartment they can still make a clean beer in the summer, and that‘s a little bit revolutionary, because that wasn’t really possible without these yeasts.” There are also, Preiss says, “some real opportunities for using these yeasts elsewhere, such as the ability to make good flavours, good beer at high temperatures. It means that a craft brewery in a tropical climate can maybe reduce their cooling costs and make their beer more energy-efficient.”
How did kveik yeasts evolve to be happy at such high temperatures? Garshol suggests it was due to the pressures the farm brewers were under, which influenced the yeasts they chose to preserve for brewing the next batch of ale: “The fermentation temperatures are crazy. But when you look at the old sources, they say ‘milk-warmÆ pretty much everywhere, in other words around 37ºC. Why is this? Obviously brewers want to add the yeast as quickly as they can. But as the wort cools, it cools more and more slowly. And with old-fashioned cooling methods and 150 litres of wort, that was slow. So there are lots of accounts of brewers having to stay awake until the middle of the night before they can add the yeast. And of course, the longer you wait, the greater the chance that some lactic acid bacteria gets in there. So you really want to ferment warm – the warmer you could ferment, the better.” Those yeasts that survived being thrown into wort at 40ºC to go on and ferment a successful, tasty beer would be the ones that get preserved for use in the future.
The same is true of kveik’s ability to dry out and still come back and thrive when rehydrated. Preiss says that when Escarpment received its initial samples of kveik, “the first thing we found out, and we found it out very quickly, is that this is not normal yeast. We got the dried sample in and rehydrated it, and the cells were looking healthy and plump within five minutes. We put some into some wort, went for lunch and came back 40 minutes later, and it was fermenting. That’s not normal for beer yeast. That was the first sign that this was probably something special.
“We did some fermentation trials of 25 kveik yeasts in comparison with standard Californian ale yeast, WLP001, the commonest yeast in homebrewing, and found they were pretty fast fermenters. Measuring the CO2 release rate 24 hours into the fermentation, some of the kveik yeasts had fermented twice as fast as the California ale yeast, and the majority, 19 out of 25, were outpacing it. This makes sense with what we saw with just rehydrating the yeast: it starts fermenting very fast. This seems to be a fairly common property with the kveik yeasts, and it is fairly unique, this rapid start to the fermentation. Brewers like that – brewers want to know that the fermentation is working. Some of the strains we tested were pretty much finished fermenting within two or three days.”
Again, the explanation for this comes from the pressures the yeast was put under. Norwegian farmhouse brewers did not, and do not, brew regularly: perhaps only two to four times a year. They needed to preserve their yeasts between brewings, and before refrigeration the only way to do this was by drying. Those yeast strains that survived drying were thus selected for. Similarly a farm brewer might have very little notice that a new supply of ale was needed: the arrival of unexpected guests, for example. Once more, those yeasts that started up quickly, and finished speedily would be optimally selected for.
Rather harder to explain is the alcohol tolerance of kveik strains. According to Preiss, “in terms of alcohol production from the wort, some were pretty efficient, but there was a big range of attenuation, from 66 per cent to 95 per cent, and in alcohol production, from 4.4 per cent to 6.4 per cent.” However, when Escarpment tested for how much alcohol kveik strains could cope with, “we were pretty stunned. We tested eight kveik yeasts for ethanol tolerance, and they were all growing in up to 12 per cent alcohol, which is not normal: conventional ale yeasts exhibit a spectrum, some that are not very good at surviving in high alcohol and some that do survive. It’s very rare to screen eight strains and find all of them growing like that. We found that even if we went up to 16 per cent alcohol, a third of the kveik strains will still grow, which is pretty remarkable.
“We also looked at the flocculation and we found that two thirds were very flocculent, many very, very flocculent. But even in one kveik sample there might be a huge variability in the flocculence between the different yeasts in the strain. Some are not very flocculent at all, some are dropping crystal clear in ten minutes. It’s again interesting to see that kind of variability in a single yeast community.
“We also tested the flavours they produce, using gas chromatography. We picked up a few pretty consistently with the kveik strains, fatty acid esters such as ethyl caproate, giving pineapple flavours, ethyl caprylate, giving pineapple, waxy and cognac flavours, ethyl decanoate, which is red apple, phenethyl acetate, which is floral and honey. Only two of the strains were phenolic, meaning [the rest] were likely picked at some point by humans because they were not phenol-producing, making for a taste that is very typical of ale yeasts, clean but with some fruitiness as well. The isobutenol, or fusel, levels were only around 50 per cent of US-05 [a common American homebrew yeast]. We also tasted citrus in a lot of the kveiks, we tasted rum and caramel flavours and we tasted almost mushroomy flavours as well. We’re still not sure what all those favour compounds are, and we may very well find that there are some unique ones made by kveik that are not made by other yeasts.”
Another thing Escarpment noticed, Preiss says, is that there seems to be two main groups of kveiks, looking at their genomes, which correspond, for the most part to the geography of the region where kveik is found: one group, including Hornindal, to the north of the Jostedal glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, and the Sognefjord, Norway’s largest and deepest fjord, and the other group, including Voss, to the south of those two important geographical barriers. “It suggests that though they may have had a common ancestor, they evolved separately because of the geographic isolation of the regions they are now mostly found. The glaciers and the fjords in Norway create barriers which made it hard for people to move around in the past. We don’t often see these kind of geographic links in the genetics of yeast cultures.” Garshol points out that the divide also matches a split between brewing processes: to the north, almost entirely raw ales, with the wort unboiled; to the south, most brewers boiling their wort. (For a proper discussion see Garshol’s own blog here)
The unanswered question at the moment is where kveik strains fit on the yeast family tree. A study released in 2016 by the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology and the University of Leuven in Belgium found that all commercial beer yeasts come in two strains, Beer One, which dates from the late 1500s or early 1600s and Beer Two, dating from the 1650s or so. So far Preiss and his team at Escarpment have only been able to make a rough fingerprint of the kveik strains they have, “which is not very high-resolution, but it’s typically accurate and it can give us an indication of the genetic relatedness of different yeasts. So what we found when we took this approach is that the kveik yeast across different samples were more closely related to each other than they were to the other strains of domesticated ale yeasts.
“Because of that, we think that the kveik may form a separate branch on the family tree of beer yeasts. That being said, if we go and look for the most closely related yeasts, it’s a group of strains that includes some Kölsch yeasts and English yeasts, as well as a Lithuanian strain we looked at. So it’s possible that all these yeasts have a common ancestor at some point in history. But we can’t say that confidently yet, without whole-genome sequencing.”
Finding out more with whole-genome sequencing is expensive – $1,000 or $2,000 per strain. “But we think that because of the way the kveik have been maintained, and maintained for much longer, they haven’t been stuck in a lab for 100 years, this may be a new way for us to study yeast domestication without necessarily studying the commercial yeasts,” Preiss says. “We applied for a grant, and I’m happy to say that we did get funding to do the whole-genome sequencing for these kveik strains. We can hopefully have an answer some time in the spring, and hopefully say for sure that the kveik are a separate line on the family tree and have a little bit of a better idea of exactly where and when they broke off from the other beer yeasts. We’re using these Norwegian yeasts to really push brewing science, and yeast science, forward.”
Another question to be answered is: are there other yeasts like these? “Yes, of course, in Lithuania, and Russia and probably in other places,” Preiss says. “That’s a really exciting opportunity, to maybe look at these and start to understand these other yeasts that aren’t industrial and aren’t wild. The term I’ve started to use is ‘landrace yeasts’, which I think works well for an organism that’s been domesticated traditionally, without the involvement of industry, and because of that unique cultural framework, it has become genetically distinct from the other populations of that species. It suggests a third entire category of yeasts that have not really been explored in brewing.”
I was lucky enough to get to see a “Norwegian farm brewer” in action: Stig Seljeset, whose father was a farmer brewer, and who wanted to maintain the tradition. Stig brews at Borghild Tunet in Hornindal, “tunet” being the Norwegian for “farmstead”, home of Idar Nygård, deputy mayor of Hornindal, who has preserved the old farmstead much as it would have looked a century and more ago. The beer Stig brews is a “raw ale”, made without boiling the wort. The first step is to boil up water (which comes from a borehole up in the mountains, and contains lots of dissolved limestone/chalk) and branches of juniper in a large iron pot, perhaps 100 litres or so, suspended over the fire in the old farmstead kitchen (exactly the same way that Frank Clark does in his reproduction 18th century farmhouse kitchen in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia). All the equipment is then scrubbed down and washed out with the hot juniper-water, before Stig uses milk churns to carry hot juniper-water to the “mash tun”, a blue 200-litre food-grade plastic tub set up in the garage across the farmstead yard.
The malt – on this occasion Munton’s pale lager malt from Suffolk, though Stig is happy to use whatever malt he can get hold of – is added, and mashing takes place at 68-70ºC. Once sufficient time has passed for conversion of starches to sugar, the grain is transferred by buckets into the “lauter tun” – another blue plastic tub, this one with a tap set in the bottom. Beforehand, Stig has set a wooden “filter” in the tun, above the tap hole, augmenting this with leafy twigs of juniper. The wort left in the “mash ” is then poured into the “lauter tun”, and allowed to strain through into milk churns, while more hot juniper-water is poured in to “sparge” the malt. A bag containing loose hops – Challenger this time, though again Stig isn’t fussy, and will use what he can get – is hung in the churn and the hot wort runs over the hops, like a teabag. This is the only contact Stig’s ale has with hops.
Wort cooling takes place by looping a circular length of hosepipe with holes in round the top of the milkchurn and running cold water from the tap through the hosepipe, which trickles down the outside of the churn. Once cooled sufficiently, the wort is carried down to the cellar of the old farmhouse, where it is added to the “fermenting vessel” – one more blue plastic tub. Stig aims for a temperature of 32ºC when he pitches the kveik into the fermenting vessel, but it was a cold day, and his thermometer (the only “technology” Stig uses) showed the wort had dropped to 28ºC, so the last 10 litres of wort were added uncooled to bring everything up. The kveik, a mixture of dried yeast from brewings in 2012 and 2016, is warmed up and brought back to life in a wooden bowl of wort by the kitchen fire, and then added to the fermentation tub and left in the dark cellar to work magic. The final result, in a few days, will be cloudy, slightly lemony and sharp, probably around five per cent alcohol by volume, and delicious.
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.
Beer can take you to some strange and unexpected places. On Sunday I was in the sweaty backstreets of Baishizou, a faintly dodgy suburb in Shenzhen, southern China, visiting a cramped and not necessarily fully legal microbrewery on the ground floor of a somewhat scrubby apartment building. My mission: to help the brewery’s owner, a former US military man called Joe Finkenbinder, and another American brewer, Dave Byrn of the Pasteur Street brewery in Saigon, make the first ever Sino-Vietnamese collaboration beer, a black gose called Disputed Waters.
The trip to Shenzhen, a city that has exploded from almost nothing to 11 million people in only 30 years, happened because I had been invited out to its southern neighbour, Hong Kong, to be an “honorable judge” (that’s what it said on my name tag) in the first ever beer competition solely for commercial Hong Kong brewers. When I was working in Hong Kong in 2011 I helped get the city’s first beer festival some publicity, and the festival organiser, Jonathan So, became a mate. At that time there were just two microbreweries in the city, and one of those closed soon after, so that when I left Hong Kong in 2013 there was only one left.
Since then brewery numbers in the former British possession have taken off like the rockets the Chinese have been making for 800 years: ten by the end of 2015, and then doubling to 20 today. So when Jonathan emailed to ask if I would like to be a judge in the first Hong Kong beer championship, as part of the city’s fifth beer festival, I was straight onto Expedia looking up flight times, delighted to have the opportunity to finally try beer made by all the bastards who had cruelly waited until I left the city and gone back to London – where the new small brewery scene had also boomed in my absence – to start brewing commercially.
Then Joe Finkenbinder, who was also one of the judges, emailed to ask if I would like to cross the border into China, visit his brewing set-up, which is barely two years old itself, and take part in a collaboration brew with Dave Byrn. When you’ve already travelled 6,000 miles, a few extra don’t matter: and anyway, how many lifetimes have I got left to take the rare chance to visit a Chinese microbrewery? Continue reading How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen→
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.