Monday, 14 April 2014

Complacency and “craft” in Munich

The difference between Franconia and Munich is a bit like that between Yorkshire and London. The chic inhabitants of the wealthy, high-powered metropolis pity the backward towns and villages out in the sticks. The provincials, for their part, wouldn’t swap in a million years and think the residents of the capital must be soft in t’head to pay such extortionate prices for beer.

Our first stop is a place I’ve wanted to visit for absolutely ages, but never got around to – Augustiner’s beer hall at Marienplatz. Augustiner is generally the most highly regarded of Munich’s big six. In addition, it’s a Saturday shortly before Christmas, and the beer hall is bang slap in the middle of the main shopping street. That means it’s packed, but somehow we manage to squeeze in at the end of a table.

 It’s slightly disappointing to see that the default measure is no longer a litre – almost everyone we see has a half-litre glass in front of them. Oh well – one Helles and one Dunkles, bitte.

The Helles is clean, fresh, and … meh. There’s a good beer here somewhere but it’s been filtered to death, so there is sweet pilsner malt and not much else. The Dunkel is a bit better, medium-bodied with toasty dark malt notes, reminiscent of roast chestnuts and finishing dry and woody, but the glass is short-poured. I get the impression the beer hall has been resting on its laurels for a very long time. Oh well. In the past I’ve found the beers of the six remaining big Munich brands much poorer than their reputation suggests, but nonetheless it’s disappointing to have it confirmed on its home turf, where it ought to be excellent.


Since I last visited Germany a new wave of breweries has started to emerge, which are not content to compete with others just on the quality of their Pilsner or Helles. They are influenced by trends from abroad and chafe at the often staid conservatism of German brewing. This sets them apart from the previous wave of small brewpubs which were, if anything, more conservative than their bigger colleagues.

In principle this is a very good thing. The insistence of German “craft beer” fanatics in trying to force it into a template that was devised in another country and makes no sense here is, on the other hand, quite embarrassing. Well, the post-war trend to ape whatever is popular in America has always seemed to me to be a bit stronger in Germany than anywhere else.

After years of me wondering where all the German beer websites were, suddenly there are “craft beer” blogs, gleefully declaring that some burger joint that sells a few bottles of Brooklyn Lager is “the best bar in Munich”, and the German press is as full of stupid and ignorant “craft beer” articles as the British.

The new breweries are a refreshing innovation and it’s a shame that so many of them – and even more so the people writing about beer – are floundering about in the straitjacket of a divisive, exclusionary ideology.

Even sadder, the irreplaceable family breweries of Bavaria continue to close down while “craft beer” types try to market undistinguished copies of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.



Camba Bavaria is a brewery based in Truchtlachingen in south-east Bavaria. It was set up by brewery equipment manufacturer Braukon less than ten years ago and the brewery seems – rather like Weyermann’s brewing operation – intended as much to showcase the versatility of the company’s other products as to turn a profit in its own right.

Camba has recently dared to open what they call a “Tap-House” (being suitably fashionable, the name just has to be in English, cringe) in Munich. The novelty of this operation is that there is a huge range of beer available on tap, something new in Germany, where the overwhelming majority of bars (and beer festivals, for that matter) serve only one or two draught beers. It had only just opened, and it was on the way to our hotel, so why not?

The interior of the bar makes me think it was an Italian or Greek restaurant until fairly recently. We have to cringe again on seeing the words “Can you feel the HOPS” chalked on the wall in English. Most of the customers appear to be American immigrants. The only nod to local traditions are the bar snacks – Obatzda, a mixture of Camembert and butter seasoned with paprika, served with a pretzel.

FritzAle is one of the “craft” brewers. On tap, the IPA is hoppy, brown, sweet and one-dimensional, like a hundred other American IPAs.

Moving on, I have a very nice green-hopped pils from Schönramer. Head brewer Eric Toft of Schönramer has been making very good beers in a village in eastern Bavaria for the best part of 15 years, and the brewery has been there for over a hundred. Yet somehow he is regarded as part of a “craft beer revolution” which is purported to be a new thing. I’m ignoring all this nonsense and just enjoying his beautiful pilsner: a magnificent beer with delicious herbal aromas, sweet malt and medium bitterness that disappears far too soon.

It’s time to move on.




One old-fashioned brewery in no danger of closing down is the Forschungsbrauerei in Perlach in the south-east of Munich, where no-one, thank God, has ever heard of “craft beer”. It’s recently been taken over by new owners after the previous occupiers wanted to give up. It still looks pretty much the same as the last time I was here twenty years ago, but they are brewing a slightly wider range of beers nowadays (four instead of two).

It’s shocking to discover that even here the Masskrug has lost ground to the 0.5L vessel.
St. Jakobus is the blonde bock beer and the house speciality. Rich aroma, sticky malt, chewy, it’s one of the most ridiculously moreish beers I’ve tried. I can’t quite explain what makes it so good – oddly, this is often what happens when I encounter a really top-notch beer. Pears, bacon, fudge, tree sap, freshly baked cakes, eggs, so many flavours in the one mug.

Pilsissimus, despite the name, is regarded by the brewery as an export-type beer, not a Pilsner. It’s sweetish but does have a sneaky bitterness that sneaks up on you.

Both beers demand further study, but there is no time, it’s closing time.

The next morning there is just time for breakfast before heading to the airport. As we are in Munich, and on holiday, not just any old breakfast – a Weisswurstfrühstück, or “white sausage breakfast.” This consists of a soft Bavarian pretzel and a pair of poached herbed veal sausages. These can be quite intimidating to the novice, floating in hot water in a soup tureen and encased in a tough skin which you can either eat or leave.

I love them and the best place I could think of to have them was at the Schneider brewery tap in the centre of town. Purists say you are supposed to consume them strictly before noon, and fortunately we are just in time. It’s already bustling, and not just with the type of people you might expect to see in a pub mid-morning in Britain. Whole families and grannies are here. There is a group of musicians in lederhosen just opposite us, and every so often they play a tune. I’m not quite sure if they are being paid to be here, or if they are just an amateur band on a Sunday outing.

You do, of course, wash the Weisswurst down with a beer. The Schneider Weisse tastes just the same here as it does in Scotland, which is not something you can say for all German beers.

Disaster strikes on the way to the Flughafen. We spend just a little too long marvelling at the displays of sausages in the Viktualienmarkt and miss the S-Bahn to the airport. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the next S-Bahn is cancelled. We are now running late and miss the bag drop. But the flight itself is delayed by several hours, so the check-in people let us check in our bags anyway.

The delay would be a blessing in disguise if we were still land-side, because Munich Airport has its very own brewpub, Airbräu. I remembered the Pils being pretty good. But we are stuck airside and have nothing to do but sit around the one snack bar in the departure lounge. But there is beer. So, unexpectedly, my last beer in Germany is a König-Pilsener. This is one of the “TV-Beers” that “craft beer” snobs look down their noses at. Yet although it’s no Schönramer, it’s a decent beer with respectable bitterness. If only the beer was this “bad” in other airports I’ve travelled through.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Retreat to Bamberg


The whole of Bamberg is a place of pilgrimage. The devout visit the cathedral, which looms over the town from its site atop a hill. Even in December, day-trippers wander around in groups, following their tourist guide. The locals brave the biting cold to stand in the snow drinking mulled wine at any of a dozen stands. For me, it is like a retreat. As far as I am concerned, this is the home of beer.

It is a walk of only ten minutes or so from the railway station to Obere Königsstrasse, a run-down street in the process of redevelopment, but home to two breweries. Directly across the street from each other are Fässla, maker of Bamberg’s strongest beer, and Spezial, the lesser-known of the town’s two Rauchbier breweries. 

Dropping into Spezial for a quick Seidla before exploring the town, the Lagerbier is crisp: deep amber-bronze, lightly smoked and tasting of sweet malt and wood. Sadly, it’s too fizzy. The Ungespundetes on the other hand, a pale lager described as “hoppy, with less CO2”, is a revelation. Aromatic with citrus, it smells like something a pale ’n’ hoppy brewery such as Oakham back home might have made.


The beer is so good that a quick Seidla turns into two and then dinner. I just can’t resist the Kloß, the strange bouncy, springy potato dumpling that comes with the roast pork. I’ve spent ten years trying to make these damn things at home with no success.

This pub alone would make any town a respectable beer destination. But we have only just started. A pleasant walk across the river into the city centre and out again takes you past half a dozen defunct breweries, if you know where to look. Bamberg still has ten breweries today, but in the past it had scores of them.

Many pubs in Franconia feel a bit churchy, due to the habit of hanging a crucifix on the wall. The huge Schlenkerla tavern in Dominikanerstraße is positively ecclesiastical. The dark panelled walls everywhere you look give it a monastic feel, while the beer drinker can find his or her own rapture on drinking deeply from the plain half-litre tumblers in which the Rauchbier is served. I have drunk so much of this stuff that I barely notice its intense smokiness any more, but I do get dry wood, vanilla and chocolate. It’s silky smooth too. Draught Märzen from the wood in the church-like surroundings of this tavern is as close as a beer lover can get to praying.

The pubs close early in this town, so it’s an early night.

Which is just as well, because they open early too. After a hearty breakfast involving garlic sausage, we find ourselves in Fässla’s Gaststube – and we are definitely not the first or only customers. At Fässla they brew more superficially conventional beers, but on tasting them they are definitely idiosyncratic. The Lagerbier is crisp and fresh with a Burton-like minerality – the water in Franconia is hard. Cold and malty, it’s a perfect post-breakfast beer.

Into town again, turn left at the cathedral. Next to God, Schlenkerla dominates the town; so much so that even the cathedral souvenir shop sells bottles of Rauchbier.

But the next stop is Klosterbräu. It took me several visits to Bamberg before I was able to reliably locate this tavern. It is easily visible from various places in the town; just finding the right narrow street to wander down is the difficult part.

I’ve never yet been impressed by Klosterbräu’s beer and this visit did not improve their rating. The Pils is thin and metallic with little aroma and quite aggressively fizzy. Stir a bit of the gas out of it with a fork and you discover soft, sweet malt. A scratchy bitterness on the finish is presumably what makes it a Pils. But the tap room is nice in a rather shabby, monastic way.


 We’re not here for Klosterbräu anyway. A new opening in this part of town is Eckert’s, a plush, modern bar and restaurant for the stylish and upmarket. Being Bamberg, of course they offer regional beers next to the prosecco. (I can think of several would-be upmarket establishments back home in Glasgow that could learn from this example). Eckert’s has a view over the river (it is actually built on a bridge) looking down to the old town hall. Inside the décor is ultra-modern with mood lighting, light jazz and pine. It’s a place for Kaffee & Kuchen and fine dining, yet for once the beer list is comparable in quality with the wines on offer. A whimsical nod to tradition are the wooden screens in the loos with cut-out hearts, Hansel and Gretel-style.

The house beer is brewed by Drei Kronen in Memmelsdorf a few kilometres away. But it’s the Zwickel-Pils that impresses me. Andy Gänstaller has been brewing outstanding beers for years, first at Beck-Bräu in Trabelsdorf and now at his own brewery. It’s the first beer I’ve had under his own label. All thoughts of Klosterbräu disappear – this is what a Pils should be like. It’s not hazy as the Zwickel- would lead you to believe and appears to have been filtered. In character it’s not too far from the Spezial Ungespundetes from last night – I have thought for some time that there is a definite Franconian style of Pils alongside the other local beers. Huppendorfer Vollbier, another ultra-local brew, is quite different: bready, sweet and malty with an intense aroma and a short, only slightly bitter finish.

There is more Franconian Pils out to the east on the oddly named street Wunderburg – “Miracle Hill”. It is truly miraculous, for it is home to two more breweries. Keesmann Herren-Pils is possibly the bitterest Bamberg beer with herbal, minty hops. Over the road, Mahr’s Bräu has the perfect complement, the malty beer known only as “U”. Sadly, by this stage we are too drunk to fully appreciate it, but we enjoy the cosy tavern nonetheless.

The next morning we say goodbye to Bamberg, but there is one more thing to do.

One of the most delightful customs in Franconia, even better than the early opening pubs, is the fact that many taverns allow you to bring in your own food. Since the local bread and sausages are every bit as good as the local beer, this is a very good thing indeed. In the side room of Schlenkerla in the mid-morning there are people at every other table with a glass of beer and a little parcel of goodies just purchased from the butcher along the street. My choice is the Franconian salt pretzel, smaller than the Bavarian Brezn and without its glossy brown skin, and a slab of Leberkäse, smooth and very salty.

And then, it’s time once more to head to a railway station.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Kölsch in Cologne

A while ago on the train, I was watching a video that featured Michael Portillo up at the top of the Westminster Clock while Big Ben was striking the hour. Being right up close to the bell is quite an experience, even for a former MP, though he had of course heard it thousands of times before. Up close, you feel it as well as hearing it and the tone is more intense than it ever is when heard from further away or over the radio.

That’s kind of the feeling I got drinking Kölsch in Cologne.

Arriving from Belgium, Cologne is the first major city in Germany and an ideal stopping point. Not a few Dutch and British people arrive here and decide to stay. Its pubs and beer halls are unlike those anywhere else, apart from perhaps an hour up the Rhine in its rival Düsseldorf.

For sentimental reasons the first place I go is always the P. J. Früh beer hall. It’s just around the corner from the main railway station and round the side of the cathedral. Inside, in the vault or Schwemme, one member of staff does nothing but stand behind the counter, pouring one glass of beer after another. The waiters, called Köbesse, make a bit of a show of their job and there is constant banter between them and the tapster.

There is no poring over beer lists here. You raise a finger or catch the eye of the Köbes when you want a beer, and he brings you one. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask. The 0.2L glasses empty fast, and are immediately replenished.

To be honest, I come to Früh because it’s a classic beer hall and I wasn’t expecting the beer to be spectacular. I have always found this Kölsch to be a bit more elegant than some others, but it was never my favourite.

But I was surprised just how good it was. Delightfully fresh, as you might expect coming from a barrel three metres away. Slight sulphur notes, fruity with a very light touch of apple. The stipulation in the Kölsch-Konvention that Kölsch should be hoppy is more wishful thinking than reality these days; despite that, the beer isn’t bland at all.

The next stop is a classic Cologne boozer. Hans Lommerzheim ran his pub in Deutz, on the east side of the Rhine, for nearly fifty years. In that time not much seems to have changed except the facade becoming shabbier and shabbier. Only a few years ago “Lommi” finally retired, and passed away soon afterwards. There was talk of dismantling the pub and placing it in a museum, but instead the Päffgen brewery took it over and re-opened it, to the great delight of aficionados.

On the front of the building a 1960s (or earlier) sign proclaims the availability of Dortmunder Actien-Bier. In reality the pub sells Päffgen Kölsch, just as it did in Lommi’s day. Inside, there is no music, no TV, and no choice. Kölsch is the one beer they sell, and what a Kölsch it is. Wonderful dense foam, atop bright golden beer, creamy and malty.

The next morning there is only time for one more place before the train. But the Päffgen brewery tap, back on the other side of the river, opens at 10, and we are the first customers; at least the first to be drinking beer.

Our Köbes seems to be taking a long time, until we realise it’s because he’s rolling out and tapping a fresh cask. Don’t feel guilty about this – the tiny casks only hold about 15 litres and will be emptied soon enough.

The beer tastes fresher than the previous evening, more aroma of crushed grain alongside the light maltiness, spicy and slight honey notes, and that bit of sulphur is back. On the second glass the sulphur has dissipated somewhat. The bitterness starts coming through about the third glass. I could have sat here all day. But the train schedule dominates our time, just as the cathedral dominates the city centre. The advantage of the tiny 0.2L Kölsch glasses, though, is that you can always squeeze just one more in, however short of time you are.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Continent By Rail

I’ve done a fair bit of drinking in Germany, but I haven’t actually been back there since before I started writing this blog five years ago. Worse than that, I haven’t been in Belgium even longer, since you paid for your beer there in francs.

If you time things right, you can drink top-notch beer in three great beer countries in one day. Taking an early flight from Glasgow gets us to London for opening time. We have to change trains at London Bridge: the Market Porter is just around the corner, where they serve a splendid pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best. Sadly there’s only time for one here.

Arriving at St Pancras Station for the train, Sourced Market is a godsend, stocking fresh beer from London’s tiniest breweries. Yes, it’s not cheap, but neither is it extortionate. At least, I didn’t come away feeling cheated – like I do when I find myself paying over the odds for a mediocre beer in the type of outlets that have dominated station retail for so long. How much more civilised it is to stroll onto the train with beer from the likes of Five Points and Pressure Drop to keep us going until Belgium.


We arrive in Brussels with a twenty-five minute delay due to vandalism – apparently cable theft is also a problem in Belgium. This is rather annoying, because we have only scheduled in an hour and a half here in the first place. Brasserie Cantillon, just round the corner from Midi station, closes at five – is it worth even going? What the hell, of course it is!


Some people will say Cantillon is in a dodgy part of town. It doesn’t look any worse than where I live in Glasgow (make of that what you will). Although we come through the door at five minutes before closing time, they are still gracious enough to serve us a glass of straight unblended lambic. Wonderful stuff it is too.

For a last beer we make do with one of the unpromising-looking cafés on the north side of Midi station. This area has been redeveloped since I first changed trains here, and all the little cafés either side of the station have gone, replaced by fancier places with less character; which is a shame.

I used to drink Vieux Temps on the cross-channel ferry, back when there were cross-channel ferries. I order one out of nostalgia, and it’s terrible, a sugary pale with little memorable about it. Oh well. But look around: there are people drinking Trappist beers, yet it’s not a specialist beer café. That’s the joy of drinking in Belgium – good beer is ubiquitous, right next to the commodity stuff – as we discover when we pick up canned Rodenbach in a convenience store before getting on the train again.

The train from Brussels to Cologne is a pleasant enough trip in which to sup a bottle or two of lambic. The coming third beer city of the day is much less revered by geeks, but as we step off the train in the vast, cavernous Cologne Hauptbahnhof I know exactly where I’m heading. More of that tomorrow.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

This is Drygate




The unprepossessing grey shed in these pictures is going to be Glasgow’s newest brewery in around a month’s time. Look at the roof and you can see where the company logo came from. The huge tanks in the background belong to Tennent’s next door.

When I first heard about this project I thought, “nice, but who is going to go there?” I couldn’t have been more wrong – there are going to be plenty of potential customers in the vicinity. Just round the corner is the vast new Collegelands development comprising offices, student accommodation and a 200-bed hotel.

Just minutes away to the north and west are three of Glasgow’s top tourist attractions (yes, we do have some), the cathedral, the city’s oldest house Provand’s Lordship and the Necropolis, while Strathclyde University is just a few minutes’ more walk. To the east is Dennistoun, whose inhabitants have few going-out options that don’t involve going all the way into the city centre.

There’s not much competition out here. A good position for a new venture to be in.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Glasgow brewers jump on oak-aged bandwagon

What’s the oldest brewery in Scotland? Caledonian? Belhaven? Traquair House? In fact, the oldest is – Tennent’s of Glasgow. Though today it is a massive, not particularly romantic beer factory, brewing has been recorded on the Wellpark site in Glasgow’s East End since 1556, making it not just the oldest brewery, but one of the oldest surviving enterprises of any kind at all.

Despite this, Tennent’s marketing in recent years has been relentlessly modern and laddish, concentrating on music and football sponsorship. Now, in view of the spectacular success of Innis & Gunn with its fake heritage, someone at Wellpark has evidently thought “Hang on – we have all this genuine heritage – surely we could make that work for us?”

The first evidence of this new tack is at the brewery itself, which has recently been festooned with a huge banner featuring archive photos from the early twentieth century and the comically modest claim “We’ve been doing this for quite a while now.”

Alongside that is the website to promote a new product: Tennent’s Beer Aged In Whisky Oak (I think that is its formal name) which is also full of this sort of stuff.

Drinkers who know that Innis & Gunn is contract-brewed at Tennent’s may suspect this is the same beer in a different bottle. Sources at Tennent’s assure me this is not the case. I believe them, but I wonder how they are going to convince consumers of this; it seems an uphill struggle, similar to the trouble they have trying to explain that the Tennent’s Super brand is nothing to do with them (InBev kept this particular brand when they sold the rest of the Tennent’s business to C&C). 

The main difference in the process is that the Tennent’s beer uses whisky-infused oak (we are not told exactly how the infusion takes place), whereas I&G uses plain oak. Just to prove the beers are different, I did a blind tasting. Cynics will note the two beers both come in clear glass and to the lay person appear exactly the same colour.

Beer A: immediately very lightstruck, amber in colour, plasticky, a little oak, bit of toast. The taste is sweet, caramel, sweeties and wood shavings. Considering the strength, there's not a lot to it, very sweet, vanilla, just tastes artificial.

Beer B: grainy in aroma, head almost completely gone. Not much flavour at all, bit of sweetcorn. Unlike the first this does have some hops in it, though not enough to detect more than a slight balancing bitterness. Slightly metallic, much dryer than the other beer, a little bit of whisky but not much ... if you didn't know you wouldn't notice. The wood (barely discernible) just kind of sits on top of the beer but does dry it out a bit.

Beer A is Innis & Gunn and Beer B is the Tennent’s whisky beer; but the differences are so obvious we don’t need to check the labels.

Innis & Gunn have been known to tell American consumers concerned about lightstrike in their clear-glass packaged beer that it doesn’t matter because the beer has such a low hop content (seriously). My experience with this bottle suggests this is bullshit.

Tennent’s say their beer is made with four different hops, though none impart a distinctive character to it; to me it tastes pretty much like Tennent’s lager with some caramel in it, that’s had some wood shavings waved at it briefly.

They are definitely different beers; on the other hand, neither of them are exciting either. However, the Tennent’s product is much less offensive than Innis & Gunn and has no defects as such; it’s just rather timid in flavour. 

Just a kilometre or so to the south of Wellpark, however, is German-style brewery West, who have gone outside their lagery comfort zone to produce a cask-aged Scotch ale under the name of Opus Six. Opus Six is definitely the most interesting of the three beers, but it goes in the other direction – you definitely have to be a fan of peaty whiskies to enjoy this. It is aged in casks used for Douglas Laing’s “Big Peat”, a vatted all-Islay malt. Treacle toffee or blockmalz in the foreground. Dry, tannic, woody finish. Oily, spirituous warmth. A stonker and it’s worth noting that at 5.2% it packs much more flavour in than either Tennent’s (6.0%) or Innis & Gunn (6.6%). Sadly this beer seems destined to be a one-off, so if you can get down to the brewery while there’s some left it might be your only chance to try it.

• West Opus Six (5.2%): £5 a pint, draught only at the brewery and possibly a few other places;
Tennent’s Beer Aged in Whisky Oak (6.0%): 33cl bottle £2.50 at branches of The Whisky Shop;
Innis & Gunn Original (6.6%): 33cl < £2 pretty much everywhere.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Heverlee needs to haver less

A while ago – months ago, in fact – I was invited with some other bloggers to come and taste a few Belgian beers with Joris Brams, who is billed as “a Belgian brewer” and the creator of the new Heverlee lager which has been quietly appearing on the bars of Glasgow for the last few months.

The invitation, oddly, forgot to mention that Joris is not just any old brewer, but sits on the board of C&C, the parent company of Tennent’s and Magners, who are rolling out Heverlee in the on-trade in Scotland.

Joris talked us through a selection of Belgian beers. We enjoyed Duvel, McChouffe, DeKoninck, Bourgogne des Flandres, and most interesting for me, Mort Subite – not the usual sweetened gueuze that brand is known for, but the traditional Oude Gueuze which was really rather nice.

Then it’s on to the Heverlee.

I had a slight cold so can make only very general comments on the flavour. It was, surprisingly, satisfyingly bitter with a creamy mouthfeel. Sweetness is a nice contrast to the bitterness, but it’s a corny sweetness rather than a malty one (the grist is 20% maize), so you have to drink it fast – come back to it when it’s warmed up and it’s less pleasant.

According to C&C, Heverlee is a heritage beer “based on” historical recipes once used by the monks at the Park Abbey, in Heverlee, Belgium.

It’s quite amazing then that the result is precisely what you would get if you set out to come up with a product to compete against Stella Artois.

The beer is brewed for C&C by Martens Brewery in Bocholt from 80% pils malt and 20% maize. It is bittered with Hallertau to 21 units of bitterness, and Saaz hops for aroma. It’s fermented at 15C and lagered for two weeks.

To give the Heverlee beer a fair chance, I tried it again a week or so later – in a straight fight against Stella Artois,  I found Heverlee softer and chewier, with a tad more bitterness, but the difference is not large. (If you would like to repeat this challenge, it’s handy to know that Alfredo’s bar in West Nile St sells Stella, while the Iron Horse on the other side of the road sells Heverlee.)

There is a school of thought that maintains Stella Artois was once much better than it is now. I myself am not convinced it was ever great, but if you do believe that it was, creating a new product, with the character and quality that its rival once had, seems to me a perfectly respectable strategy, and, in my view, laudable. It is a positive thing for breweries to put more flavour into their beer, rather than taking it out.

Why the PR people have then decided to dress the story up with extraneous and more than dubious historical decoration is beyond me. We learn that the monks of Heverlee developed light lager in the sixteenth century, and it was so popular in nearby Leuven that the brewers’ guild forced them to close down their brewery.

This is a spectacular historical discovery, meaning that Belgian monasteries were on a level with the Bavarians in developing lager beer and several centuries in advance of Josef Groll at Pilsner Urquell with a pale one. Sadly, I think we will be waiting for documentation of these claims for quite some time yet.

The dodgy claims in the press release then turn into the ridiculous headline in The Scotsman, “Medieval Belgian beer on sale in Scotland”, which shows the dangers of spreading misleading stories to clueless journalists.

In reality Heverlee cannot be anything more than – at the most – “inspired” by the beer which was once brewed at the abbey, given that it is a modern beer, made with a pure yeast culture and filtered to be bar bright, then dispensed from a keg.

It was very nice of Joris to take time to meet a handful of bloggers and bring us some beers to taste. I never imagined I’d find myself listening to someone from C&C explaining the production process of traditional gueuze, and the thought that people on the board of that company are familiar with Orval and Rodenbach is very positive.

But I can’t help feeling that if C&C are serious about the authenticity in beer that Joris talks about, they need to let him tell the story and stop the marketing people padding it out with ahistorical nonsense.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Wacky font – must be craft

 
There have been murmurings for a while that Greene King were preparing to relaunch the beers of its Scottish subsidiary Belhaven in a “craft beer” direction. And here they are, turning up unannounced in Tesco. On an end-of-aisle display underneath some alcopops. Not the presentation I would have chosen, but what do I know about marketing?

What strikes me is that similarity of the labels to the newly repackaged Greene King-branded “craft” offerings like St Edmunds and Craft English Lager or whatever it’s called.

What also strikes me is how cheap and tacky the labels look. The old ones might have been a bit dated, but they had a bit of dignity. The new bottles have none.

Still, at least the beers are in brown glass now. I’d rather have a drinkable beer with an ugly label than a lightstruck one.

I’ve thought for quite a while that it’s only a matter of time until Belhaven brewery closes, and this convergence of the packaging design has the alarm bells ringing just a bit louder.

It looks very much like all the Greene King speciality beers are getting this treatment, including the venerable Strong Suffolk, which deserves better. Seeing it packaged with this childish typography, which for some reason I find reminiscent of a blackcurrant smoothie, is vaguely distasteful.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Bavarian beer steins “could have been banned”


Students of the art of journalism know that the word “could” in inverted commas in a headline – as in this blog post – actually means “probably won’t”, but has a most positive effect on sales, the more so the more remarkable the phenomenon is that you are warning “could” materialise.

Did you know that the traditional grey Bavarian beer mug was in danger of being banned? Nor was I, until I found out that the supposed risk had been averted.

The grey stoneware mug is opaque, and therefore, says the EU, may not be used for draught foaming beverages after 2015, as it is not possible for the consumer to see that it has indeed been filled up to the calibration line.

Germany’s economic ministry has negotiated an exception for the mug, usually referred to as a stein in English, though the Germans have several more precise terms – Steingut-Bierkrug, Keferloher or just Steinkrug. Drinkers will be informed by notices that they can have their beer transferred into a glass vessel to check the correct amount has been poured.

At least, all that is what the “news” magazine Focus reported, and the story was picked up by other media. Since Focus’s original mission to displace the venerable Der Spiegel has long since been abandoned in favour of sensationalist tripe, it wasn’t a surprise when the EU commissioners hotly denied that there had ever been a planned ban: the EU guidelines are to do with lined drinking glasses and there was never any intention of banning stoneware mugs, said their German spokesman Reinhard Hönighaus to the press agency dpa.

I really like the Keferloher. It is perhaps one of the most iconic drinking vessels, but it’s become rarer in Bavaria than you might imagine. Experienced beer-pourers and drinkers can tell by the weight when a Maß is full, but I’ve taken mine to beer gardens more than once where the staff, though willing, have struggled to get it full. For the drinker, the secret of making sure it’s full is to blow on the foam until you can see the surface of the beer.

The irony of all this is that there is one event in Germany where you are almost guaranteed to get short measure – the Munich Oktoberfest, which switched to clear glass Krüge decades ago. Despite the clear glasses the beer tents there are notorious for brazenly and shamelessly serving “litres” which, according to research by the consumer group Union Against Fraudulent Beer-Pouring (Verein gegen betrügerisches Einschenken) can contain as little as 800ml of liquid* (personally, I was surprised it was that much).

While this racket continues, protected by corrupt local politics, you are much better off finding some quiet little place in the countryside that still uses the grey steins.




* VGBE research in 2012 found that the fullest mugs were served at Löwenbräu (0,94 Liter), with the other tents in descending order: Hacker Festzelt (0,92 Liter) - Hippodrom (0,90 Liter) - Bräurosl (0,88 Liter) - Ochsenbraterei (0,87 Liter) - Armbrustschützen (0,87 Liter) - Augustiner (0,86 Liter) - Fischer Vroni (0,86 Liter) - Winzerer Fähndl (0,84 Liter) - Schützenzelt (0,84 Liter) - Schottenhammel (0,81 Liter) - Käfer (0,80 Liter)

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

No new ideas at Heineken

I confess I felt the tiniest bit sorry for multinational brewer Heineken a couple of weeks ago when the Advertising Standards Agency decided their advert for Kronenbourg was misleading, because the advert implied the lager was brewed in France using Strisselspalt hops. In fact it is made in Britain and Strisselspalt is only one of a blend of hops used in the brewing.

Although they were caught bang to rights, at least the advert mentioned hops and their effect on the beer. What other mass-market lager advert has done that in the last ten years?

Whatever sympathy I had for the company evaporated, however, when I saw the news of their latest desperate gimmicks. These are a new (allegedly) New Zealand “cider” brand – in “kiwi and lime”, “passion fruit and apple” and “summer berries” flavours, natch – and a new device to serve Heineken at 2ºC into frozen glasses, so that the beer ends up at precisely 0ºC.

Really, Heineken? Is that all your R&D millions can come up with? Another alcopop masquerading as cider, and even colder lager? Is that it?