Category Archives: Craft beer

Fjord fiesta: the Norwegian farmhouse ales festival 2017

In Hornindal, in beautiful remotest Western Norway, if you tried to explain to the locals the fuss being made about cloudy New England IPAs, they would laugh, or look bemused. There are around a hundred or so people in the area who make beer, in a tradition going back hundreds of years. All of it is cloudy, and it likely always has been. This is partly, probably, because Hornindal is one of the centres of “raw ale”, rå øl in Norwegian, where the wort stays unboiled before fermentation. That is far from the only difference between what is called locally kornøl, literally “grain ale” (to differentiate it from other farmhouse brews such as birch sap beer – bjørkesevjeøl – or beer made just from sugar). All the beers are made with water that has had juniper branches boiled in it (but never the berries – too bitter). Hops are used lightly, if at all: a small bag of hops will be hung in the vessel that collects the wort. Perhaps most importantly, the yeast, known as kveik (a word that goes back to Old Norse kvikur, and seems to be related to the English word “quick” in the sense “alive”), will have been collected and dried from previous brews, and will give flavours quite unlike those from yeasts used by “mainstream” brewers. These are beers that push out the boundaries of the ale experience.

Now the rural brewing traditions of Norway are becoming more widely known, thanks in considerable part to the hard work of Lars Marius Garshol, whose writings have made him the Michael Jackson of gårdsøl (“farm ale”). Yeast companies are studying, and selling, kveik yeast, and commercial brewers in Norway are starting to make gårdsøl-style ales. The movement now has its own shop window, the Norsk Kornøl Festival in Hornindal, which has just been held for the second time, and I was privileged and honoured to be invited by the organisers to come and report on the event.

Continue reading Fjord fiesta: the Norwegian farmhouse ales festival 2017

Pushing the IPA envelope so far it rips

Daughter, Mrs Zythophile and I played a new game as we negotiated the M1 last week (or at least I did): spot other saloon cars laden to the roof with the finest Ikea supplies for fitting out a new undergraduate’s bedroom and kitchen. I won’t lie, I was slightly disappointed that Daughter did so well in her A levels she was able to spurn an offer from Liverpool University and flutter her eyelashes at York instead, which swiftly threw open the gates of the city. Sorry, Scousers: it’s not you, it’s us. I had many happy hours in the pubs of Merseyside when I was not that far out of studenthood myself. But the rest of the family were delighted that York was now the destination, and I could at least explore the pubs and bars of a city I’m ashamed to say, soft southern Jessie that I am, I hardly know.

First impressions were good, apart from all the bouncers on the doors at 3pm. What time does it usually kick off in Tykeland? In London we like to leave it until well after we’ve had our cocoa before we need the A&E. It’s desperately infra dig to lump anybody before 11pm, unless there’s a footie match in the vicinity.

Mind, I felt like lumping someone when I saw the pump clip pictured here, in an otherwise very pleasant and friendly craft beer bar in the middle of the city. It’s from Eye Brewing, based near Leeds, which claims to be “the UK’s first wheat brewery”, an assertion the white ale brewers of Devon and Cornwall in the 19th century and before would have forthrightly rejected, as would the monkish brewers at establishments such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where ale was being brewed on a considerable scale in the 13th century using wheat and oats, as well as barley.

Worse, of course, was the claim that the beer, sold under the name Kleiner Wasted, was a “session white IPA with tropical fruits”, which squeezes four oxymorons into just six words, surely a record. OK, I know “session IPA” is now supposed to be a thing, but the beer’s specs, according to Eye’s website, include an abv of 3.6 per cent and 30 EBUs. That’s both weaker and less bitter than Eye’s own “wheat best bitter” (35 EBUs) and well below the US norm for a “session IPA” (around 4.5 to five per cent abv).

Continue reading Pushing the IPA envelope so far it rips

A look round Camden Town’s new Enfield brewery

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.

Camden Town Brewery’s new Enfield plant: not your usual boring box, at least

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

Fanboy investors put £50m into UK craft breweries: but is that money down the drain?

A total of £50m has been raised in the UK over the past four years in crowdfunding efforts by more than 40 different craft breweries, and half a dozen craft beer retail operators who have tapped tens of thousands of – overwhelmingly male – investors.

More than half the money raised went to just one company, BrewDog, the maverick Scottish brewer, recently valued at almost £1 billion, but other big beneficiaries of the remaining £23 million raised include Chapel Down Group, owner of Curious Brew, which gathered a total of £5.66m; Camden Town Brewery in North London, which raised more than £2.75 million from 2,173 investors via Crowdcube before being sold for £85 million to the international giant AB Inbev in December 2015; Innis & Gunn of Edinburgh, which raised £2.2 million from almost 1,800 investors; and the Wild Beer Company of Somerset, which brought in £1.8m from just over 2,000 backers.

The money is continuing to roll in: Redchurch Brewery in East London recently closed its second fundraising drive through the crowdfunding platform Crowdcube, raising another £433,000 from 688 investors to add to the £497,000 it brought in last year. Also on Crowdcube, The BottleShop, a craft beer importer and distributor with, currently, three bars of its own and plans for more, has just closed its own equity crowdfunding campaign with £403,000 in funding from more than 380 investors

Top 10 UK brewery crowdfunding efforts

But how many of those investors will ever see a decent return on their money, other than the warm glow of owning a small slice of the maker of their favourite beers? With three quarters – 18 out of 25 – of the companies involved for which financial records have been published reporting losses for their last financial year, the answer is likely to be: “Not many, and even then, not for quite a while”. The UK’s financial watchdog, the FCA, warns in the section on crowdfunding on its website: ” It is very likely that you will lose all your money. Most investments are in shares or debt securities in start-up companies and will often result in a 100 per cent loss of capital as most start-up businesses fail.” Earlier this year the Guardian quoted figures from the Insolvency Service showing that 19 drinks manufacturers went sternum to the sky in 2014, 23 in 2015 and 24 in the first nine months of 2016.

Continue reading Fanboy investors put £50m into UK craft breweries: but is that money down the drain?

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.

Continue reading Laissez les bonnes bières rouler

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