Sunday, 31 January 2010

How to save pubs


A poll of random people on the internet suggests that an overwhelming 75% of respondents want more meat raffles in pubs. That's more than voted for morris dancing and dentist's chairs put together.

If you run a pub and trade is bad, you know what to do.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Oat Malt Stout returns from the grave

One beer I'm looking forward to drinking in the near future is not new at all, but resurrected.

Since Maclays took over the Clockwork Beer Co in Glasgow, they now have a brewery again … even if it is several orders of magnitude smaller than the old one. In the Clockwork the other day they were brewing Maclay's Oat Malt Stout, hopefully from the original recipe, so I want to get round there to taste it once it's ready.

Friday, 29 January 2010

New cooperation among Scottish micros

Dozens of Scottish craft brewers gathered at West in Glasgow yesterday for an informal forum to discuss whether and how they could benefit from working together on some issues.

One major item on the table was the idea of a bottling co-operative. For many of the very small brewers a bottling line of their own is completely unfeasible. Williams Bros do a ton of contract bottling for other micros who otherwise rely on the cask ale market. But it's not just the one-man-and-his-shed operations. You'd be surprised at the big names who currently ship their beer south of the border for bottling. Whether any of them would switch to a Scottish co-op remains to be seen; for quite a few of the more remote brewers Glasgow isn't really much closer than England. Some brewers cautiously welcomed the idea; others were less interested, depending on how much they thought they might benefit.

There's definitely a culture clash between the more ambitious micros and those that are content to carry on selling a relatively small amount to traditional real ale pubs. Everyone seemed happy to be there though.

Scottish micros seem in good shape and there are several major brewery expansion projects in planning or already underway. Expect more whisky-aged ale in the future and there's at least one new outfit preparing to launch with a style of beer new to the UK.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Irish Kölsch!

Oral history is unreliable. Having said that, here's an interesting story.

Most websites of trade associations are rather self-serving and lack much in the way of solid information. But the Cologne Brewery Association has a series of articles based on interviews with the late Hans Sion conducted in 1998. Sion was the inheritor of the brewery of the same name, and is credited with being the driving force in the rise of Kölsch after the Second World War to become the dominant beer in the city, having been a minor speciality before. Sion himself recalls having had to serve Würzburger Hofbräu in the family's own beer hall because lager was more in demand than their own Kölsch.

This snippet caught my attention.
"In the 1960s, Dr. Münder, who had worked at [the brewery called] Dom, brewed a pale beer at Guinness in Dublin. He actually managed to get the Irish to switch from their black stout to a paler beer. It was the same top-fermenting brewing process as with Kölsch. The pale beer sold quite well in Ireland."
I was quite excited at this bit of information. I thought I'd hit on a forgotten relic of brewing history. A pale Rhine-style top-fermenting beer made by an actual German that took conservative 1960s Ireland by storm, yet unaccountably faded into history.

Then I realised Herr Sion was probably talking about Harp. Oh bugger.

Diageo confirms: "Working with German master brewer, Dr Hermann Muender, and local ingredients, Harp lager was created." And if I'd read this article on Harp beforehand, I'd have noticed the name.

I genuinely don't know whether Harp was actually top-fermented or bottom-fermented in its early days. Ron's article goes into great depth on the mashing regime (at least, the one used at Courage, which is not necessarily identical to the one Guinness used) but doesn't confirm what yeast was used. Plenty of breweries were making pseudo-lagers at the time with their usual yeast.

Herr Sion seemed to think it was top-fermenting, though I guess the old man, 87 at the time of the interview, could have been tricked by his memory.

It's more fun to think that the Kölsch brewer Dr. Münder was just embarrassed to admit to his colleagues back home that he'd been making lager. But this can't be the case either, because Cologne's breweries brewed Pils and Export as a matter of course until the 60s and 70s when Kölsch achieved the saturation of the local market it still enjoys today.

Maybe the truth is even worse … that Dr. Münder disliked the newly fashionable top-fermenting beer and went off to brew Harp by choice.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Exam question #1

“The fervency with which a person declares that a particular beer is the best, is inversely proportional to the number of different beers the person has tried.”

Discuss. (20 marks)

Saturday, 23 January 2010

More choice for west end drinkers

This post is probably not interesting to anyone outside Glasgow, sorry about that.

For beer-loving West End Wendies, though, there’s some good news. A couple of Fyne Ales beers (Highlander and Avalanche) are now available at Waitrose on Byres-road (and the two other Scottish stores), as is West St Mungo. For the thirsty, there are also 5-litre cans of Stewart's No. 3 and IPA.

In addition to that, The Cave, famed for its permanent specials on Williams Bros beer, has started carrying Tryst beers. This is particularly exciting as Tryst’s stuff is rarely seen here even on cask. Yum.

In non-beer news, Tennent’s are rumoured to be sponsoring the Old Firm once their current deal with Carling runs out.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Did Hodgson invent dry hopping?

Occasionally you find something genuinely interesting on Beer Advocate, and I really appreciate having seen this pointer to a paper on the history of India Pale Ale by Alan Pryor of the University of Essex. His account of the development of the IPA trade is thus: the private trade of East India Company ships' captains raised a minor London brewer, Hodgson, to a position of complete dominance of the Indian market for pale ale, until he was displaced by the products of the Burton brewers Allsopp and Bass. Hodgson was ruined, whereas Bass and Allsopp were able to build on their success in the Indian market to create a substantial niche for themselves in the UK as well.

This coincides in its main thrust with that given in the recent major work on IPA, Pete Brown's Hops and Glory. In the detail, neither author seems to have been aware of the other's work (there is an amusing difference of interpretation of the "teapot legend", for example).

One problem of Mr Pryor's paper is that the crucial statements which are made about what the beer itself was actually like are not documented. Mr Pryor repeats the old story common to a hundred homebrew books and a thousand web pages, comprising the following theses:

* IPA was a new product designed for India
* it was made pale and hoppy to survive the sea journey

I won't go into these here. Happily, the tale that it was extra strong for added protection against spoilage does not get repeated. Ron has argued convincingly that 19th-century IPA, though strong by comparison with present-day English bitter, was one of the weaker beers of its day, and only the peculiarities of the taxes in force at the time stopped it from being even weaker.

Interestingly, Pryor adds one thesis of his own which I have never seen before:
Hodgson's innovation was to put additional dry hops in the barrel of finished beer to improve the beer's chances of surviving the long voyage to India. This was intended to stabilise the beer against the constant rocking motion in the ship's hold.
As evidence for this, we are offered a citation from a contemporary source about a shipwreck in 1835, after which the unfortunate castaways sustained themselves by chewing the hops and dregs from a barrel of Hodgson's ale. The problem is that this proves only that Hodgson was dry-hopping in 1835. It does not prove that he was doing it in 1787, and it does not prove that the practice was his innovation.

Whatever its origins, dry hopping was being practised widely by the 1820s. William Cobbett's Cottage Economy (1823) tells the would-be brewer to "Put in a handful of fresh hops" when filling beer into casks for storage. Mary Eaton in The cook and housekeeper's complete and universal dictionary (1822) gives the same advice: "When the working [fermentation] has ceased the cask is again filled up with the surplus beer and a handful of fresh hops being added the bung is finally closed down".

And neither of these works treat the practice as a novelty. There's no mention that the practice was relatively new, or that it was associated with beer exported to India, nor is there an explanation of what could go wrong if you failed to do it.

On the other hand, if we look at brewing texts for the period before the trade to India took off, the picture is a bit different. Watkins in The compleat brewer (1760) doesn't mention dry hopping in his discussion of October beer (the pale beer brewed for keeping, thought to be at its best two years after brewing — Pete Brown reckons this to be the contemporary beer most similar to what Hodgson would have sent to India). Neither does Combrune's Essay on Brewing (1758).

The smoking gun I'm looking for is pretty specific: a reference to dry hopping before the 1780s. Otherwise we are faced with the questions of who actually did start doing it, when and why. Maybe it was even Hodgson?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Beer Swap: the verdict!

Beer Swap seems a long time ago now, doesn’t it?
Christmas kind of got in the way of posting the results.

Here's what @beermerchants was nice enough to send me:

Little Scotney Best Bitter (
Westerham)
Copper-coloured, highly carbonated, little aroma — the presentation I've come to expect from bottled bitter. Winy-sugary notes from crystal malt. The taste is full-bodied and toffeeish, hops way back in the background, just enough to stop it being cloying. It's simple and one-dimensional, not in itself a bad thing, but this is just too sweet for me.

I tasted these two one after the other because Best Bitter and Pale Ale are often thought of as the same thing, and I was pretty curious to find out what Westerham think the difference is.

Little Scotney Pale Ale (Westerham)
is paler in colour, lighter-bodied, seemingly less carbonated, forms a better head, and has some hops! Spicy, peppery hops, and in a respectable quantity. Clean, straightforward pale ale. There's something homebrewish about it, not at all in a bad way. No corners have been cut here.

Hoppers Ale (Rother Valley Brewing Company)
With a toffeeish, almost syrupy malt aroma, it seems not too much of the hoppers' crop found their way into this beer. Nonetheless it's a great beer. The complex, sugary malt collides with what to my tongue seems to be hard, flinty water making a fine, subtle beer that proves even 4% brown bitters that go easy on the hops can be tasty and interesting.

Boadicea Ale (Rother Valley Brewing Company)
Spicy, winey, almost Belgian aroma. The beer is quite highly carbonated and forms a loose head that soon collapses. Rich deep gold in colour, it smells amazing. The Boadicea hops have a unique aroma, not really grassy, more woodlandy, and it combines with caramel notes and the CO2 (which the nose tends to perceive as vinegar) to give it a strangely gueuze-like presence. The overwhelming impression is that it's very very dry, but without being intensely hoppy in bitterness or aroma. A new experience, but not one I'm keen to repeat.

As a bonus, @beermerchants also sent a bottle of Gadd's Reserve barley wine. I was expecting a heavy, syrupy barley wine, but it turned out to be dry, light and winey. I think the reason I was surprised is that I only found out after I'd drunk it that it's matured in red wine casks. I’m afraid I lost my notes for this one so that’s all I can remember!

This was a solid set of ales showing off the good and the less good in session beer. It’s pretty exciting that you can now once again go to another part of the country (or get beer sent to you from there) and drink beers that you’ve never seen locally. And these are just the ones available in bottle — I know from buying my own Beer Swap beers that some of the beers I would have most liked to send only come in cask form.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

More dry stout and sweet stout


Here’s a use of the term “dry stout” in the 1969 International Brewers’ Journal, to follow on from the 1956 usage I noted last month. It’s looking like Michael Jackson didn’t invent the term off his own bat after all. According to the Journal, a typical UK brewer’s range would include
a cheap as well as a premium brand of pale ale, a brown sweet ale, a sweet stout and in many cases a proprietary dry stout, self maturing in bottle, of another brewer.

I suppose we can all guess what the proprietary dry stout was – bottle-conditioned Guinness.

Ushers canned beer range, 1970
I’m quite interested now in why sweet stout declined in popularity. These adverts make it quite clear that it was still part of Scottish breweries’ core range in the late 1960s. Tennent’s even had two: their own Tennent’s Sweet Stout (third from the left next to the Carling), and the Sweetheart Stout acquired through the merger with United Caledonian Breweries just a couple of years before this ad.

Tennent's canned beer range 1967
Did sweet stout drinkers just die off in the 70s like drinkers of mild?

One more thing. Note the absence of anything called “Scottish 80/–”, or anything involving shillings from the ranges of beer.

Credit to www.cannyscot.com for the advert images. It’s a great site.

Friday, 15 January 2010

St Mungo in the Bungo

With a small number of exceptions, I don’t expect much from cafés in Glasgow — even among the good ones, many have, say, good food but no license, so you enjoy your lunch while thinking sadly “y’know, a dry white would make this perfect”; others are perhaps good at coffee, but their bread lets them down; you know the sort of thing.

Cookie in Strathbungo is quite a bit more than a café; it’s a restaurant and bar as well. It offers coffee, soup, full meals, bread baked on the premises (in that big oven right behind the counter in fact), exclusively imported wine and olive oil ditto. There's also a cooking club in the works, and in-house coffee roasting is planned. And it’s a shop too selling food items, charcuterie, household items. It’s an evangelical kitchen with a heavy emphasis on transparency, seasonality and local produce.

You don’t get much more local than West beer brewed a mere 3km away on the north side of the river — still, Cookie is the first outlet on the south side. Impressively, they have not just one, but two kinds on draught. Dark lager and pale St Mungo lager at the moment; I suspect the former may change to hefeweizen when the warmer weather arrives.

West’s beer is now also available at at least one posh hotel, an art cinema and several hipster bars. It's interesting that they seem to be having some success in getting their beer into venues that are generally no-go areas for real ale. I can't see this as anything other than an unqualified good thing, given that in most such places the best you can hope for is usually a bottle of Erdinger or something equally boring … if you're very lucky.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Golden Pint Awards 2009

Ha, you thought it was safe to go on the internet again and escape end-of-year round-ups! Not a chance! Just like office Christmas parties, my Golden Pint Awards are delayed until January to avoid blog congestion in the previous month.

Alright, I was lazy and couldn't be bothered finishing off the post and putting in all the links until now. But never mind, here are my nominations:

Best UK Draught Beer Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted
I've probably drunk more of this over the last year than any other single draught beer, so by that measure, it's already won. It's become a beacon for good beer in Scotland, always one notch bitterer, fresh, juicier than most of its competitors.

Best UK Bottled Beer BrewDog How To Disappear Completely
This was certainly the beer that I spent the most time hunting down. It's fantastic, with the massive hop aroma somehow still supported by enough sweet malt to make it superbly quaffable, unlike the less successful hop tea Nanny State. Bring it back!

Best Overseas Draught Beer I don't really drink imported beer on draught; it's almost always disappointing and there's usually something more local and better in the pubs I visit.

Best UK Brewery Fyne Ales
Over the last year Fyne has gone in my consciousness from being a brewery I was vaguely aware of, to being the maker of the beers that I go for first when I see them on a bar top. I thought I didn't like stout with US hops, until I tried their Vital Spark.

Best Overseas Brewery Beck-Bräu Trabelsdorf
It's rare that I pay £4 for a bottle of standard strength beer and think it worth every penny, but that's how good their Pils is. I fully expect this time next year we'll be talking about this outfit in sentences of the ilk of "At the forefront of new-wave German brewing..."

Pub/Bar of the Year
Blackfriars has won this in my book due to augmenting its already tick-worthy real ale list with a fridge of American, British, German and Belgian craft bottles. Runner-up, though, was Samuel Dow on the south side, which despite a far more restricted selection, chooses excellent beers (usually from Harviestoun and/or Fyne) and serves them in superb condition.

Beer Festival of the Year
CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival was far better than I expected. It cost me a fortune to get down from Scotland, but I'm glad I did. No other festival combines the enormous beer list with the opportunity to chat to so many brewery people and beer fanatics.

Supermarket of the Year
Probably Sainsbury's for their beer competition, which was fun, but I've bought more beer at Asda ... when I go to see my mum, on the way I pick up two Punk IPA and one Guinness Foreign Extra Stout for a total of £4. That's a good deal however you look at it. It's sobering to think that the supermarkets, whatever else they do wrong, are way ahead of the traditional off-licence chains in their beer selection.

Independent Retailer of the Year
We're not overly blessed with specialist retailers in Glasgow. The best range of Scottish beer is at Peckhams ... the only other local contender has sadly reduced their range of beer this year rather than expanding it, though they have some interesting US beers and are home to permanent deals on Williams Bros beers. I probably spend more there than at Peckham's, come to think of it.

Best Beer Book
There's only one contender, really, isn't there? Hops and Glory by Pete Brown. Probably the best researched book on India Pale Ale yet published, and certainly the funniest. The lack of academic footnotes make it appear less serious than it actually is, which is a shame, but I suppose the publisher wouldn't have stood for that in a popular work. Martyn Cornell's Amber Gold and Black would have won sight unseen, but it's not actually published until next year.

Best Beer Blog
Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. I have learned more from this blog in the last year than from any other, it's as simple as that.

Best Online Interactive Brewery
Still has to be BrewDog. A gift to bloggers, always something to write about, so much so that I had to swear off it so I could write about other breweries as well. And the launches with free beer, the gimmicks, the adventures, all great fun. Now if the beer were crap, all this would really put me off them. But the beer is great.

Next Year I’d Most Like To...
Go cycle-camping in Franconia. A tent, a bike and two bungees to strap a crate of beer onto the bike. I want to go more places in general, really.

Online Retailer of the Year Can't really say as the only place I've bought beer online has been BrewDog.

Best Beer Twitterer
Jeff Bell. He tweets what beer is about to come on in his pub! Other tweeters are entertaining, but this is actually useful. Well, if you happen to live near his pub it is. I do wish my regular haunts would do this. It would alert me when there's something on that I don't want to miss.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year Beer and cheese. I'm a simple soul. Usually a dark, sweet, soy-sauce-like old Burton ale with anything salty and mouldy, or good old pale ale and cheddar with onions. I can't believe I was in my 30s before I realised cheese and onion wasn't just a crisp flavour. With the cheese and onions, you need good beer, and good bread, another of my obsessions. Think bread and cheese is boring? It isn't.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Belgian Brewery Workers Walk Out, Demand InBev Stops Producing Crappy Beer

The announcement by global megabrewer A-B InBev that it wants to cut 10% of its workforce across Europe has provoked an angry reaction in its homeland Belgium, where over 260 staff face the axe. If my French and Flemish comprehension don't fail me, workers at the Jupille and Leuven plants have blockaded them to prevent raw materials and beer getting in or out, and even briefly took plant managers hostage.

It seems they have successfully disrupted the production of crappy beer for a while at least. Good on them.

Meanwhile, unions at InBev's biggest site in Germany (Beck's) are quoted as saying "We will not accept this."

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Amateur hour is over

Well, I've done my bit and been out to the pub today. January must be a tough time for publicans with people resolving to give up booze for ever/for a month, or still skint or hungover from New Year.

Not I!

With most pubs closed on New Year's Day, the few that are open do a decent trade. We slipped into The Belle on Great Western Road. This place has recently started selling Anchor Steam Beer on draught. It was pleasant enough but I don't think kegging and CO2 dispense did it any favours. Now if it were Sierra Nevada instead I might be hopeful of finding a convincing keg beer.

One of the mainstays of West End drinking is Tennent's, and it opens on holidays. A couple of pints of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and one of Adnam's Yuletide were followed by some polar bear-themed nonsense whose name I can't remember, Orkney Dark Island and Young's Special.

Hooray for pubs!

Friday, 1 January 2010

New year's resolutions for other people

It's always more fun telling other people how they can improve, isn't it?

In 2010, these are some of the things I would like to see happen:
  • More pubs take advantage of their off-licences to sell take-away draught beer, but not take the piss by charging the same as in the bar. I don't know if the arithmetic works out over here, but the very traditional brewpubs in Germany manage to do this.
  • Upturn in cask beer sales leading to a revival in cellarmanship, leading to beer being served in better condition in more pubs.
  • Our favourite canine brewers get enough cash together to build their new brewery and convince the sceptical that it really is all about the beer.
  • More of the great English beers making it north of the border … Thornbridge, Adnams, Marble in Scotland ... even pubs ordering a Fuller's beer other than bloody London Pride would be nice. Heck, I'd even drink Greene King XX if I ever saw it instead of Abbot.
  • Stupid bye-laws against public drinking be repealed, or at least universally ignored.
  • Bams who can't take responsibility for how much alcohol they pour down their own necks to be held in contempt. They give all alcohol a bad name.
  • Neo-prohibitionists ditto.
  • Better retail outlets, making more of an effort to stock a wider range of local beers.
  • Something to be done to stop Charlie Papazian and Roger Protz writing nonsense about beer.
  • The welcome increase of market share for good beer to continue
This last point is not wishful thinking. I was at a new year party last night (warning: anecdotal evidence alert!) and everyone was drinking wine or upmarket beer — Williams Bros, Sierra Nevada, La Chouffe, Krušovice — except a few art school hipsters with their Tennent's.

It seems to me that the pace of change in the beer scene even in the allegedly conservative UK is increasing and that there are changes in store for us in the next few years beyond what any of us imagine now. It's going to be a fun year.