Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Some (mostly) Oregon beers

Eric is now in Glasgow for his beer and pubs art project, and he was nice enough to bring some Oregon beers to share with a few interested malt-worms. We met up with a bunch of bottles (and a couple of jugs of water) to taste them.

Upright Gose: An Oregon recreation of a defunct Prussian style, I wasn't sure what to expect as I have no idea what Gose is supposed to taste like. It presents like a Weißbier at first, but drinks more like a witbier; there's a certain creaminess to it that reminds me of some minor witbier brand whose name I've long forgotten. Pretty good but not really my thing.

Hair of the Dog Adam: Syrupy, dark brown, marmitey, beef jerky, I didn't like this at all.

Bridgeport Highland Ambush Scotch Ale: Eric says: "I figured we might as well throw in a Scottish ale and see what the Scots think, right?". Most of what I get from this is a weird scent of penny-tray sweeties, pink shrimps to be exact. It's not unpleasant by any means and the underlying beer does have recognisable toffee notes that remind me of my youth drinking McEwan's. Being from Oregon, it's over-hopped, but not dramatically so, just a bitter finish that's never been in any other strong scotch ale I've ever drunk.

Laurelwood Organic Free Range Red: The fourth beer we tried, it was also the first one we all thought was really outstanding. I don't usually go for red beers but this was one I'd have again. As the others were making fun of me for writing notes about the earlier beers I stopped writing at this point, so you'll never know what this one actually tasted like unless you go to Portland and get some for yourself. Blame them.

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale: This disappeared the fastest of all the beers. That means it's good, right? We all thought it dangerously quaffable for its gravity.

Bison Brewing Imperial Brown Ale: Now according to the ABCP no beer may be called Imperial unless it has been exported to the court of a European despot before 1860, but leaving that aside, this is a nice one.

Ninkasi Spring Reign: This was perhaps the most British-tasting of the beers we tried. I'd be delighted, but not surprised, to find something tasting like this on cask at my local tickers' pub. Maybe it's because it doesn't drink its weight; it's 6% but tastes more like 4%. Lovely bitter finish.

Bear Republic Racer 5: More fruity and flowery in aroma than Spring Reign, this is a great beer and one where the 7% alcohol is noticeable. It's fairly sweet but in a fruity way rather than a malty one.

Deschutes The Abyss: splendid imperial stout with prominent berry fruits flavour, almost as prominent as in the Williams Bros Ebulum we also tried.

Hopworks Secession Black IPA: Foresty, herbal hops, it's an IPA and a good one.

Thanks to Eric for carrying these beers across the Atlantic for us. I was expecting to be battered about the tastebuds with alpha acid, but it turns out he's chosen IPAs with more restrained hopping. It was a great opportunity to try beers that we never normally see here.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Ban this offensive beer name!

According to the Sun, and confirmed by Austrian broadcaster ORF, a Berlin entrepreneur is planning to market a beer to be called Fucking Hell, named after the Austrian village Fucking. Hell, of course, just means pale and is a popular style of lager in Bavaria. Stefan Fellenberg has just won a trademark dispute with the EU, which at first rejected the name because the name of the village is spelt the same as a word in English that is too rude to post on the internet.

This name is deeply offensive. Why? Because there is no brewery in Fucking — it is a tiny hamlet with only 90 inhabitants — and hence Mr Fellenberg's Fucking beer looks set to be contract-brewed somewhere else. There is a real danger that consumers will be misled into thinking the Fucking beer is made by Fucking brewers when it isn't.

I do like a glass of Hell, but I feel strongly that a Fucking beer should be made in a Fucking brewery. No ifs or buts. What happened to provenance? Authenticity? Bier braucht Heimat, as they say in Germany.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

What's a Pilsener?

The other night, someone asked me to define what a Pilsener should be like. I have no idea why. If I'd been sober, I would have remembered what I said and it would be something like "a pale, intensely bitter, bottom-fermented beer, made with soft water, medium-bodied and with a prominent hop aroma."

But it got me thinking about what Pilsener is in my mind and what the limits of Pilseneriness are.

A 1873 description of the flavour of Pilsener in comparison to Bavarian and English beer opines:
Most of the Austrian beers have a mild and soft flavour, and it is rarely that any of them are so bitter as the English pale ales. An exception, however, must be made with regard to the so-called Pilsner beer brewed at Pilsen, in Bohemia, on a very extensive scale, and much in favour with the Viennese who do not object to pay a slightly higher price for it. The beer is exceedingly pale in colour as well as remarkably light, being even weaker than the Vienna beer, and contains a considerable amount of carbonic acid. Its distinguishing quality, however, is its strong, indeed almost medicinal bitter flavour, due to the Saaz hops, held in the highest esteem in the locality. The Citizens' brewery at Pilsen, which produces by far the largest quantity of this beer, and is in fact the most extensive brewing establishment in Bohemia, had a medal for progress awarded to it for the samples it exhibited. Another brewery company at Pilsen received a medal for merit, the same reward being given to five other Bohemian breweries, in addition to which honourable mention was made in five instances.
Most people today will still say a Pils should be on the hoppy side, but a strong, almost medicinally bitter flavour? How many Pils brewers today can honestly say that of their beer?

A few months ago I raved about 77 Lager, and Velky Al, who knows much more about Czech beer than I do and knows what he's talking about, agreed it was good but rejected completely the suggestion that it was a pilsener.

I think the difference is in our attitude to the hops. Nobody thinks anything of a pale ale using the latest fashionable hop any more. We accept that it is what it is and enjoy the unfamiliar aromas. But when it comes to lager we have come to expect the flavour of certain classic noble hops and no others.

Should Pilsener be considered a beer made with Saaz or Hallertauer or other noble hops only, or even be reserved for beers that actually come from Plzen? I'm certainly not at all sure that I'd like to see it diluted into the kind of recipe free-for-all that the pale ale category has become.

On the other hand, would that be any worse than the likes of Warsteiner and Heineken calling their beer Pilsener?

I don't know, but I do know that lager brewers are not going to keep using just the same five or six hops forever. What are we going to call the bitter lagers of the future?

Friday, 26 March 2010

Venn diagrams of beer dispense, part I

I may have got a lot of the detail of this wrong, and corrections, especially pedantic ones, are welcome, but I thought Zythophile's idea of classifying beers by Venn diagrams was much superior to the periodic-table approach, so I've decided to give it a go. Rather than take on beer styles, this diagram handles dispense methods. One reason for this is that it's easier; another is to attempt to show that traditional lager and real ale have more in common that a lot of people think.

Many of the greatest German and Czech lagers, when served by gravity or air pressure, very nearly qualify as real ale even by the strictest CAMRA definition (if you get to drink them straight from the lagering tank, they actually do, but most of us aren't often that lucky). Depending on your approach to beer and/or opinion of CAMRA you might think that is pretty amazing or perfectly natural.

I realise this is old hat to some people, but it needs repeating. Stonch had a great post on the subject, which said it all better than I could, but his blog is now private so I can't link to it any more.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A visit to Windie Goat

No sooner had I remarked to a friend that you can't move in Scotland nowadays for new breweries opening, than I heard the sad news that Windie Goat at the Failford Inn has brewed its last batch. The new owners of the pub don't want to carry on brewing, so the kit has been sold off.

Visiting the Failford had actually been on my list of things to do for some time, ever since Alan from Beer in Japan went last autumn and came away raving about their beer.

Michael Jackson once wrote something along the lines that while you could read the books of a long dead author or listen to a dead composer's music, "you cannot drink a beer you once enjoyed if the brewery has gone out of business." With that in mind, I decided to go down and taste the beer while I still had the chance.

The brewery was situated in an old-school country inn in rural Ayrshire, in a village that is literally two bus stops and a pub. But don't jump to conclusions; Windie Goat is a modern outfit making new-wave real ale. In common with many of the new brewing generation, brewster
Michelle Kelsall uses American hops liberally in her beers.

Drinking a beer that will never be brewed again is a strange experience. You want it to be memorable, and I was not disappointed. The last brew, a special called Final Fling, is bittered with Progress and flavoured with lots of Nelson Sauvin and Cascades. It is absolutely fantastic. I've had a couple of pure Nelson Sauvin beers before and didn't get the fuss. But the Cascade gives the beer the dry, grassy edge missing in the grapey, peachy Nelson Sauvin aromas. It's a great combination.

There's one other beer on, Peden's Cove, one of the regular beers. It's pale and actually reminds me (in a good way) a bit of Draught Bass, with a little sulphur. Michelle looks nonplussed; the water is very soft here, and it's not burtonised. I am left with no idea where that note came from, and worry that my palate might have been ruined by the hop attack of Final Fling. I move back to Final Fling, and the second pint is as splendid as the first.

It's a sad loss for the beer landscape in Ayrshire. Windie Goat made outstanding, challenging beers, and they sold well to a market to which many brewers only dare to offer boring brown bitter. But I hope and expect that Michelle will pop up again in the future, making beer somewhere in the world. Wherever it is, drinkers there will be able to consider themselves privileged.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Carling conundrum

In the Morning Advertiser this week we learn that Coors is apparently making only a penny a pint on their beer. I'm not clever enough to understand how this works. Microbreweries can make a living with a 10 barrel plant, while the country's leading lager brand can only barely break even on sales of nearly 7 million barrels a year. It does suggest very strongly that cooking lager and real ale are not remotely the same market these days.

And yet in CAMRA's latest BEER magazine we are told "Carling … pays the wages and has funded White Shield for years."

They can't both be right.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Ghost pub

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This is Gilmours Bar in Stenhousemuir. We passed it on the way to the beer festival. Once you get out of the cities there are still places like this to be seen. It looks completely derelict from the outside but it appeared it was still open, still trading in the livery of a brewery that hasn't existed for fifteen years.

Look at the weather-beaten signs. Places like this are fascinating and scary at the same time.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Larbert Beer Festival

On Friday I popped over to Larbert with a friend for the beer festival. On seeing the festival banner outside the hall with the name in Comic Sans, we nearly turned around and went home again, but after covering our eyes we made our way inside in the interest of good beer.

Larbert's a small festival with only 45 or so beers, but that still gives adequate choice for a session. We started with Highland's Scapa Special which made a really good first impression with a sweet and floral citrus aroma, a little bit of yeast flavour and a bitter finish.

Do you ever find when drinking several beers that you notice the same flavours in all of them? It goes in phases with me. For a while I tasted hard, chalky water in everything. Before that, sulphur. Tonight it was something reminiscent of outside lavatories. I don't know why.

I'd been looking forward to trying a beer from Fife's Luckie Ales for a while. They brew some recreations of historic beer, but at the festival only 70/— and Amber Ale were on offer, as well as a wheat beer we didn't try. 70/— had toasty malt and a full flavour, a slightly mushroomy aroma and that outside-toilet note. It wasn't bad, certainly better than the Amber Ale which was really sweet and tasted mostly of burnt sugar.

Another small Scottish outfit which is happily brewing again after an interruption is the Gothenburg from Prestonpans. Their Porter was roasty and stouty but a little thin. My pal decided at this point to go for one of the "foreign beers" on the list and returned with Crouch Vale Essex Boys Bitter. It has a slight note of treacle and is bitter and watery, quaffable by the gallon but tastes weaker than it is. Following that, Inveralmond XXX was grainy and sugary, unimpressive despite the excellent name.

Highland IPA was less immediately approachable than the Scapa Special, and seemed a little one-dimensional at first (possibly still a tad green), but as you drink it you start appreciating its dry, bitter, austere character.

Next up were two Tryst beers. Tryst is the local brewery in Larbert and the brewer himself was wandering around when we arrived. Castlecary House Hotel, a custom brew for a local hotel, was very good indeed, with spicy hops and a sweet malt body. Dobbie Shuffle was "delicious" according to my friend, seemingly so good that he forgot to offer me a taste before it was all gone. No, I don't know what the name means.

I looked at the menu, saw the magic words "Pies: £2.50" and thought "that's expensive for a Scotch pie"; but it turned out they were proper big rectangular pies with a selection of fillings. We got stuck in to a couple of those, which means sadly there are no tasting notes for the Gothenburg 80/— and Oakham JHB we had to wash down the pies. I really like JHB and its peppery, severe bitterness, but you only ever see it at beer festivals up here, so I always go for it when I see it. You all know what it tastes like anyway, and if you don't, go and get some because it's awesome.

It seemed to go downhill from there. Tryst's Carron Oatmeal Stout was sadly too flat to be enjoyable, while Loch Leven Golden Goose was bitter but was missing any aromatic finish. Nice if you like plain alpha acid but ultimately disappointing. I'd never heard of Loch Leven before; it seems that every time you turn around at the moment there's a new brewery. Also new are Tempest from the Borders, who promised an un-named prototype beer but unfortunately didn't manage to deliver it in time for the festival.

Devon Ales
Pride 90/— was crap and neither of us could think of a good word to say about it. Burton Bridge's XL Bitter was rather less crap, but nonetheless a Boring Brown Bitter (ABCP style 9E), but with an appropriate amount of Burton snatch, and that mushroomy flavour again.

Tryst Raj IPA saved the day, a dry, bitter beer with resiny hops, and having got all the scoops we wanted, we finished off with some more JHB and Scapa Special.

It's odd; there's a clear cultural divide among Scottish micros represented here. The likes of Highland and Tryst are making intense hoppy beers; on the other hand some others seem determined to churn out one tedious brew of brown 80-shilling sugarwater after another in the belief that it's traditional.

Still, well done to CAMRA for making Larbert a town worth drinking in for two days in the year.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Windie Goat Brewery to close

Just heard that the Windie Goat Brewery at the Failford Inn in Ayrshire is closing (the pub will continue). It's a terrible shame. I've wanted to pop down there for a while but never managed it, and their beers seem to be well regarded.

Guinness under threat from rivals 400 times smaller

This story by Stephen Hayward in the Mirror is so stupid that it's hardly worth blogging about. But it's notable as an example of the dire standard of reporting about beer in the mainstream media. And of a poor grasp of elementary arithmetic.
Guinness gets a rival as sales of black lager go through the roof

A pint of the black stuff has meant only one thing for generations of beer drinkers... Guinness.

Yet that's about to change as black lager becomes the fastest-growing tipple in Britain, with sales soaring 42pc in a year.

Supermarkets and pubs are struggling to keep up with demand for the brew - a cross between lager and bitter.

Tesco's current range includes Bernard Dark and Budweiser Budvar Dark from the Czech Republic, Xingu from Brazil and Zeitgeist from Scotland. Tesco's Peter Bexton said: "Black lager answers a beer drinker's prayer with a lager's crispness and an ale's flavour." A bottle of Bernard Dark is £2.05 against £1.55 for a Guinness. UK Guinness sales are still £1bn to black lager's £2.5m.

Did you get that last sentence that completely vitiates the rest of the article? It's a speciality of the tabloids, that. £2.5m total sales (for all brands in the black lager sector, do you mind) is supposed to be a rival to a market worth £1bn. That's 0.25%, in words A QUARTER OF ONE PER CENT. It's possible for black lager to grow 42% in a year precisely because it is coming from almost nothing!

By this logic the editor of the Mirror should be very worried about the competition from Unicorn, a folk music magazine covering Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. It's got a circulation of 3000, which is 0.25% of the Mirror's circulation 0f 1.2m. He should be even more concerned about the Richmond and Twickenham Times. That sells a massive 15000 copies, over 1% of what the Mirror does and hence FIVE TIMES nearer to being a rival than black lager is to Guinness.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Keg tasting notes

There are some excellently jakey pubs in my city which are great places, except that they have no beer worth drinking. I grew up with such pubs, so this week when I had occasion to be in a couple of them, I ordered a half of McEwan's keg 80/– on a whim. The aroma, such as there was, transported me back in time to when I thought that's what beer smelled like. On the palate it was very slightly grainy, with no finish to speak of.

In the next pub there was a half of Tennent's Special, which smelled and tasted of bugger all.

Finally a pint of Tennent's Lager also tasted of bugger all. It did, however, have a beautiful head on it. The foam even tasted bitter. To say it tasted of hops would be pushing it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Glasgow Beer and Pub Project

Oregon artist Eric Steen is going to be doing an art project in Glasgow during April.

His project blog is at http://glasgowbeerandpubproject.blogspot.com/. It looks like an intensive bit of work. There will be a series of events every week in April followed by an installation at the gallery. All very interesting stuff:
The Pub School will be a weekly event series in April where the general public can learn about beer, take homebrewing demos, have samplings, learn about the history of it, and possibly even do some pub-crawls. I would love to get homebrewers involved in this by leading some of these demos and workshops. Then on April 30th, I am opening the Market Gallery Pub, which will be a one night installation that looks at homebrewing as an art form. The gallery will be turned into a functioning pub and I would like to feature a large menu of homebrewed beers…
Sounds like a lot of fun. Geoff from Hop Topic will be leading a homebrewing demonstration and the Williams Bros have agreed to recreate the most popular beer at the Market Gallery Pub at their brewery.

Eric is still looking for homebrewers to supply beer for the Market Gallery Pub. If you have spare beer, let him know.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Scotland, a beer desert?

I noticed from Tandleman's increasingly plaintive tweets on his recent jaunt to Glasgow that he wasn't having much luck finding good beer.

This is a shame, because there's plenty of good beer being made in Scotland at the moment. It's getting hold of it that's the problem, and that's hard enough for those of us who live here.

Whenever I've been in Manchester or Sheffield I've been struck by the way these cities actually seem to have a beer scene, in the way other cities have a music scene. They are also in a part of the country that has a living, uninterrupted real ale tradition, where you can often drink beer from a local brewer in one of their tied pubs.

Scotland doesn't have that. Cask beer was more or less destroyed in the 1960s (thanks, Bass and S&N) and what we have now is a revival. Most of our breweries, too, are relatively recently established micros selling to a limited number of free trade outlets.

This all makes for a different dynamic of beer supply. You can't just go into a pub belonging to a local brewery and expect to find something drinkable. The specialist pubs and old-established freehouses are the only reliable sources for a decent pint. There is an abundance of these in Edinburgh, and an adequate number in Glasgow, but elsewhere they become like welcome oases. It's not as bad as it once was but visiting many a Scottish town is still pretty grim unless you know exactly the right place to go. And sometimes there isn't a right place.

One related phenomenon that has always struck me is that the market for real ale in Scotland is (as far as I can make out) in the big cities, but many of the breweries themselves are in remote locations: Arran, Colonsay, Loch Fyne, Islay, Skye, Lewis, Ross-shire, Fraserburgh, Orkney, Shetland. I understand there are sensible reasons for this but it still seems odd – or maybe I'm just being a townie and these places are not as far away as I think.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


Rothaus Pils is a damn good beer. Cave Direct are now importing it to the UK, which gives me an excuse to post this video.

Marketing people often describe things as "cult". Usually this is a desperate attempt to make them appear desirable in cases where the ad budget is not enough for the usual bludgeoning of the consumer. It just devalues the word.

In Baden-Württemberg, Rothaus is a genuine cult that needs no promotion. What other beer inspires this sort of devotion?

The brewery is owned by the State and there are no plans to privatise it. Perhaps that is just as well, because I do not have any difficulty believing that people in the Black Forest would literally take up arms to prevent Heineken or Carlsberg getting their hands on it.