Category Archives: Craft beer

Yes, it’s VERY possible to define a ‘sessionable’ craft beer

I was thinking of ignoring the “what does sessionable mean” debate, even through I was dragged into it by my ear by having my research quoted. Then I saw a tweet yesterday from someone talking about “a sessionable 5.5 per cent smoked oatmeal stout”, and the world swam and dissolved before me as I plunged screaming and twisting into a hellish, tormented pit of dark despair.

Let me make this as clear as I can. This is an egregious and unforgivable total failure to understand what the expression “sessionable” means, is meant to mean, and was coined for. A 5.5 per cent alcohol beer is not, and cannot be, “sessionable”. A smoked oatmeal stout, while I am sure it can be lovely, is not and cannot be “sessionable”. Nobody ever spent all evening drinking four or five, or six, pints of smoked oatmeal stout.

This is NOT a session beer …

The rant you are now reading springs less from that particular beer review than a piece this week by the British beer writer  Lily Waite on the American website Vinepair headlined “It’s Impossible to Define ‘Sessionable’ in Craft Beer”. I don’t think Lily wrote the headline, which looks to go further than her article does, but her piece, which references my research back in 2011 into the origins of the term “session beer”, raises a number of potential difficulties around a definition of the term “sessionable”, not least the existence now of beers called “session barley wine” with eight per cent alcohol and 75 IBUs, and “session double IPA“, again at eight per cent abv.

I try not to be prescriptivist about language, but for me “sessionable” is a very useful word with, actually, yes, a precise meaning, and if people are going to start being stupid with it by releasing something called a “session barley wine” or “session double IPA”, even as a “joke”, then we are in great danger of destroying an important descriptor, and losing an easy way of summing up one of the fundamentals of British pub culture.

It’s entirely possible to define “sessionable”, but only if you understand what the expression was coined to describe, which many American beer drinkers – and brewers – apparently do not. A large part of the problem is that the word springs from a very British practice, the “session”, and Americans don’t really understand what the “session” is about. Britons and Americans are fooled into thinking that, because they speak the same language (more or less) and drink the same sorts of beers (more or less) in places that are called “bars” (even if the British “bar” is actually a room in a pub, rather than the descriptor for the whole establishment), then their out-of-home drinking cultures are entirely similar and compatible. They’re not. “Sessionable” means “beer capable of sustaining a session”, and “session” means “extended period of three or four hours drinking pints and engaging in conversation with friends”. That is why the fundamental definition of a session beer has to be that it has a comparatively low gravity and is comparatively unobtrusive. Americans, in my experience, do not generally spend entire evenings in one bar drinking pints. (See also the bizarrely tiny glasses used at American beer festivals.)

Another problem is that people are confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. The two are very much not the same. An eight per cent barley wine may well be “drinkable”, in the sense of that great beer-reviewer’s cliché, “dangerously drinkable”, that is, it slides away down the throat very easily. But “sessionable” means “you can drink several and still walk out the door without bumping into the frame.” An eight per cent barley wine is therefore NOT “sessionable”.

… and this is not a session beer either

Lily Waite’s piece is specifically looking at “sessionability” in the context of terms such as “session IPA”, and the craft appropriation of a term than applies much more to mainstream, non-craft beer drinking in the UK, and beers such as Carling, Fosters and the like. She interviewed some people with – ahh – interesting takes on sessionability, including James Rylance who helped create the now highly popular Neck Oil, Beavertown Brewery’s “session IPA”, which comes in at 4.3 per cent abv, and “masses of hop additions during the whirlpool and a huge dose of dry hops” (I quote from the brewery’s website). I’ve never tried a session on Neck Oil, but while 4.3 per cent is just on the edge of sessionability, I’m not sure about “”masses of hop additions”, even ignoring ” a huge dose of dry hops”. The classic British session beers are milds and light bitters, which generally have low hop rates. High hop rates are, I suggest, the antithesis of sessionability: too many hops, and you really can’t drink more than a couple of pints without hop overload.

This MIGHT be a session beer, if the hops aren’t overdone

James Rylance told Lily Waite that sessionability was less about abv than “balance”, and insisted: “I think ‘sessionable’ is a beer that can be drunk repeatedly, multiple times, in its correct volume. There’s a lot of Belgian beers that are super sessionable, like Saison Dupont at 6-point-something percent — that’s sessionable, but I’m just not drinking a pint of it.” No, sorry, couldn’t disagree more. You’re confusing “sessionable” with “drinkable”. You might be able to drink several small Duponts, I’m sure, lovely beer, and one is certainly not enough, but a true session beer has to be gulped in pints, not sipped. And probably I drink too fast, but after a four-hour session, I wouldn’t even be able to find the bar if I were drinking something that was 6.5 per cent. So no, Saison Dupont is NOT “sessionable” either.

But this is DEFINITELY a session beer – or was …

I can’t agree, either, with another of Lily Waite’s interviewees, Chris Hannaway of the London-based alcohol-free beer venture Infinite Session (see what he did there?), which launched last year with a 0.5 per cent pale ale brewed at Sambrooks in Battersea. ” “A ‘session’ is no longer about everyone ordering the same 4 to 5 per cent lager rounds for everyone in the group,” he says – but it never was. It was about people drinking 3.2 per cent to 4.3 per cent milds, bitters or lagers, depending on what they wanted, and drinking them all night long.  

So: what’s the definition of “sessionable” and does it apply to craft beer? Sessionable means a beer you can drink over an extended period without getting too drunk and without growing tired of it and wanting something else. And yes, clearly that can apply as much to craft beer as it does to macro, mass-market beer. (Indeed, personally I find mass-market beers entirely unsessionable because they bore me after half a pint. Dull is not sessionable either.) A sessionable craft beer is going to be one that is not too strong, and not too challenging in terms of massive hop flavours or other flavour attributes such as roastiness, sourness or whatever. There – not impossible at all.

Mani hands make light beer

I’ve been going on holiday with my family to the Mani, in the middle “finger” of the Peloponnese, pretty regularly since 2006: it’s a beautiful, almost entirely unspoilt place, the beaches are broad and sandy, the sun almost continuous, the people are friendly, the food is excellent, locally sourced and cheap. The beer, until now, has generally not been up to much, but when it’s 32ºC almost anything cold and wet will do. All the same, I was thrilled to discover this year that a local entrepreneur, Takis Kapetanéas, has opened a craft brewery on the edge of the small fishing village of Agios Nikolaos, in the Western Mani, just five minutes down the road from the seaside village of Stoupa, where we always stay.

Nema logo

Greece now has 45 breweries, up from 35 two years ago, 13 in 2009 and a mere five at the start of the century. Most are still tiny, however (indeed, the Mani Brewery, despite being one of the newest is the second-largest “craft” beer brewery in the country), some have struggled and closed, such as the Messinian brewery, near Kalamata, opened in 2009, which made beer under the similar-sounding Neda brand, but which closed a couple of years or so back; and beer remains down the list of priorities for Greek drinkers: for comparison, the country is said to have some 500 different brands of ouzo, and 3,500 wines.

Takis Kapetanéas tries some of his own beer

The brewery’s founder, Takis (short for Panagiotis) is in his early 40s and proudly Maniot born and bred: the “-éas” at the end of his family name is the universal ending for surnames in the Messinian Mani, and the brand name of his beers Nema, is a Maniot dialect word meaning “gesture” or “nod”, while the brewery logo features the  tower houses found in almost every Maniot village, where, in the past, families would retreat to defend themselves against their enemies – generally rival families from the same village.

Takis, who worked in the property business before he became a full-time brewery owner, says he “fell in love” with beer on his travels abroad, and became a “long-time” home brewer, always with the ambition to open his own brewery. The brews currently being made at the Mani Brewery, a 16 IBU 4.6 per cent abv blonde ale and a 20 IBU, 4.6 per cent abv summer ale, are “pragmatic” beers, Takis says: not the beers he would like to make which would be well-hopped IPAs and stouts, but the ones he knows will sell in the Greek market, where 99.5 per cent of the beer on sale is pale euro-lager.

The blonde is an excellent, refreshing, unfiltered, unpasteurised easy-drinking top-fermented ale, best served well-chilled: citrussy, slightly sweet, made with  the local spring water, treated as necessary (Mani tap water is unfit for drinking, containing four times more fluoride than EU recommendations, but the springs in the region provide nicely lime-hard brewing liquor), Magnum hops, Greek pils malt from the Vergina brewery in Thessaly and a touch of Vienna and carapils,. It’s a great beach or poolside beer. The summer ale, paler, slightly bitterer, slightly hoppier, is a little more complex, and a fine companion for the generally unfussy, excellent-value Greek food, all made from local ingredients, found in the many family-run restaurants in Ag Nik and its larger neighbours, Stoupa and Kardamili, where you can still dine very well for under €14 a head, including drink.

Me sampling beer at the Mani Brewery, with the Taygetos Mountains in the background

Takis and John Malcolm, an expat Scot in his 60s and another long-term home brewer who met Takis through their mutual interest in making beer, and who is now one of two assistants at the three-man brewery, offered a sample of the blonde ale that had been souped up post-fermentation with masses of extra Citra hops, a beer closer to the sorts they would like to educate local drinkers into appreciating. It was tremendous: the pale malts giving an almost transparent underpinning, like clear glass struts, to a beautifully sculpted structure of lemons, limes and mangoes whirled together in a frothy, scented, just-bitter-enough delight.

The brewery itself, which opened in June last year just off the main road south from Stoupa, between the mountains and the sea, after a short period where Nema beers were being made by the Sparta brewery, on the other side of the Taygetus mountains that divide the Mani peninsula, is housed in a building that started as an olive oil factory, spent some time as a marble works and was later a disco, which has to be, surely, one of the most varied careers of any brewery premises on the planet. Today it holds shiny Chinese-made stainless steel brewing kit: 1,200-litre brew length, mash tun, copper, lauter tun, whirlpool and hop kettle, four fermenting vessels (three 25hl, one 12.5hl), pumps and valves computer-operated, it only brews top-fermented, unfiltered, unpasteurised ales, so no lagering tanks, and there is a very small bottling and kegging line, with CO2 flushing. The kit was manufactured by Tiantai, in Jinan, Shandong, China to Takis’s specifications, and Tiantai send its Mr Wu over to Greece to put it all together: according to John Malcolm, Mr Wu did not speak English, let alone Greek, and all communication with him was via Google Translate. How much the kit actually cost, the Mani Brewery won’t say (indeed, they were rather upset when I made a guess), although John Malcolm did reveal that it cost more to ship the kit from Piraeus, Greece’s main port, to Ag Nik than it did to get it from China to Piraeus.

Lovely shiny Chinese brewing kit, installed by Mr Wu

Takis is coy about the whole source of the brewery’s funding, saying only that it is “local financing”. He has backing from a big local drinks distributor, and he has also had support from Mythos Brewery, the Carlsberg subsidiary that supplies what is probably the best of Greece’s macro-lagers: “Mythos lets us use its taps and chillers in local restaurants and bars, and we let them use ours, although obviously they have a lot more taps,” he says. “It’s a mutual handshake. We never expected that to happen.” The encouragement from Mythos, he thinks, is there because the company sees an operation like the Mani Brewery as expanding the market for beer in Greece, and Carlsberg would like to be able to introduce some of its more “craft” brands, such as Grimbergen (yes, I know, but that’s how Carlsberg sees it) into the country. The reasoning seems to be that if, through the availability of more craft beer from the likes of the Mani Brewery, the Greeks are persuaded to drink more unusual beers and less macro-lager and ouzo, then this will be good for Carlsberg as well.

John Malcolm serves up some beer

It’s a brave step to push unfiltered, unpasteurised, slightly hazy ales at a market that doesn’t really understand such beers yet, and once, at least, in my multiple samplings of Mani Brewery beers in numerous outlets over more than a fortnight it didn’t work – ironically, at a restaurant in Ag Nik itself, where the beer in two consecutive bottles was clearly badly oxidised. That was the only hiccup, however, and I report it solely in the interests of honesty. Otherwise, if you’re in Greece, Nema beers are worth grabbing wherever you see them. The beers of the Mani Brewery are available, on draught and/or in bottle, in almost every outlet in the region, and pushing up into Kalamata, the local big city. I greatly look forward to sampling them again, and seeing what new brews Takis, John and the rest of the team come up with.

The original version of this post contained a story that I was told by two different people, which Heineken Greece insists is totally false. It was alleged to me that after the Mani Brewery opened, Heineken Athens, brewer of leading brands of beer in Greece such as Alfa and Amstel, contacted all the local bars, restaurants and supermarkets and told them that if they started stocking the new brewery’s beers, Heineken would withdraw its own brands, plus the dispense equipment, from their premises. “Fine,” all the bar owners allegedly replied, to a Maniot. “Do you want to come and collect it now, or shall we just throw it out into the street?”

It appeared a fine example of how you should never try to bully a Maniot – they are descendants of the Spartans, and fought the Ottoman Empire for more than 350 years, eventually leading the revolt starting in 1821 that finally saw the Greeks re-establish their independence – and Heineken, unfortunately, has form: it was fined a whopping €31.45 million only five years ago (reduced on appeal to €26.73 million) by Greece’s Competition Commission for abusing its dominant position in the country’s beer market. However, the Mani Brewery was swift to distance itself as far as possible from the story, and after I contacted Heineken for a statement, Yiannis Georgakellos, communications and corporate affairs director at Athenian Brewery, Heineken’s Greek subsidiary, insisted: “The allegation that ‘Heineken Greece contacted bars and restaurants in the local area and told them that if they stocked the new brewery’s beers, Heineken would withdraw its own brands and dispense equipment from their premises’ is simply untrue. 

“Over the last five years the number of local microbrewery brands available in the market has drastically increased. This is a positive shift for us, as it gives consumers more options, thus contributing to a thriving beer culture in Greece, which is one of our main objectives as well.”

I am happy to repeat Mr Georgakellos’s assurances that the story is false, and should anybody tell you this story, Mr Georgakellos wants everybody to know that Heineken subscribes to something called Speak Up, “a service available to anyone, internally and externally, who wishes to raise a concern about possible misconduct within our company. We encourage everyone to Speak Up in confidence and without fear of retaliation about any concerns they may have. We offer several Speak Up channels such as speakup.heineken.com through which people can raise questions and concerns. They include trusted representatives and an external Speak Up service (telephone and online) which is run by an independent third party and available 24/7, 365 days a year.”

That’s good to know.

Old Man Yells at Cloudy Beers

Beer … or apple juice? Cloudy enough for rain.

This is a glass of something called Herr Axolotl, from Ale Browar of Poland, bought in a bar in the charming city of Wrocław. It is described as a Berliner Weisse with guava. I struggled very hard to find anything at all about it that might deserve the name “beer”. It looked like cloudy apple juice. It tasted a lot like very sour cloudy apple juice. It certainly didn’t taste as if it had ever been in the same postcode district as a hop. As I went further down the glass, there was something nasty lurking in the background, harshly sharp and unpleasant. I have become Old Man Yells at Cloudy Beer.

Nine days in Poland, on a return visit four years after I  first travelled to the country to check out its craft beer scene, involved meeting large numbers of friendly, enthusiastic Polish craft brewers, beer geeks and bar owners and drinking considerable quantities of beer in an expansive range of styles, almost all of it of it well-made, some of it absolutely fascinating, rare and thrilling, and some of it pushing the envelope so hard it rips. I used to think I was on the far-left libertarian wing of the beer world, able to accept pretty much anything brewers came up with. But after walking into several Polish craft beer bars, looking at the menu on the wall, filled with opaque sours, fruit ales, vanilla ice-cream IPAs and the like and wondering if I should ask: “Um – do you have any beer-flavoured beer?”, I realise that I’m not actually as liberal as I thought, and that there is a line which, once crossed, I find myself saying: “You may be a brewer, but that’s not a beer.” Too many brewers, it appears, are chasing novelty at the expense of a decent drink.

This is not a beer. It’s a fermented fruit juice. Don’t confuse the two

Much of the reason for this realisation arriving in Poland rather than, say, Hoxton comes from the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is driven far more, I think, than other countries’ by novelty, which in itself is an artefact of the fact that the Polish craft beer scene is hugely enthusiastic but tiny – still less than one per cent of what is, admittedly, the third biggest beer market in Europe – which itself is down to the cost of craft beer compared to mainstream beer. A 50cl bottle of Tyskie is three or four złoty, when it’s 4.8 złoty to the pound. A bottle of craft beer is four times more expensive. Poland is still not a rich country, and most people can’t afford craft beer. Meanwhile those craft beer drinkers who do exist want something different every time they go up to the bar, which puts pressure on bar owners, who put pressure on brewers, who are aware enough about what goes on in places like the US to use trends such as New England IPA and barrel-ageing and souring and fruit beers to come up with an ever-changing variety of new products flowing from the fermenting vessels.

I was lucky enough to visit Browar Palatum, now three years old, the only proper brewery actually in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million people, where the owner, Łukasz Kojro, told me he makes more than 300 brews every year, each one different, because that’s what the market demands. Almost all of Palatum’s production is draught – the brewery has only a small hand-bottling side – and Łukasz is able to sell all he makes across Poland, even though the market is comparatively so small, and there are now some 250 actual craft breweries open and another 150 “cuckoo” or contract brewers using other people’s kit. Something helping Polish craft brewers is that because of the price problem, there is very little craft beer imported into Poland from outside: it’s too expensive.

But constantly having to think up new beers means that, inevitably, you’re going to get some that aren’t beers at all: at least not beers according to the definition I now find myself formulating after my Polish experience. This is, of course, pretty majorly subjective, and based almost entirely on what I like about beer and why I drink it, but it does have some grounding in measurable facts. A hopped cider, for example, is not, I hope, by anybody’s definition, a beer: nothing wrong with hopped cider, I’ve drunk some and it was good, but no grain, so not a beer. Similarly, just because it contains grain and hops, that doesn’t make it a beer automatically: if you can’t taste either grain or hops in the glass then I am very reluctant to call it a beer. If it tastes mostly of fruit juice, if you’ve put 600kg of mango into the fermenting vessel, as one Polish brewer boasted to me, then what you’ve got is fermented mango, that is, fruit wine, and not beer. If you drink it and enjoy it, fine, but I reserve the right to say: “No thanks, I like drinking beer.”

A bit of Polish handpump action

Let us not, however, give the impression that the Polish craft beer scene is entirely the preserve of the wild and the weird. There are plenty of straight-up, solid brews, from very good pilsners to fine pale ales. I particularly enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Pinta brewery’s Atak Chmielu (Hop Attack), 6.1 per cent abv, 69 IBU which was the first ever commercial “Polish craft beer”, in 2011, and which, when it appeared, blew every Polish beer drinker’s socks off their feet and away over the horizon. It’s now venerable enough to be described as “old-fashioned” after only eight years, but it’s an excellent American pale ale, and a safe call in any bar selling it while you contemplate what weirdness to try next.

Pinta, based way down in the south of Poland, 40 miles south-west of Krakow and 11 miles from the Slovak border, has grown from being a contract brewer to one of the largest independents in Poland and one of the thriving stars of Polish craft beers, along with Stu Mostów (“Hundred Bridges”) and Profesja of Wrocław, both of those only five or so years old, both, like Pinta, producing very well-made beers.

The Delerium Tremens Pink Elephant at the start of the Wrocław beer festival, left, and at the end, right, as John ‘Mad Eye’ Duffy attempts to give the poor deflated creature some comfort: haven’t we all felt like that at the end of a beer festival sometimes?

There are newer brewers doing impressive stuff too: Cześć Brat! (which means Hello Brother!, and which, surprise, is run by brothers Grzegorz and Michał Malcherek in the town of Jelcz-Laskowice, 15 miles south-east of Wrocław), for example. You’ll find one or two handpumps tucked over in a corner in many Polish beer bars, and one of the beers I kept finding being served on handpump when I was there was Cześć Brat’s 4 per cent abv tonka bean milk stout, Coś na Wieczór?, which means “Something for the Evening?”. Interesting beer flavouring, tonka beans, they contain a big hit of coumarin, which gives a similar taste and aroma to woodruff, and they’re also quite bitter, which in this case nicely counteracts the sweetness of the milk stout. (Cześć Brat!, as an aside, is another Polish brewer with terrific graphics, produced by a well-known Polish graphic designer: the brothers loved her work and wrote to her saying: “We’re only a small, poor brewer, but what do you charge?”, and she wrote back saying: “I like the idea of working for a brewery, so I’m not going to charge you very much at all.” Don’t ask, don’t get.)

Bartek Dach of Hopium with a glass of Michaił Jakson, a ‘white Imperial Russian Stout’ – we see what you’re doing there, Bartek …

The Hopium brewery, from the village of Nowy Drzewicz, south-west of Warsaw, won my unofficial prize for “best beer name of the Wrocław beer festival”, with Michaił Jakson, a “white Imperial Russian Stout”, not, you’ll conclude, a nod to the late beer writer. The beer was a bit of a Thriller, too: a strong (8.5 per cent abv) pale ale with coffee infused in during maturation, which I wouldn’t have expected to work had I not tasted it and enjoyed it. Hopium gives all its beers “celebrity pun” names, such as Al Apacino, an APA, Danny De Wheato, and Kwasko Da Gama, a fruit sour ale, kwas, pronounced “kvas”, being the Polish for “sour”. Quite a few of the beer names are puns on Polish celebrities unknown across the Oder, which puns obviously don’t travel. At least one, a mango fruit ale called Vincent ManGogh, is based on a mispronunciation I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about (for Americans reading this, it’s Van GOFF, not Van GO).

The beer I was most thrilled to discover, though, was one I had travelled to Poland specifically to find:  Jopejskie, a revival of an obscure, strange, fascinating Polish beer style, more than 500 years old, which, bizarrely, was brewed in the North of England under the name Black Beer until 2013. I knew the Polish contract brewer Olimp had a version on sale in 100ml bottles, but as I wandered the Wrocław festival, where the 50-plus stalls are almost all run by the brewers themselves, I spotted that the Świdnica brewery, from the town of the same name some 30 miles south-west of Wrocław, was selling Jopejskie on draught – at 35 złoty (£7.30) for 10cl, when other beers were 10 to 13 zloty for 50cl. To save you turning on your calculator, that’s 13 times more expensive, and the equivalent of £41 a pint!

Rafał Harchala of Browar Świdnica with a glass of Jopejskie in his hand at the Wrocław beer festival

Not that you could possibly drink even half a pint: it was “only” 9 per cent abv, but had started out at a barely believable 50º plato, which if my maths is right is all of 1233 OG, and suggests a FINISHING gravity of around 1164, higher than almost all other strong beers begin at. Olimp is apparently very secretive about how it brews its Jopejskie, but Rafał Harchala of Browar Świdnica was entirely happy to tell me all: he starts with a strong Russian Imperial Stout wort and then boils it for 24 hours (24 hours!), to end up with something closer to tar than wort. This is then pitched with a standard lager yeast – the well-known 34/70, I believe – and left until the lager yeast cells wave the white flag, after which the brew remains in an open vessel for any wild yeasts to have a go if they think they’re hard enough. Finally the beer is kegged: the batch at the festival had been made in October last year, and was thus eight months old..

Even the wildest of wild yeasts eventually give up, however, and what is left is still sweet and treacly – and delicious. I confess to a tingle in my feet when I drank this: liquid history, chewy, powerful, filled with dark, deep flavours, simply fabulous. One of my best beer experiences of the past few years. Later I managed to find the Olimp version on sale in a shop in Krakow (39 złoty per 100ml bottle: I saw it in a bar for 49 złoty), and a very kind Polish-based home brewer, Tomasz Spencer, gave me a bottle of his home-brewed Jopejskie. So that’s three different versions of a beer I never thought I’d see: amazing.

Me and friendly bar staff, Maryensztadt, Warsaw Old Town

There were some disappointments, and ironically the worst beer I had was in a brewpub in Krakow that claims to brew the finest British-style cask ale. Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the inspiration for a white RIS) held to a philosophy that it wasn’t his job to be unpleasant to people, but to encourage everybody, so perhaps it might be kindest to draw a discreet bartowel over these failings. But frankly, if you’re selling a “cask-conditioned bitter” you call “England’s Glory” to Poles, it really needs not to taste of unfermented wort and lack all condition. I tried the porter, to see if this was just one poor cask, and it was barely better: thin, little condition again, sweetcorn on the nose and something nastily sharp lurking in the background.

But apart from that, I had a terrific time: if you like beer tourism, Poland is now an absolutely must-visit destination. The Wrocław beer festival, outside the football stadium a tram-ride from the city centre, is one of the best in Europe, well-organised, a great selection of dozens of different Polish breweries, and a fine range of Polish street food to mop up the beer. The beer bars, in Krakow and Warsaw in particular, are almost uniformly excellent, and if the selections of beers are almost entirely Polish, well, those beers are good enough, and varied enough, that you won’t miss anything. Among the places I particularly enjoyed were Hoppiness, in the aptly named Chmielna (“Hop Street”) in central Warsaw and Maryensztadt in Warsaw Old Town; and Omerta in Krakow.

Many thanks to the guys at Crookham Travel for organising the travel around Poland and brewery trips in Wrocław and Krakow, and Tony Fox-Griffiths in particular for his impeccably researched guides to bars in those two cities; to Tomasz Kopyra and the crew at Festiwal Dobrego Piwa for the free beer and hotel accommodation in Wrocław (and more brewery trips); and to Tom Spencer for giving up his time to take me on a bar crawl of Warsaw. and organising yet another brewery visit. See you all again soon, I hope.

The world’s quickest brewery tour

There ARE smaller breweries that Poppyland, but not very many: the room that the 2½-barrel brewkit sits in measures about 160 square feet. Your living room is probably larger. So the “brewery tour” consists of standing in a corner and pivoting on one heel through 180 degrees. That’s it: you have now done the Poppyland experience. Maybe we should copyright it …

Your ten-second brewery tour, conducted by Dave “chief yeast wrangler” Cornell: copper, mash tun and FV on your right, barrel-ageing department centre, “grain store” on your left … Click to embiggen

Poppyland, in West Street, Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast, named for the nickname given to the area around Cromer in the late 19th century, was founded by Martin Warren in 2011, and built a reputation for well-made and eclectic beers: Poppyland was probably the first brewery in the UK to brew with kveik, Norwegian farmhouse yeast, for example, and its smoked porter with smoked hops, smoked in the local fish smokery in Cromer has been very popular, while Roger Protz featured its East Beach IPA in his book IPA: A Legend in Our Time.

‘You don’t want to brew that!’

Martin has now decided to retire, and the brewery was bought by my brother Dave at the start of this year. It’s a small enough operation to really not need more than one man and his missus (the lovely Mandy) to run, but I have a small role as part-time adviser and consultant, probably much in the style of Harry Enfield’s Mr Only Me (“You don’t want to do it like that!”). I look forward to saying to Michael Turner some time soon: “Hello, Michael, I’m a family brewer, and you’re not …”

The brewery is in  premises that were once a small garage operation, and the sign outside on the fascia that says “ALES GAS ’N LAGER” is an anagram of “ALLEN’S GARAGE”. Next to the room where the brewing takes place is another room where beer, currently,  is stored, which has a tiny (really tiny) bar. The plan is to move most of the beer storage elsewhere and stick in a couple of armchairs and a pair of stools, so that a maximum of four people can be accommodated for beer tastings and the like. Unfotunately there are no lavatorial facilities on site, which limits the amount of hospitality that can be put on somewhat: I doubt the White Horse just up the road will be excited by people popping in from the brewery to use their loos …

The Poppyland brewery premises: currently only the ground floor, but who knows …

Brewing has been slow to restart, not least because of the bureaucracy that has to be gone through. This includes, but is not limited to

● Signing up to the alcohol wholesaler registration scheme (this may involve a 45-day wait …)
● Obtaining a certificate of recognition to be a producer and holder of beer
● Obtaining a premises licence
● Obtaining a personal licence (this involves a police check, and passing an exam …)
● Obtaining permission to discharge waste
● Obtaining a licence to be a holder of acid

At the same time my brother has been undergoing a swift education in how to brew, courtesy of, among others Norfolk Brewhouse in Hindringham some 16 miles to the west of Comer.

So: hopefully, Poppyland should be ready to roll under its new owner within days. The first brew under the new management, my brother tells me, will be called Coddiwomple, which, he says, is an old English word meaning “to travel purposefully towards an as-yet-unknown destination”. I hae ma doots about that, but the motto of Poppyland since Martin Warren started it eight years ago has always been “adventures in beer start here”, and that’s certainly true. I’ll be keeping you up to date with our adventures, as we travel towards that as-yet-unknown destination …

Why, nearly 50 years after the birth of Camra, can I still not be guaranteed a decent pint of cask beer in most pubs?

Why is finding a properly kept pint of cask ale such an appalling lottery in Britain’s pubs, despite the existence since 1971 of a consumer organisation dedicated to beer quality – before most pub staff were born – and the existence of a trade organisation dedicated to raising the standards of draught beer, Cask Marque, since 1998, two decades ago?

The answer is actually ridiculously simple. Almost nine out of ten pints of cask beer sold in Britain are sold after the cask they came from has been open for at least three days. According to CGA, almost 90 per cent of cask ale brands sold at below the rate of 18 pints per tap per day required to maintain quality. The typical cask of beer is still on sale seven or more days after it has been opened. This is exactly the same as making a sandwich on Monday, and still having it on sale a week later. The bread will be stale, the filling long past its best. Anybody buying that week-old sandwich is unlikely, after trying it, to buy a sandwich from you again. Cask beer is a perishable product: it loses its best qualities very quickly, certainly within a few days. Most pubs ignore this, and as a result most cask beer is sold a long way off from peak condition.

Paradoxically, there is also a big problem of pubs selling beer too young. Almost three in five publicans confess to putting beer on sale before the recommended three days of cellar conditioning. So there is a fair chance that just as your pint is finally coming into condition, it’s already past its best because the cask has been open too long.

Adding to the problem of poor quality caused by age, the evidence clearly shows most pubs keep their cask beer too warm. This is obviously more of a problem in summer, but cellar air conditioning has been available for many decades: that picture at the top shows a pub cellar from 1947, with aircon units. However, in July this year, Cask Marque found that almost seven out of ten pints of cask ale were served warmer than the recommended 11ºC to 13ºC. Two per cent were served at an alarming 20ºC – almost 70ºF. How is this possible?

Hilariously – or not – more than 90 per cent of pub landlords insist that they are aware of the advise on how to keep cask beer well, advice which strongly recommends arranging turnover so that a cask is emptied within three days, and they claim either that they do their best to follow that advice or don’t actually need it because they are expert cellarmen. And two thirds of landlords insist their cask ales never stay on sale for longer than three days. Unfortunately, the evidence shows clearly that this is totally untrue. Vianet, a company that monitors what happens in pub cellars, found that the majority of pubs sell less than a cask of beer per tap per week. Let’s be generous and say that half of each cask is sold within the recommended three-day period after the first pint is poured. That means half of all pints from the majority of pubs are going to be four days older or more. Would you reckon to buy a sandwich from a place where half the sarnies on offer were between four days and a week or more old?

One underlying reason for all these problems is that too many publicans are either indifferent to or don’t like cask beer. To quote Pete Brown, in the latest Cask Report, out yesterday, “Among publicans who love drinking cask themselves, every single quality measure is significantly better.” Perhaps we should be saying: “If you don’t actually adore cask beer, please don’t sell it.”

In the past five years, cask ale sales have dropped by 20 per cent, while the overall beer market has fallen by just over nine per cent. At that rate of decline, cask ale will effectively have vanished in a few decades. Meanwhile “craft” beer, defined for the purposes of this argument as non-mainstream keg beers made by small brewers, has leapt from nowhere ten years ago to six per cent of the on-trade beer market in 2018. I drink “craft” beer in a pub occasionally, but I do not believe I will ever have a pint of “craft” as wonderful as the very best cask ale can be. If cask ale disappears, then to misquote Hilaire Belloc, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the best of England

The Cask Report has a number of tips to try to stop this apocalyptic scenario. Here are mine:

1) Every pub or bar that sells cask ale must have a cask ale champion whose specific job it is to ensure that every pint is perfect. If this is not the publican, it should be someone else senior.

2) Every pub company, too, must have someone in the organisation to champion cask beer and ensure every outlet is selling the best cask ale it can.

3) Pubs should be taught that a big range of different cask beers on sale at the same time is not automatically a bonus, but a likely contributor to quality problems.

4) Before any pub gets Cask Marque accreditation, it should be able to show a record of how long every cask beer has been on sale, and also a record of every customer complaint about the quality of a pint, and what action was taken about that complaint. Pub companies should also regard this as best practice.

5) If “craft” drinkers are avoiding drinking cask because they perceive it to be all “boring brown bitter”, pubs should urge “craft” beer drinkers to try those modern cask beers closest in flavour to the most popular sorts of craft ale – American pale ales and the like. Then use those beers as a gateway to the joys of traditional cask ales. Staff need to know enough to be able to explain that, actually, the earliest American Pale Ales were directly inspired by Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.

6) Camra members over 65 (and yes, I fall in that segment) should STFU about how awful Doom Bar is, and should be taken behind a wall and shot in the head if they utter the phrase “Remember Watney’s Red Barrel!” Nobody except you DOES remember Watney’s Red Barrel, grand-dad, and it’s the image you and people like you bring to cask ale – slippered, cardiganned, smelly – that is part of the reason why under-30s would rather drink “craft”.

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 Mississippi waterfront 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