Saturday, 26 December 2009

Dry stout

Did you think that Michael Jackson had made up the term Dry Stout in the 1970s to distinguish Sweet Stout from, well, Stout? Yes, so did I.

I've just been looking at the beer can collector's site www.cannyscot.com (geddit? geddit? You see, the site is about Scottish beer cans, and, oh never mind), well worth a look, and this press cutting from 1956 caught my eye:

Tennent's also have a large stout trade. In export markets the company features three stouts to suit the palate of customers in different parts of the globe—XXX stout, dry stout and milk stout. In the home trade their sweet stout is one of the most popular bottled products of the day.


One bit of inconclusive, circumstantial evidence. I wonder if this terminology was actually used in the trade back when breweries made several different kinds of stout? They must have had the same problem of differentiation that Michael Jackson faced.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Serious drinking

[If Christmas means anything at all, it means repeats of old classics. This is a column by the great feuilletonist Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, probably best known to beer enthusiasts for his poem "The Workman's Friend" featuring the line "A pint of plain is your only man". Though first published in the Irish Times over half a century ago, I am inclined to think that his suggestion is more reasonable than many currently circulating — Barm]


Do not for that singular interval, one moment, think that I have been overlooking this new Intoxicating Liquor Bill. I am arranging to have an amendment tabled because it appears that there is absolutely nothing else you can do with an amendment.

My idea is to have the hours altered so that public houses will be permitted to open only between two and five in the morning. This means that if you are a drinking man you'll have to be in earnest about it.

Picture the result. A rustle is heard in the the warm dark bedroom that has been lulled for hours with gentle breathing. Two naked feet are tenderly lowered to the flower and a shaky hand starts foraging blindly for matches. Then there is a further sleepy noise as another person half-wakens and rolls round.

'John! What's the matter?'

'Nothing.'

'But where are you going?'

'Out for a pint.'

'But John! It's half past two.'

'Don't care what time it is.'

'But it's pouring rain. You'll get your death of cold.'

'I tell you I'm going out for a pint. Don't be trying to make a ridiculous scene. All over Dublin thousands of men are getting up just now. I haven't had a drink for twenty-four hours.'

'But John, there are four stouts in the scullery. Beside the oat-meal bag.'

'Don't care what's in the scullery behind the oat-meal bag.'

'Oh, John'.

And then dirty theatrical snivelling sobbing begins as the piqued and perished pint-lover draws dressing gowns and coats over his shivering body and passes out gingerly to the stairs.

Then the scene in the pub. Visibility is poor because a large quantity of poisonous fog has been let in by somebody and is lying on the air like layers of brawn. Standing at the counter is a row of dishevelled and shivering customers, drawn of face, quaking with the cold. Into their unlaced shoes is draped, concertina-wise, pyjama in all its striped variety. Here and there you can discern the raw wind-whipped shanks of the inveterate night-shirt wearer. And the curate behind the bar has opened his face into so enormous a yawn that the tears can be heard dripping into the pint he is pulling. Not a word is heard, nothing but chilly savage silence. The sullen clock ticks on. Then 'Time, please, time. Time for bed, gentlemen.' And as you well know, by five in the morning, the heavy rain of two-thirty has managed to grow into a roaring downpour.

The Plain People of Ireland:
Is all this serious?

Myself:
Certainly it's serious, why wouldn't it be serious, you don't make jokes about anything so funny as the licensing laws, why would I bring turf to Newcastlewest?

The Plain People of Ireland:
If you're serious so, it's only a trick to get more drink for newspapermen.

Myself:
Nonsense. Newspapermen couldn't hold any more than they have at present.

The Plain People of Ireland:
Oh faith now, that's enough. That's enough about that crowd. Remember well, many's a county council meeting, fluther-eyed note-takers couldn't get the half of it, stuff that days was spent thinkin' out.

Myself:
Hic!

The Plain People of Ireland: Faith indeed that was loud enough, well you may talk about putting down drink. Putting down is right.

Myself:
Ut's only mey undajaschin, d'yeh ondherstawnd.

I can see even another domestic aspect of this new order. It is after midnight. The man of the house is crouched miserably over the dying fire.

'John! Look at the time! Are you not coming to bed?'

'No. I'm waiting for the pubs to open.'

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Beer Swap: what I sent

I thought it would be fun to post my own notes on the beers that I sent for Beer Swap. And now that Alan from realalereviews has posted his own opinions of them, I can post mine. (This is Alan's photo of the beers too – I did take some photos before sending them, but later realised I'd photographed the preliminary selection rather than the final one!)

As it's made just down the road from me, it stands to reason that I just have to include the famous Glasgow-brewed lager with the big red logo. Of course I'm talking about West St Mungo Lager. It's my local brewery and it's the only beer that they bottle, so it's a must. An initial slight whiff of DMS gives way to a nice, pale proper Reinheitsgebot-konform lager with a respectably bitter finish. I must say it's better on draught though.

Colonsay 80/– : Grainy aroma, then chewy malt. It's full in body, slightly creamy compared with other 80/– beers and (I suspect) all malt, without getting sticky. Unobtrusive hops give it a subtly dry finish. Colonsay is a very small operation indeed, I understand — you won't even see their draught beer on the mainland because the ferry only goes three times a week.

Arran Ale: Dark gold with a crisp, foresty aroma almost reminiscent of elderflowers, light-bodied, woody and dry. I think this is a much more characterful beer than the more widely distributed Arran Dark and Arran Blonde, but I do worry that at just 3.8% it might be too light for these chilly December evenings.

Houston Crystal: Paler than the dark chocolate label would suggest, with a florally hoppy aroma and foretaste, pleasantly bitter on the palate and with slight black pepper finish. Malt is just enough to balance the hops.

The strange thing about this selection is that they're things I almost never buy in bottles myself. I drink at West regularly, but the Scottish beers I buy the most (other than BrewDog and Williams Bros, which I didn't include because they're so widely distributed that I assumed Alan would already have tasted them) — are the ones I see on cask in my locals. For instance, I would have loved to send some Fyne Ales beer, but it's not available in bottles anywhere in Glasgow, and I think a couple of Houston's other beers are better than Crystal.

I haven't read Alan's review yet. Compare and contrast.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Kölsch brewer breaking the Kölsch-Konvention?

The Kölsch-Konvention is a formal agreement signed in 1986 by the 24 then existing Kölsch brewers. It defines what Kölsch is: a pale, highly attenuated, hoppy, clear, top-fermenting beer with an original gravity of between 11 and 16 degrees Plato.

It also regulates the glasses used in Cologne to serve Kölsch and some of the language Kölsch brewers are allowed to use. While reading this to double-check that I'm not mad, I was reminded of the equally strict restrictions on how Kölsch brands can be named. Basically you can only call your beer Kölsch, without any additional descriptions — this is to prevent all the "Premium-Pils" and "Ur-Weizen" nonsense that you see with other kinds of beer.

It does have one side-effect. It effectively stops a brewery having more than one kind of Kölsch in its line-up. There's no way to differentiate them.

This didn't seem to be a problem until recently when the German mass market was overcome by a wave of bland, flabby so-called "Gold" beers, less bitter than Pils, which appear to have found plenty of buyers.

Now the Gaffel brewery has a new beer in its lineup called "Kölsch classic" in addition to the regular Kölsch, aimed squarely at this market. It's 15% less bitter than the standard Gaffel Kölsch.

The only problem there is that its chosen name appears to violate the Kölsch-Konvention.

The relevant paragraph is in §2 (my emphasis):
In particular the term "Kölsch" may not be used together with any further additions which tend to water down the geographical designation of origin (for example, but not exclusively, "Genuine Kölsch", "Original Kölsch", "Original Kölsch", "Cologne's Kölsch") or with other geographical additions (for example, but not exclusively, Rhine Kölsch, Mountain Kölsch) or in connection with other descriptors, brand names, trade marks, designs, design elements, companies, subsidiaries, company slogans, company abbreviations, beer descriptions, beer types or any other additions which are directly or indirectly misleading apropos the geographical origin, or which could lead to confusion or to a watering-down of the term (for example, but not exclusively, Special-Kölsch, Super-Kölsch, Top-Kölsch, Premium-Kölsch) or to any other violations of the law against unfair competition. Insofar as it be necessary for legal reasons to state on the label the location of a brewery of origin outside the city boundaries of Cologne which bears rights of precedence in the sense of §1 paragraph 2 sentence 3, the statement of the location of the brewery must not mislead or lead to any kind of watering-down of the geographical designation of origin "Kölsch".
Ironically the boss of Gaffel is the current head of the Cologne Brewery Association which got all the Kölsch breweries to sign up to the thing in the first place.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

It shouldn't happen to a dog

Here's a little titbit about the famous McEwan's Cavalier brand. Its heyday is long past but the moustachioed swaggerer with a foaming mug of ale is still to be seen on old pub signs all over Scotland, and recognisable to almost everyone.

But McEwan's earlier efforts at branding weren't so successful.

A memoir of a former employee notes delicately, "The old advert of a hand holding up a globe with the British Empire being shown in red and on which the sun never set was not in favour with the Irish."

There was then apparently a short-lived run of ads with a dog motif, but McEwan's competitors made fun of the beer as not being fit for a dog.

This was then the impetus for the management to call a halt to the dog adverts and come up with a new character which became the Cavalier – some say to directly compete against Younger's "Old Father William".

With the brewery long since closed, the marketing of the beer sold under its name is now in the hands of a sales and marketing company with a passion for brands of distinction, cherished by consumers, who say things like "Regarded by its drinkers as a local hero, it inspires patriotism, delivers choice and consumer passion in droves."

Friday, 11 December 2009

More rubbish from the BA


Where do you start with something like this?

This is from the new craftbeer.com site from the US "Brewers' Association" homebrew club.

We learn in the introduction:

"Rhine Valley Ales: This pair of crisp, everyday session beers attests to the diversity and ancient brewing traditions of Northern Germany. They are fermented warm, then cold-conditioned, instilling qualities of both ales and lagers. Kölsch is the traditional golden ale from Cologne, Germany (Köln). It's a well-balanced beer with delicate, fruity aromas, clean, soft maltiness and subtle hoppinness. Düsseldorfer Altbier translates to, "the old beer from Düsseldorf," and is the oldest beer style still brewed in Germany. Alt is a copper–colored beer with an assertive hop nose and just enough malt to provide balance. It's fermented with ale yeast which contributes a subtle fruitiness."


Of course, Kölsch and Alt are not ales as they have nothing to do with the British ale tradition. It's a bit odd to pay tribute to "the diversity and ancient brewing traditions of Northern Germany" and then refer to them by the name of a different tradition. I'll call Charlie by the name of Sam in future and see how he likes that. Moreover, Kölsch certainly isn't ancient, having been introduced by the Sünner brewery in Kalk in the twentieth century.

But the real howler are the suggested glasses pictured above. Alt in a nonic pint glass? Kölsch in a flute? Kölsch is quite possibly the only kind of beer in the world where the shape of the glass is explicitly defined – it's set out in the Kölsch-Konvention, the agreement between most of the Kölsch brewers — and it's not a flute. It is always, always served in a Kölner Stange, a tall, elegant and fragile 20cl cylindrical glass. Similarly, Alt is served in an Altbier glass, also cylindrical but shorter and wider. Oh, I forgot, they think it's an ale, so it must be fine to drink it from the same glass as English bitter, yeah?

Where do they get this stuff?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Beer floats

Shortly after getting my first reliable internet connection back in nineteen mumble mumble, I discovered rec.food.drink.beer, the Usenet newsgroup about beer. It was my first glimpse of an unfamiliar world of American beer geeks with their odd jargon of "growlers", "craft beer", and writing "barleywine" without a space.

One of the more bizarre notions I encountered there was the concept of a beer float. It didn't sound very nice. At the time chocolate ice cream with stout was being recommended. So I tried it with Guinness.

It didn't work. The smooth creaminess of the ice-cream just made the Guinness seem watery and acidic. Since then I have not attempted another beer float.

Years later, Boak and Bailey, followed by Mark Dredge, pioneered beer floats in this country, to a mixed reception. "Load of shite" and "plain wrong" were among the expressions used.

It's received wisdom that beer floats need a rich, dark stout-type beer, possibly one involving smoke, coffee, or chocolate. I can see where this idea comes from. You don't want a very dry beer as the sugary ice-cream will make it appear acidic and thin. Nor will a maltier pale beer like a Bavarian Helles do the job. Even what's sweet in beer terms won't stand up to something really sweet like ice-cream.

What could we use instead of stout? Only something sweet and syrupy that can hold its own ... what about barley wine? But where's the contrast in that? Even the sweetest barley wine would be better replaced by real syrup, if its only purpose is to be even sweeter than the ice cream.

Hops are a no-no, says Mark in his post.

But hang on.

One of the simplest classic Italian desserts is a scoop of ice cream with an espresso poured over it. Coffee is bitter and aromatic ... hops are bitter and aromatic ... it's worth a try. Strong and hoppy should go just as well as strong and roasty.

I topped a small glass of BrewDog Hardcore IPA with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Drinking it is ... well, at first it's like drinking Hardcore IPA through a collar of ice cream. But: what I like about this combination is that the ice cream doesn't melt into the beer, making it cloudy ... it melts into the foam, giving you a wonderful shaving-foam textured head that tastes of ice-cream and hops!

Better, though, is the scoop of ice-cream in a bowl with a spoon, with some IPA poured over it. There the malt flavours of the beer disappear and you're left with just the hops and the sharp tang of alcohol, as if you'd poured spirits in the bowl.

I wasn't expecting this to be so good, but there you are. Forget your stouts. The kind of beer that goes with ice cream is double IPA.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Oy Santa, on your bike — Christmas isn't for another fortnight

It's been a while since I posted a good old-fashioned description of what and where I've been drinking. On Saturday I met a friend in The Doublet where we started off with a pint each of Belhaven 80/–. The Doublet is a curious case — it has excellent cellarmanship, yet I dread going there because the two most common ales on offer are Greene King Abbot Ale, which I detest, and Belhaven St Andrews Ale, which I find too sweet. Occasionally there's something great on, which makes it all worthwhile. One time there was the most perfect Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted that I have ever had, and we just sat in the upstairs lounge, drinking pint after pint of it until closing time came and we stumbled out into the summer night. But anyway, the Belhaven was in fine condition, though I can't help feeling it's lost the character it once had, or perhaps I've ruined my palate with hoppy bitters.

Since it was a cold day, we cycled around to another legendary Hillhead pub, Tennent's on Byres Road. We were there specifically because we knew that they always have Broughton Old Jock as a house beer. The bar staff are used to warning people before pouring pints of Old Jock that it's 6.7%. Actually, the warning should be that it tastes as if it's off when it actually isn't. Among the rich sweetness, there's a distinct vinegary tang to it, not enough to be unpleasant but just enough to be slightly disturbing. As you get half-way down the pint you realise the "vinegar" is actually the alcohol.

As is inevitable when up the west end, we ended up in The Three Judges. Spire Twist & Stout came with a loose, sudsy head, smelt of farts and tasted of bacon. Big Lamp Keelman Brown Ale was much more pleasant. Kelham Island Best Bitter was decent, but disappointing because we expect much more from Kelham Island. Harviestoun Schiehallion restored my faith. When people started coming in in Yuletide dress, we decided it was time to leave.

Friday, 4 December 2009

New beer nonsense site: caveat emptor

The "Brewers Association", the US homebrew club headed by beer fiction writer Charlie Papazian, has a new, poorly researched site at craftbeer.com. Looks like Roger Protz isn't the only "beer authority" who can't be bothered to check his facts.

I've only looked at a few pages, but on nearly every one there's some jaw-dropping howler. Whoever is writing this stuff, whether Papazian himself or someone else, please just stop writing about British and European beer. Stop misrepresenting things you clearly don't understand. And don't fill the gaps in your knowledge by just making stuff up.

On the page about beer glassware, we learn:

The Imperial pint was adopted as an official measure by British Parliament in 1824. Shortly thereafter, the "nonick" version of the Imperial pint glass was produced for use in pubs.


The nonik glass was introduced in the 1960s.

Maybe "shortly" means "140 years later" in American English, I can't be absolutely sure.

Or maybe Charlie Papazian just pulls this nonsense out of his arse.

Beer Swap: the beers have arrived!

Well, actually they arrived weeks ago, but things have got in the way of me unpacking them – primarily that I wanted to send out my own parcel first!

There's nothing really like opening up a mystery box of beer. One of the nicest bits is finding beers that you never knew even existed.

Two of these breweries, Westerham and Rother Valley, I've never heard of before. The third, Gadd's, I've only heard of because Mark goes on about them all the time. It goes to show that the brewing scene is becoming more localised, after a generation or more of consolidation. Could we really be returning to every town having its own brewery? I don't know, but it's a nice thought.

Here's what @beermerchants was kind enough to send me:
  1. Rother Valley Hoppers Ale
  2. Rother Valley Boadicea
  3. Westerham Little Scotney Pale Ale
  4. Westerham Little Scotney Best Bitter
  5. Gadd's Reserved Barrel Aged Barley Wine
Very much look forward to trying these.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Juxtaposition

I just realised that Williams Bros make an India Pale Ale with lager malt and Amarillo hops, whereas BrewDog make a lager with pale ale malt and Amarillo hops. They're both great beers, but after a couple I start to wonder whether words mean anything any more.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Will anyone miss Scottish & Newcastle?

Today the former Scottish & Newcastle will formally become known as Heineken UK. While the name change is largely symbolic, it does mark the final end of independent existence of a company that goes back to the 1850s and once produced beers that made Edinburgh world famous as a brewing centre.

By the time I started drinking in the late 1980s, McEwan's ales, once famous, were ghastly and helped create a generation of lager drinkers. I don't suppose S&N cared, as ever since I can remember they've been more interested in pushing Kronenbourg and Foster's than McEwan's and Youngers.

This story is how I and many others will remember S&N for evermore:

IT'S a beer named after one of Edinburgh's most famous bars.

But Digger's 80/- has been ordered off the taps at the pub it was named after by brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle.

Bosses at the Athletic Arms contacted local "micro-breweries" to produce a beer as close as possible to McEwan's cask 80/- ale, which was phased out by owners S&N over Christmas.

Stewart Brewing came up with a replacement for the heavy, which took its brand name from the Gorgie bar's nickname – and the beer has been on sale at the pub since April.

But S&N officials have now enforced a clause in the lease that says the bar can serve only the company's ales on tap.

It wasn't enough for S&N to stop brewing a beer that was once a legend — they had to stop anyone else brewing it either.

This kind of price-of-everything-value-of-nothing idiocy and open hatred of their own brewing heritage is one of the reasons I will not miss S&N one bit. Heineken cannot possibly be any worse.

Good riddance.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The ABV doesn't lie

As I mentioned before, it's become unfashionable among brewers to give beers names which give drinkers a chance of figuring out what they taste like.

But I have hit upon a cunning strategy to thwart their nefarious naming schemes.

At the last beer festival I attended, the same numbers kept appearing over and over again: 3.2%, 3.8%, 4.2%. I realised that these are the secret style indicators.

3.2% is usually a dark, refreshing mild.

3.8% can range from very pale to brown and will be intensely bitter if you're lucky.

4.2% is generally a horrible overly sweet mid-brown mess full of toffee.

There's something to be said for second-rate micros all making the same three beers after all.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Observation

As a discussion on any beer forum grows longer, the probability of it turning into an argument about the history of India Pale Ale approaches 1.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Artificial froth

This article in the Guardian looks like mischief-making to me. It's dragging up a dispute from a local beer festival months ago to create an misleading narrative of CAMRA as hidebound fuddy-duddies preventing the growth of exciting new craft lager breweries.

The story of that earlier spat is briefly: CAMRA told Freedom Brewery at short notice that their beer couldn't be sold at the Burton beer festival because it was to be served by CO2 pressure.

The writer Oliver Thring would like to make the story more interesting, so resorts to selective quotation.

The quote from CAMRA has them — apparently — denouncing Freedom for "a mixture of naivety and arrogance." Freedom supposedly complain they were unable to reach agreement because CAMRA represent ale and they brew "the L word".

Now I don't for a second believe that the writer phoned up both sides and they only had one sentence each to say. I strongly suspect he took, in both cases, the most seemingly controversial statement out of a longer conversation and stacked them up against each other to make his story look more exciting.

The dispute was never about lager versus ale — it was about extraneous CO2 and the bizarre last-minute intervention that prevented Freedom's lager being sold at the Burton beer festival.

Freedom should have known CAMRA's position on extraneous CO2. So should Burton CAMRA. There should have been a resolution of the issue weeks before the festival; instead the problem was incredibly badly handled and made CAMRA look like idiots.

There's no need for a ban. CAMRA festivals regularly serve lager by gravity or air pressure. I have no idea why this was not acceptable to Freedom. It's a non-issue. CAMRA is not anti-lager. Many of its members are; that's because they're small-minded idiots and it's nothing to do with CAMRA policy.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Beer Swap: beers finalised

Well, I've got my beers and they're ready to be boxed up. I did say this in my last post on the subject, but we don't have enough stores in Glasgow selling good beer. The demand is clearly there — every shop in town was sold out of one local brewery's beer yesterday when I went looking for it.

My parcel from @beermerchants has arrived, but I'm promising myself I'm not going to open it until I've sent off my own Beer Swap parcel.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

I haven't written about BrewDog for a while. This is because I am, to be honest, fed up writing about them and aware that I still haven't blogged anything about several great breweries such as Colonsay, Harviestoun and Fyne Ales whose beer also deserves attention.

People have been complaining about the hype since BrewDog started. This has never bothered me because I have never paid any attention to the hype, only to the beer. If the beer had been crap I'd have been calling them a pair of pretentious wankers two years ago.

The announcement of Equity for Punks has been a bit of a watershed. Let's face it, selling shares in your business is not really very punk at all, no matter how you spin it. So I suppose that after the share offer, BrewDog's James Watt needed to make up for that by getting back to punk basics – gratuitously offending and alienating people.

As well as slagging off fellow brewers, James has in the last week revealed that BrewDog complained to the Portman Group about their own beer as a publicity stunt. Now people feel they've been led up the garden path and are upset.

I think people only have themselves to blame for taking the marketing nonsense seriously in the first place. Punk is all about manufactured outrage. What on earth did you expect?

To be fair, the outrage now is pretty mild compared to some of the reactions punk provoked in the 1970s, when a London councillor commented: "Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it."

BrewDog haven't wound anyone up anything near that much yet. Come on James, get your act together!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Beer Swap: what I'm not sending

While Scotland may be blessed with some fantastic breweries at the moment, Glasgow is short of good outlets, both off-licences and pubs. This is not a criticism of the ones we do have, I just wish there were a few more! Amazingly, the products of some of Scotland's finest breweries are tricky to find here in the capital.

This means that I'm still scouring the stores looking for certain beers that I have in mind.

A slightly annoying factor is not knowing what my swap-recipient can get locally. It means that to be on the safe side I have to leave out several great breweries, such as Harviestoun and Williams Bros, as their beer is so good that it already gets national distribution (well, I think it does. I haven't been all round the country to check). No Orkney or BrewDog either, although they are at the other end of Scotland anyway so technically ineligible.

At the other end of the spectrum, a secondary problem is that many of the local beers are not bottled so are non-starters: most of Kelburn's and Houston's beers, for example.

I've acquired two bottles as yet. Both are (I think) good quaffing beers. What are they? You'll have to wait until it arrives at the other end for me to spill the beans. Now perhaps I need something a little bit special. I have three contenders for two slots, depending on what I can get.

I am secretly tempted to put in a can of Tennent's Lager, just for a laugh.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

5 great organic breweries

People often say that organic beer is boring and dull. More generous souls might say it's inevitably compromised, because the organicness takes priority over the beer being fantastic.

Indeed, it's a bit suspect when the most interesting thing a brewery has to say about its beer is that it's organic. We've all encountered the sad selection of two or three beers in wholefood shops, bought one or more and been underwhelmed.

But there are some breweries making organic beer which is superb; not just "good considering it's organic", or "organic and decent", but beer you'd cross the street to drink whether it were organic or not.

Here are five of them.
  1. Black Isle Brewery, Ross-shire: up in a remote corner of Scotland this outfit produces rich, tasty beers in contemporary packaging using organic ingredients.
  2. Pitfield Brewery, Essex: I've never had a beer from this brewery that was anything less than stunning and their recreations of historical porter and IPA are spectacular.
  3. Marble Brewery, Manchester: Amazing beer and they've just won the Champion Beer of Greater Manchester, which must count for something.
  4. Traditional Scottish Ales, Stirling: formerly Bridge of Allan Brewery, well-made beers for those who prefer their ale on the malty side, and also the makers of Glencoe Wild Oat Stout, outstanding by any criteria.
  5. Brauerei Spezial, Bamberg: world famous for its smoked lager, less well known for taking all its barley from organic farmers in the local region. Barley? Yes, for Spezial is also one of fewer than ten German breweries that still make their own malt.
Here's a interesting short interview with Peter Scholey, former head brewer at Brakspear, in which he clears up a few myths and explains some of the problems involved in making organic ale. Despite the difficulties, the breweries above show that organic beer doesn't have to be mediocre but can be among the very best.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Brewing versus science?

I was quite flabbergasted to read Roger Protz's blog attacking Prof David Nutt on the same day the Home Secretary asked Nutt to resign as chief drugs advisor. I would have thought that the open New Labour contempt for science would be much more worthy of criticism, because that is much more dangerous than the opinions of an advisor, whatever they may be.

If you actually read Prof Nutt's paper, he is not demonising alcohol, but using it as a benchmark. The point is to give an indication of how dangerous certain drugs are in comparison to the drugs that are most familiar to most of us. Everything we do in life has an element of risk. That's the point.

The point is to quantify the risk involved. None of us would do the lottery if we thought about the incredibly low chance we actually have of winning. We do it for the excitement, a moment's entertainment and the hope that we will be "lucky". It is based on faith and hope, not logic and reason.

I suggest that faith and hope are a poor basis for alcohol policy, especially when combined with spin, PR, bullshit, bluster and fear of what the Daily Mail will say.

You may not agree with Prof Nutt's views. They are, however, based on evidence, while Roger's and the Home Secretary's are based on faith and prejudice. Why is this important? It means that you can argue with Nutt (by criticising his methodology, for example), whereas you cannot argue with the likes of Alan Johnson, who have already made up their minds.

It is the same reason you cannot argue with the neo-prohibitionists who rant about the supposed need to increase alcohol prices and decrease availability, even though alcohol consumption has been falling substantially for the last five years.

I therefore think it is very much in the interest of beer drinkers to support a science-based approach to reducing alcohol harm, rather than the alternative based on whatever prejudices the government of the day might have.

I think society would have fewer alcohol-related problems if people drank good beer. I bet Roger thinks so too. But he must know as well as I do that the majority of people and especially of alcohol abusers are consuming "vodka" made of watered down ethanol of unknown provenance, mass-produced barely-lagered "lager" and other concoctions. The majority of the alcohol industry is far removed from the romantic craft breweries Roger describes in his blog post.

I rather doubt that any of those breweries are as hostile to science as Roger. Maybe one or two are still measuring the temperature of their mash with their elbow, stirring their wort with a "magic stick" to get it to ferment, and calling the foam on top "god is good". But I suspect it's unlikely.

As an old Trot, Protz is surely familiar with the expression Lysenkoism. It's an example of what can happen when governments favour their own prejudices and what seems to fit their dogma, over actual science.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Beer Swap


When I heard about this, I thought it was a crazy idea. Now I think it's a great idea. Pencil and Spoon and Beer Reviews have got together and organised a pre-winter beer swap. Now that the days are gloomier and shorter we could all do with the odd bit of cheering up. That could include coming home to find someone has sent you a parcel of beer.

In the past I've carried heavy bottles of beer home from trips way too often, and in the end I decided that only the very finest beers are worth the pain of carrying them, or the expense of posting them. But what the heck, it's a bit of fun.

Now to think about what to send. I have bought one bottle already, and have decided on a further two. This is quite easy actually. If I can be bothered, I shall document the acquisition of each beer.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Theses on lager

  1. Lager shouldn't be fizzy.
  2. Most of the lager in the world is complete crap.
  3. Most drinkers have no bloody idea what a good lager is.
  4. This includes Germans.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Question for lager experts

Go to any German or Czech brewpub and one of their chief offerings will almost certainly be one or more unfiltered lagers. They are often quite murky. I don't mind that if it tastes good and you can still see through it. I do draw the line at thick yeasty soup.

Something I have been wondering for a while is why lager apparently needs to be filtered to get it clear. Real ale usually drops bright after just a few weeks, so why does lager still have to be filtered after weeks or months of cold conditioning?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Tadcaster Brown Ale

I haven't drunk Newcastle Brown Ale for years. This is because it's minging.

So it's probably my fault that S&N are closing the Federation Brewery in Gateshead, due to it allegedly operating at only 60% of capacity, and moving production to Tadcaster.

I'm not terribly bothered where Newcastle DunstonTadcaster Brown is brewed really — if S&N don't care, why should I? But it would be a shame to overlook the end of the long story of the Federation Brewery, which had a fascinating history in its own right before S&N bought it in 2004.

With less than six weeks to go until the takeover of S&N by Heineken is completed with the company formally changing its name to Heineken UK, you inevitably get people blaming Heineken. But this is naive.

S&N didn't need any help from Heineken to close the McEwan's brewery in Edinburgh that had made it one of the biggest brewers in the UK in the first place.

This is just S&N doing what it does best: pissing all over its own heritage.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Fur coat, no knickers

Here is a well regarded restaurant in Glasgow's swish Merchant City.

It offers its guests Perrier-Jouet champagne, or if you prefer beer, there is ... Corona.

That is an insult.

Monday, 12 October 2009

West Oktoberfest

Caramel, peaches and vanilla. Nice hops, refreshingly bitter. It gets rather chewy once it loses its chill, but even so might not suffer by being a bit fuller-bodied. But then I think that about a lot of beers.

This is a very short post, isn't it?

Undescriptive beer names

Once upon a time (so I am told), beer names were simple. You had a local brewery which made two or three kinds of beer. They would have dull, descriptive names like Bloggs' XX and Bloggs' Bitter. You might also have another local brewery which made the same beers, Ocklethorpe's Mild and Ocklethorpe's Bitter. You might have occasion to go to another town and drink Foxton's Mild or Foxton's Bitter there.

As you had so little choice, you drank them all and learned that XX meant the same as Mild and that Bloggs' Bitter was better than Ocklethorpe's Bitter, but Ocklethorpe's Mild was nicer than Blogg's XX. You had to learn a few basic terms like Mild, Bitter and Stout, but after that it was easy to know what you were looking at.

How different things are today. Plenty of people have complained about the predeliction of small breweries to give their beers lewd seaside-postcard type names, often with an embarrassingly vulgar pump clip. But that's not what I'm complaining about here.

One of the things that annoy me is that so many small breweries insist on giving their beers undescriptive names. When I say undescriptive names, I don't mean to insist that every brewery should have a line up of Brewery X's Mild, Bitter, Porter and Stout. I mean they shouldn't choose names that have no relevance to the beer whatsoever.

It doesn't have to be called Dark Mild or Best Bitter. Some sort of bloody clue is all I ask for. If I go to a pub or a festival, and I see a beer called Beyond the Pale or Golden Sunrise, I can assume it's going to be pale. If it's called Station Porter, Gail Porter or The Water In Majorca Don't Taste Like Porter Orter, I know, once I've finished cringing, that it's porter. Beers called Black Cat, Dark Side, Dark Island and Dark Matter are also fairly unambiguous.

But what am I to make when I approach the bar and I see beers named:

Spellbinder
Rutterkin
Little Weed
Shagweaver
Wayland Smithy
Ceilidh

... to name just a few out of hundreds or thousands?

This is not so much of a problem at beer festivals, because there is always a programme with further information on the beer, which is just as well, because all you get on the cask is a piece of paper baldly stating the brewery, the name of the beer and its alcohol content.

It's also fine if the pump clip elaborates on what the beer actually is (although you have to get atypically slow service to actually have a chance to read them all).

But some don't even do that!

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Notice for readers in Glasgow


A quick reminder that there's another beer event coming up at Peckham's in Glasgow (Glassford St branch). I hope to actually make it to this one, as I had a cold last time and had lost my sense of taste. It's on October 17th, 2pm–6pm, £10 to get in, Oktoberfest-themed and there will be a large range of hopefully interesting beer to try.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

All hail the Nanny State

Those annoyingly industrious chaps at BrewDog have been busy again and have created this 1.1% beer to wind up the prohibitionists and others who seem to believe that brewers are responsible for how much alcohol other people deliberately pour down their own necks.

It pours beautifully, creating a fine, foamy head. It looks and smells very much like the earlier How To Disappear Completely. It's a beautiful autumn-leaves brown. The scent is of hops. Tons of them. I can't tell the variety and I don't want to embarrass myself by speculating.

It's surprisingly un-bitter considering the alleged theoretical bitterness units of 225 (ten times as much as standard mass market beer). Or it's just way past the limit of what I can actually taste.

Barely any body, but what do you expect at 1.1% abv? Just a ghost of caramelly malt with the slight metallic tinge you sometimes get in very weak beer. Then again, it's tastier than many beers five times its strength. People call the dry hop flavour "grassy", but it isn't really like grass, it's more herbal than that.

Would make a tremendous appetiser, possibly, if you don't think it would wreck your palate. It's a beer brewed as a gimmick and I think it works for that. Yet ultimately, it's fascinating but unsatisfying, like listening to a rock band with no bass player. It's the best low-alcohol beer I've ever had, though. But I'd rather they brewed How To Disappear Completely again because that was fantastic in its own right, not just as a one-dimensional joke.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Lager, ale, who cares?

Time and again I read some article along the lines of "There are two basic families of beer, ale and lager ..." followed by a simplified explanation of yeast behaviour at different temperatures.

I shall ignore for the moment the many beers which don't even fit into this categorisation ... and the related argument about whether it makes any sense whatsoever to call e.g. Weißbier "an ale", just because it is made with top-fermenting yeast (answer: no it doesn't).

This seems to be one of the first things people learn when getting into beer, even though it's actually quite an esoteric subject to confront people with.

Is this distinction so important? It seems to me to be only one of a multiplicity of factors affecting the final beer.

There are all manner of achses that you could choose to use to divide up the world of beer, along essentially arbitrary lines.

You do get people occasionally saying they think the main difference is between pale beers and dark beers, but they tend to be considered naive. But are they so wrong? Doesn't the kind of malt used contribute as much to the character of the beer as the kind of yeast and the type of conditioning?

Why do we have this obsession with lager versus ale? It's only one of many differences between different kinds of beer.

You never hear anyone say:

"There are two basic kinds of beer: bitter ones and sweet ones"

"There are two basic kinds of beer: those made with hard water and those made with soft water"

"There are two basic kinds of beer: those with high attenuation and those with low"

"There are two basic kinds of beer: the ones made with funky yeast and the ones with more neutral yeast"

"There are two basic kinds of beer: those made mostly from barley malt and those made mostly from wheat"

I am going to try an experiment. I will no longer pay attention to whether something is top- or bottom-fermented. I'm far more interested in whether it tastes of toffee, lemon, banana, mint, chocolate, coffee, mouldy brie, cowpats, vinegar, smoke, grass or wine.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Beck-Bräu

One of my new favourite breweries is Beck-Bräu Trabelsdorf. I first came across them at the Great British Beer Festival where their Lisberger Lager was on draft, and very nice it was too. Unfortunately I don't have any more details; by the time I tried it I was at the stage of making, ahem, abbreviated tasting notes, i.e. marking them either as GOOD or SHITE.

Last week I got the chance to try Feinherbes Pils too: it has a big, sugary, malty aroma, yet is almost harshly bitter on the palate with a dry finish. Oddly, there is little hop aroma, but it's really very bitter indeed. It's the kind of beer you just want to keep drinking.

The dunkles Jahrhundertbier I had a day or so later from the Magical German Beer Fridge in the Allison Arms wasn't quite as good, being a bit cardboardy and lacking in body. Pity.

They seem to be pretty on the ball. I wouldn't mind trying their strong Rauch-Bock "Affumicator", either. I have put them on my list of places to visit next time I have the good fortune to visit Franconia.

If more German breweries were like this, beer sales there might not be plummeting the way they are.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Ayrshire Beer Festival, Troon

Yesterday I headed down to Troon for the Ayrshire Beer Festival, having finally managed to convince my pals that there was no point waiting till the evening as there would be nothing left.

It's a nice scenic train ride down the Ayrshire coast, once you've passed through the chunk of Renfrewshire where it always seems to rain, and Troon isn't big. Once I'd passed the high school and the church, there was only one large building left to try.

Belhaven 60/– seems to be the beer I always go for first at Scottish beer festivals. This is mainly because I have never seen it anywhere else than at beer festivals for at least ten years, though a friend claims to have drunk it in a pub once. Its days may well be numbered, seeing as the brewery apparently couldn't even find a pump clip to send along with it and resorted to bunging a sticky label on the front of an 80/– clip (see picture). It's light and watery in body, with slight fruity aromas of berries and apple. Slight treacly aftertaste with a bit of yeast and just a little sulphur.

Next up was Thornbridge Lord Marples. It's got fruit and sugar, just enough malty backbone to support the hops. It's chewy and tongue-suckingly bitter which is what I like most about it. The chap serving me said Thornbridge was his favourite brewery. I hope that their recent expansion will enable them to send a bit more beer up north in future.

Someone behind me ordered Deuchars IPA. I glanced round and it was a chap from the Caledonian Brewery pipe band (soon to be the Heineken Pipe Band), so I suppose it's excusable.

I went for Acorn Barnsley Bitter. I've been wanting to try this for some time, but for some reason I imagined it would be a pale, hoppy beer in the same vein as Pale Rider or Beyond the Pale. It isn't — it's brown, but a perfect ordinary bitter. Almost no body, but an incredible amount of flavour comes from the hard water and the bittering hops. Not much aroma but intensely bitter. Yum.

Hop Back Entire Stout had a nose of chocolate, coffee and acid. It might have been good had it been in decent condition, but unfortunately it just tasted of apples and had to be poured away. Milton Minotaur Mild to replace it had a strong farmyard aroma and tasted of caramel, sugar and camembert rind.

About this time I bumped into Hopjuice and his lovely companion, home for a holiday from Japan, and spent a while trying to convince him that we still don't really do extremely hoppy beers in the UK. He then proved me wrong by fetching the hoppiest beer at the festival, Brewster's Rutterkin, while I sipped a Fuller's Chiswick Bitter. This is a rare sight up here, yet much nicer than London Pride.

Highgate Davenport's IPA was another hard-water, reasonably hoppy weak-IPA. Slightly appley, it could have done with more body. Bath Ales Gem Bitter, on the other hand, was a fine example of the popular style Boring Brown Bitter: treacle and yeast on the nose, lots of esters, and hops contribute less bitterness than the hard water does. A shame because I've enjoyed Bath's bottled beer in the past.

There wasn't much else left by this time and I had an evening engagement, so I called it a day after that. I wouldn't always take a 45 minute train journey for a festival this size, but Troon is a nice wee place and it's good to see there's enough local interest to support a beer festival.

Indoor bagpiping

It sounds like a terrible idea, but it's not as bad as it sounds.

At least they were considerate and only played for five minutes at a time.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

711 breweries! (part 2, or: Beat the Hun!)

More on the good news that there are now more breweries in the UK than at any time since 1945. CAMRA have Roger Protz saying that Britain now has more small breweries per head than any other country:

For the first time since the 19th century, Britain is the undisputed top brewing country in the world. It has over 700 breweries and has more small craft breweries per head of population than all other major industrialised countries; but it also offers tremendous choice.


Well, for one thing, the incredible number of different beers currently being brewed in the United States make a credible case against the idea that Britain is Top Nation in brewing in absolute terms. But I have no difficulty believing that the number of breweries per head in the US is still tiny, so let's leave the US out for the sake of argument.

Let's have a rough look.

Going on the CAMRA figures, Britain has 711 real ale breweries: one brewery per 84,388 people assuming a population of 60 million.

Germany has 1319 breweries as of 2008. That's one brewery per 60,652 people, assuming a population of 80 million. We can therefore see that the qualifier "small brewery" has been deliberately introduced so that Britain comes out on top.

We can only assume that Protz is using the same definition of a small brewery that the government uses for its small brewer tax relief scheme: under 5000 hectolitres a year.

Of the 1319 German breweries, 870 had an output of less than 5000 hectolitres a year. (source: http://www.brauer-bund.de/brauereien/statistik/brau_aus.htm). Using that measure, the Germans have one small brewery per 91,954 people.

I'd love to find statistics for how many of the 711 British breweries fall into this category and determine whether or not Protz is correct. I have an answer from Hansard from the end of 2008, but given the very rapid growth in the sector over the last year, can't take the figures there as reliable.

Now, as far as I can see, there is no need to limit our attention to microbreweries producing less than 5000 hl, other than some desire to beat the Germans.

If CAMRA is full of lefties as some claim, why does Protz feel the need to link good news about beer to this embarrassing Britain-is-top nationalism?

Saturday, 19 September 2009

O'zapft is!

Starting today it's the Munich Oktoberfest, and it's all set to be the usual couple of weeks of pedestrian pale lager, record-breaking sales of roast chicken and no hotel rooms to be had within 100 kilometres of Munich for love nor money.

This year the chair of the Green Party, Claudia Roth, has caused a bit of a stir by calling it "the biggest open drug scene in the world." In an interview with an Austrian paper she argued:

In a country which in the next few weeks will host the biggest open drug scene in the world, i.e. the Munich Oktoberfest, a liberalisation of soft drugs is sorely needed.


I did so want to post this picture of Ms Roth. She doesn't seem bothered by the lack of a girly glass.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

711 breweries! (part 1)



Here's a fairly upbeat item from Channel 4 news. I find it hilarious that after all these years, journos still can't resist mentioning beards in any story about beer.

With 71 new start-ups in one year, you do start to wonder if this rate of growth can be maintained. I met one brewer recently who was quite pessimistic and thought the real ale market was at saturation point; yet on the other hand I keep hearing stories about micros who are doing very well indeed. I guess the ones who are in trouble tend to keep quiet about it in case their suppliers start demanding cash up front.

Friday, 11 September 2009

BrewDog 77 Lager


This has been out for months but I've only just got round to trying it now. I subconsciously assumed it wouldn't be very exciting. How wrong I was.

This is a fantastic lager.

As soon as you pour it the aroma of perfumey hops fills your nose and if you have the olfactory memories I do you are immediately transported in your mind's eye to a beer garden somewhere in the Black Forest on a sunny Sunday morning in November.

It's better than any lager I've had outside Germany and better than the vast majority of German Pils too. Sweet, clean malt supports the hop aromas and makes way for a deliciously long, bitter finish. I was a bit surprised it's made with Amarillo hops and not a German noble hop.

Really a fantastic lager. If you have friends who say they don't like lager, let them try this. It's absolutely perfect and completely blows me away.

I'm actually rather embarrassed about how this gushing this review is. I nearly didn't post it in case people assumed I was getting paid, but I really don't have a single bad word to say about it.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Beers I hate that everyone else seems to like

And I'm not talking about the Heineken, Miller or Guinness drinkers who clog up the internet with their opinion that their favoured accountant-brewed concoction is the best beer in the world. I mean people who know about beer but favour certain beers that I find nothing special about whatsoever.

Augustiner Edelstoff. I don't actually hate this stuff; it's perfectly acceptable but I don't see how it's any better than the equally dull products of the other big Munich breweries or how it deserves the fanatical devotion to it.

London Pride. Heavy, burnt-sugar beer with no hops to speak of. Why?

Budweiser Budvar. Tedious in the extreme. The dark version is slightly less dull than the pale, but not much.

Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX. I've only ever been to the London one, and it's a nice bar, but the beer is dull, dull, dull. Better than Guinness of course, but that's damning with faint praise.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Beer binge drinkers have never heard of encourages binge drinking, say idiots in plea for help from makers of drinks actually drunk by binge drinkers

This post is a bit late; this is because both London and Edinburgh keep coming up with such stupid new proposals that it's difficult to keep up.

But now that Alcohol Focus Scotland have gone ahead and lodged a formal complaint against BrewDog Tokyo* with the self-appointed watchdog of the alcoholic drinks trade, the Portman Group, it might be time to return to them once again.

I didn't write about Tokyo* when Alcohol Focus Scotland first started whining to the newspapers and anyone else who would listen, because other people had already made the relevant points very well.

For example, Pete Brown pointed out: "I'll drink it instead of whisky. I'd imagined sharing a bottle between two - I'd actually recommend one bottle between four. The idea of anyone binge drinking a bottle of this beer, of knocking it back quickly, is utterly absurd. I defy anyone to drink a bottle in under an hour. "

Mark Dredge wrote: "There are different modes of drinking. Some are reckless and concerned entirely with being a means to a drunken end. Some are altogether more civilized ... I may open a bottle of 4% ale or I might fancy trying a bottle of super-premium strength, super-premium priced, completely esoteric beer designed for a select few and made on a small, hand-crafted scale from premium ingredients. The difference becomes the way it's consumed and the mentality behind the drinking."

And you don't even have to make the more sophisticated arguments in this case, because absolutely anyone can understand that for less than the price of a single bottle of Tokyo* you can get a bottle of cheap vodka with over four times as much alcohol, and that's what anyone who wants to get drunk will do.

In fact, at the current going rate of Stella Artois, you can get 29 units of alcohol for your tenner compared to the 6 in a bottle of Tokyo*.

Everyone understands this except the headbangers at Alcohol Focus Scotland. Indeed, they've had time between their initial reaction and lodging this complaint to review the discussion there's been in the beer community about it.

We can only conclude that they've not bothered to do so; in which case we should really be asking if they are suitable to be in charge of a government-funded organisation dealing with the very serious issue of alcohol abuse.

The Portman Group, of course, was set up by the manufacturers of cooking lager and alcopops to head off any threat of actual regulation of the industry. It is blackly comic to see Alcohol Focus Scotland shouting for help to these companies. Their products range from the bland to the vile and there is no point in drinking them for the taste; all you can do with them is get drunk. Who exactly is to blame for binge drinking again?

It's interesting to compare Alcohol Focus Scotland's wild and lurid claims about Tokyo* with several other complaints to the Portman Group last year (none of which were upheld), which were brought by the London homeless charity Thames Reach about four of the most popular brands of super lager. Now, I don't necessarily agree with Thames Reach's campaign to ban super lager, but at least they are people involved in helping homeless people and know about the extent of its use among their clients, and they are trying to alleviate a problem of alcohol abuse that actually exists.

Alcohol Focus Scotland, on the other hand, are attacking an entirely imaginary problem. And this stems from their inability to recognise that, as Mark Dredge points out above, there are different contexts for drinking alcohol; some harmful, dangerous and disgusting, others innocent, harmless and enjoyable. The medicalisation approach apparently chosen by Alcohol Focus Scotland, on the other hand, which regards alcohol simply as a drug and different drinks merely as different ways to deliver it into the blood, leads inexorably to prohibition.

Particularly sinister is the way in which the 'safe drinking guidelines' have been changed in meaning by the neo-prohibitionists. The well-known 21 units a week for men and 14 units a week for women were published in 1987 on the basis of no firm evidence:

The disclosure that the 1987 recommendation was prompted by “a feeling that you had to say something” came from Richard Smith, a member of the Royal College of Physicians working party that produced it.

He told The Times that the committee’s epidemiologist had confessed that “it’s impossible to say what’s safe and what isn’t” because “we don’t really have any data whatsoever”.

Mr Smith, a former Editor of the British Medical Journal, said that members of the working party were so concerned by growing evidence of the chronic damage caused by heavy, long-term drinking that they felt obliged to produce guidelines. “Those limits were really plucked out of the air. They were not based on any firm evidence at all. It was a sort of intelligent guess by a committee,” he said.


Well-intentioned doctors thus gave a recommendation of a safe limit which they reasonably thought certainly wouldn't do you any harm.

The neo-prohibitionists have now distorted this to mean that if you consume more than this, you have a drink problem.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Cheapie bottled bitter


As is well known, I spare no expense in bringing you reviews of the rarest beers imaginable. Today I have something special — cheapie bitter. Marston's Burton Bitter and Brakspear Bitter are both going for £1 a bottle at the moment. Why not put them up head to head and see how they compare?

Marston's, of course, now own Brakspears since they took over Refresh UK. Cynics suspect such beers are both made in the same brewery and they slap a different label on it at the end. This is not the case. They are similar in style, but not identical. Brakspear is actually brewed at Wychwood using the original Brakspear equipment rescued from the old brewery in Henley when it closed.

On opening the bottles, both smell quite similar. The Marston's has more sulphur, and the Brakspear's is more toffeeish.

Pouring them into a glass, they have almost the same attractive autumn-leaves colour.

Brakspear's bitter has a well balanced nose, little body, but that's only to be expected in a beer of this strength, but the hops balance it out to give one of those delightful hard-water, dry finishes.

Burton Bitter has a ghost of malt to begin with, and less hop flavour.
It comes out on top purely due to the delicious water used in making it. I hear that Marston's did actually consider marketing their well water as mineral water, but the idea never came to fruition because of lack of production capacity.

These are both well made, unchallenging beers. You could do a lot worse for a quid. On the other hand, spend less than two quid and you could get something much more interesting. I do love that hard, minerally water though.

I can't cope with so much idiocy

I might have to stop commenting on the political aspects of drinking on this blog, as the Scottish and English governments between them are coming up with stupid, unworkable ideas at such a speed that I just can't keep up.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

What do they call Scotch Ale in Scotland?




Here are some labels from 1954. Spot the difference.

The No. 1 beer sent to a bottler in England gets the label "Strong Scotch Ale". For the Scottish market, it's just "Strong Ale."

When No. 1 went to Ireland, it was Barley Wine.

Make of that what you will.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

When McEwan spied on Bass

I've been feeling a tiny bit embarrassed that Ron made it to the Scottish Brewing Archive before I did, even though I only live a half-hour's bike ride away. Yesterday I finally got around to paying them a visit. It's a tremendous resource with some fascinating stuff.

This is such a great letter that I'm sure someone must have written about it before. It was written by William McEwan in 1852, while he was still serving his apprenticeship before setting up his own brewery. He describes visiting Bass and Allsopp in Burton-on-Trent with descriptions of their practices. Seems brewers were still quite cagey about revealing their secrets back then. Nonetheless, he doesn't seem to have been impressed either by their methods or by the resulting beer.

Cordeaux's
6 New Basinghall St
London 12 Augt 1852

My dear Uncle.

I arrived the last night. I left Burton in the forenoon, and spent a few hours in Birmingham. There was no occasion for me to remain longer in Burton as the object of my visit was attained in the morning. I have been from one end to the other of both Bass and Allsopps breweries. I had however to put conscience altogether out of the question for the nonce [sic] and declared I was not at all connected with the trade. The method of conducting the process in both establishments is exactly alike, but now that I have seen their mode of operations I am not at all surprised that the gravity of the Beer should vary so much in different brewings.

You will recollect the gravities to which the beer was attenuated as quoted in the Somat [?] newspaper varied from 16 to 6. It appears to me that they can have very little control over it after it goes out of the fermenting square. From what I could ascertain and see it appears that the beer is fermented in squares (in which there are no refrigerators) where it generally remains 2 days, it is then let off into a receiver (Yeast and all.) from which it is pumped into an immense number of Butts. These Butts are kept constantly full, so as to allow the yeast to wash out which it does most beautifully, (but it wd. be rather difficult to describe it in a letter although it will be easily explained by word of mouth. After the whole of the Yeast is worked out of it, which is generally in 4 days, it is run off into Squares. But so particular are they that the dregs of the Butt are not allowed to go into the square, after it has been in the square 1 Day it is considered ready for cleansing, and it is at once racked off into the casks in which it is to be supplied to the Customer. No such thing as storing it in Vats; but our common sense has already told us such a thing is ridiculous.

The man that showed me over Allsopps was rather intelligent, and I asked him how long they keepte [sic] the beer by them before sending it out to the customer. He said 3 Months was the soonest at which they liked to send it out — He said, however, that they sometimes sent it out when only 6 weeks old, but this was only when they were given to understand that the customer did not intend using it for some weeks, but would keep it the proper time in his own cellar. They press their hops under a pressure of 14 Tons. There was one circumstance which much surprised me, viz the pressing of the Yeast. The Yeast is put into large coarse calico bags, and thrown into a vessel similar to our Hop press, where it is subjected to a pressure of 4 Tons. One would suppose the bags would burst, but the pressure being equal on all sides they cannot. The liquor flows out quite pure, but is strongly tainted with the yeasty bitter. When the liquor is all extracted the yeast has become as consistent as clay. This yeast is sent to Ireland [?] for Distillers, and a precious morsel it must be. This extract of the yeast and also the dregs of the Butts are mixed along with an inferior beer which is sold in the neighbourhood. It appears to me from all this that we have not racked [?] our ale sufficiently.

I have made a point of tasting Burton Beer in every large town through which I have passed viz in L'pool Manchester, Birmingham and London, and I can assure you in very few instances indeed has it had the fine mellow flavour which we so much desire — it must nearly all have been brewed at the end of this season.

Birmingham is a thriving town, and much beer must be consumed there, but like Manchester it is cursed with the licensed victuallers brewing their own. Now this practice is little known in L'pool. In all my travels I have seen no place where I feel so certain a Brewer of a genuine article might so certainly be successful as L'pool.

I was over Barclay Perkins & Cos premises today. It has rained incessantly since I came here, and if it continues I shall not visit the Hop district — but as this would be a disappointment I hope the weather may improve.

If nothing comes in my way I shall leave this by the Bath [?] steamer which sails at 10 oclock on Saturday night.

With kind regards to Uncle Tom; Aunt Jane [?] and all friends assembled with you, of whose names I am ignorant believe me to be yours and faithfully

Wm McEwan

Tennent's sold to makers of Magners

Just heard that AB InBev has, as predicted, sold off Tennent's to C&C, the makers of Magners carbonated apple-waste drink. C&C will also take over InBev's distribution business in Scotland and Ireland. This is more of a partnership deal than a takeover, based on my brief glance at it. That's good for Tennent's as it protects it from what I thought might happen, i.e. InBev throwing its massive marketing budget into competing against it once they no longer own it.

Is it me, or is the price of £180m stupid cheap? I know InBev really needs the cash, but still.

Also interesting is that InBev apparently wants to keep the prestigious Tennent's Super brand for itself.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Home Office nutters plan to ruin pubs for everyone except troublemakers

The Home Office has commissioned a new design of plastic glass and is apparently planning to try to get all pubs in England and Wales to use plastic glasses instead of real ones.

After Glasgow City Council came up with this stupid idea a couple of years ago and was forced to back down by trade opposition, I naively thought it was dead and buried. But it's back, bigger and stupider than before.

We have beaten back the threat of a general glass ban in Glasgow as stated above, but the council still inconveniences everyone by forcing pubs to use plastic on certain occasions like local festivals, big concerts etc. In these cases I refuse to accept it and leave the pub.

Drinking out of plastic is a miserable experience, as anybody who appreciates a proper glass of beer in a proper pub will agree.

I certainly would stop going to the pub if I were expected to drink out of a plastic tumbler and pay upwards of £3 for the privilege, and I don't think I'd be the only one.

Drunks and violent bams, on the other hand, don't care what they drink out of. So rather than make pubs safer, you drive away the responsible drinkers until only the bams are left.

That'll make pubs safer and more pleasant places. Aye, right.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Warning! Beer garden! Danger of death!

I've often bemoaned the lack of decent beer gardens in Glasgow. Of course the climate isn't really favourable to it here most of the year, so when a nice day does come along the couple of beer gardens we do have are packed.

I love beer gardens; they're pretty much my favourite places to drink. There's nothing nicer than sitting in the shade under a chestnut tree, sipping a cool beer and watching afternoon slip into evening. Somehow the beer tastes nicer in the fresh air too.

Well, that's what I once thought. But now after reading this leaflet published by the Scottish Government, I've realised how wrong I was. This is what it says about drinking outside:

"Drinking outside increases your chances of having an accident or falling asleep outdoors and freezing to death (hypothermia)."


It's a wonder there are any Bavarians left alive.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

I win!


Just a quick update on drinkin' around town. West have a new beer called Heidi. Dedicated to the boss's dog, it's a murky brown beer that tastes much nicer than it looks. I like the floral pilsenery aroma the most of all; the body is caramelly but a little thin with a slightly incongruous bitterness and acidity on the finish. It's described as "Heidi Ale" but I'm not sure if that means it's top-fermented. I have been told that they're very busy at the moment, brewing every day, so maybe this was devised to be ready for sale quickly, skipping the lagering phase.

Blackfriars are now stocking Stone IPA, Ruination and Arrogant Bastard Ale. I had the Stone IPA and it's not so much grassy as vegetal, with asparagus and green beans alongside the massive hop attack. It took me an hour to drink it.

The best news is that the Victoria Bar appears to be getting its name back! I noticed a couple of days ago that the bar had lost the "Scotch Corner" sign that the owners put up on the fascia after removing the beautiful old Victoria Bar sign about a year ago.

I went in at the time and told the slightly bemused bar staff that I'd be back when the pub got its proper name back. Today what do I see but a sandwich board outside reading "Victoria Bar" and the bar snacks menu. It wasn't open though so I couldn't go in. I'll pop in soon to check out the facts.

Early mistakes in beer

When someone starts developing a taste for beer, they generally do it in stages. The less adventurous among us find a local brand they find palatable, and stick with it. Others are dissatisfied with the beers everyone else drinks and try to seek out something a bit different.

The amusing part of this is the kind of "aw, bless" stage (and I've gone through it myself) where you realise that the mass market beer all around you are bland and uninteresting. You look around for alternatives, and you find ... the bland, uninteresting mass market beers of another country.

"I used to drink Miller and Coors, until I realised they were shit! Now I drink Guinness and Newcastle Brown Ale!"

"I used to drink John Smiths and Newcastle Brown Ale, until I realised they were shit! Now I drink Hoegaarden and Leffe!"

"I used to drink Becks and Warsteiner, until I realised they were shit! Now I drink Corona!"

In my teens I had a strange predeliction for Michelob and Warsteiner. And the first time I tried Pilsner Urquell, I thought it was awful. Apart from that, I don't think I made too many serious errors of judgement. At least not in questions of beer.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Naff glass #2: the weird shaped branded pint



Just look at this. Isn't it awful? The shape is all wrong and it looks more unstable than it actually is.

Also, I can't stand pint glasses with logos on them in the first place.

Discreetly branded glassware is fine in Germany and Belgium where most bars sell the same two or three draught beers all the time. Although to be honest I'm not keen on the Belgian way of forcing cafe owners to stock a dozen different kinds of glassware, one for each beer, either.

But it doesn't work at all in Britain where pubs are big, have constantly rotating guest beers and you need lots of glasses. Or rather, it works for the megabrands and against the little microbrewers.

Another reason I hate logo glasses is that so many bar staff don't seem to understand that the branded glass is there to serve that brand of beer in, and no other. I don't know if the correct branded glass really does enhance the drinking experience, but I do know that the wrong one — for example a pint of Deuchars in a Guinness glass — ruins it.

Not to mention: have you seen the state of these things when they get old? It's just as well they all get nicked before they start looking too tatty.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Brewers' star update



I found this (while looking for something else, as is usually the way).

I don't have too much to say about it other than to note it as further evidence of the existence of the six-pointed star as a brewers' symbol in Britain as well as Germany.

This Younger's of Edinburgh bottle is from 1961 whereas the Usher's label I posted back in June is from 1968. Two brewers in the same city were using the same symbol as a trade mark within seven years of each other. Brewers were clearly less litigious back then.

Younger's were using the star as early as 1942 and possibly before. I wonder when Youngers stopped and Ushers started?

Naff glass #1: Floppy disposable plastic tumbler




No. Just no. I try to avoid drinking in places that use these if at all possible.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Nice glass #2: Willybecher



The half-litre Willybecher is another classic German beer glass. Like the British nonic or dimple, it's utilitarian and hard-wearing. I have the impression it's regarded as a little old-fashioned these days. I really like it. But elegant? No.

Nice glass #1: Tulip

The straight nonic pint glass has been criticised for being macho, ugly, utilitarian, unattractive to women, too big, and a host of other things. I think most of these criticisms are unfounded, as I shall argue in a post yet to be written; but let us suppose for a moment that we could start again and decide what kind of glass we'd like to sup our beer from.

If we're abandoning the pint glass, we may as well abandon the pint. A smaller measure is easier to design an attractive glass for; in particular, a pint is too big for a stemmed glass (the appallingly ugly stemmed Stella Artois pint glass proves my point).

One kind of glass I really like is the tulip style:



In Germany, this kind of glass would be brought to your table by a waiter or waitress, placed carefully on a beer mat and possibly adorned with a little crepe-paper collar around the stem.

The question is, is our pub culture in the UK suited to adopting this kind of glassware?

There may be a reason why we have ended up with hard-wearing, utilitarian pint glasses. That's not to say things can't change, but I suspect there is more to it than just swapping the glasses out.

I can only envisage this sort of thing going down well in the kind of establishment that is wilfully un-pubby. Or at least, one which moves away from the more unpleasant and boorish features still common in the modern British pub: the blaring TV, the puddles of beer on the bar and on the tables, the men shouting at each other.

If you want more stylish glasses, you need to have more stylish pubs.

More nice glasses and some rubbish glasses will follow.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Carbonation

I was just idly wondering about carbonation in cask beer. It's down to the person looking after the beer to ensure that enough CO2 is preserved in the beer to give it sufficient sparkle, and it doesn't always go right.

Sometimes beer is served much too flat. I don't mean not-through-a-sparkler flat, I mean absolutely flat. This happens more often when beer is served by gravity, but occasionally you get it on a beer engine too. You rarely get it too lively. Maybe this is because drinkers may complain if the beer is flat, but bar staff will definitely complain if it's too foamy?