Friday, 30 April 2010

Thursday, 29 April 2010

It’s beginning to look a lot like a beer festival

Blogging about beer, I constantly find myself coming up against things I don't know, and I realised a while back that I want to know more detail about how real ale is conditioned and served.

There are two ways to learn about handling cask beer. You can go and work in a pub, where you spend more time serving Foster's than cask. Or you can volunteer to help at a CAMRA festival, and that's what I spent Tuesday doing at Paisley.

All the real ale had already been delivered and stillaged on Monday so on Tuesday it was down to building the bars. I say building—I mostly watched other people (who knew what they were doing) building. I never realised there was so much carpentry involved. There's more to it than just banging some planks onto trestles; the bar has to stand up to four days of people leaning on it, and the constant vibration from the handpumps, so it absolutely needs to be stable. There are four bars at Paisley; cider and English beer in the main hall, and Scottish beer and foreign beer in the side hall. I was on the Scottish bar as that's where the staff beer was, a nice drop of Fyne Piper's Gold.

Paisley has a fair-sized foreign beer bar, and the bar couldn't be completed until that bar's beer was delivered because we needed access to the cellar for three pallets of European bottled and draught beer. Fortunately it arrived at just the right moment.

After unloading many, many boxes of bottles, it didn't take too long to get the barrels into the cellar, and my mouth is already watering thinking of all that lovely Altbier. And Löwenbräu deliver ridiculously fake-looking rubber-covered barrels with an (allegedly) wood-effect finish. You feel like you're in a Disney film, probably Snow White, rolling these things about. Another thing I learned was that there doesn't seem to be any standard size or shape for Dutch kegs.

Once the bar was built, what really gets the hall looking like a beer festival is putting the handpumps on the bar. Cue unboxing, mounting and connecting 22 Angram pumps, accompanied by much cursing of the previous festival to have used the things, who had stuck sticky paper address labels on the wooden plinths.

Beer line cleaner is dangerous stuff, apparently, so it was on with the goggles, rubber aprons and huge gloves like the ones vets wear to deliver calves. If I'd known you get to dress up in this gear I'd have joined CAMRA years ago. Everyone hates this job so was happy to let the two newbies do most of it. If anyone gets poisoned from traces of beer line cleaner at the Scottish beer bar, it's my fault.

I'm going back tonight just for the ticks. Some weird omissions though. No Harviestoun? No BrewDog? No West? As far as the beer list goes, I'm quite relaxed about it this year and there are only a few I am really keen to try:
  • Bernard světlý ležák, 12º světlý unfiltered, and 12º černy
  • De Ranke XX Bitter
  • Neuzeller Porter
  • Thornbridge Seaforth
  • Tryst Black IPA
  • Tin Pot Beetroot and Black Pepper Pot
  • Belhaven 70/–
  • Fyne Cairn Dhu 60/–
And some that I've had before and definitely want to drink again:
  • Mahrs Kellerbier
  • Uerige Alt
  • Orkney IPA
  • Fyne Crannog
and I may also manage to leave space for the 9% Orkney Porter.

If I can't get all the ticks, I expect there will still be plenty to choose from.

Monday, 26 April 2010

A busy week

I said yesterday that I was going to be busy this week. On Tuesday I am volunteering to help set up the Paisley Beer Festival. I thought it would be a good way to learn more about handling real ale. Actually I have no idea what's involved and hope they don't ask me to lift anything heavy (the only time in my life I had any muscles was when I used to work in a restaurant as a student and it was my job to heave the rubbish into a skip every morning).

My friends and I usually go to the Paisley festival on the Friday, but this year it clashes badly with the Market Gallery Pub. The festival itself opens on Wednesday, but I can't go on Wednesday because the Pub School visit to West is that night. So that leaves only Thursday for the festival. I love life.

Oh damn, yeah, I also still have to package up my parcel for Beer Swap. Eep.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Pub School — the final stretch

I've had a busy couple of weeks and there's a busier one coming up. There've been a lot of beer-related goings-on. I wrote about Eric Steen's Glasgow Beer and Pub Project before. Since then we've had three of the Pub School events. I thought the homebrewing demonstration went well despite a heating element cutting out, which delayed the boil quite a bit, but Owen and Geoff eventually made wort and the audience got an idea of what's involved. The selection of readings at the second class included Tim Webb questioning whether some pubs should be allowed to die, Sam Calagione's worst delivery day and Martyn Cornell on the history of lager in Britain, and in the third week we met Gordon from Williams Bros, heroically standing in for Scott Williams who was stranded in France, and tasted his beers.

We're now approaching the final week of the Project and there is one more class of Pub School to go. This final Pub School will comprise a tour of West brewery to see how their beers are made.

Then on Friday is the centrepiece, the Market Gallery Pub, featuring 30 different beers from private brewers. Having seen the bare space in previous weeks the transformation of the gallery just by adding some furniture is quite impressive. I'd go to a pub that looked like that.

Eric passes the Tennent's brewery every day on the way to the gallery. I keep telling him he should get his picture taken in front of it, ironically. So far no luck.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Saint who?

I am told there is some sort of saint's day today which certain brewers in England are trying to attach to promotion of their beer, presumably because it's so crappy they can't sell it any other way.

Today is, however, also German Beer Day, or Tag des deutschen Bieres, celebrated by the German brewers' association since 1994. It's an equally transparent marketing gimmick, with its own dose of nationalism attached, but at least it has something inherently about beer to it.

It's on the 23rd of April because that is apparently the day on which the Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, was first promulgated in Bavaria in 1516.

When I started learning about beer, it was received wisdom that German beer was the best in the world. I read about how the Purity Law guaranteed pure beer, and watched Prince Luitpold of Kaltenberg explain on TV how it meant brewing beer using malt, hops and water, with "no chemical additives, and no other raw materials such as sugar, or potatoes, or God knows what other people are sometimes using." Tasting Altenmünster and Löwenbräu for the first time and comparing them to the Tennent's and McEwan's available at home seemed to confirm the theory.

Times have changed now. Over the years voices emerged to attack the very principle of the Law, arguing that it was essentially a financial measure not a consumer protection one, and that its extension over the entire Reich in the 20th century led directly to the demise of many north German styles of beer which were unable to comply with it.

Both arguments have a good deal of sense to them, but nowadays you even hear some people saying that it makes the German beer scene worse than it would be without it. There's also a clear transatlantic divide. Lots of American beer geeks think the Reinheitsgebot is terrible because it prevents German brewers making cherry marshmallow porter or coffee pils. The Germans themselves revere it for the same reasons.

Restraint is not always a bad thing. Many bands like to stick to the classic guitars, bass and drums line-up, and some brewers like to stick to using only malt, hops and water. On the other hand, when I hear about some of the beers being made in the USA today, they strike me as the beer equivalent of Rick Wakeman on Ice. Self-indulgent. Too many flavours. Smelly fucking hippies.

The Reinheitsgebot doesn't guarantee making good beer. You only have to drink Beck's to realise that. I do think it prevents you making something really, really bad, though. I'd still rather drink Oettinger than Stella any day of the week and if you condemned me to only drink the top ten mass-market beers from any one country, I'd choose the German ones. And there's surely a reason for that.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Young Folks

, the Glasgow delicatessen chain, has taken to organising what they call beer festivals a few times a year. They are really tasting sessions. You pay to get in and then brewery reps or Peckham's staff will pour you samples of their beers. Today was another one at the Glassford Street store and I went along despite feeling very rough indeed, due to over-indulgence at West the evening before (no hangovers my arse). The sacrifices I make for my readers.

It was packed, and interestingly enough, most of the people there were young and a proportion approaching 50% female. The turn-out of Scottish brewers was significantly up on last time, with Houston, BrewDog, Williams Bros, Stewart and Sinclair Breweries (Orkney and Atlas) all represented. Also in attendance, like last time, were Coors, oh excuse me, "Different World Drinks Company", with their range of speciality beers.

I was delighted to see that Knops have finally got their first beer to market and onto the buyer's desk at Peckham's. The Edinburgh start-up has opted to have a California Common as its first beer, a somewhat incongruous choice but at least they can't be accused of chasing after the same bandwagon as everyone else. It's a dry, light-on-the-palate beer, somewhat grainy-tasting, with a noticeable but subdued bitterness on the finish. The company's aim is to make easy-drinking beers; I wonder if it will succeed in finding a niche.

Over to Coo—ah, Different World, for the taste of Žatec that I'd been promising myself. The only one of the brewery's beers that Coors chooses to market in the UK is, as far as I can tell, the 11° ležák; at the last tasting event I thought this was dire, but a friend of mine swears blind that I once came round to his house raving about how great it was. I try to be fair and give it another chance. It's awful. It's recognisably a Czech beer, just a rather poorly made one.

Also on offer was Kasteel Cru, the "champagne beer" marketed at women. It's much, much, worse than Žatec. The champagne yeast is detectable, but apart from that it has very little taste of any kind; except that there's a distinct sour tang to it, like cooking lager with a shot of lemon juice. I don't know why anyone would drink this when there is inexpensive cava widely available that's much nicer. Coors is obviously putting a great deal of effort into building up this portfolio of speciality beers to reduce their reliance on Carling, but they'll have to do better than this pair of fourth-raters.

To my delight, Houston had a pin of Peter's Well set up. It's not every day you get to enjoy this refreshing pale bitter while simultaneously having a go at the brewer in person for the tacky, sexist pump clips on their seasonal ales, the likes of Top Totty and Helga's Big Jugs. He seemed unfazed by me pointing out that they prevent me and my friends from buying his generally very good beers. Presumably his other customers must like them. I hope I never meet these people.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Upstart Scottish brewer sticks it to the man

In 1749 the Court of Session rejected a case brought by the maltsters' and brewers' guild against Robert Tennent, innkeeper, and ruled that he was not obliged to join the guild. I don't feel safe assuming this is the same Robert Tennent who opened a public brewery in Glasgow with his brother John in the 1770s. That one died in 1826 which would mean he would have to have reached the age of 95, even assuming he was only 18 at the time he was running an inn. It's a nice story though.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

London porter and Edinburgh ale in 1832

I was looking for stuff about 20th century Scotch Ale, but as ever, something else turned up instead.

This is from Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, September 1, 1832. According to this, country porter had a burnt taste, London porter didn't. Interesting theory about the use of pewter pots. I wonder if it's bollocks. The Scots seemed to think so.


It has been generally believed that the superiority of London porter is caused by its being made of Thames water. This is a very erroneous opinion. The Thames water, from its impurity, has been long abandoned by the London porter brewers, who use either New River water or hard water, I believe, chiefly the latter. London is built on fine sand and gravel, and about two hundred feet below the foundation of the city there is a stratum of clay and a stratum of chalk, and here is found a most abundant supply of water, which is lifted by pumps. Hence, the superiority by no means lies in the water used, but in the immense quantity made, and in the art of the manufacturer. It is a very remarkable fact, that, except at Dublin, this beverage has never yet been equalled in point of strength and flavour. Good porter, of the most refreshing quality, is now sold all over the metropolitan districts. Imitations have been tried, with great exertion and outlay of capital, in different parts of the country, but they can all be detected by their burnt taste, and bear no comparison to the rich, full body of the genuine London porter. This generous liquor, as is well known, is always drunk out of pewter or silver pots, which impart a finer flavour to the mouth of the drinker than if glass or earthenware were used. The reason for this can be scientifically accounted for, by the electro-chemical action which is going on betwixt the acid of the porter and the metal; and, therefore, the popular taste is quite correct in adhering to pewter pots. The Scotch, who import London porter to a large extent, do not seem to be aware of this remarkable fact, as they always drink the liquor from glass tumblers. Between six and seven millions of barrels of porter or strong beer are made annually in England; in 1830, the quantity exported was 74,902 barrels.


While London bears the palm of superiority in the art of porter-brewing, Edinburgh challenges all the world to compete with it in the manufacture of ale. In the making of this luxurious beverage, it has, for a considerable period of years, had no rival, unless we allow, what is perhaps correct, that the brewers of Leith, Prestonpans, and Linlithgow, and some other small towns, are equally entitled to hold up the superiority of their liquors ; nevertheless, the whole fall under the designation of Edinburgh ale. This ale differs entirely, in body, flavour, appearance, and character, from the English ales. It is as clear as amber, and of the same colour; soft and delicious in taste; so strong, that a few glasses produce a slight intoxication, or inclination to sleep; and has a thin creamy top. It is exceedingly difficult to keep, and is easily affected by atmospheric phenomena, although kept in casks in a close cellar, and generally turns hard or sourish after being kept more than a season. It is always used in Edinburgh in glass quart bottles —never in draught; and, when diluted with water, forms an agreeable table beer. It has been occasionally alleged, from the intoxicating qualities of Edinburgh ale, that it is mixed with cocculus indicus, or some other poisonous ingredient; but this is, without doubt, an idle fallacy, the liquor being simply the strength of malt and hops. It is used only in moderate quantities, being quaffed from long tapering glasses made for the purpose, and cannot be indulged in so freely as porter, to which it bears no other resemblance than it is made from nearly the same materials, differently prepared. The quantity of strong beer or ale made in Scotland annually amounts to about 110,000 barrels, upwards of 3000 of which are exported ; the chief export being to London. About 130,000 barrels of table beer are also annually manufactured, besides an immense quantity of small beer— a species of light, cheap, frothy liquid, in great domestic request in Scotland, and which, from its resemblance, in some respects, to ginger beer, might be manufactured in the English towns with every chance of success.

This strong Edinburgh ale was kept in quart bottles, then, but only used in moderate quantities. Bottle for the table to split? Who knows.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Caledonian Brewery

One of the mainstays of a CAMRA branch's calendar are brewery visits. As a loyal member, I thought it was time I took part in one of these outings. The only trouble was that I've never met any of my local branch before. However, using a combination of stereotyping and advance knowledge of their published travel plans, I scouted round the train, identified the CAMRA group who were going to the brewery and attached myself to them.

We were off to Edinburgh's Caledonian Brewery. Best known today as the brewer of Deuchars IPA, it's Edinburgh's only surviving 19th century brewery, founded in 1869 as Lorimer and Clark's. Survival has been a close call at times; the brewery has suffered several disastrous fires, one of which destroyed the maltings and another one of the coppers. Accountants proved even more dangerous than fire, with the brewery facing closure in the 1980s until it was saved by a buy-out led by Russell Sharp, now of Innis & Gunn and the seemingly inactive Edinburgh Brewing Company. Without him the brewery would probably be a car park or a block of flats now.

On arrival we were shown into the private bar and given some beer. Hooray! While waiting for the tour to start I was able to have a look at the display case of old bottles, mostly the successive iterations of 80/– and Deuchars labels since 1990, but some going back to Lorimer & Clark days. I like that sort of thing.

One thing I found disappointing is that the tour was led by a sales guy, not a brewer, so he asked us to refrain from overly technical questions. What's the point of a brewery tour if you can't ask nerdy questions about water treatment and what kind of hops they use? Is it just about free beer and pies? I'd like to think not.

But there were some snippets of information that I didn't know:
  • there is no keg version of Deuchars IPA
  • the beer is brewed with city water; the Edinburgh brewing wells were contaminated by Fife's heavy industry early in the 20th century forcing the brewers to switch.
I've been in a few fermentation rooms and they can be rather pungent places. I like the smell of fermenting beer but not everyone does. At Caledonian it's different. The fruity scent hit me as soon as we went in and it was only as we were leaving again that I figured out what it smelt like. Apples? No. Well, a bit. Blackberries? Not quite. Peaches! That's it, Caledonian's fermenting room smells of peaches. Which compound could be responsible for that, I don't know.

Caledonian's slogan is "Brewed by men, not machines". You can understand that at Caledonian; they don't have any choice, because the brewery is so old that there is nowhere to put the machines. It's really quite small and the tour only takes about fifteen minutes. It is, as Michael Jackson wrote, a living, working museum. That's not hyperbole. The brewery's new owners, Heineken, take his words literally. They apparently love the place and send their new brewers over to see it, more or less to let them see how things used to be done.

How did mega-gigantic super-modern global computer-controlled lager brewer Heineken end up with this antique brewery? Well, a few years before their demise, having run their ale brands into the ground and closed their own historic Edinburgh brewery, S&N bought Caledonian to brew McEwan's for the declining market of ageing jakeys who still drink it. Then Heineken inherited the brewery when they bought S&N's carcass. I know Heineken have a terrible record of buying up and closing other breweries in the Netherlands, but to be frank, an outfit the size of Heineken could afford to keep Caledonian open as a training school, even if it produced no beer at all, and I still think it's safer with them than it would have been with S&N.

Back in the bar, there was an experimental beer to try. Three Monkeys at just 3.0% is a boys' bitter with a pleasant sulphury aroma and a bitter finish to be relished. I asked for it without the sparkler and was firmly told that Caledonian prefer their beers served through a sparkler, but I could have it without if I drank a pint of it with first. So I did. Unsparkled, it had a slightly fuller aroma, but to be honest there wasn't much difference.

Another one-off beer available was Flying Dutchman. Last year one of Heineken's top boffins Henk Oexman came over to Caledonian to brew a special witbier for Wetherspoons' beer festival (the full story here). I missed this at the time and was quite surprised to see there was still some left, ten months after it was brewed. It's a good beer with a vibrant coriander-seed aroma and sweetish body. And you don't get cask witbier very often. Miles better than Hoegaarden (and also better than Heineken's own Wieckse Witte).

I was happy for the opportunity to taste Caledonian's two flagship beers at the brewery, served precisely as the brewery wanted them served. It didn't change my opinion of them. Back in the 1990s I'd be delighted to get a pint of Caledonian 80 (the shilling symbol seems to have disappeared completely from its name nowadays). Now, it tastes rich and vanilla-ey and isn't really the kind of beer I like to drink any more.

I'm also rather ambivalent about Deuchars IPA now. Up until two years ago I used to drink it regularly, love it, and even made a point of referring to it as "Wondrous Deuchars". Then I had a series of appallingly bad pints of it, which convinced me that the recipe had changed. It was still just about recognisably itself, but all the hops seemed to have disappeared. I stopped drinking it for a while. I tried it again a couple of months ago and thought it had regained some of its character, but still wasn't the beer it had been. Tasting it at the brewery led me to exactly the same conclusion. Maybe it's all in my mind, but I don't think it is.

It's a pity the regular beers are such a let down now. The guys doing the tour and bar were clearly passionate about beer and about the brewery, and of course the brewery is unique and irreplacable. I still dream about a pint of Caledonian Porter I drank in 2003. I've never seen that beer since. I hope we see more such interesting beers from them in the future.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

In Some Ways It Is And It Is Not

This was a surprise — I got home and there was a box waiting for me. Inside was a note and a couple of bottles of beer. I haven't written about BrewDog for a while, but this is because there are plenty of good breweries I want to write about but haven't got around to. Maybe this is their way of attracting my attention again.

What's in the box is a new beer called, wait for it, In Some Ways It Is And It Is Not, "a metanarrative stout".

The label announces "This beer proposes the need for a political act or revolution – one that will alter the conditions of possibility of postmodernity and so give birth to a new type of Symbolic Order in which a new breed of subject can exist!" I'm not sure if that even sounds appealing, or where the fish fit in, but it's another BrewDog stunner. Fish? Well, you've heard of oyster stout? Well, James and Martin have exploited the history of British brewing, and James's part-time job on a fishing trawler, to come up with the world's first mackerel stout. Yes, mackerel. And as the label says, "ideology — from the viewpoint of a mackerel — is not, and never has been, simply a matter of consciousness, of subject positions, but is the very stuff of everyday praxis itself."

It's a tasty fish, but will it really work in beer? According to the note James sent, it's actually been taken out on the trawler to do its primary fermentation at sea, and their first tastings suggest the sea air has had a definite effect.

What does it taste like? To be honest, you don't get much of a fishy character, although there may be a certain maritime quality to it, but I think that's the salt and seaweed rather than the fish itself. It's actually pretty unique. What you first of all get is massive roastiness, almost burnt-toasty and I'm not sure if it's even pleasant. The huge hops (Centennial?) that the brew-pooches have made their trademark overshadow everything else. But there is a certain something there, and the more you drink the more this kind of saline quality gets to your palate, making it surprisingly moreish. And there's a smokey character too, but do I dare speculate, is it from smoked malt or from smoked fish?

I'm left in two minds, I'm not sure I like this beer, but it's certainly interesting. And the weird thing is that it's not the fish that makes me uncertain, but the massive, unbalanced hops and roasted malt. I am open to argument and if I see this on cask I'll definitely try it again.