Sunday, 24 May 2020

1978 Courage Russian Stout

A few years ago, I acquired a box of old beers, which have been sitting in a corner ever since. Some look more exciting than others.

One of the exciting ones is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout from 1978. I’ve never had one this old, so decided to crack it open.

Now that every other brewery in the world seems to make something they call Imperial Russian Stout, it is quite difficult to imagine the peculiar status the original Courage beer had back in the 70s and 80s. I am lucky to be old enough to have tasted it in the early 1990s when Courage had a bit of a marketing push on it, giving it a fancy new Constructivist-style label.

More recently I enjoyed the revived version that Wells & Youngs produced in 2012, although I seemed to always order it as a rather expensive treat in Edinburgh pubs when I was already quite drunk. I thought that was still a lovely beer, even though it did not have the classic secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces.

First waft of the 1978 bottle on opening: well they certainly didn’t forget to dose this with Brettanomyces. The secondary yeast has completely taken over, leather, prunes, balsamic vinegar. Residual sugars have almost completely dried out since 1978, but the beer is still drinkable: still some carbonation, still quite viscous and oily, though lighter than it once would have been, yet no sweetness. Blackcurrant and some empyreumatic flavours reminiscent of wood smoke, perhaps a little smoked beef, any acrid or chocolatey notes long since mellowed out. There is still quite a bitter aftertaste on this, though it is camouflaged by the massive Brettanomyces aroma. Would probably have been better not quite so old. If you happen to also have a 42 year old bottle of Russian Stout, drink it fifteen years ago.

It’s a tragedy this beer is no longer made.

In the meantime, you might try brewing your own from this 1976 recipe that Edd Mather has recently published.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The fictional beers of the Queen Victoria 2005–15

“Chamber’s Best Bitter” on the EastEnders set, 2015. Picture: BBC

It’s literally decades since I last watched EastEnders, but I remember – this must be 1989 at the latest and God alone knows why I remember it – Pete Beale ordering a pint of Churchill’s.

Thanks to these high-resolution images of the EastEnders set that the BBC has helpfully placed on the internet for people to use as backgrounds for their online meetings, we get a rare chance to see the array of fictional beer brands created for the Queen Victoria. Normally publicity images are not detailed enough for this, and of course on TV the camera does not stay still for long enough to read anything.

Now we get to see that Churchill’s is still on the price list in 2005 at £2.30 a pint.

I wonder how much of a brief the props department gets for this sort of stuff. Obviously there are not unlimited resources. Given infinite time and money, it could be someone’s job to create fake brewing logs for Luxford & Copley going back to the 19th century. And why not? Is that any more reprehensible than thinking up the endless tortuous twists and turns of the pain-filled lives of soap characters?

Table 1: Fictional beer brands on sale in the Queen Vic, 2005–2015:
2005Melbourne StarLagerBox keg font
2005Thames BitterKeg bitterBox keg font
2005Fo***am’s Ale?Stemmed fontcan't quite make out name
2005Chamber’s Best BitterKeg bitterKeg fontmodified Castlemaine XXXX font
2005Jenkin’sLagerBottleresembles Budweiser
2005Jenkin’s Pale AlePale AleBottle
2005North ExportLagerBottlemodified Miller Draft label
2013Bramford ExportLager?Wedge keg fontresembles French “33”
2013Cromer LagerLagerWedge keg fontBlackletter type
2013Biermann Deutsche [sic] BierCask lagerHandpullAn in-joke?
2013AleCaskHandpullPumpclip with a wolf, or a seal or a bear or something
2013Chamber’s Best BitterCask bitterHandpull
2015Chamber’s Best BitterCask bitterHandpull
2015AlwentCider?Keg fontNo idea what kind of product

I had imagined that all these fake brands were created to comply with the BBC’s strict rules on avoiding product placement or anything that looked like it. But if that was the case why are there genuine brands on offer next to the fake ones? We have Coors, Murphy’s and Michelob next to the Devlin’s and Jenkin’s bottled beers, and a Guinness font on the bar top.

We can also see the Licensed Victuallers’ Association membership plaque on the wall and in one picture the Queen Vic seems to have acquired a couple of Adnams and John Smiths ashtrays.

By 2013 the Chamber’s bitter is on handpump (we also see the Vic does not use sparklers on its cask ales). There’s also something a bit odd: Biermann German beer served on a handpump. I suspect someone was either ignorant or – I prefer to believe – trying to see if any viewers would be observant enough to notice that a fictional beer was using an implausible dispense method, and also pedantic enough to complain about it (with a bonus score if you also point out that Bier is neuter in German (das Bier) and the clip should therefore read “Deutsches Bier” rather than “Deutsche Bier”).

I could have gone into this in more depth, but that would involve more knowledge of EastEnders storylines over the last 35 years than I have or am willing to acquire, and I have wasted an afternoon on it already. A brief glimpse shows the history of the Vic to have been, shall we say, turbulent, since Sharon bought it from the brewery in 1991. I can only say, if you think the real pubcos are bad (which they are), count yourself lucky you’re not running the Queen Vic.

One thing that is striking is that there are no beers from the brewery that purportedly owned the pub when the series started, Luxford & Copley. Did Sharon buy herself out of the beer tie in 1991? Did she buy the freehold or just the leasehold? Are Luxford & Copley even still in business? Researching these things is left as an exercise for the reader.

Next week: the effects of the consolidation of the brewing industry on beer choice in the pubs of Trumpton and Camberwick Green, 1955–1970.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Central Bar, Renton

There is not much nightlife in Renton, and as lifestyles have changed, people do not swarm to the local pub as they once did. The first time I was in the Central Bar a few years ago, it was nearly empty on a Saturday night, one of the snugs remained in darkness and there was a strong smell of damp.

It has had its ups and downs in recent years. Shortly after my first visit I heard it had closed. Then it opened up again. And closed once more. At the moment, of course, it is shut like everything else.

You cannot claim it is not friendly. I was urged to bring my bike inside the pub so it doesn’t get stolen outside. Although a pair of large dogs block my way, I am assured the only danger is that they might lick me to death.

Unlikely as it may sound, Renton’s claim to footballing fame is that its team was once champion of the world. Yes, really, although it was a very long time again. In 1888 Renton FC, the then holders of the Scottish Cup, played a friendly against FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion. Renton beat the Black Country team 4–1; as the infant game of association football had not spread much beyond the UK at the time, this made them de facto the world champions.

It would be nice to think this event was celebrated in the Central Bar but alas, the pub did not open until 1898, ten years later.

So many features in this bar have not changed much. The rude but functional gantry behind the bar, overshadowed by the enormous spirit casks.

The glorious high windows letting sunshine in, something sadly rare in Glasgow since the licensing board’s demented crusade a century ago to conceal the sinful sight of fun from passers-by, the legacy of which is still felt today in a number of pubs with no natural light.

The Central Bar was only seven years old in 1905 when another Renton footballer was born: Alec Jackson, who was to become one of the “Wembley Wizards” Scotland team which beat England 5–1 in 1928.

When Jackson signed to Huddersfield for the then record-breaking fee of £5,000 the Huddersfield manager Herbert Chapman supposedly took Jackson’s father for a dram in a Renton pub and bought a round for the entire bar. Jackson told Paris-Match magazine that this took place in the only pub in the village, though why he should have said this I am not sure. There was more than one pub in Renton back then, surely.

There is only one pub today. Tam, on the other hand, tells me that Renton had six pubs at one time, and he remembers drinking in five of them. Tam is a joiner and carried out a good deal of internal reconstruction in the Central some fifteen years ago, removing a wall to turn what had been a back room into a snug. He used repurposed wood to do the work and I wouldn’t have guessed it wasn’t original.

The plasterwork on the ceiling is quite ornate too, with the gaps filled by textured wallpaper, all covered by decades of paint and nicotine stains. I find myself wondering how many millions of cigarettes must have been smoked in here to give the ceiling its rich brown-cafe patina. And whether any of them were Club, the brand Alec Jackson advertised.

In London Jackson played for Chelsea and later went into the pub trade himself, becoming licensee of the Angel & Crown in St Martin’s Fields. That has been transformed into a tacky cod-Victorian gin-in-teapots place these days. At least the humbler Central, should it survive, has kept its original character.

Friday, 1 May 2020

How alike are Gordon Scotch and Traquair House Ale?

On the face of it, this ought to be easy.

One is a beer found in Belgian supermarkets, contract-brewed by the biggest Scottish breweries of their day and now churned out somewhere in Belgium.

The other is, whatever its other merits may be, certainly the most romantic of “Scotch ales”: brewed in the big hoose in the centuries-old brewery and fermented in oak.

Can I tell the difference?

It’s time for a blind tasting of Gordon Finest Scotch Highland Ale versus Traquair House Ale.

The amusing thing is that Gordon is the older brand, brewed since 1924, first at George Younger in Alloa and then at Scottish Brewers’ Holyrood and Fountain breweries in Edinburgh before the move to Belgium, its chief market.

Traquair House Ale dates from 1965 when the laird of Traquair, Peter Maxwell Stuart, began brewing again in the long-abandoned house brewery.  His friend Sandy Hunter, the boss of Belhaven brewery, helped a lot, and – I am just speculating here – I suspect the recipe for Traquair House Ale owes more to Belhaven’s wee heavy at the time than to whatever was being made when the brewhouse was abandoned.

Anyway, what do these two ales taste like? Well, the first surprise is just how similar they look. Both a deep ruby red and even the foam appears identical. To look at them you’d think they were the same beer.

While both are quite sweet, beer A is drier than beer B, while also being not so much fuller in body as chewier. Slight vanilla, crystal malt (I never like to identify specific ingredients, but if there is no crystal in this I will eat my hat) and a slight huskiness. As it warms up, more and more malt character comes to the fore. Possibly, just possibly a touch of oak – but it could also be barley husks.

Both are bright, as far as I can tell from such dark beers.

Beer B is sweet and rich, but immediately more sugary in character. Traces of vanilla and caramel fudge, yet a surprisingly high bitterness in the finish. Creamy and smooth with bitter chocolate notes. As it warms, the odd whiff of malt vinegar (the best malt vinegar has a comforting sweetness to it). Becomes fuller and richer as it warms up. Somehow, a little pencil-shaving woodiness in here too.

By the time I have finished the samples I am pretty sure that B is Gordon Highland Scotch and A is Traquair House Ale. And (for once) I am right. It’s the general sugariness of B that gives it away, but in general these two are more alike than I would ever have believed.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A further note on Bell’s ‘black cork’

Between 1818 and 1822 Robert Fleming of the Summerhall brewery kept a scrapbook which is now one of the oldest items in the collection of the Scottish Brewing Archive. It has been written about a couple of times, most recently in the 2018 Journal of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association.

I have only just noticed that Fleming also mentions the nearby Bell’s brewery on the Pleasance. I can claim no credit for uncovering this, for it was transcribed as far back as 1994 by Alma Topen, the archivist at the SBA and published at the time in the SBA’s newsletter.

Fleming clearly thought quite highly of his late neighbour Mr Hugh Bell:
Of the many eminent characters who have rendered themselves popular as brewers, Mr Bell it is but just to remark ought to be placed first on the list. His plan was to form and adapt every part of his buildings in the different offices in such a manner as that the whole should concur in accomplishing one great object and of this plan he began to feel the good effect when by his death the world was deprived of his further assistance. He set out on a very extensive scale and purposed brewing for the west India bottling trade and no other.

His ales were of the palest kind, his manner of malting very cool and thin on the floors. In brewing some variation in heats was at times made as the state of the air varied and the quality and age of the malt might suggest to be necessary. The mean gravity or strength of the ales being not more than 25lb the barrel the reduction of that gravity by the attenuating affect of the fermentation before cleansing down might bring it to 13 but the most singular and striking part of his practice was in the manner of beating his ales after cleansing.

It should have been remarked that Mr Bells cellars consisted of three different kinds arched vaults one below the other extending to the area of the whole yard. Into the first of these vaults the ale at the time of cleansing descended from the tun into casks of about four or five barrels standing upright where it was carefully attended to by being filled with clean ale of the same kind during the time of its working after it had apparently done working it was slightly bunged down and hopped with hops that had been boiled once in the first wort in this state it remained six or eight months and was then drawn off fine to descend in to the second range of vaults below into clean casks of the same description as those from whence it was drawn in these its new apartments it was destined to remain for an indefinite period until it was likely to be called into service by bottling off a few weeks previous to which it descended into the third and lower regions into other clean casks where it was fined down and suffered to remain flattening for bottling off shipping [last word illegible].
There is quite a bit of information in this. It tells us Bell was making his own malt, common at the time. The cleansing and vatting regime also sounds extremely interesting. I haven’t seen a multi-level cellar anywhere other than at Rodenbach.

But more important than that, there are two notes that tell us a bit more about what kind of ale Bell was brewing.

Cool malting as practised by Bell would produce high quality malt with low acidity and high extract potential – exactly what you would want for premium export ale, especially one you were going to mature for several months.

I argued back in 2011 that Bell’s famous “black cork”, whatever it was, almost certainly wasn’t black – however, I think by the time I came out with this, Bob Knops had already decided to use the name for his porter.

But Fleming tells us “His ales were of the palest kind,” and that the gravity of it was “not more than 25lb the barrel” which might ferment down to 13lb. So we have a pretty good idea of the colour and the strength of Bell’s ale.

25 brewers’ pounds per barrel expressed as original gravity is 1.069, but 13 pounds is 1.036. That seems high, but remember this is only the gravity before cleansing and the beer might well ferment quite a bit further during its six to eight months in the cellars.  With modern techniques you might expect a wort like that to ferment down to perhaps 1.015 or so. Sadly we do not know the actual finishing gravity, which would allow us to calculate a satisfyingly exact figure for the alcohol content of Bell’s black cork; but it does look like we have a pale drink of roughly 6% alcohol.

What we can say, though, is that I was mistaken in suggesting black cork was the ancestor of strong Edinburgh ales such as Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale. It is far too weak for that.

I was led astray by the use of the term strong ale. That does not mean what it means today: something substantially higher in alcohol than an everyday drinking beer. In Bell’s time it was a duty category: beer and ale described as “strong” attracted higher duty, small beer a much lower rate. At the time of Hugh Bell’s death in 1802 the duty on strong beer was 10/– a barrel, five times as much as on small beer.  It’s in this sense only that black cork was “strong ale”.

Edinburgh ales, according to Roberts, might range in OG from 1.080 to 1.125. True, today an OG of 1.069 might appear strong to us, depending on what we are used to drinking. But it is definitely on the weak side for what Georgians and Victorians regarded as strong.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Trying some beers in the Tri-City

For British people of my generation, who are perhaps not as educated as they should be, Gdansk doesn’t sound like an appealing destination. When I was growing up, Poland was under martial law and the name Gdansk still makes me think of meat shortages, Lech Wałęsa, shipyards and grey concrete.

If you also think that way, you‘d be very wrong.

This is Gdansk:

It helps to realise that Gdansk was formerly known as Danzig and one of the most important ports in the Hanseatic League of medieval Europe.

This is Ulica Piwna in Gdansk. In the past when the town was predominantly German, the street was called Jopengasse. Both names redolent with beery history, for Jopengasse is named after the legendary Danziger Jopenbier (or perhaps the beer is named after the street), whereas Piwna literally means Beer Street.

There are a few other beery addresses. As well as Jopengasse, Danzig in the 19th century also had a Mälzergasse, maltsters’ street. The street then called Hinter Adlers Brauhaus, “Behind Adler’s Brewery” is now called Browarna, brewery street and the one-time Hopfengasse is now Chmielna, both meaning Hop Lane.

The grand building at the end of the street is the old town arsenal. Of course, these days there is a bar in there selling New England IPA and milk stout. No, really, there is.

The other end of Piwna is even more impressive, as it takes you to St Mary’s Basilica, the largest brick church in Europe,

After visiting the Solidarity museum in the former Lenin Shipyard (where you can see Lech Wałęsa’s jumper) I do need a beer.

Happily, there is still beer brewed in Beer Street. Browar Piwna, which I suppose you would need to translate as “Beer St Brewery” rather than the decidedly redundant sounding “Beer Brewery” is a bit touristy, as you might expect. But the beer is good. Their Pils is as murky as the soupiest IPA, but tastes entirely different, with that fresh lagering-tank CO2 you find in good brewpub beer. Hops build to a substantial bitterness. If you gave this to me blind I’d call it some sort of Kellerbier rather than Pils, but whatever.

Gdansk and the neighbouring towns of Sopot and Gdynia make up a conurbation known locally as the Trójmiasto, Tri-city. Sopot is the smallest of the three but it has two brewpubs.

In Browar Miejski Sopot we have a very nice oatmeal stout (12º, 4.7%), very smooth and creamy with no rough edges with notes of liquorice and smoke. An “American Red” beer is straightforward, a little watery but not bad. The standout beer, though, is the Pils: fresh malt and just the right amount of diacetyl for me. Low, cask-like carbonation and lovely, perfumey hops with a fresh edge to them. Perhaps not bitter enough to be a true Pils but whatever it is, it’s a very nice beer.

A day drinking in Gdynia sees us start – I can’t remember exactly why – at Blues Club.

As everywhere else, the big brewers are attempting to capture a share of the speciality market. They are pretty keen on witbier and Zywiec Bialy is a very light, bland but drinkable specimen. Toasty malt, creamy mouthfeel, needs more coriander.

There is fancier beer in bottles in the fridge. The double IPA and Porter from Browar Zamkowy Cieszyn look interesting so we order those. They come in 50cl bottles and are 8.0% and 9.8% respectively, and it’s only lunchtime. Woops.

It is a nice enough bar and at least there is a Fun Guide.

The double IPA is surprisingly light in body with savoury, spicy aromas and a slightly odd meatiness. Needs more hops but the bitterness builds gradually. A fairly decent West Coast IPA actually. The porter was apparently so good there are no notes. We then have a further vanilla and chilli stout at 6.4%, made with a traditional (hmmmm) decoction mash, It’s very nice, sweetish with oaty creaminess, breakfast-cereal malt and a very subtle chilli burn – the vanilla is not apparent.

We need pizza before the next beer and fortunately there is a pizzeria right next door to our next stop. The pizza dough is yeasty and not salty enough, which is a shame because the toppings are outstanding. To go with it, Łomża Export is one of those Polish pale lagers: sweetish but with a prominent balancing bitterness. OK. For 9 PLN (about £2) more than OK.

Next door is the tap of the “craft” brewery AleBrowar. It looks like every other craft beer bar  everywhere, but with more Zs and Ws.

Lilt-flavoured grey meh
We start with a beer called “Be Like Mitch”. If more brewers were like Mitch, the world would be a better place. Fruity pineapple, clean bitterness, drinkable, not too extreme. “King of Hop” is excellent too: really good hop nose, intensely dank and bitter.

AleBrowar is perhaps best known for its IPA Rowing Jack, once called Poland’s best beer by Hector, who visits a lot (although the last time I spoke to him he’d since found a new favourite). I find it nice enough but not as outstanding as I’d been led to believe. The classical profile of caramel malt and resin is there, with a certain mintyness and a little diacetyl, so the end effect is a bit like drinking mint Werther’s Originals (is there even such a variety?).

Jesus Juice is their murky. It’s very unattractive pond water and the closest I’ve ever seen to a beer that was actually grey. The flavour is the usual Lilt with hops. Meh for this one.

A milk stout called “Sweet Cow” has a really weird smoke and mushrooms aroma and has to be swapped for a beer called “Roo Juice”. This has a really nice dank aroma with jasmine tea notes, dry and astringent. It is basically best bitter and one of the best on offer today.

At the end of my notes I have written that AleBrowar is the Polish equivalent of Sadler’s, but have no idea what I meant by that.

On to the next beer place, Morze Piwa Multitap, an oddly draughty place with the atmosphere of a theatre foyer.

Ziemia Obiecana Mini Dzordz, a “session New England IPA”, could be a nice glass of pineapple juice but is ruined by a strong, unpleasant flavour of burnt rubber. Przystanck Tiesi Kölsch also has a slight burnt rubber nose and a bit of marzipan, but otherwise is a surprisingly competent attempt at a Kölsch. We don’t stay here for another.

Our last stop before jumping back on the train is Beczka Chmielu, an empty beer bar where draught beers on offer are less fancy and perhaps that’s just as well. Zwiemyniec Pils is an OK lager but again lacking in hop flavour and aroma. But at least it has a head on it. Staropolski Porter Baltycki is 10.2% and full of liquorice flavour, nice and rather reminiscent of Courage Russian Stout.

PG4, Gdansk

The beer culture here has been gratifyingly good. “Craft” beer has been faster to make headway in Poland than in Germany, perhaps because there is more of a blank slate. Polish industrial pale lager is pretty grim, not quite as dull as British standard lager but notably worse than the big German brands. 

I was not expecting to find historic Polish beers such as Grodziskie or Jopenbier, at least not easily, and I didn’t. I did encounter an isolated bottle of Grodziskie, of all places, in the railway station shop in Sopot. At the moment, caught between the oceans of pale lager and IPA, the strong Polish porter is still the most distinctively Polish feature of the beer market here. I will look out for any of these whenever I see them.

But the revivalists are making progress. Our last stop is back in Gdansk at the relatively new brewpub PG4, right next to the railway station.

If AleBrowar is unabashedly American-influenced, PG4 is surprisingly German. I didn’t know it at the time, but the head brewer and the brew kit both come from Germany, which explains the beers they make here. It is a vast space over two floors plus a sunny terrace, and the beer is very nice. On the way to the toilets I count four 20HL conditioning tanks and five more of 10HL, from Caspary. There may be more.

The Pils has poor head formation and retention but is otherwise very nice: lemony menthol hops on the nose, full in body, bitter and sweet at the same time. Well above average.

There is even a Rauchbier which of course I have to try. Massive woody smoked-ham aroma, though the body is a little on the thin and empty side. While it is clearly modelled on Schlenkerla Märzen, it also has a pleasant treacley note that also crops up in those 10% Polish porters. “Makes me sad we’re not in Bamberg,” says J. Like-for-like, I think Schlenkerla is better, but I might swap an old bottle of it for a fresh glass of this.

The one beer with a Polish name is Starogdanskie (Old Gdansk) which is a wonderfully fresh and clean malty beer. Very sticky, in a good way, with toasty notes and a hazy orange colour.

Since our visit I have heard the brewer here is attempting to revive Jopenbier, so I am very curious about that.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Charity festival showcases Glasgow’s secret breweries

Tonight (Friday) sees the start of Beer Makes Glasgow, the festival which brewers and retailers set up last year to replace the collapsed Great Scottish Beer Celebration. It was such a success that it’s returning for a second year.

One of the peculiar features of Glasgow’s beer scene is the bottleneck of outlets, which means new and small breweries have very limited routes to market in the city. In the last few years a number of new wave producers – Up Front, Lawman, Out of Town, Gallus, Dead End Brew Machine, Ride – have sprung up, joined in 2017 by very slightly larger outfits Merchant City, Late Night Hype and the newest of all, Overtone. What all have in common is that hardly any pubs in the city will sell their beer, so if you want to drink it, it’s a matter of seeking out packaged product or checking the tiny number of draught outlets which occasionally feature one of them. So festivals such as this are a valuable shop window for some of (what I am these days calling) Glasgow’s secret breweries.

Beer Makes Glasgow is worth supporting too as it’s the city’s most socially conscious festival, all surplus going to Drumchapel Food Bank.

This year’s event takes place at Drygate, a decision taken early on to enable more to be donated. That was just as well, as last year’s venue, the former Beresford Hotel, is still closed following the huge fire that gutted the Glasgow School of Art just around the corner.

Film-maker Guy Thomson produced this promotional film based on last year’s festival, which lets the brewers involved explain their own motivation for being involved:

Tickets are here.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

A note on beer skimmers

Many years before I ever visited the Netherlands I learned through reading that it was commonplace for bar staff there to pour Pils with a large head of foam, which was then decapitated with a large bladed implement resembling a palette knife.

I had thought this a peculiarly Dutch practice, but in recent years both Stella Artois and its competitor Heverlee have made a big thing of the ritual, emphasising a smooth, stylish skim with the knife as an essential part of the serve.

The last time I was in Belgium I observed bar staff using skimmers on the draught Leffe et al too. To me it gives a glass of beer an unnaturally smooth, plastic appearance.

I am not sure that I approve of it being used for beers beyond Pils, certainly not for the rocky head that forms on Belgian brown and abbey-type beers. In Germany it would never be used for Pils either, since in that country a tall crown of foam extending high above the rim of the glass is seen as a sign of a well-poured beer (although who knows whether that may change as corporations such as Heineken gain influence).

I was quite surprised to discover that such skimmers – “beer combs” in American English – were also used in the United States until about the 1950s, and when I tweeted about the subject my colleague Allan McLean mentioned that he remembered them being used in Edinburgh, presumably for cask beer.

In the US the story goes that these things fell out of use due to hygiene concerns, as the comb was left in a jug of stagnant water between uses.

A patent applied for in 1941 seems to confirm this theory:
Heretofore in the art where beer has been served over a bar it has been customary for the bartender to use a beer comb to scoop off the excess top foam of a glass or stein of beer. The bartender by custom then places the beer comb in a glass of stationary water until he needs to use the beer comb again for another service. It is apparent that where a glass is used that the water is stationary and in a comparatively short time becomes stale and mixed with some of the beer leavings which have been introduced into the glass from time to time. It is obvious that very soon after the glass has first been used that the water will be so sour and distasteful that it will not properly clean the beer comb but will on the other hand leave the beer comb in such a condition that when the comb is next used to scoop out the top of a beer glass that the comb will leave stale drippings on top of the latest glass of beer to the distaste of a patron. [Source]
I doubt the rather cumbersome-looking contraption which was intended to solve this problem was ever going to take off (even if it did also promise to prevent the unauthorised removal of the skimmer by a “frolicsome customer”). Perhaps people instead just got used to allowing a natural head of foam to form, which I have to say is also my preferred option.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Retro beers at the Golden Cabbage

Kölsch is a frustrating style to taste. I find it difficult to identify precise flavours in it, though I’ve drunk enough of it to be able to say “yeah, that tastes like Kölsch” (or not) when presented with an imitator from elsewhere.

When in Cologne, as I’ve mentioned before, I always like to call in at Früh am Dom, even though it is decried by some as a tourist trap with dreadful beer. There is not much hope for such people, and the beer hall is a classic of its kind, even if you do have to occasionally duck out of the path of tour groups traipsing through the place. 

At its best, Früh Kölsch has a fresh maltiness and elegant, very slightly citrussy hop aroma. Quite by chance we discover it like this in the pub Em Golde Kappes in Nippes in the north of the city (forcing us to stay for an extra couple of glasses). The Golden Cabbage has been a Nippes institution for decades. Früh took it over a couple of years ago and put some cash into it.

The number eleven has a special status in Cologne due to its role in the madness of Karneval, the pre-Lenten debauchery centered on cities along the Rhine. The Karneval season begins at 11.11 on the 11/11 – welcomed with oceans of Kölsch.

For that reason a couple of years ago the P.J. Früh brewery chose to celebrate its 111th anniversary with as much effort as its hundredth. The delightful retro glasses pictured here were part of it. Making it to that age is, after all, an impressive achievement in a city whose breweries were, like the rest of it, almost completely flattened in the war.

Many of Früh’s competitors, too, have long since been swallowed up by larger conglomerates, leaving only a handful of the 20+ Kölsch brands still actually produced by independent breweries: for example, Gilden, Sion, Sester and Küppers now all come from the same facility on the east side of the Rhine, owned by Radeberger/Dr Oetker. But once upon a time you could judge roughly where you were in the city by which local brand the local bars were advertising: Sester Kölsch in Ehrenfeld, Sünner Kölsch in Deutz, Gilden Kölsch in Mülheim, Reissdorf Kölsch in Sülz.

Ironically enough, the full-spectrum dominance enjoyed by Kölsch locally is itself a post-war phenomenon and not nearly as old as the people who write the copy on the back of beer labels would have you think. But there are signs this is beginning to crack at the edges.

In 2009 the Gaffel brewery brought out something they named “Kölsch classic”, less bitter than their standard Kölsch. That doesn’t appear to be made any more, but more recently they have also made an unfiltered golden beer called Sonnenhopfen with Citra hops.

Früh also had a go in its eleventhiversary year, and launched a new beer of its own. “Rude Pitter”, or Red Peter in the local dialect, was a malty bronze beer. It was a bit sweet for my liking – but the problem is that if it were more bitter, it would be dangerously close to a Düsseldorf-type Altbier. Imagine the shame! There are limits to experimentation, after all.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Golden Pints for 2017

For once I’m managing to post these before the end of the year. I hope everyone has had a good a year as I have – although looking through my grey, drizzly photos from 2017 I could have done with a bit better weather for most of it.

Best New Local Brewery: Out of Town

It would now be pretty easy to stock a pub purely with beers made in and around the city of Glasgow itself and still provide plenty of choice – something you couldn’t have said just a few years ago. Most of these new starts have occurred in the last couple of years. My choice for the best new local brewery is Out of Town – which as the name implies is based on an industrial estate in Cumbernauld (incidentally, the same one Lawman is on).

Many brewers produce beers which are impressive on the first sip; the Out of Town beers are distinguished by their massive drinkability too. They started up near the end of 2016 but it’s really been in 2017 that their beers have become ubiquitous in the city.

Even newer breweries have started up in the latter part of the year – Ride in Tradeston, Merchant City in Maryhill, and Late Night Hype in Clydebank. Too late for any of them to quite make it as best new local brewery, but what I have had the chance to sample from all of them has been promising.
(New award)

Best UK Cask Beer: Up Front Old Man Ahab

I’d usually make my beer of the year something I’d drunk regularly, but what with one thing and another my pub visiting has declined this year. So it’s the beer which stuck in my mind the most. Up Front Old Man Ahab (7.1%) managed to fool drinkers at the Paisley Beer Festival into thinking it was made with coconut – yet the brewer subsequently denied that there was any coconut in the beer. The power of imagination seemed enough to give the beer a delicious coconut aroma and flavour (more fresh coconut than Bounty bar, since you ask). It’s a great shame that Up Front can’t make their desired margin on cask beer, which is why there is so little of it.

Runners-up: A chance half of North Riding Single Hop Centennial in April had amazing lemon and resin aroma, light and clean in body with a long bitter finish. The best beer festivals are when you start googling a brewery you’ve never heard of because the beer is so good.
(Last year: Orkney Corncrake)

Best UK Keg Beer: Five Points Pils

The Five Points Pils I had at a tap takeover in Edinburgh was pretty impressive – “This is what a pils should be like!” say my notes – with fresh CO2 and herbal hops (Tettnanger is what’s used). A full, sweet malt character puts the over-attenuated hop extract water produced by some German breweries to shame. A worthy rival to a previous winner, Fourpure Pils. Yet the second glass of it – poured to the brim in a half-pint glass – was underwhelming, showing that a lot of the joy of pilsner is down to serving technique, something which is still neglected in the UK. Lager needs foam!

Runner-up: Until Loch Lomond arrived with their Out of Range IPA, the New England style locally had been the preserve of semi-hobby brewers, notably Gallus whose first beers made it something of a house speciality. Out of Range brought it closer to the mainstream, and nailed it in flavour. 
(Last year: Lost & Grounded Kellerpils.)

Best UK Small Pack Beer: Little Earth Organic East India Pale Ale

Organic East India Pale Ale by Little Earth Project is my bottled beer of the year. I discovered it while searching for authentic 19th-century style IPAs – there are fewer of these than you might think – back in July and already knew I had found this year’s winner. A gueuze-like aroma meets the nose, followed by faint oak and a bit of lemon with wild yeast esters. But take a sip, and it’s not sour – perhaps just on the border where bone dry tips into slightly tart. Maybe the slight lemony note encourages the association but the pithy bitterness immediately brings marmalade to mind. It’s a dry beer with only a ghost of malt sweetness remaining. You have to get used to the overall flavour profile of it (well, I did) before it’s possibly to discern the sweetness below with notes of leather and tobacco. This really shows it’s worth doing things the old-fashioned way. Recommended by me, Captain Tightwad himself, as genuinely worth the £5 for a 330ml bottle.

Runner-up: The Pale Armadillo by Tempest, on the other hand, is cheap as chips and is one beer which manages to be amazing both on draught or packaged. Ridiculously quaffable dank pale ale.
(Last year: Up Front Ahab)

Best Overseas Draught: Schlenkerla Märzen

Still Schlenkerla Märzen I think. Though the quick Schumacher Alt I had while changing trains in Düsseldorf in May was pretty good too.
(Last year: Ulrich Martin Pilsner)

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label: First Chop

The letterpress-on-beermats style chosen by Salford’s First Chop is simple but striking and effective. Their bottles and cans aren’t half bad either – I love the use of a bold but subdued colour palette.

(Last year: Cloudwater/Boundary/Gallus)

Under-Hyped Brewery Of The Year

There are so many breweries now, with attention focussed on a tiny number of them, that it’s impossible to pick out just one that doesn’t get its due. I’ve very much enjoyed beers from Wylam, Bear Claw, Top Out, Holdens, Lacons, Ossett this year. If you see them, try them too.
(Last year: Fell)

Pub/Bar of the Year: The Curfew, Berwick

I’ve gone a bit further afield for my pub of the year. It’s the Curfew Micropub in Berwick-on-Tweed. It is a delight to drink there, even if it is often impossible to find a seat. Bonuses are their championship of local breweries and beer festival in the spring, for which a second bar is opened up in the storeroom. I also had my best pork pie of the year here, although this might have been part of the beer festival and not permanently on offer.
(Last year: The State, Glasgow (it is still brilliant, having just won Glasgow CAMRA’s Pub of the Year for the fourth year in a row))

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2017: Grunting Growler

This year Grunting Growler in Glasgow’s Yorkhill finally got its on-sales license – which was apparently needed so they could offer tasters – and took the opportunity to add some seats too for tastings or just to sit and have a beer. I’m not sure whether owner Jehad Hatu really meant to end up running a bar but it’s essentially what he’s now got. He is also the only person I know who can get away with greeting you with the words “Hey, y’all down to clown?” and still be cool.
Runner-up: Koelschip Yard. Definitely a worthwhile addition to the south side, but they should have done it five years ago when I lived there.
(Last year: Hippo Taproom (which sadly did not make it to the end of this year))

Beer Festival of the Year: West End Beer Festival

Conor Steven of Cafe Source Too is one of the unsung heroes of Glasgow’s beer scene. As well as helping save the day when Hippo’s beer festival was cancelled, he somehow found time to organise his own, the West End Beer Festival. It featured the cutting edge of the local breweries, as well as some from further away, such as Brass Castle, who came up specially and brought their beer-dispensing piano. It also featured a dramatic unintended plastic keg explosion, which I’m not allowed to tell you about.
Runners-up: I enjoyed the Edinburgh Craft Beer festival much more than I expected to. But I still came home drunkest from the Paisley Beer Festival.
(No award last year as I barely went to any festivals)

Ugliest Beer which is nonetheless wonderful: Dead End Brew Machine Decay IPA

As regular readers may have noticed, I am sceptical of most murky beers. I still try them. Most are harshly bitter and unpleasant (whether the harshness comes from yeast or incompetent hopping I care not). Others are sweetish and reminiscent of turbid mango juice, in which case I’d rather just have the mango juice, which would be easier on my wallet and my liver. The stand-out exception this year, however, has been Dead End Brew Machine’s spectacular canned Decay IPA. It looks hellish, like muddy khaki soup (possibly broccoli) with soapy scum on top, but it tastes fantastic with a perfect balance of dank hop flavour and tropical juiciness. It’s good to see Chris Lewis’ commercial beers – still basically a hobby – now matching the quality of his remarkable homebrew.
(New award)

Supermarket of the Year: Waitrose

Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have both stepped up their beer game in the last couple of years – but I think that Waitrose have perhaps come further in a shorter time. Waitrose it is, then. Where else can you get Fuller’s imperial stout in a supermarket?
(Last year: Booths)

Independent Retailer of the Year: Good Spirits Wine & Beer

With the sad collapse of the Hippo Beers empire it’s down to a four-way dance-off between Valhalla’s Goat, The Cave, Grunting Growler and Good Spirits Wine & Beer. There’s not much in it, they are all good. I guess I have bought more from Good Spirits than any of the others. The Wee Beer Shop is too new for this year’s award but I expect it to be in the running next year.
(Last year: Grunting Growler)

Most Cringey Attempt To Be Down With The Kids: Wadworth 6X

Please step up Wadworth’s with your ridiculous “Old Cool Is The New Cool” campaign, which alienates traditionalists but is scoffed at by crafties. From the inapub story:
“Whilst drinking 6X, this cool generation were wearing Adidas and playing vinyls way before their children and grandchildren,” said head of marketing and communication, Elaine Beckett. 
I don’t know how you get to be cool but I do know that you don’t do it by announcing how cool you are. Also, they’re called records.

(Last year: Marstons and their distressed type that was briefly fashionable ten years ago)

Weirdest Own Tasting Note Of The Year:

“Rose petals & Golden Nuggets”