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.
I went along too, and managed to (1) grab a paparazzi-style photograph of Sir John Hegarty, famous advertising guru and father-in-law of Camden Town’s founder, Jasper Cuppaidge, (2) meet three people I knew (nice to see you, Jeff), and (3) nab an interview with Rob Topham, Camden Town’s head brewer. Rob joined the company from Fuller Smith & Turner in 2014, after nine years with the Chiswick brewer, and Jasper Cuppaidge was already planning a bigger brewery than the railway arches in Kentish Town could handle. Progress in finding a suitable site, however, was slower than the company’s growth: “The first iteration was for a 70,000 to 80,000hl brewery,” Rob said. “But each time we couldn’t find the right premises, or we couldn’t get everything sorted, it was going up by 10,000hl, 10,000hl, and we got to the stage where we’d just outgrown all of our own plans.”
Expansion needs money, of course, and Camden Town, despite wealthy backers like Jasper Cuppaidge’s pa-in-law and his pals, still needed financial help from outside. The first step was to appeal to the public, but soon after that came an offer that must have seemed impossible to refuse, even if it brought down wrath and abuse from hard-core craft beer fanatics: an £85 million take-over from the biggest brewing company in the world. “When we had the Hellsraisers [the crowdfunding push in the summer of 2015 that saw Camden Town raise £2.8 million from more than 2,000 investors for 5.4 per cent of the business], that was a fantastic point in time, we had the money to expand, we were making plans based on that,” Rob said. “But when AB InBev came in, they’ve allowed us to do straight away everything that we wanted to get to in five, six, seven years’ time.”
The Belgo-Brazilian overlords don’t interfere, despite paying the bills, Rob said: “We’ve been allowed to be separate from ABI, and to do things the way we want to do them and the way we believe is right.” He admitted that Camden Town looked at some of the kit left over when AB Inbev closed the giant Stag brewery at Mortlake barely weeks before it announced it was buying the North London brewer, but “it was more hassle than it was worth” trying to take it across London and repurpose it for life in Enfield.
The new Ponders End plant has around 25 production workers, Rob said: “We need only 15 to 20 per cent extra people to run this brewery, which is five times the size of Kentish Town. That’s partly because we were running 24/7 down there.” Attempting to keep up with far more demand than the railway arches could cope with has seen Camden Town farm out a huge chunk – 60,000 to 70,000 hectolitres – of its production to a brewery in Belgium. The opening of the new works alongside the Lee Navigation (which once carried 60 per cent of the malt used by London’s brewers) means all the beer sold can now be produced in the capital, and the company is looking for sales at the end of this year of 120,000hl, “possibly close to 130,000,” Rob says. “We’re hot on the tails of Meantime, and we’re hoping to surpass them, we’ll be at looking to hit 150,000hl, possibly 200,000 by the end of 2018.” With the present tank set-up at Ponders End, “we can currently do just over 200,000hl if we go to 24-hour. We’ve got room for another eight 600-hectolitre fermenters and another three 600-hectolitre bright tanks, we will be able to take it up to just around 400,000 hectolitres. But it would take an awful lot of work to do that, and another chunk of investment.”
Meanwhile “we’re going to use Kentish Town as our research and development and innovation centre, and we’ll be able to go back from that being a flat-out production plant – we’ve already started to wind down – to using it for specials, for collaborations, and trials. We’ve got a bunch of ideas, barrel–aged beers, we’ee got some little secret projects that we’re looking at, I won’t say too much. We’ll really be able to capitalise and get ahead of the game by having a second site with a smaller brew size. I was fairly heavily involved with the barrel ageing projects at Fuller’s, we’ve done three releases of barrel-aged beers already, we’ve got the fourth one in barrel at the moment, we change the beer and the barrels each year, and try to match them, and going forward we’ll be able to maximise that, use Kentish Town as the ‘wild’ brewery, if you like, doing the crazy stuff, and keep the Enfield brewery for ‘clean’ experiments. Those wackier yeasts petrify me as a brewer, I want to keep them well away from my mainstream brews!”
Having the original brewery devote itself to the wild and woolly is probably not going to bring back the fanatics who swore they would never touch Camden Town beers again after the AB InBev takeover. But I’d be surprised if Rob, Jasper and the rest of the Camden Town crowd care. They’re appealing to a much broader demographic, which is appreciating craft beer in a totally different way to the lovers of obscurities, one-offs and beers that look as well as taste like mango juice. It was clear that the new brewery was deliberately designed with tours by the public in mind, with “wacky” signs everywhere (“no swimming” above a fermenting vessel, for example) and “jokey” slogans etched into the windows on the coppers and mash tuns where other brewers merely have the company logo, as well as wide walkways capable of coping with crowds and a big bar in the heart of the brewery. (One problem: the “jokes” were clearly coined by someone who thinks they have a sense of humour, and badly needs disabusing. Still, half a mark for trying. And minus five marks for not being at all amusing. The same goes for the “wacky” cartoon murals decorating the walls: I know all the trendiest brewers have funky artists go creative all over their interiors, but if you do it, it has to be done very well.)
Top marks, though, for having an industrial estate brewery that at last has an exterior with some sense of style: Rob says Camden Town was able to work with the developer once the brewery had decided the site fitted its requirements, to have the basic “shed” altered, in particular to make sure all the drainage and other essential brewery services went in as needed, and that seems to have meant tweaking the standard boring box, too. Ponders End doesn’t have many tourist attractions. It might just have a new one.
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.
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→
If anyone ever declares again that keg beers cannot ever be as good as cask beers, I shall tell them of the night I spent at the bar of the Taphouse pub in Copenhagen with Michael Rahbek, brewer at Carlsberg’s Jacobsen brewhouse, while Jens Ungstrup, the beer manager at the Taphouse, poured us glass upon glass of porter and stout (and the occasional pale ale), all of them excellent, some of them stunning.
It’s hard to pick standouts, but they would certainly include the Carnegie 175th Anniversary Porter, brewed in 2011, still presenting masses of deep, dark chewy chocolate/roast malt flavour, and worth every krone of the £10.70 per 40cl glass the Taphouse charges; the milk chocolate stout from Brewfist in Italy, like chocolate mousse and cream; Jacobsen’s own Mermaid porter, brewed in 2013; and Michael Rahbek’s latest porter, made with four per cent of peat-smoked malt from the maltings at Denmark’s Stauning whisky distillery, a lovely beer even at a few weeks old, the peat smoke giving just the right level of background spice.
I also got to contrast and compare a couple more Jacobsen beers, the 2007 version of the Golden Naked Christmas ale (named for the type of barley used, I believe) and its 2016 iteration. The nine-year-old version reminded me strongly of aged Fuller’s Vintage Ale, which would be proper, since this is described as in the “English Strong Ale” style: the foundation of sweetness still there in the new beer has dried out after nearly a decade, and there’s a tart, aggressive quality coming through. Danes have a great love for Christmas beers, and Tuborg Julebryg is the fourth best-selling beer in the country, even though it’s only on sale for ten weeks a year, but Golden Naked is now apparently challenging its position as the top-selling yuletime tipple.
Michael Rahbek is clearly a hugely talented brewer, and a terrific man to have a beer-fuelled evening of conversation with, and I can’t thank him and Jens Ungstrup enough for one of the best nights in a bar I have ever had.
I was in Copenhagen for my tiny contribution to the festivities celebrating the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory: my job was to give an outside beer historian’s perspective on the work done by Emil Christian Hansen at the laboratory in Copenhagen for a film being made about the event, and the special beer being brewed for the celebration using 133-year-old yeast resurrected from an old Carlsberg bottle. The plan is to to replicate as far as possible the first beer made that followed the precepts Hansen developed at the laboratory. Hansen, for those who don’t know, pioneered single-yeast-strain brewing, isolating from the mass of different varieties of yeast present in an old-style brew just the one that made the best beer and cultivating this pure strain up: and Carlsberg, instead of sitting on this technology, threw over any competitive advantage it might have gained, and gave it away to any brewer who wanted it – including, according to a letter of thanks found in the Carlsberg archives, one Mr Heineken of Amsterdam.
Mind, this followed on from the generosity of Gabriel Sedlmayr II of the Spaten brewery in Munich, the man who, in 1845, gave Carlsberg’s founder, Jacob Christian Jacobsen, his first lager yeast. Sedlmayr perfected Bavarian bottom-fermentation methods and then also handed over his secrets – and his yeast – to anyone who asked. If you go down Ny Carlsberg Vej (“New Carlsberg Way”) in Valby in Copenhagen, through the famous elephant gate, you will see on the wall of what was the Carlsberg brewery – closed 2008 – two busts in niches. One is of EC Hansen, the other Gabriel Sedlmayr. I doubt there is another brewery in the world that celebrates a rival in this way. (Spaten is now owned by AB InBev: one Carlsberg employee I know suggested, semi-seriously, that the Danish brewery ought to rescue Sedlmayr’s legacy by making an offer for Spaten that the Belgo-Brazilians could not refuse.)
I was filmed by Estonian TV in January, sitting in the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, for a programme about IPA: Baltic television viewers may be approaching peak Martyn Cornell. Filming for my slot in the Carlsberg programme took place in the Giniz bar, an “Engelsk inspireret Pub i midten af Valby”, and, fortified by a glass of rye porter from the Herslev brewery, one of my favourite Danish concerns, I attempted to sound convincingly erudite. Hopefully they won’t cut backwards and forwards in the final edit, and the beer in my glass won’t shoot up and down the way it does in the famous bar scene in Ice Cold in Alex. I think I got away with the act of appearing knowledgeable: at any rate, the film’s producer, Jesper Æro (to whom more thanks for making the process as painless for me as possible) didn’t throw me out of the bar and make me find the way to my hotel on my own, and instead invited me along to the next part of the filming.
This, I was very happy to find, was in the Carlsberg laboratory, where Erik Lund, the brewmaster at the lab, was filling one of the wooden casks that have been specially made by coopers in Lithuania for what is being called by Carlsberg the “Re-Brew” project. I’m guessing the casks are made out of the tight-grained wood once a favourite with brewers known as Memel oak, from the former name of the port in Lithuania (now Klaipėda) whence it was exported. Much care was taking with the filling: the cask itself, with a capacity of around 150 litres, was kept in a cold store before it was filled up, to ensure the beer would not get a shock when it was racked out of the cold lagering tank, and the cask was also flushed through with CO2 before the beer went in, to push out the atmospheric oxygen. Once filled, it was back into cold storage for another couple of weeks’ lagering.
After that, on 18 May, there will be a “tapping ceremony” at the brewery of this new-old beer, of which only 400 litres have been made. I’m delighted to say that, along with a fair number of other beer journalists, I’ll be there to try it: I’ll let you know how it goes.
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.”
You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.
I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.
The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.