Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Natural Selection: Becoming a Brewery

Heriot-Watt University runs one of the most famous brewing courses in the world. This year the MSc postgraduate course in Brewing and Distilling saw four guys – Kevin Emms (team leader), Damon Scott (brewer), Steven Kersley (sales and marketing) and Colin Lymer (brand development and design) – setting up their own temporary brewery, producing, marketing and selling a new beer.

They called the brewery Natural Selection and they released the beer, Finch, a couple of months ago. It’s a 6.5% hoppy red ale: nutty, chocolatey, caramel and vanilla body with a fruity and floral flourish from the Chinook and Amarillo hops which lead to a dry, go-back-for-more finish.

I love the idea of having a condensed project like this and I’m fascinated by what led them into the course, what challenges they faced during and what they all intend to do next. I spoke to Steven Kersley about the dissertation project.
Kevin, Damon, Steven and Colin
“When the project was put to us we only had about two months to get everything in shape before the launch and this included the recipe, so our brewer (Damon Scott) had to work quickly. We only did two test batches at the university pilot brewery before brewing the final batch at Stewart Brewing. Firstly we experimented with two different strains of yeast (Scotch Ale and Nottingham) and for the second brew the focus was purely on the hops.”

Would they change anything in the brew? “Given more time in the pilot brewery Damon has said that ideally he would have added more aroma hops (Amarillo) in order to balance out the malty characters in the beer. However that being said we feel we've produced a good beer and the experience of entering the industry for even such a short space of time has been invaluable.”  

What’s the course like at Heriot-Watt?  “The good thing about the undergraduate course is that it is full of young folk who know exactly where they want to take their career. It's a very specialised degree so you have to be sure that the brewing and distilling industry is for you but the undergraduate degree equips the students with the tools they'll need to succeed in the industry.”

“I would certainly recommend the MSc to anyone who is passionate about brewing or distilling as it is a very insightful and interesting degree which gives you a great opportunity to move into the industry.”

The team had some experience of brewing, with Damon working at Durango in Colorado, while Colin and Kevin are homebrewers. What none of them had experienced was launching a new beer from scratch, which was made even harder by the short time-scales involved.

“Colin was the champ in charge of brand development so his job was to decide how he wanted the brand to be portrayed, this would usually involve a lot of research and  perception testing but he had to work quickly to make sure the labels were ready to print only a month after undertaking the role of brand developer. He achieved this with very little experience of launching a brand.”

“Sales and Marketing was my gig and I was fortunate in that I had a little more time than the other boys to work out a strategy for selling and marketing the beer because sales didn't have to be confirmed before the brew date.  However the marketing did need to be in place so that there was a fair bit of buzz about the beer before it came out.  On a very small budget I made use of the social media, setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts whilst Kevin (project manager) set up the Natural Selection Brewing blog. I also tried to get the press onside so fired out a few press releases, managing to get us a spot in the evening news.” 

“I think the two biggest learnings we took on board were that you must stick to a time line and have a detailed plan of what you want to achieve. Kevin was responsible for delivering the project on time and made a point of having certain milestones that needed to be reached on certain dates and then each of us would formulate a plan individually so that these goals could be achieved. We were fortunate that we took this approach and the project benefited for it and I think each of us learnt as hell of a lot in our individual roles whilst getting a solid grasp of how a brewery operates.”

What’s next for the Natural Selection Brewery guys? “Colin has a brewers position at BrewDog beginning in September; Damon is going back home to Colorado and is hoping to secure a brewers position there; Kevin is going back to Vancouver and is also keen to secure a brewing role in the city; whilst I'm hoping to stay in Scotland and move into the industry myself. We're all going our separate ways but we're all certain that this project has given us great insight to the brewing industry and the experience we've gained will stand us in good stead in the future.”

Building a brand from nothing to being on the bar in a couple of months is a massive achievement. To get everything into place and to have the look and taste of the product to a high standard is great. Drinkers don’t often get to experience the back stage action of brewing and preparing a brand for market, so it’s good to get that insight.

Finch is a good beer and it might still be available in a few Scottish off-licenses. If you wanted to learn to be a brewer, to learn how to open your own brewery, then this seems like a great way of doing it.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Challenging Beer at Tesco

I am punching myself in the face.

After last week’s post about Tesco’s in-store beer marketing, there’s more this week, again sent over by Rob Marshall. This time it’s for dark beer. I’ll copy verbatim again:

Typically perceived as darker, more intense, fuller bodied, complex and challenging flavours.
i.e. porters, stouts and mild’s.

The beers pictured are Old Peculiar, Black Sheep and Directors.

I’m now punching myself in the face with both fists.

I’m just incredulous that it could get through to the shop floor. I didn’t rip last week’s apart but this one is getting the full treatment.

1. It doesn’t make sense. Literally no sense. Read it again: Typically perceived as darker, more intense, fuller bodied, complex and challenging flavours. How can anyone think that that makes sense, whether you know the content or not?

2. It’s very poorly written. It’s not a sentence. And what the hell is that i.e. doing there?

3. It’s milds, not mild’s. I have no idea how that wasn’t picked up by someone?! Fair enough if you don’t know about beer but at least have someone check the copy for errors.

4. ‘Typically perceived as darker…’ it’s dark fucking beer. That’s what the title says. It’s actually dark, not just perceived as it. And what does dark taste like?

5. ‘…more intense, fuller bodied, complex and challenging flavours.’ Are they trying to sell it or scare people away?! Intense and challenging are not good tasting notes for someone who has never tasted dark beer before.

6. Here’s a picture of Black Sheep (it's from Real Ale Reviews. Also check out Black Sheep's website image).

Guess what? Black Sheep and Directors AREN’T DARK BEERS. They are darker than your lager but they aren’t dark. (Old Peculier is dark. Well done).

But wait. There's more. Here's three other images of their in-store promotion. I'm now typing this with the toes on my left foot as I knee myself in the chin with my right leg.

Speciality beers which are creamy, refreshing and warm. The fruity and exotic beers are 'typically unusual'. The 'fuller flavour' beers include three of the blandest beers on the market and they are described as malty, spicy or slightly fruity. What does that even mean?!

You wouldn’t see Tesco labelling a rose wine as a red wine; you wouldn't see any error like this in the wine aisle. Or describe it as ‘challenging’ to drink. They are poorly put together, badly written, they don't make sense and they don't do beer any favours at all. There are many beer experts in the UK who would gladly help Tesco put together promotional materials. They will explain products to the marketing team. They’ll write it. They’ll copy read proofs for glaring, stupid errors. Why don’t they make use of people who know what they are doing? Why don't they take the beer promotion seriously? Below is last week's image again to complete the set. Well done Britain's biggest retailer...

Friday, 26 August 2011

Beer and Pubs in Bath (via Twitter)

Whenever I go somewhere new and want a pint, the first thing I do is send a tweet and ask for suggestions of where to go and what to drink. No longer is the Good Beer Guide enough on its own, nor a simple search on Google; I want a personal recommendation from someone because I feel I can trust that better than any other resource – it’s word of mouth at its online fastest.

Yesterday I was in Bath for the day on a Twitter Trip with VisitBath, the tourist board. The idea was for a group of us, each focusing on something different, to go to Bath and explore via the suggestions we received from Twitter. So we ask a question like ‘where’s the best place to get a bacon sandwich?’ and we use the responses we get to make our decision. There were no other requirements, no rules; just follow the tweets and be a tourist in Bath. Being the beer blogger, I focused on pubs and local beer.

The Raven was suggested to me by lots of people. Just off the main shopping street, it’s long and thin, a bookcase lined with many well-read paperbacks catches my eye first, there’s little stools pushed around tables, a bar lined with cask taps, small blackboards listing the beers and a big blackboard chalked with pie names. I had a half of the house ale, Raven Gold, from Blindman’s Brewery, which was a good sighter for the day of drinking ahead. Later, looking unsuccessfully for cider, I returned for a half of the Raven dark, the other house beer, and sat quietly reading – it’s the perfect sort of pub for wasting away a few afternoon hours, though I imagine it fills up quickly from five o’clock (Travels with Beer, as ever, has great pictures of The Raven).

Seeing that I was only about 20 steps from the Salamander, the Bath Ales pub, my next choice was easy, especially as this had also be recommended many times. A shabby-smart pub serving the full Bath range, the Salamander is a must-visit pub in Bath, I think. The beers are good (I like the Bath Ales ales – well made and tasty), the food is perfect pub grub (great scotch eggs and triple cooked chips!) and there’s a friendly atmosphere.

The Old Green Tree is a pub I’ve been to before but it got lots of suggestions and I couldn’t resist. It’s a small two-room pub with a bar between serving around six real ales. It’s made cosy by the feeling that it hasn’t changed much in many years, the sort of place with old carpet and photos from the fifties. A RCH East Street Cream was a showcase of British malt while I listened to the soundtrack of the barmaid’s moany domestic woes punctuated by many ‘fuck’s spat with a West Country drawl.

In search of beer brewed in Bath (Bath Ales is just outside), I wanted some Abbey Ales. I tried the Star Inn but it’s one of those places on the edge of the city which closes for a few hours in the afternoon. Instead it was the Coeur du Lion, a tiny one-room pub down a busy street which feels like walking into someone's badly-dated living room. The bar has four real ales, with two from Abbey Ales. Bellringer, as recommended by Boak and Bailey, was a decent beer, as was Box Steam’s Piston Broke. The pub’s busy walls, good beers and slightly eccentric customers make for a good city centre pint stop (more images here from Travels with Beer).

Looking for cider I found the Garrick’s Head but opted for a ‘lager ale’ called Chesil from Dorset Brewing. The beer wasn’t great (fairly bland and in bad condition) but the pub was nice. That’s all I’ve got for the Garrick’s Head.

I also wandered around some museums and bookshops because it’s nice to be cultural occasionally. I saw the Postal Museum and the Museum of Bath at Work. Both were oddly interesting in their own ways and definitely unusual, which was the request I made. Bath has some beautiful book shops, notably Mr B’s Emporium, George Bayntun and Topping and Company.

The day was fascinating because I was at the whim of what people on Twitter suggested to me, unsure what I’d find when I arrived at my destination. Usually when I go to a new city I plan carefully and have maps printed with circles highlighting where each bar or brewery is, but this way allowed me to be more flexible and spontaneous in my search for good beer.

Untouched by the beer bars of Leeds or London, Bath is a great place for local beers in nice pubs where there’s a slow, ambling pace to the drinking. Don’t go looking for double IPAs and C-hopped saisons, but do go for a parochial pride at their products and do go for the pubs with lots of character, whether it’s the building itself or the people inside.

Do you let Twitter guide your drinking when somewhere new or do you prefer the Good Beer Guide or a Google search?

This trip was something I worked on as part of my day at a digital and social media agency. We worked with Visit Bath, the tourist board, to arrange the trip. When we were looking for bloggers and journalists to attend my boss suggested I did it. I wasn’t going to say no, was I? So while I may have had some input in the project, I took part on the day just like all the others – as a Twitter explorer. We also got filmed on TV doing it. Here I am with Tim Anderson, this year’s mighty Masterchef winner, in the Salamander. I got the train to and from Bath with Tim. He’s a great guy. 

Monday, 22 August 2011

Beer Can Chicken (aka Punk Ass Chicken) with Roasted Garlic IPA Mash

Chicken cooked with a can of beer up its bottom. Also known as beer butt chicken or, in this case, Punk Ass Chicken.

I think people cook Beer Can Chicken for one reason: it looks awesome. Seeing that bird perched on the can, legs and wings akimbo, almost human, as if you’ve stitched up your mate big time and tied him to a bin, naked, cannot fail to impress the inner school boy (just look at the image above!), while the machismo of grilling a bird whole appeals to the manly man’s manliness. Who doesn’t look at a Beer Can Chicken and think ‘I need to cook that’?

So Beer Can Chicken was a dish I needed to cook. It’s a BBQ dish but I don’t have a BBQ (third floor flat, no outside space; disposable BBQ in the park not up to the job) so I used the oven. I decided on Punk IPA because it gave me an excuse to buy a four-pack and because I could call it Punk Ass Chicken. It wasn’t a difficult decision.

The first job is the best one: drink half a can of beer. You need the can open and half full. Then you need to get the chicken ready. I gave it a luxurious massage in oil, salt, pepper, paprika, fresh thyme, sugar, cloves of garlic and a little Punk before leaving it for an hour or so. When ready, heat the oven to 200C and empty it from all shelves except the lowest one.

Inserting the beer can is not the easiest job, especially with a heavy bird rubbed in slippery oil. Thankfully, like a nostril and a forefinger, a chicken’s back cavity appears to be the exact same size as a beer can, so once you’ve got hold of the bird it goes in with a satisfying push. At this point it looks a bit sorry for itself, all pink and cold with a can up its arse, but don’t feel remorse as it’s time to get it in the oven (do this very carefully – the bird is top heavy and mine fell after about 15 minutes in the oven and I need to go on an awkward recovery mission).

Around 90 minutes later (more for a bigger bird) and it’s done and looking resplendent and wonderful and crispy (I think there are few finer food sights than a roasted chicken). The only issue comes when trying to get the can out of the chicken at the end; the bird is heavy and hot and the can is filled with boiling beer. Place your hands on either side of the chicken and lift and wiggle until the can slides out.

To go with it I cooked a recipe which I’ve read many times but never dared cook: the brilliant Homebrew Chef’s roasted garlic IPA mash potato. Roast garlic until soft, heat milk or cream with butter, thyme and seasoning, make a paste with the roasted garlic cloves and add to the milk mix, add a little IPA (I used Punk) and then mix it all together with mashed potatoes. Creamy, garlicky, rich and then a little fruity from the IPA, the hop bitterness is covered by the butter while the roast garlic brings its own bitterness. It’s fantastic and a great side for the chicken.

The question I was most interested in when cooking this was how much impact does the beer have on the taste? By using a strongly scented beer I hoped to get something fragrant in the meat which I could then adapt in the future by using different beers and birds. When hot I couldn’t taste the Punk (I got a little on the skin as it’d been marinated and basted in it) but when it cooled and I was picking my way through the rest of the carcass I could definitely taste a Punk-like fruitiness through it.

One of my favourite things in the whole world to eat is a just-roasted chicken with crispy, salty skin. Add a beer can into that and things get even better. Served with the IPA mash, some cooking juices and a Goose Island IPA on the side and it was a feast of wonderful hops. Beer Can Chicken (or Punk Ass Chicken) was a great success. If you’ve never made it then what are you waiting for?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

‘Fuller Flavoured Lagers’ in Tesco

Oh dear. This image was just posted on Twitter by Robert Marshall. It’s from Tesco. I’ll repeat the words again purely because I can’t understand how something this poor could make it onto the shelf of Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer:

Fuller Flavoured Lagers carefully selected for their complex fuller flavours from a variety of different hops which deliver a smooth creamy taste

That’s copied verbatim (I talked about spelling, punctuation and grammar a few weeks ago, so I won’t go there again, but I can only guess it was written by someone with a reading age of seven). As you can see above, it also contains two very well-known lagers – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (the clue’s in the name on that one) and Innis & Gunn. 

Also this weekend is a piece in the Guardian which talks about the new beers on the Tesco shelves and explains how US craft lagers are cashing in. The lagers they are talking about? Blue Moon, Goose Island IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager.

I went to Tesco yesterday just to buy Goose Island IPA. Good on them for increasing their beer selection and trying to tell people about it, but this sort of thing does serious beer understanding and appreciation no favours. My guess is that Tesco want people to think that these new beers are lagers (sexy, cool and what most of their customers buy) and not ales (not sexy, not cool and not what most of their customers buy), but that’s just ridiculous.

Surely Tesco can do better than this? I'd just like to know what 'smooth creamy taste' is coming from the hops...

Friday, 19 August 2011

Great British Lagers

A good pint of lager gets me excited. A proper pint of Czech- or German-style lager, brewed in Britain, is something I want to see more of.

I think there’s a massive potential market for great lager – just look at how much of it is sold in pubs. Imagine if a craft brand could tap into those sales. Things are happening in the UK with craft lager and I really hope it continues; breweries like Meantime, Freedom, Moravka, Camden, Black Isle, Thornbridge, and more, are making lagers now. I also think more will try them. I’d love to see DarkStar have a go at a proper Czech pils, Adnams and Fuller’s, too, Magic Rock, Fyne, Moor.

There’s also Windsor and Eton’s Republika. A 4.8% lager made with pilsner malt from Moravia, Saaz hops from Zatec, Czech lager yeast and water treated to soften it. It’s been conditioned for six weeks. And it’s very good. Soft and clean, biscuits and popcorn, dry and bitter and sprightly with Saaz. It’s what a good lager should taste like and I could drink a lot of it. I'd love to see it in keg to see how it gets on.

I want to see more great British lagers. Not ones hopped with Amarillo or Simcoe or Citra and not those almost-lagers which are made with ale yeast or which just get a two-week condition in tank. Good, classic lager with lots of flavour while still being subtle. But it is a big commitment for a brewery to make a lager as it needs extra tank time. When you get a really good one that time is totally worth it. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to say in the video above.  

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Beer Epiphanies

When I first started drinking real ale I don’t think I liked it very much. I struggled through it, though. It was better than lager and far less emasculating than Malibu and Coke. It was probably two months after I started drinking it (I was at university so I was drinking a lot of it) that I had a beer epiphany...

The ‘I love dark beer’ Epiphany

Medway Beer Festival 2004. Me, my mates Matt and Nick and my Dad. Step up Sarah Hughes Dark Mild and Nethergate Old Growler. Dark, full-bodied, sweet, chocolatey-rich beers. These were not lager. These weren’t bitter pale beers which I didn’t like. These were delicious and suddenly dark beer was my thing and my drinking changed into a search for more of it. A Theakston’s Old Peculiar drank in Reading a few weeks later joined Sarah Hughes and Old Growler as the beers I always looked out for.

The ‘I Bloody LOVE hops!’ Epiphany

New Years Eve 2008 (I think). A big bottle of Stone Ruination IPA at a family party. It smelled like the best smelling beer in the whole wide world and tasted amazing. I remember my tongue felt like it’d been ripped in half, I remember the lupulin head-rush, I remember giving some to my little cousin to try to see the look on his face (I don’t remember the look on his face). This beer had come a few weeks after discovering Punk IPA and Chaos Theory. From then on it was a desperate scramble to find as many hops as I possibly could, addicted to the sweet kiss of malt followed by a punch of bitterness.

The ‘Sour Beer is Good’ Epiphany

It’s the summer of 2009. Sour beer tasted like vinegar to me. Why would anyone drink it? My first experience was a bad one and that was followed by many more attempts to suffer down a glass of lambic. That was until a Boon Geuze drunk in the garden in the sun. Cleanly sharp, lemony, peppery, but – and this is the thing which grabbed me most – had a depth of woody complexity from the oak, something like cheesy wotsits but not so cheesy. It was refreshing, exciting, complex and storied. No drinking session was now complete without something sour. It still isn’t.

The ‘Pale and hoppy beers are the best!’ Epiphany

The Bull, Horton Kirby. Late 2009. A pint of Marble Pint. Wow. Before this British session beer bored me and I didn’t drink much of it; I didn’t want another pale beer hopped with Goldings or Fuggles. Then came the pale and hoppies made with US hops. Light, packed with tropical and citrus fruit, beautiful aromas, bold bitterness. British beer became exciting. It’s easy to make a 9% beer with shit-loads of hops in but to make a 3.9% beer taste this good... I wanted more. I still do.

The 'Lager is amazing!’ Epiphany

Czech Republic 2010. Before this lager was the enemy of my drinking. It was what the others drank. The ones who didn’t know better. Then it changed. A frothing glass of Pilsner Urquell at the brewery and a weekend drinking incredible lagers in the Czech Republic, lively with Saaz hops, floral and fruity and herbal, so smooth to drink, so handsome in the handled mugs. Lager became different, it became exciting, it became something I wanted more and more of. My drinking shifted: I wanted great lagers, subtle but packed with flavour, cool and refreshing but something I wanted to drink all night long. I crave a really good lager more than I crave any other beer.

Five moments – five beers – which have redirected my drinking. Have you had any similar epiphanies when suddenly beer changes?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Opening a few new bottles

I’ve bought a lot of beer recently. A weekend in Prague, a couple of days at GBBF, a few deliveries and a peek at myBrewerytap’s website which left me unable to click away without getting my credit card out have seen the fridge over-flowing with bottles. This weekend I put a big dent in the stash.

Thornbridge’s Kill Your Darlings, a Vienna lager hopped with Tettnager and Amarillo, is a deep red brew which is all about the malt – coffee, toffee, toffee apples. The Amarillo gives a floral, fruity flavour which is nice twist on the style. It’s good and the flavour evokes an autumn that I hope is far away. I really like the label design for this one, done by Kid Acne.

Mallinsons Brewery is one that everybody should be aware of in Britain. They make some fantastic beers and aren’t hop-shy, which I like. When I saw a beer called Danger: Hops! there was no way I wasn’t buying it. It’s 5.1% and the aroma is like every tropical fruit in the world stuffed into a beer glass, plus some peaches and grapefruit. It’s so smooth and gluggable and has a dry, peppery bitterness which hangs around. Bloody good beer.

More big hops followed with Odell’s Myrcenary DIPA. I love Odell’s IPA so this was irresistible. It’s a big beer (9.3%) and that starts in the aroma which tastes like you’ve faceplanted a bowl of mandarins, oranges and mango (that’s a good thing). It’s sweet and full-bodied which threatens to go sticky but is saved by a perfumy, clingy bitterness which leaves your tongue begging for more sweetness. It’s good but I’ll take the regular IPA any day.

With those two hoptastic brews drunk I didn’t think things could get better... but they did. Magic Rock’s Cannonball (7.4%) is one of the best British beers I’ve had this year. So good it had me texting and emailing people immediately to tell them to order some. The aroma is great, peaches, mango, pineapple, the body is light but it carries the strength and the hops with ease and it’s not sticky sweet which some US equivalents are. The only thing I’d like is a little more bitterness but this was the first brew of it and it’s pretty damn awesome already. I want more. (This beer also left me playing the ‘cannonball’ scene from Anchorman over and over in my head).

Some darker beers too: Brains’ Original Stout. At 4.1% I feared it’d be thin and flabby (and I hate thin and flabby stouts) but it was very nice – coffee, chocolate, toasted nuts; a full body, dry and roasty, some berry fruitiness and an earthy, coffee bitterness. Good beer and it looks great too.

And finally the BrewDog, Mikkeller and Nogne O collaboration for Black Tokyo Horizon. A 17.2% black hole which sucks in light from all around. It smells great, like dark chocolate covered berries, marzipan and roasted nuts, but it’s very sweet and there’s a huge, dry and herby bitterness which makes it a bit disjointed. Maybe it’ll calm down given some time but it’s pretty wild right now. I prefer the three originals (especially the Islay-barrel-aged Black – that’s insane! BrewDog need to get some Tokyo* in Islay barrels).

That’s some of my recent drinking. Anyone had these? Anyone had anything really good recently?

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Tank beer: Pilsner Urquell Mliko and Snyt

“Here the beer is packaged into bottle, can, keg and tank.”

It’s now that I lose focus on what Pavel is saying as he shows us the packaging plant at the Pilsner Urquell brewery.

The idea of giant army tanks filled with beer is stuck in my head. An image of a great fountain of pilsner powering out of the barrel of the tank’s gun is just far too exciting to take my concentration back to the unending grind and tinkle of the bottling line.

Tanks filled with beer.

Perhaps the PU tank would be deployed to fight this beer-stealing T-Rex...
It’s only later, once I’ve passed through the schoolboy thoughts that bring a new meaning to ‘Beer Wars’, that I discover that these tanks aren’t the military sort. In fact, it takes much longer than it should for this to sink in. Happy in my naivety, I walked through Prague hoping to see one of these tanks charge through the city, a Pilsner Urquell green with the red seal of approval. I kept my camera in my pocket ready for the photo opportunity.

It’s in Lokal that it finally makes sense. Walking in, the first thing we see is a bar made from glass with two stainless steel tanks beneath and a barman pouring pint after pint of golden beer with that gorgeous thick foam on top. Tank beer.

Picture from here, plus Evan Rail explaining tank beer
While most Pilsner Urquell is pasteurised and filtered, it is possible to get the unpasteurised beer in around 500 pubs within a four hour drive of the brewery (if you’re in a four minute walk of the brewery you can also get the unfiltered stuff). This unpasteurised beer is packaged in ‘replaceable, polyester-film sacks’ which then go into ‘sealed, steel tanks’ (see Evan Rail’s Good Beer Guide Prague for more – most of this paragraph is nicked from that great book) where the beer is drawn from. It’s pumped from increased air pressure within the tank, so doesn’t come into contact with oxygen. If you see tankovna then you are getting tank beer.

Tank beer is generally a sign of a decent bar because Pilsner Urquell are strict on where the tanks of unpasteurised beer goes. The bar need a fast turnover of beer, very regular line cleaning and they are taught the perfect way to pour. So in tank pubs you are getting fresher beer, served better – the drinking difference between the pasteurised and unpasteurised is that the tank stuff has a bolder, better aroma and a fuller body.

In Lokal the tanks are visible and the distance between the tank and the tap is one of the shortest around. Here they also serve the beer in a few different styles, which is why it was recommended to us that we visit. You can get it normal or you can order it Snyt or Mliko.

Snyt on the left, Mliko on the right
Snyt is half foam and Mliko is full-foam. Normal is just normal (but you still get a massive head of thick, handsome foam*). Served in a pint glass, you pay for a half, but you don’t order it this way because you want the beer, you order it this way for the creamy, aromatic, gorgeous foam which has trapped all that Saaz hop brilliance within it. It’s so soft on the tongue but you still get the full taste of the beer as you speedily suck it down before the foam falls away. Mliko was the one we preferred – it’s so light to taste yet so deliciously different. It’s not called Milk for no reason.

Tank Pilsner Urquell is good. Having it poured Snyt or Mliko is strange and wonderful and it’s definitely a beer to experience if you get the chance. But just imagine the look on the locals’ faces if you poured a pint like that in Britain...

*One of the greatest joys of a pint of Pilsner Urquell is the way it looks. Those first few seconds after it arrives in front of you are beer perfection as that golden pilsner sits below a pillow of thick white foam. As Mark from Beer. Birra. Bier. said while we were drinking it, one gulp and you ruin it and just want to order another to get the full, crowning pint. It means you end up drinking a lot more of it. 

Top tank picture from here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Fast Selling Fruit and Chocolate Beer

The first beers to sell out at beer festivals often contain fruit or have the word chocolate in them. Has anyone else noticed this? Walking around GBBF on Thursday evening and seeing stuck-on sold out signs over lots of different beer names it became more obvious: Cherry Blonde, Chocolate and Vanilla Stout, Grapefruit Beer, Blueberry Bitter, Chocolate Cherry Mild (a double-whammy right there), Raspberry Wheat and Triple Chocoholic.

While some people at beer festivals (any beer festival, anywhere) know the difference between a UK and US IPA, know their brown ales from their porters, the wheats from the wits, I think many beer festival goers are just there because they couldn’t resist the big sign outside that says ‘Beer Festival’ and it’s an excuse to drink a lot. Most of them probably don’t even drink real ale as their everyday pint. They probably don’t even like it.

Seeing 100 different beers around a room is therefore pretty daunting. What shall we order first? Having beers with cherry, chocolate, blueberry or blackcurrant in them gives drinkers a point of reference which they know and understand and so feel more comfortable ordering them. There’s also an assumption that it’ll be sweet and fruity rather than dry and bitter, which is an attraction to someone new.

I know when I first went to beer festivals I’d scoop up these beers first and never did a beer with cherry in its name get by me; I didn’t enjoy bitter beers much so these fruity options suited me well. We would also always work up to the strongest beer there, though we’d often get there too late and miss out. So along with fruit and chocolate, the strong ones also empty quickly. Is this so that people can tell their mates on Monday that “I drank I pint of beer that was 8%!”?

I hardly ever order beers with fruit in their name anymore (usually because if it doesn’t say IPA or Hops in the name then I don’t order it), probably because the idea of an extract or syrup puts me off, though I definitely see the appeal and if I had a brewery then a cherry chocolate mild (rich and silky and chocolatey and just livened with a kiss of cherry extract – gorgeous!) would be high up the to-brew list.

Fruit, chocolate and the strongest beers usually sell quickly at beer festivals. They are approachable starter beers or bragable big ones. If these beers attract new drinkers then that’s a good thing because hopefully after their fruity fill they will try a few other beers at the festival or on the bar and maybe find that one beer that changes their drinking direction forever.

Are there any really good beers made with fruit in the UK? What are the top chocolate brews? (Saltaire’s Triple Chocoholic is good but I can only manage a half). Do you order them or stay clear of them?  

Did you know that Wells & Young’s Banana Bread Beer actually contains fresh bananas? How about that. I’ve also just read Patrick McGovern’s Uncorking the Past and there is such a thing as banana wine. Banana wine! If I remember rightly it was mentioned on the same page as a sausage tree. A sausage tree! Imagine my excitement when I read that.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Session #54: Sour Beer

The first sour beer I drank was one of the worst drinking experiences I’ve ever had.

We’d gone to Croydon for the day. It had become some kind of mythical beer wonderland in our young estimations, but I have no idea why (I think it was just one of those places that we often spoke of going to but never thought we actually ever would). The reason we wanted to go was the Beer Circus.

The Beer Circus is now closed and I only went there once. It was a bar lifted from the pavement of Brussels and dropped on the edge of Croydon’s greyest area. I was only just getting into decent beer when we went so to see a list of bottles with so many different pages, and to see each beer coming in a unique glass, was a great experience. After a few bottles (including a Kwak so we could get the cool glass), we ordered something at random from the list. I have no idea what the beer was. All I know is the warning the barman gave us:

“Have you had that before?” he asked.

We hadn’t.

“It’s a flat as a witches tit and as sour as fuck.”

I think this was meant to put us off, to warn us onto something else. Obviously it didn’t. We ordered it. When it arrived I don’t remember it being flat because I was so, so shocked by how sour it was. It was as sour as fuck, as warned.

And I hated it and couldn’t drink it.

I didn’t drink another beer like it for a few years until I tried a Cantillon lambic. But Cantillon isn’t really a starter beer of its style as is particularly puckering. Why did people drink these things that suspended your forehead in a pained frown?

But then things changed.

It was Boon Geuze which did it. So bright in the glass it could’ve illuminated a dark night, so full of flavour, peppery, dry, sharp but not aggressive, a depth of woody, savoury oak; I drank it in my back garden on a hot day while reading a good book. I suddenly got it.

Now I love it. I went to Belgium to the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation, a beer festival like nothing else, serving just lambic and gueuze and varieties with fruit. There I saw how different and spectacular these beers could really be – quenching and full-flavoured but still delicate with a stunning depth to them, a tickle of sweetness, a tongue-smacking sharpness and, the thing which I love the most, the flavour from the wood, savoury and dry and woody. Then we went to Cantillon. The most handsome and magical brewery I’ve been to, oak casks lined up in dark, cool cellars, waiting. In America I couldn’t resist the sour selection at Russian River, with Temptation being the one I’ll always go back to first. And then Lovibonds’s Sour Grapes, drunk dry at the Rake in minutes. A stunning British sour beer. Then this week at GBBF the Revelation Cat Laphroig lambic; an insanely brilliant mix of sour and smoke.

What I like most about these beers is the story behind them. Beers brewed and deliberately left open to airborne wild yeast or beers which have those funky yeasts added to them. Beers which aren’t ready in three weeks or three months but need years to mature, hanging out in great oak casks, pulling complexity from the wood, depth of flavour, and then either served as a single vintage as lambic or blended for gueuze. Or with cherries for kriek. Or other fruit for something different – blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb.
Sour as fuck? Fuck yeah!

This month’s Session is hosted by The Brew Site. I should add that I don’t like all sour beers. I love the lemon sharpness of lambic and gueuze, but I can’t stand the vinegar sourness of beers like Rodenbach and Duchesse de Bourgogne. It catches my throat and burns. No thanks.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

GBBF so far...

Have you been yet? If so, what’s been good?

My highlights from Tuesday’s session were Thornbridge Kipling (I don’t think there are many better cask beers brewed in Britain...), Brewsters Hophead, Arbor's Yakima Valley, an unspellable (lots of funny words and accents) Czech beer which contained coriander which was really good, Matuska Golden Rocket IPA and a lambic aged in Laphroig casks which was insane and brilliant (but only if you love sour beer and Islay whisky). The worst beer was Ballast Point’s Habanero Sculpin IPA. The normal Sculpin IPA is a fantastic beer but this was like drinking a combination of fire and hot sauce and in an already over-heating Earls Court it wasn’t a fun taste.

I’m going back again today and hoping to see more US and Czech beers on the bar (there are some really good Czech beers there) to be mixed with random choices of British beers to try and find some new breweries I’ve not tried before.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Cheers for GBBF 2011!

It’s here! I couldn’t sleep last night because I was so excited and then when I did sleep I had weird dreams about beer. The Great British Beer Festival is the best beery British week of the year.

Last year I wrote a post about The Cheer. I’m re-posting it again because I like it a lot.

A rainbow of people, colours and sounds, all holding glasses filled with golds, blacks and browns. A chatter purrs happily, an ebb and flow of conversation, laughing, rising and falling as you pass through the groups. “Have you tried this one?!” Someone excitedly bursts out thrusting a half of something under his mate’s nose. “What do you want next?” Around a corner drinkers are three deep at the bar, stretched all along, looking up and down, all around, a constant passing back and forth of glasses, money and beer; an empty here, a pint of stout there, a half of pale ale, a fiver, another empty, another half, a couple of quid change. Another corner and the smell of food strikes. Another corner and it opens into a line of bars and a huge seating area, so big you can barely see the other end, a rock star stage in between. People everywhere drink their beers, they talk about their day, their week, the weekends ahead; they gossip, talk about the news, cinema, sport; they talk about what they drank earlier, what they’ve got now, what they’ll order next; they say this is good, this isn’t, this is great, this is incredible, this is insane, this is… All around are the interested eyes of friends in conversation; the glazed-eyes of seven hours of being there; the eager eyes of the newly arrived; the crosshair focus of the poacher eyes of the ticker. And then it starts. It begins later in the day, five hours in, maybe six. The grip loosens, the excitement fails the hand. We don’t hear the shattering tink of glass on hard floor, what we hear is the cheer. The ‘whay’ which grows and spreads throughout, getting louder, building like a wave as everyone joins in, passing it on, the growing smiles and whoops and then the laughter and then back to where we left off, talking about this or that. Then later, nearer the end, it happens more, a constant flow of crash and cheer breaks conversations for a moment to join in - a second to drop everything and shout with the crowd.

That cheer is the uplifting soundtrack to the beer festival. It’s more than laughing at the loose fingers of someone unknown and unseen, it’s about having a chance and a reason to stand up and just cheer and let it all out, to call out because you are having a great time, to express the joy and belonging and spirit of carefree drinking fun that we are all feeling, and to do it in the simplest, most primal of ways. It’s a shared, united ‘cheers’ to our fellow drinkers, a way of chinking your glass with a thousand other merry men. The cheer is not for the broken glass, it’s for the full ones about to be emptied and then refilled - it’s for us. I’ll drop my glass to that.

Last year I also wrote a survival kit for GBBF and this year’s is almost exactly the same (this is a fairly lazy blog post, as you’ve probably noticed already...).

1 x beer list (so I make sure I try everything I want to)
1 x notebook (to remind me what I drank and how it tasted)
4 x freshly-sharpened pencils (to write in the aforementioned notebook)
1 x pencil sharpener (in case I write a lot, which never happens because I’m too busy drinking)
1 x Blackberry (to tell twitter what I’m up to and to take pictures)
1 x bottle of water (stay hydrated!)
1 x lots of bubble wrap (safety first for bottle purchases)
1 x pack of milk thistle (look after your liver)
1 x pack of paracetamol (the morning after)
Lots x bananas (potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, energy and hangover relief)
1 x isotonic sports drink (to replace sugars and salts; to give energy; to help the hangover)
1 x pack of bacon (essential)

I’m all prepared so bring it on! I’ll be there all day Tuesday and then Thursday from late-afternoon. If you are there then say hi.

Here’s to GBBF and may it be an awesome week!