Category Archives: Craft beer

Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

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.

The beautiful but sadly long-closed Jax brewery by the weaterfront in New Orleans

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.

That was a low point, after I got on the wrong streetcar (none of which go to Desire any more) and had to cross roads flooded up to nine inches deep to try to get to where the jazz festival was taking place. Or wasn’t: lightning had knocked out the electricity supply, and that day, it opened hours late.

Street band, Jackson Square, New Orleans

Still, there were plenty enough highs: multiple opportunities to hear superb street jazz from young musicians clearly hugely in love with the traditions they are helping to keep alive; stuffing my face with oysters in the Chimes, a restaurant and tap on the Bogue Falaya river at Covington, on what New Orleaners call the “North Shore”, the other side of Lake Ponchartrain, which lies to the immediate north of New Orleans itself; watching roseate spoonbills, pink from all the shrimp they eat, and big, ugly alligators hunting prey, and egrets, and owls, and turtles, from a flat-bottomed pirogue on Lake Martin (and wondering, when we ran onto a submerged stump and became stuck, if the alligators might soon be hunting us – fortunately another boat pulled us off); eating jambalaya and crawfish pie at the jazz festival, and trying not to embarrass myself by singing Hank Williams; learning how the flooded rice fields of the Louisiana prairie are used to grow two crops of rice and then a third “crop” of crawfish, which today brings in more money than the rice does; seeing, and rocking to, the fabulous Rebirth Brass Band at a bar in Frenchmen Street; and a barbecue and barn dance at the farm of the zydeco band leader and accordion player Geno Delafose; admiring the cooking skills of the solemn, dignified, elderly Cajun gentlemen, their long-sleeved shirts carefully buttoned despite the heat (New Orleans is further south than Cairo), running the open-air crawfish boil at the countryside home of Mark and Ann Savoy near Eunice, in the centre of south-west Louisiana, lowering baskets of live crawfish into steaming vessels the size and shape of a domestic hot water tank and then pouring in pounds of paprika and other spices, from mace to cinnamon to cloves, before swooshing the cooked crawfish out onto long tables, to be urgently deshelled by the hungry and eaten with boiled potatoes and corn on the cob; and dancing two-steps and waltzes (badly, on my part: “don’t look at your feet,” they said, but if I didn’t look at my feet I had no idea at all what I was doing) under a Louisiana moon and the influence of beautiful beer and excellent food  while the Savoy family and their friend Michael Doucet, fiddle player fantastique, performed for their own enjoyment as well as for us.

Grey heron in flight, Lake Martin, Louisiana

The best of the brewery visits was undoubtedly Abita Brewing, though most of this was down to Abita’s brewing director, Jaime Jurado. Jaime is North America’s Derek Prentice – indeed he actually worked with Derek at Truman’s in Brick Lane, part of a peripatetic career in brewing that has included stints at Smithwick’s in Kilkenny, a brewery in Bavaria, and one in Rajasthan, India, as well as brewing sites across the US. Jaime and I have been “internet pals” for years, but we had never actually met, until I discovered I could book a brewery tour that included a visit the Old Rail pub brewery and then to Abita, which requires a trip over the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge in the world.

Jaime Jurado, left, and Chris Todd, server in the Abita taproom

When I emailed him to say: “I’m coming out to your brewery!”, Jaime immediately offered to take me to dinner. Better than that, he also gave me my own private tour of the brewery, now Louisiana’s oldest (having been founded as a brewpub in 1986) and the 23rd largest in the US, introduced me to brewery president, David Blossman, and took me to see the original Abita brewhouse, and also the nearby (and considerably smaller) Covington brewery, and returned me back to my hotel in the French Quarter with a full goodie bag. I’ve never had a conversation with a brewer that I haven’t enjoyed enormously, and Jaime is a great companion for a night out, and a fine raconteur. Abita’s home town is called Abita Springs, and the brewery uses the local spring water for all its beers, completely unaltered. The “springiness” can cause problems: when the brewery decided to extend its warehouse, it put down a new concrete floor and then couldn’t work out what was causing the concrete to break up. An expert was called in, who declared that a spring had opened up underneath the concrete, and the water pressure was causing the floor to fracture. A pipe had to be put in to carry the spring water away to what is now the brewery turtle pond.

Robert Bostick, co-founder, Brieux Carre

The next day I got to see Louisiana’s youngest brewery, at least at the time of visiting: another start-up was due within weeks. The brewery name, Brieux Carré, pronounced “broo carray”, is a pun on the name in French of the old core of New Orleans, Vieux Carré (literally “old square”), pronounced in Louisiana French “voo carray”. The brewery’s existence is possible only because of a change in the law in Louisiana. Until two years ago, any brewery had to get no more than ten per cent of its beer sales from its own tap, which for any start-up was a huge hurdle to try to vault. That restriction was removed in 2015, and local breweries can now have 100 per cent of sales through their own taproom. Of course, there were other hurdles to clamber over before Brieux Carré served its first pints, not the smallest being finance. Co-founder Robert Bostick, a home brewer for ten years before going professional, told me: “Nobody wants to give a 24-year-old half a million dollars just because he likes beer.” However, he and his business partner, Taylor Pellerin, managed to get $450,000 through a microfinance scheme, which bought them a seven-barrel brewing kit made by a local manufacturer, the Craft Kettle Co of New Orleans. They found premises zoned for a microbrewery just on the edge of the Vieux Carré, thus justifying the name they had already thought up, and the pair are now selling all the beer they brew from their  on-premises tap, to a customer base, Bostick says, that ranges from “21 to late 70s”.

Nola brewery, New Orleans

Brieux Carré doesn’t sell its beer anywhere else except at the tap, unlike New Orleans’s oldest craft brewery, NOLA Brewing (oldest, that is, if you don’t count the Crescent City Brewhouse on Decatur Street, which opened in 1991 as the first brewpub in Louisiana). The acronym NOLA usually stands for “New Orleans, Louisiana”, but here it’s short for New Orleans Lager and Ale, and the brewery takes pride in the fact that tourists can’t pronounce its address – Tchoupitoulas Street (named for a long-vanished tribe of local Indians). Its two-storey tap, down close to the Mississippi, must easily hold a couple of hundred people, including the rooftop patio area, though the view – a highway, a tall wall hiding the wharves on the other side – is industrial, at best. But the beers, such as Irish Channel stout (named for the nearby New Orleans district), are now available all around the south-east US, and all the ones I tried were well up to point. In particular, NOLA does an excellent line of sour ales.

Second Line’s taproom

However, I’ve begun to realise I like my craft brewery taps on the fundamentally basic side, which is why I preferred the hard-to-find Second Line Brewing’s set-up: basic tables and folding chairs in what is still a large concrete yard at the front of their industrial premises. Second Line, which is named for the jazz band parades of New Orleans, started in July 2015, and has a good line of stouts, including an Imperial Russian flavoured with toasted coconut called Cease to Love, after the theme song of the “King of Carnival” in New Orleans (the link, apparently, is that the song was supposedly played to  Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, fourth son of Tsar Alexander II, when he was a guest at the Mardi Gras festivities in 1872), and A Saison named Desire, flavoured with blood orange juice (not as good a name as NOLA’s Hurricane Saison, however). Incidentally, it’s significant that, like every other Louisiana brewerry I saw, even the tiny Old Rail, Second Line had casks filled with ageing beer: if you’re not wood-ageing in the US now, it appears, you can’t compete.

Stacks Records: jazz trio plays against a background of beercans at Urban South

Urban South Brewing opened last year further down Tchoupitoulas Street towards the centre of New Orleans than NOLA, in a huge warehouse space that leaves enough room for all the brewing equipment, a games area featuring the peculiarly American sport of cornhole (tossing beanbags at a board with a hole in it), a large bar, a performance area for a band and 20 or so garden tables for drinkers. This is definitely a place to visit in a group, when a food truck is parked outside. The beers fit into the “expertly made even if they don’t fry your socks” slot, and that’s an absolutely fine place to be: it means you won’t be disappointed.

The lable of Bayou Teche Brewing’s Saison d’Ecrevisses showing two characters (Boudreaux and Thiboudeaux?) shelling crawfish

New Orleans breweries like to reflect New Orleans heritage in their beer names: Bayou Teche Brewing, in Arnaudville, south-west Louisiana, very specifically reflects its Cajun heritage in its brewing, which has heavy French and Belgian influences. The beers include Saison D’Écrevisses, “Crawfish Saison”, a fine 6 per cent “rye saison” made with French Aramis hops for drinking at crawfish boils; an excellent 7.5 per cent oak-aged liquorice stout called Loup Garou, French for “werewolf” (Loup Garou, naughty Cajun children are told, haunts the nearby swamps and will come for them if they continue to be bad); and Strawberry Alarm Hop, a 7 per cent IPA made with added strawberries and jalapeno peppers, which sounds utterly vile and is actually very, very good good, the three contrasting flavours working really well together – but since strawberries and black pepper is already a thing, why not?

The original Bayou Teche Brewery premises – a converted shipping container

The brewery called after the nearby Bayou Teche waterway, was started by the three Knott brothers, Karlos, Dorsey and Byron, in 2009 in a disused 20-ft shipping container, moving eventually to a purpose-built brewery in 2013. If you visit the brewery, it’s likely you’ll be shown around by Floyd, the Knott brothers’ father. Should he start to tell you the joke about how Thibodeaux was working at the brewery when he fell in the fermenting vessel and drowned, and his friend Boudreaux had to ring up Thiboudeaux’s wife and tell her the sad news (ALL Cajun jokes feature characters called Boudreaux and Thiboudeaux, it’s the law), do laugh heartily at the punchline, even though you’ve heard the joke before: Floyd’s 81, please, he deserves your respect.

I didn’t get around many New Orleans bars, but here’s a swift trot through five I liked:

Black Penny Bar, North Rampart Street Many will hate this place, but its pretentious unpretentiousness, something only hipsters could pull off, made it strangely attractive. Drink Dat, a good but not, unfortunately, comprehensive guide to New Orleans drinking places says the Black Penny was previously a dive called the Ninth Circle, where “your mother would not be happy”. I don’t think Ma would be thrilled to be taken to the Black Penny, either, unless she was a big fan of craft beer in cans, or cocktails. It’s dark, the walls are bare brick and rough wood, and it doesn’t have draught beer at all, but its range of more than 100 different bottled and canned brews should satisfy the fussiest, and if it doesn’t there’s the usual New Orleans bar big line-up of spirits and liqueurs to make any cocktail you can think of, while the staff are pally and, despite being on the borders of the French Quarter, customers seem to be mostly locals rather than tourists.

dba, Frenchmen Street A cracking music venue with a top-notch craft beer selection: 20 taps and a wide range of bottles. If there’s a good band on, you’ll be charged to get in, but this is New Orleans, it will be worth the money. The interior is reminiscent of a London “island bar” pub, with two long rooms either side of the servery, and the stage where the musicians play is at the end of the left-hand room.

Aveneue Bar, St Charles Avenue, New Orleans

Avenue Bar, St Charles Avenue Touted as the best craft beer bar in New Orleans, this is a 15-minute streetcar ride down St Charles Avenue from the city centre. Strangely, when I was there, it seemed to be attracting numbers of young drinkers who only wanted Miller: why, when there were getting on for 40 different draught craft brews available, seems unfathomable. Certainly the wide range is a good reason for visiting, and it’s an attractive place, but I found it hard to see why commentators are quite so enthusiastic about the place: maybe I wasn’t on the right frequency that day to pick up the vibe.

Evangeline, 329 Decatur Street, New Orleans: note the huge number of bottles of spirits and so forth for cocktail making

Evangeline, Decatur Street I like a bar where I walk in for a second time four days after my first visit and the barman not only remembers me, but what beer I drank previously. Evangeline edges more towards being a restaurant than a bar, but it sells eight or so craft beers, including several I didn’t see elsewhere, such as the Mississippi Fire Ant Imperial Red Ale from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi that the bartender clocked me for. The long, narrow room is done in typical mahogany-and-mirrors New Orleans style, with high ceilings and plenty of lights. Evangeline (named, I’m guessing, for the tragic Longfellow poem about the Acadian maid who lost her lover and only found him again in old age) is also an excellent destination if you’re after Cajun cuisine in New Orleans: try the gumbo, it’s yumbo.

Industry Bar and Kitchen, Decatur Street Almost diagonally across the street from Evangeline, the Industry Bar is different in every way, apart from a good selection of local craft beers: it’s meant to be a place for late-night workers in the hospitality trade to come after work, apparently, and my experience was that it’s one of the rare places where you can find speedy, filling late-night food in New Orleans. (Yes there are lots of restaurants, but it will be an hour’s wait to be seated, at least, normally.) The decor is, um, industrial, but that’s an invigorating change from the neighbours.

(I went to Louisiana with Nancy Covey’s Festival Tours, and had a couple of brewery trips while I was there with NOLA Brew Bus: hat-tips to both for their excellent organisation.)

PICTURE GALLERY (click to embiggen)

Hungover in Hanover

Der Craft Bier Bar craft beer bar, Hannover, mit dozy Englander

This is the Craft Bier Bar. It’s a craft beer bar. The Craft Bier Bar is the first ever craft beer bar in Hanover, apparently. It claims to have the largest selection of craft beers on draught of any bar in the whole of North Germany. The Craft Bier Bar ticks off all the craft beer bar signifiers: back wall with 24 draught beer taps sticking out; back-lit, numbered list high behind the bar, hand-written in marker pen, of draught craft beers from at least three continents; glass-doored refrigerators with brews in bottle and can even more exotic than those on tap (OK, Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout may not be exotic where YOU live, but it is in Niedersachsen); no mainstream brands; unplastered walls decorated with neon signs and ads featuring beers from Belgium to Oregon; Edison light bulbs; and prices at least twice as high per glass as anywhere else local.

Should business take you to Hanover, the Craft Bier Bar craft beer bar, in the Ballhofplatz in Hanover’s Old Town, is worth a call-in: you will certainly get an opportunity to try beers you won’t have had before. And some you have, of course: I’m not sure I have been in a craft beer bar anywhere that hasn’t been serving at least one brew from To Øl, and the Craft Bier Bar did not end this run. But be sure your wallet is well-stuffed before you step in. On my way to the Craft Bier Bar I popped in to a locals’ local to (a) get a decent wi-fi signal to recheck Google Maps (21st century problems) (b) see what the score was in the Germany-England match (0-0 at the time) and (c) wet my dry throat with a perfectly acceptable glass of Ratskeller pils from Gilde, Hanover’s AB InBev-owned big brewery. It cost me €1.90. Soon after in the CBB I was drinking a similar-sized glass of a fine, fruity American-style IPA from a small brewery in Berlin, Heidenpeters. It cost me €4.50: around £6.40 a pint.

Which left me musing: I was just about enjoying my first experience of a German craft beer bar, mostly because it WAS my first experience of a German craft beer bar, and worth savouring for that reason, but that apart, where would I rather be, back in the locals’ bar surrounded by a community of drinkers watching the footy, and paying nearly 60 per cent less for my beer, or trying to decide which of the other 23 draught beers available might be worth getting a bank loan for. Of which, and this is sad, just four were from German brewers.

The exterior of the Craft Bier Bar in Ballhofplatz, which wishes to leave you in no doubt about what sort of place it is

In the final analysis, I decided the Craft Bier Bar was disappointing because, although being apparently perfectly well-run, with an excellent selection of beers, it was fundamentally a clone, a copycat experience, as ersatz as all the “Irish” pubs that bloomed briefly on British high streets in the 1990s, a repetition of an originally American style of drinking that you can now get around the globe, like McDonald’s, or, to be slightly fairer, Five Guys, and having as little real link with genuine beer culture, or my idea of genuine beer culture, as even Five Guys does with genuine gastronomy. I want a craft beer bar that doesn’t look as if it could be anywhere, in any city, I want it to have a beer selection that reflects the local scene more than it nods to the wider world. And I don’t want to feel its pricing policy takes the Michael.

And now, rant over, something else I pondered while in Germany: the largely unrecognised contribution Hanover has made to the iconography of the British pub. I don’t suppose many people from Hanover (or Hannover, as the locals prefer – emPHAsis on the middle syllAble) know there are still hundreds of British pubs – possibly a thousand or more – whose names have Hanoverian associations. It’s a reflection, of course, of the fact that Britain and Hanover shared rulers from 1714 to 1837. At least three pubs in England are actually called the Hanover, or Hanover Arms. The Hanoverian arms are the white horse on a red background that still appears on the flag of the German Land of Niedersachsen (“Lower Saxony” – I sometimes claim I live in Mittelsachsen), of which Hanover is the capital: and of the many pubs in Britain called the White Horse, a large number were first so named because their landlords wanted to show loyalty to the new royal family that arrived from North Germany after Anne, last of the Stuarts, died without managing to leave any surviving heirs, dozy tart.

The New Town Hall in Hanover

How many pubs called simply the George are named after the run of four Hanoverian kings of the same name and how many after St George, mythical Turkish dragon-killer and patron saint of Catalonia, is probably impossible to disentangle, but there are plenty of pubs where a specifically numbered King George is commemorated. Strangely, George I never seems to have made it onto a signboard, but Georges II, III and IV did, the last more often as the Prince Regent. Pubs called the Brunswick are often named for the Prince Regent’s wife, Charlotte, daughter of the Duke of Brunswick, who was dumped by her husband within a year of their marriage. Others of George III’s sons to get themselves on signboards was Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge (the two pubs currently called the Duchess of Cambridge are named for the wife of the much more recent incarnation of that title).

The Queen Dowager, Teddington, part of Britain’s Hanoverian pub legacy

The Prince Regent’s brother, William IV, was king when the Beerhouse Act was passed in 1830, which brought tens of thousands of new licensed premises into existence, and large numbers of new beerhouse keepers named their business after the new king. This means despite his comparatively brief reign, seven years, William IV is still the British king with the biggest number of pubs named after him, not counting the half dozen or more called the Duke of Clarence, his title before he was king, while his wife, Queen Adelaide, appears on around a dozen innsigns. (Until a few years ago she actually appeared on two pub signs in Teddington, Middlesex, the Adelaide, and the now closed Queen Dowager, her title after William died in 1837: she and William had lived next door in Bushy Park.) William IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, last of Britain’s Hanoverian monarchs, is the queen with the largest number of pubs named for her, of course. Her husband, Prince Albert, also has his face on pub signboards: but he’s a Saxe-Coburg, not a Hanover, and doesn’t count …

Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

If you think the major problem facing the Campaign for Real Ale today is whether or not to embrace “craft keg”, or how to prevent more pub closures, then like the campaign itself you’re failing to acknowledge the elephant not just dominating the room but loudly trumpeting in your ear – the latest trumpeting being the news that Cloudwater, the highly regarded Manchester brewer barely two years old, is to give up making cask beer. That elephant is the one marked in big letters down both flanks “poor beer quality”, and despite Camra being founded 46 years ago to fight that exact battle, and – originally – that battle alone, it’s still a war far, far from won.

Cloudwater: no more cask

When Cloudwater started in 2015, the plurality of its output was in cask – 45 per cent, against 25 per cent in keg and the rest in bottle. Last year that was down to 23 per cent in cask, and the rest split almost evenly between bottle and keg. Now, with a new canning line starting up, co-founder Paul Jones says cask production is being halted, and the expected output for 2017 will be 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent bottle and can – with the aim to more than double annual turnover from £1.15million to £2.7 million and 13,000hl/8,000 barrels. Paul lists several reasons for dropping cask: the price the market will accept, which is less than the price it will accept for keg beer, despite all the expense of racking, handling and collection casks on insufficient margin; the fact that, tbh, Cloudwater finds the beers it can sell in keg and bottle more exciting than those it can sell in cask; and finally, and most pertinently to this debate, “another often encountered set of issues”, the quality problem. In his end-of-year blog round-up, Paul complained that slightly hazy casks of keg were being “flatly refused” without being tasted, while casks tasting of diacetyl, either through brewing faults or because they were being served too young, are “all too often good to go”.

Cask beer, Paul said, “should take pride of place in every bar and pub”, but it “requires not just the same skill and discipline as keg beer to brew but also requires excellent stewardship to be pulled in to a glass in a way that best represents the establishment, the brewer and the rich and varied heritage of cask beer in the UK.” He doesn’t say so directly, but the implication is clear: Cloudwater doesn’t believe that the “excellent stewardship” is there at the point of sale in enough bars to present any cask beer it produces in the way that would give the best possible result for the customer.

It is not alone. I interviewed a number of leading names in the UK brewing world on the subject of beer quality recently, and they all agreed there is still a huge, huge problem. Rob Lovatt, head brewer and production director at Thornbridge in Derbyshire, another of the half dozen or so most admired new breweries in the UK, said: “Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK, I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint. Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised, and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers.” Alastair Hook, founder of Meantime Brewing in Greenwich, London, the most successful new brewery start-up in the past 45 years, and now owned by the Japanese brewer Asahi, has consistently refused to involve Meantime in the “cask ale” segment, believing that whatever bonuses cask-conditioned ale might bring in terms of flavour, the downsides of lack of stability and openness to infection inevitable with cask beer mean the customer is much better off with the consistency provided by “craft keg”.

However, he said, and this is a vital point regularly ignored, “all of the afflictions that cask ale suffers from apply to brewery-conditioned beers, and this is where there is a major threat to all beer regardless of type. Poor line cleaning, interchanging beers, many of which are infected because of poor practice at the brewery, warm storage, warm chain distribution, antiquated dispense systems that cannot be cleaned, all paint a worrying picture. The first wave of craft breweries in the US fell foul of quality issues in the 1990s. Hundreds didn’t make the next decade. If brewers in the UK are complacent, the same will happen here. Meantime invests hundreds of thousands of pounds annually to counter this threat. The threat is real – and as we say in industry, you are only as good as your last beer.”

Continue reading Cloudwater, quality and Camra dinosaurs

How a 12-year-old brewery is having to show it’s not too old to be down with the kids …

Quick: what’s the oldest microbrewery in London?

The answer, to stop you looking it up, is Twickenham, which despite not even being a teenager yet, today, after the sale of Meantime, bears the mantle of the capital’s currently longest surviving independent new brewery. Which is more of a burden than you might at first reckon.

The brewery produces some lovely, and deservedly highly regarded cask and bottled beers: Naked Ladies, named for a set of statues of nymphs in a public garden by the Thames, is an excellent and locally very popular American-influenced 4.4 per cent alcohol best bitter, firmly but lightly flavoured with Celeia and Chinook hops, a good session brew and a reliable banker found on bar tops across West London and, in its bottled version, in a large number of off-licences around its home area, including Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as well as Majestic Wine outlets nationally.

naked-ladiesBut the brewery’s full name – Twickenham Fine Ales – is a reflection of the astonishingly different environment in which it was founded, just a dozen years ago. We’ve forgotten, I think, how unlike today the British beer scene was when Tony Blair was prime minister and Michael Howard leader of the Conservative Party. Beer in Britain went through a complete spin-around in 2009/2010, and I suspect, we can only look back now, half a decade on, and think: “Wow – what happened there?” We all saw these new breweries opening from 2009 onwards, in London in particular, we all saw how they were highly influenced by what was happening in the United States, with massively hoppy beers, big stouts, sour beers, strange obscure offerings such as Gose, and oriented towards keg delivery, towards cans, towards 33cl bottles kept in the chiller, and I’m not sure we were able to see quite what a caesura, a total break, this was in the history of British brewing, what a revolution was happening around us. “Fine Ales”? Grandad, that’s so 20th century.

Continue reading How a 12-year-old brewery is having to show it’s not too old to be down with the kids …

How I helped brew a black gose in the backstreets of Shenzhen

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.

I am honorable – it's official
I am the honorable  Martyn Cornell – it’s official

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

Dutch treats

Portrait of Gambrinus at the van de Oirsprong brewery
Portrait of Gambrinus. ‘king of beer’, at the van de Oirsprong brewery in North Brabant

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.

Continue reading Dutch treats

The ballad of Baladin

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.

Teo Musso and his cartoon twin, one of several Baladin staffers illustrated on the walls of the brewery offices
Teo Musso and his cartoon twin, one of several Baladin staffers illustrated on the walls of the new brewery offices

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

The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

You would need to be living under an upturned barrel for the past year not to have spotted the phenomenal rise in reputation of Cloudwater Brew Co, the Manchester-based craft brewery started by James Campbell, formerly head brewer at the city’s Marble Brewery, and the hipster entrepreneur Paul Jones. Cloudwater is not even 18 months old, but already spoken of alongside Thornbridge, Kernel, Magic Rock and other top stars of the British craft brewing scene. It was voted best new English brewery of 2015 by Ratebeer, and its beers, especially its collaborations, score extremely highly on rating sites.

Nobody gets that level of buzz without something extremely interesting going on, so I was eager to get down to the Real Ale shop in East Twickenham and hear Paul Jones talk about the rise of Cloudwater at one of the shop’s regular “Meet the brewer” sessions. Good beer alone is not enough to be a storming success in such a short time. Paul confirmed this with a presentation lasting an hour and a half which made it clear that Cloudwater’s rise is powered by a clear and focused vision on the beers it wants to brew and a ferocious dedication to critical self-analysis that means pulling every beer apart and analysing how closely it came to fulfilling the brief set out for it in terms of delivering to specification, and then working out what would need to be done next time to get closer to the brief. It’s a management philosophy I suspect springs from Paul Jones’s background in the engineering side of the music business, and it certainly looks as if Cloudwater has brought a level of conscious business and management sophistication to the British craft brewing scene that makes most new brewery start-ups look like shambling amateurs. Possibly because most new brewery start-ups are shambling amateurs, one might conclude. And again, I may be wrong, but I detect the influence of a music industry background in Cloudwater’s clear commitment to never stepping into the same stream twice: the idea that 2015’s beers are done and away, and all that matters now are 2016’s beers, just like last year’s musical hits are so last year.

The result is a regularly altering line-up of kudos-winning beers that have gained Cloudwater masses of publicity and a hugely dedicated following. Their popularity also makes the beers frequently hard to obtain: I had not been able to find any Cloudwater products before the Twickenham “meet the brewer” session. That makes my take on the beers unfair, since you really can’t properly judge a brewer on just one evening. It’s clear why they are so popular: almost all were sharply focused, clear, clean and faultless. Faultless to a fault, almost: “beautiful” is not the same as “characterful”. But I need to drink more Cloudwater brews over more evenings to decide if this is a valid criticism.

I was going to copy-edit Paul Jones’s Q&A presentation at Twickenham down to merely “long read” rather than “massive over-the-top read”, but I decided people would find something insightful in all he said – he’s a very articulate, enormously enthusiastic man – so here it is, complete: more than 9,000 words. Settle down with a beer: Continue reading The secrets to Cloudwater’s success

Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result. Continue reading Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment

Is the Campaign for Real Ale about to have its Clause Four moment? For younger readers, Clause Four was the part of the constitution of the Labour Party that contained the aim of achieving “the common ownership of the means of production”, and it was when Tony Blair, Labour’s new party leader, and his allies managed to get that dumped in the dustbin of discarded socialist rhetoric in 1995 that New Labour was born. Traditionalists saw the policy celebrated in Clause Four, the rejection of capitalism, as the core principle that the Labour Party was founded upon. The Blairites saw this as outdated rhetoric that was damaging the party’s election chances, and dumping it as “revitalising” the Labour Party. Camra, you may have noticed, has now launched its own self-styled “revitalisation project”, designed to get a consensus on where the campaign, at 45 years old, should be going next.

The question being asked is “how broad and inclusive should our campaigning be”, and the choices offered in the survey on Camra’s website, frankly, are totally dishonest. There are six, and they are that the campaign should represent

  • Just drinkers of real ale, or
  • Drinkers of real ale, cider and perry, or
  • All beer drinkers, or
  • All beer, cider and perry drinkers, or
  • All pub-goers or
  • All drinkers
Andrew Boorde real ale campaigner
The Tudor physician Andrew Boorde (c 1490-1549), one of the earliest campaigners for real ale, who complained that while ale was ‘a naturall drynke’ for an Englishman, beer ‘doth make a man fat’.

But there isn’t a commentator that doesn’t know that four out of six of those choices are irrelevant nonsense, and the only real question Camra is asking is, “Look, are we finally going to ditch Clause Four start supporting craft keg as well as cask ale or not?”

Now, I’m aware that the support for cider and perry is controversial among some sections of Camra activists, and there are even some who question Camra’s pub campaigns, but it’s dishonesty through omission to stick those issues in there as if they were really a meaningful part of the debate about Camra’s future, and a disservice to the overwhelming majority of Camra’s membership not to make it clearer what this is really all about. In the 16-page document mailed to all Camra members about the “Revitalisation Project”, reference is made to Camra’s equivalent of Clause Four, that definition of “real ale” adopted in 1973, two years after the campaign was founded by four men who knew nothing, at that time about the technicalities of beer, only that they didn’t like the big-brand keg variety, which definition insists that the only sort of beer worth drinking is “matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed” and is “served without the use of extaneous carbon dioxide”.

Continue reading Dishonest nonsense and Camra’s Clause Four moment