Category Archives: Tastings

Barrel-aged stout and my own egregious selling-out

Amid all the dodgy news that has hit the American craft beer scene over the past month or so – Founders Brewing Co, the largest in Michigan, having to settle a racial discrimination suit, AB-Inbev  stealing the slogan a small brewer has been using for nearly ten years, Lagunitas dumping all over community groups that had been relying on it for fund-raising, Redhook of Seattle finally being swallowed completely, New Belgium of Colorado, the fourth-largest American craft brewery, also losing its independence to a brewing megagiant – one scandalous example of appalling misbehaviour by a big brewer attempting to throw its vast weight around in a morally disgusting fashion seems to have passed by surprisingly unnoticed.

I’m referring to the attempt by AB-InBev – them again – to punish the Chicago-based journalist and author Josh Noel, in total defiance of the values of free speech and honest, upright dealing: the most shocking example of trying to crush commentary you don’t like that I can recall in the beer industry.

Josh has been writing about the Chicago beer scene for many years for the city’s big newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and in particular he has been championing Bourbon County Stout, the whiskey-barrel-aged Imperial stout first made by Goose Island Beer Company in the mid-1990s that started an entire new beer style. In 2018 he wrote a book on BCS, Goose Island, and the acquisition of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch back in 2011 called Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, subtitled “Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and how craft beer became big business”.

It’s one of the very best books on craft beer history I have read – possibly THE best – and one of the best business books I have seen in general. It was deservedly garlanded with the Book of the Year award by the North American Guild of Beer Writers, and if you haven’t read it, you really should get yourself a copy right now. It’s a thorough, deeply researched, sometimes brutal but totally fair and honest account of the origins and growth of Goose Island since it was founded by businessman John Hall in 1988, looking hard at the pressures that led to the sale of the brewery in 2011, and how and why the brewery, its products and ethos have changed over the decades. AB-Inbev clearly hated it.

I was going to paraphrase what happened after the book came out, but Josh wrote it up so much better than I could in a series of tweets, so here is Josh’s story, with occasional interjections by me (and American spellings). We pick it up just after Goose Island has declined to invite him to the annual preview release of the latest iteration of BCS:

“First time in the 10 years I’ve covered beer for the Chicago Tribune. I was told the brewery ‘wasn’t comfortable’ [mealy-mouthed creeps. Be honest, ye scabs – MC] with me attending. What does that mean? Who wasn’t comfortable? Why? They wouldn’t explain any of that. How’d we get here? What’s happening? Well it began last year.

Goose Island initially didn’t invite me to last year’s Bourbon County preview either — six months after my book came out. The book was mostly Goose-positive up to its 2011 sale to Anheuser-Busch. Then the story took on a lot more nuance about the brewery and brand in AB’s hands.

That change was inevitable thanks to Anheuser-Busch’s needs and goals — and why it bought Goose Island in the first place (along with 10 more craft breweries). There was no way around AB’s anti-competitive practices, lack of transparency and aim of market domination.

So, faced with not being invited to last year’s Bourbon County media preview — something about “needing to have a better working relationship” [“needing you to kiss our bottoms” more like – MC] — I argued I’d been fair and measured. Not always positive. But fair. They ultimately agreed. I attended the tasting. I championed the debut of Bourbon County Wheatwine (which went on to win a FOBAB medal). Didn’t much care for Vanilla or Bramble.

I’d been covering Bourbon County since 2010. Back then there was no media tasting. Goose Island was too busy to think much about media at all. Aside from a few dedicated bloggers, very few people were writing about Bourbon County — or craft beer in Chicago at all.

This was the earliest story I wrote about Bourbon County. About the (gasp!) $45 price tag on the first iteration of Rare Bourbon County Stout, in 2010. And year by year, buzz built for the annual Bourbon County release. As time went on, I expressed interest in tasting ahead of the releases, to tell the story of beers changing the beer drinking game in Chicago and beyond. I called Bourbon County Chicago’s “most important beer ever.

We did annual tastings, just the brewers and me. It was low-key and very relaxed. In 2015, things changed. Biggest change: Goose and AB went all in on the barrel-aging program, building a gargantuan new barrel-aging warehouse to blow up Goose’s barrel-aging program. The brewery also realized it shouldn’t just give me and the Chicago Tribune an informal first taste. It should make an event of it. And Goose did. The first “proper” Bourbon County media tasting happened in 2015, at that barrel warehouse. It was a candlelit affair with two tables full of writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. They’ve done it every year since, and even expanded it to NYC media.

(Side note: at that 2015 tasting, I believe I was the first person to note what would inevitably be a disastrous infection issue in four of that year’s Bourbon County beers. I said Bourbon County Coffee tasted peppery and “off to me.” But I digress …)

2015 was also the year that, thanks to the scope and scale of the barrel-aging warehouse, Bourbon County morphed from a lovely boutique product into a national workhorse. (Arguably the entire point of AB buying Goose Island.) Goose Island flooded the market with Bourbon County while also trying to maintain the aura of “exclusivity.” A beer called “Rare,” for instance, which people had stood in line/paid a premium for in 2015 landed on supermarket shelves a year later.

As part of the Anheuser-Busch machine, Bourbon County became a story beyond what was simply in the bottle. Yet, what was in the bottle also continued to matter. Bourbon County came out every Black Friday. People cared. Some of the beer was outstanding. And every year I reviewed it at Goose Island’s annual media preview with others who write about beer.

Meanwhile I wrote that book. And blogged. And found fresh ways to write about barrel-aged beers in Chicago. That included a blind tasting that showed Revolution Brewing surpassing Bourbon County in 2017. Which brings us to this year. Last week I realized I hadn’t been invited to this year’s Bourbon County tasting. So I reached out and asked what was up. That’s when I was told that the brewery “wasn’t comfortable” with me attending [translation – senior execs had got a massive snot on about Josh’s depiction of AB, and decided he needed to be punished – MC]. I asked for an explanation.

I write for the city’s largest newspaper, have written about Bourbon County for 10 years and covered Goose throughout the year, whether beer or marketing. Seems fair to be at that tasting. The issue wasn’t about special treatment or favors. It was about getting the same access as other media.

Goose Island came back with a changed story, along the lines of, “Every year there are limited seats and we have to make difficult decisions about who to invite.” Clearly untrue [indeed – why do corporations come out with this bullshit when they must know no one believes them and they simply look like shystering liars? MC], but OK, fine. It’s their party. I asked for samples of the 2019 Bourbon County beers instead, so that I could taste and review this week along with the others who will be doing so. In return, more corporate speak: “We have allocated a limited number of advance samples to the tasting events and will not be able to fulfill your request at this time.”

Blackballed by Goose Island.

Were they disinviting me because of the book? My blog posts? My Tribune coverage? Tweets? My general demeanor and disposition? I don’t know. They refused to say. Instead, they’re flying off to New York today to do a tasting for media there.

Goose Island can decide not to invite me and the Chicago Tribune to its Bourbon County media tasting for whatever reason. Its choice. But we dictate our coverage — not the people and companies we write about.”

Yes, exactly. There are two big issues here. The first is simple liberty of discussion. AB InBev is attempting to punish someone for saying things it doesn’t like. The company’s executives need to have a copy of the Fourth First Amendment to the US Constitution poked hard into their faces: “The Freedom of Speech, and of the Press … shall not be infringed.” (Addendum – just to explain, I don’t meant it’s illegal for AB InBev to ban Josh, I mean it’s utterly against the spirit of the values the country they operate in was founded upon.) The second is an important, and surprisingly little-discussed, aspect of the implied contract between sellers and buyers. If you are asking the public to give you its money for your goods and services, then there is a moral right, which you as a seller cannot and should not attempt to take away, for commentators to express their view on whether or not the exchange you are proposing – my money for your product – is a fair one. In other words, for any proposed sale/purchase, there is a right to review and to criticise which should not be suppressed, most importantly because that right is a counter-balance to the power of the seller, and acts in defence of the buyer. That applies to everything offered for sale, from theatrical performances to automobiles to beer. For AB Inbev to attempt to take that right to criticise and comment away from Josh is a morally wrong move, which should be called out, and for which the company should be ashamed.

So: given I feel so strongly about what has happened to Josh, how come, you are entitled to ask, I attended TWO events this month in London organised by Goose Island/AB InBev, one  celebrating the Obadiah Poundage recreation stout, the other for the UK launch of BCS, swallowed its beers (for free) and ate its pizza (for free)? Hypocritical, much? Should I not, rather than enjoying the warmth of the company’s East End bar and brewhouse, have been outside in the November cold waving a placard that declared: “I stand with Josh Noel: Boycott Goose Island!” and attempting to persuade fellow beer writers not to cross my picket line?

Um. Maybe. But ultimately, no, I think, and for a host of reasons. The first, and not the least, is that boycotting AB Inbev, is, as the old joke goes, like pissing myself in a dark suit: it might give me a warm feeling, but nobody else would notice. AB InBev wouldn’t have cared, certainly. Virtue signalling to no effect doesn’t help anybody. Second, for the first event, certainly, I was there to support several old pals, notably Ron Pattinson and Derek Prentice, who were involved in the Obadiah Poundage project, which I wrote about here, (Before you ask, I was sent a case of the beer beforehand. What’s it like? More Bretty, and rather sweeter, than I was expecting: not a beer that you absolutely have to rush out to buy, but a fascinating experiment, and worth picking up if you see it.)

For the second event, the London launch of BCS, I was there out of extreme curiosity, having never drunk the beer before, and unsure when I would ever get the chance to again: if you write about beer, passing up the chance to drink the beer that started the whole, now massive, barrel-aged movement, in a fit of politically correct solidarity with a fellow journalist who was barred from a press call but, let’s put this in perspective, not actually blown up seems to be to be, well, unnecessary.

I know there are beer writers who eschew any involvement with corporate freebies, but my argument has always been that I’m very happy to accept free stuff, from beer to trips abroad, when it enables me to put information in front of my readers that I would not be otherwise able to give them. Certainly I do not believe I have ever held the boot back because someone had dropped off a case of beer. Carlsberg, for example, paid me to appear in one of their corporate videos, flew me to Copenhagen three times, took me to Twickenham and Wembley to see the national rugby and football teams play and stuffed me to my eyebrows with food and drink on multiple occasions, but that didn’t prevent me from being very rude about the new-look green-label pilsner earlier this year.

As it happens the Federal Trade Commission in the US has just issued a leaflet, “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers”, about openness in blog posts, tweets, Instagram posts and the like, which you can see here. It says:

“If you endorse a product through social media, your endorsement message should make it obvious when you have a relationship (“material connection”) with the brand. A “material connection” to the brand includes a personal, family, or employment relationship or a financial relationship – such as the brand paying you or giving you free or discounted products or services.

Telling your followers about these kinds of relationships is important because it helps keep your recommendations honest and truthful, and it allows people to weigh the value of your endorsements.

As an influencer, it’s your responsibility to make these disclosures, to be familiar with the Endorsement Guides, and to comply with laws against deceptive ads. Don’t rely on others to do it for you.”

Which I think is entirely fair enough – and if you’re thinking “I don’t live in the US,” the FTC’s guide also points out: “If posting from abroad, US law applies if it’s reasonably foreseeable that the post will affect US consumers.”

So on that basis: what were those free Bourbon County Stouts you drank like, Martyn? Very fine indeed, actually: this IS a beer you really need to track down and try. It’s massively filled with flavours, something to sip, savour and enjoy, and also, judging by the differences between the 2018 and 2019, a beer that will change in fascinating ways as it ages: the 2018, for example, was very much less coconutty than the 2019, as, clearly, the influence of the wood in the Bourbon barrel began to fade. I also greatly enjoyed two beers made at the Shoreditch brewhouse (which, incidentally, is barely a hundred yards from what was once Harwood’s Bell brewhouse, famous, incorrectly, for supposedly being the place where porter was first brewed). One was a  madeira-cask-aged doppelbock, served straight from the cask it was aged in, which was wonderfully rich, the other a sour cherry and tonka bean porter, like black forest gateau in a glass.

OK, you may passionately loathe AB InBev, and vow never to approach it or its works except with a pitchfork and a flaming torch. But the unpleasant arseholes at the top of the company who decided, stupidly and unforgiveably,  that Josh Noel had to be punished for not placing his nose as far up the AB InBev bottom as they wished are not the very many thousands of people who work for the company, who are doing the best jobs they can, and who are producing beers like that sour cherry porter, and that Madeira-cask-aged doppelbock, and those iterations of BCS, and those projects like Obadiah Poundage porter, and I believe THOSE people SHOULD be supported. But supporting them doesn’t mean not being as rude as possible about the bad things corporate AB InBev gets up to, and calling the company out on it as loudly as I can.

(Addendum 2: I meant to say, but forgot, so I’m saying it now, that as a fine example of how quickly myths arrive and take root, on both the embossed bottles that Bourdon County stout now comes in, and the T-shirts that Goose Island/AB InBev gives away, the claim is made that BCS was first brewed in 1992. This appears to be down to Greg Hall, who invented the beer, being unable to remember more than a decade later when he had had the dinner with the legendary Bourbon maestro Booker Noe that led to the beer’s creation. It was, as Josh Noel uncovered while researching his book, in 1995, not 1992.)

Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Bank's Amber bitterMy local little Tesco supermarket – and probably your local Tesco as well – is currently selling for 89p a 50cl bottle of 3.8 per cent abv amber ale made with Fuggles and Goldings hops at a 140-year-old Midlands brewery. What is worse, or better, depending on which direction you wish to drive in from, is that it’s an excellent beer, a very fine example of a classic English session bitter, only lightly carbonated, balancing with calm skill on the  knife’s edge between mouth-filling bitter and delicate sunny malt sweetness, a long afternote bringing a reminder of oranges and a touch of currant cake, as moreish as any brewer could wish. If every bottled beer were as good, Britain’s drift towards much more drinking at home would become a stampede. But the price! Beer hasn’t been that cheap in a pub for nearly 30 years. It’s a crime against economics, and a threat to every other brewer, great and small, trying to scrabble a living selling good beer on thin margins. How and where is anyone making a profit? The duty alone has to be 35p a bottle, and the VAT 18p. I cannot believe the manufacturing and distribution are less than 20p a pop, leaving 16p for the retailer: a GP of 18%. A normal business would go bust pretty swiftly on that kind of mark-up. Dear reader, how do I match the exceeding, and exceedingly cheap, pleasure I get from this beer with the guilt I wrestle to suppress, fearing that every bottle I buy pushes a Heriot-Watt graduate working for a small brewer utterly unable to compete on price with an 89p cracker closer to redundancy?

Continue reading Is it morally wrong to drink an 89p bottle of good beer?

Hopping down in Surrey

Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, Farnham, Surrey
Fuggles hops, Hamptons estate, near Farnham, Surrey

Two years ago I helped plant what was Surrey’s first new hop garden for more than half a century, and this week I went down and helped harvest hops from that same hop garden.

Of course, “helped plant” is a wild and self-aggrandising exaggeration: I dug out and popped hop rootstock into fewer than a couple of dozen holes out of the two thousand in total that were made in the field opposite the Hogs Back Brewery’s premises in Tongham, near Farnham. And “helped harvest” is a terminological inexactitude of Melton Mowbray megapie proportions as well: I gathered maybe half a small plastic bag-full of fresh Farnham White Bine hop cones off the lower third or so of a couple of towering bines. Still, those cones then went into some of Hogs Back’s TEA – Traditional English Ale – to make a new, or at least rare style of beer: Fresh Green Hopped Ale. And after a couple of days to mature, it tasted … well, let’s wait to the end.

Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey
Puttenham Farm hop garden, Seale, near Farnham, Surrey

I was down in Surrey after an invitation from Rupert Thompson, Hogs Back’s chairman, to have a look at the hop harvest going on at Puttenham Farm, in Seale, near Farnham, and then have a “hop harvest lunch” in the shade of the bines at Hogs Back’s own hop garden. Puttenham Farm was, until Hogs Back’s plantings, the last of what had been a big and important hop-growing industry centred on Farnham. It still has 14 acres of hops, all Fuggles, and the growing demand for English hops, with resultant higher prices, has encouraged the owner, Hamptons Estate, to plant another 10 acres that are due to come on stream next year. The estate is also building a new oast house for processing and drying the hops, to replace the rather elderly facilities it uses now. (Mind, by far the most profitable way to sell hops is to people who want to decorate their homes/bars/restaurants with them: £23 a bine as decoration, against 50p for the kilo or so of dried hops each bine provides.)

Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers
Hop farm boss Bill Biddell (in check shirt) and hop pickers

Sixty and more years ago the hops would have been picked by travellers and other itinerant workers: today it’s students, earning some late summer holiday money before returning to college. This can cause problems: the hops have to be picked when the workforce is available to pick them, and Rupert and his team say that one of the things they have discovered since planting their own hops is that the cones often have the best flavours and aromas later in the year than many hop farmers would be harvesting them. Hogs Back sends its hops after they are harvested to Puttenham Farm to be processed and bagged into pockets marked with the traditional bell logo used on Farnham hops: ironically, being closer to Farnham itself, Hogs Back can have TWO bells on its pockets, while Puttenham, further away, can only have one. (Anyone starting a hop garden in Farnham itself would be entitled to three bells …)

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The hops Hogs Back planted in its own hop garden are Fuggles, Farnham White Bine, the traditional local hop, which disappeared from Surrey 80 and more years ago, and the American hop Cascade. As it happens, one of Cascade’s parents is Fuggles, so it ought to feel at home in England (though its ancestors also include, probably, American wild hops of unknown provenance, via open pollination, hence its very American citrus flavours.) According to Miles Chesterman, Hogs Back’s head brewer, the Surrey-grown Cascades (which go into the brewery’s Hogstar lager) are the equal to any Americans, and he is turning away offers to buy some of this year’s harvest: Hogs Back wants it all, especially at current prices.

Hogs Back chairman gives a final look over the hop pickers' lunch at Tongham
Hogs Back chairman Rupert Thompson gives a final look over the hop pickers’ lunch at Tongham

In keeping with the “localism” of growing hops just across the road from the brewery, Rupert and his team laid on a lunch in the dappling shade of the hop garden that featured almost entirely local produce: Surrey cheeses and breads, Surrey scotch eggs and pork pies, and so on, all very fine indeed. The only “outsiders” were a couple of dried meats from Cumbria, if I remember correctly, made by Rupert’s brother, which, too, were terrific.

Fresh green hopped TEA
Fresh green hopped TEA

So, what is fresh green hopped ale flavoured with Farnham White Bines straight off the bine actually like? Excellent and fascinating: beautiful, clean, masses going on, slightly grassy/herby, spot of orange juice, tiny touch of liquorice, red apples, something faintly smokey and autumnal in the background, the sweetness of the beer seemingly brought out more by the raw hops: I’d strongly encourage brewers not just to make “green hop” beers by putting green hops into the copper, but “fresh green hop” beers, soaking the fresh hops in the brewed beer. (And when you put one of those soaked hops in your mouth – whoa!)

And now, a suitable musical ending from Shirley Collins and the Albion Band, “Hopping Down in Kent” – strictly the wrong county, but you’ll spot, I’m sure, that one of the pictures used in this YouTube video shows what is clearly a scene from Farnham.

Why Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin is a superstar in Poland

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. 'Opiłek' means 'metal chip'
Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. ‘Opiłek’ means ‘metal chip’

Wandering around the Festival of Good Beer outside the football stadium in Wrocław, southern Poland last weekend with the Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin, it was quickly clear I was in the presence of a genuine superstar. A stream of young Poles – mostly male, but including the occasional female – were rushing up to Simon, greeting him by name, shaking his hand warmly and asking if they could have their picture taken with him. During a break in the flood of fandom, Simon wryly told me that he wished he was half as famous back in the UK as he is in Poland. His YouTube video blog, Real Ale Craft Beer, has just under 10,000 subscribers and gets around a thousand views a day – respectable numbers. But while, clearly, many of those viewers come from the UK – after all, Simon is based in this country, and speaking in English – a surprising number come from Poland. The reason seems to be that in the past four years, Poles have developed a growing thirst for craft beer, and an equal thirst for information about the subject, and access to easily digested, enthusiastically delivered knowledge about new craft beers. That is what Simon’s beer-reviewing video website brings them, and they love it – and him.

Poland, you may be surprised to learn, is the third largest brewing nation in the EU, and looking to soon overtake the UK and move into second place. It produced around 40 million hectolitres in 2013, from 155 breweries, 96 litres per head per year, up 10.4% in four years, against 42 million hectolitres a year in the UK from 1,490 breweries, 66 litres per head per year, down 7.1% since 2009, and 94.3 million hectolitres a year in Germany, 107 litres per head per year, down 3.8% in four years, from 1,350 or so breweries.

From those figures you would be guessing that the Polish brewing scene is dominated by big concerns, and it is. SAB Miller has around 38% of the market through Kompania Piwowarska, including the Tyskie and Lech brands. Heineken has another 35% through Grupa Żywiec, and Carlsberg has 14% through its Polish subsidiary, which includes Okocim, leaving just 13% for the independent sector. But that independent sector is thriving: Tomasz Kopyra, the Polish beer blogger who invited me to the Wrocław festival (and who is even more of a superstar among Polish craft beer fans than Simon Martin – Tomasz has 50,000 followers on his own video beer blog and could not walk two yards across the festival grounds without being mobbed by people wanting selfies with him) told me that there were 500 new beers launched on the Polish market last year, a number that will certainly be exceeded by a considerable margin in 2015, when 100 new beers were launched in April this year alone.

Poland now has some 30 newly built craft breweries, and around 30 or 40 other craft brewer concerns contract-brewing their beers on the plant of older-established businesses. The beers they are brewing, just like the beers made by craft brewers elsewhere, largely reflect what is happening in the United States, with big, hugely hoppy IPAs and thumping stouts (though Poland has had a long tradition of very strong porters dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, when London brewers such as Barclay Perkins exported porter and stout to the Baltic region and local brewers were forced to compete with their own versions). Continue reading Why Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin is a superstar in Poland

Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.

den Lille Havfrue
If you’re in Copenhagen you do, really, have to go and pay your respects to den Lille Havfrue

Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark earlier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”). The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.

Hærvejs Lyng
Hærvejs Lyng heather beer: the ‘hær’ in Hærvejs is the same as the here in Hereford

Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick. There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.

Hø Øl, or 'Hay Ale',
Mark Hø Øl, or ‘Hay Ale’, once brewed in Britain

One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water. Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.

Xperimentet No 2, beiitered with sea wormwood ('strandmalurt' in Danish
Xperimentet No 2, bittered with sea wormwood (‘strandmalurt’ in Danish)

Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark: An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour. Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Continue reading Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting
Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.

Unexpected free beer and other adventures

The occasional free beer is, of course, one of the benefits of writing a blog about hopped alcoholic refreshment: but it doesn’t usually come to me via random interactions in the road.

Strictly, I wasn’t actually on the public highway. I was standing in what used to be Black Eagle Street, a turning off Brick Lane, in the heart of what is now Banglatown in the East End of London. Black Eagle Street was swallowed by the expansion of Truman’s brewery, at one time London’s biggest brewer, which closed more than 20 years ago. It is, now, since the old brewery site began to be converted into (quote) “East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter”, a slightly scruffy pathway lined with slightly scruffy food outlets, bars, art galleries and the like.

I had just come out of one of those bars, where, in an attempted homage to the brewery’s past, I had drunk an Anchor porter from San Francisco. Anchor porter, inspired, ultimately, by the original 18th century beer style that made Trumans famous, was introduced in 1972 – the year after Trumans lost its independence at the end of a ferocious takeover fight.

Hobsons at Trumans
Alice Churchward, left, and Laure Roux of Hobsons brewery, parked up in the Dray Walk at the former Trumans Brewery off Brick Lane

While pondering that, and other ironies, I spotted a van in the impossible-to-miss livery of Hobsons Brewery, from Cleobury Mortimer, a tiny town on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border some 120 miles from the East End, parked 20 feet away.

Fortunately the two young women with the van were not put off by a grey-bearded loony in a blue hoodie approaching, claiming to be a beer blogger, and demanding to know what they were about. Seems that Hobsons, undeterred by the boom in London’s own brewing scene, has decided there is an opportunity for a brewery whose logo is a bowler hat to sell its beers in the capital. The van, as well as dropping off casks to pubs, was delivering mild ale for the guests at a preview show for an exhibition due to take place at one of the art galleries on the Trumans site.

They, in turn, wanted to know if I knew Hobsons (answer: heard of, never drunk) and would I like to try some, they happened to have a few bottles in the van? There’s probably a bye-law somewhere in the constitution of the International Beerbloggers’ Union that says you’re never allowed to turn down unsolicited free beer. So entirely unexpectedly, thanks to Alice Churchward of Hobsons and her companion Laure Roux, I left the former Truman’s porter brewery with a bottle of British-brewed porter, Hobson’s Postman’s Knock (and also a bottle of Hobson’s Manor Ale). Thank you very much, Alice – tried the Postman’s Knock, a fine medium-strength easy-drinking porter that would be an excellent match, I suggest, with Shropshire Blue cheese.

That very pleasant surprise made up for the unpleasant surprise three minutes later when I turned out of the top of Brick Lane, crossed the road, and discovered that Mason & Taylor, recommended as “one of London’s most ambitious new beer bars” by people I respect, doesn’t open until 5pm. I’m sure the people running the bar have what they believe to be excellent operational reasons for being shut at lunchtimes and in the afternoon, but frankly, I don’t care. If you’re not open to serve me at what I regard as a perfectly reasonable hour to be served, you’re not doing a good enough job.

Instead I went to the Water Poet nearby in Folgate Street. It may be almost a parody of the trendy Spitalfields bar – the wacky artwork on the walls, the second-hand leather sofas with the stuffing bulging out and the faux-ironic Scotch eggs on the menu (I don’t recall spotting any dimpled beermugs, but most other boxes were ticked). However, the Water Poet did manage to serve me a very pleasant pint of Truman’s Runner (from the people who revived the Truman’s name in 2010) at 3.15 in the afternoon, which is very considerably better than bleedin’ Mason & Taylor managed.

Continue reading Unexpected free beer and other adventures

An 1875 Arctic Ale tasting

Legendary: it’s an overused word. But some beers literally are legendary, in the sense that far more people will have heard of them than will ever see them or taste them.

1875 reputed quart AAA bottle
Reputed quart bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale with date ‘1875’ painted in punt

One indisputably legendary beer is Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, the powerful, rich Burton Ale, original gravity 1130, north of 11 per cent alcohol, brewed in Victorian times specifically for expeditions to the Arctic Circle by British explorers. There are a very few bottles left of the Arctic Ale brewed for the expedition under Sir George Nares which set out in 1875 to reach the North Pole. And this week I drank some.

I can’t think of superlatives high enough to describe how thrilled, privileged, lucky, honoured I felt to get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try a beer 137 years old, with so much history behind it. This is exactly the same beer the Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard drank when he visited Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent in 1890. Subsequently Barnard wrote the experience up in his chapter on Allsopp’s in Noted Breweries of Great Britain. How often do you get to compare someone’s 122-year-old tasting notes with your own experience?

Continue reading An 1875 Arctic Ale tasting

Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting