Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Which giant macro brewer sucks the most?

Just for a bit of fun. Which of the global megacorporations that now control most of the beer market do you think is the most (or least) objectionable?

Like many beer lovers, I don't have much time for big brewers, and a few months ago I sat down and tried to work out which of them I despised the most. I wanted to list their good points and their bad points and then see which came out on top.

I couldn't do it.

Of course, most of the down sides are common to all of them. All have enthusiastically bought up and closed their smaller rivals. All like to create an air of authenticity and tradition for their products which sometimes involves economy with the truth. And most importantly, many of the most heavily promoted products are at best bland and at worst nasty.

But it was finding good points that was the tricky bit. Some were easier than others: Molson Coors got marked down for closing the Bass museum, but marked up again for sacking the people who had closed it, and for showing genuine interest in the brewing heritage they inherited from Bass – more than Bass ever did, at any rate.

Diageo will obviously suck more and more with each St. Patrick's Day that passes. Damned with faint praise, the solitary item in the "positives" column was "They still make Foreign Extra Stout". Heineken did worse than that, having points awarded on the grounds that at least they're not Scottish & Newcastle.

But the "they still make … x" argument became a millstone, chiefly because AB InBev now own a good chunk of relatively decent Belgian and German beers.

I've taken another approach. Indexing. Instead of totting up what they've done in the past, I'll track what they do in the future, the good and the bad.

To be fair, though, I am starting them all at 100. I will not include any historical crimes. Not even AB InBev's ridiculous new Stella Black announced just today. Clean slate as of now. We'll see the result in six months. Go!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Steel Coulson beers in 1954


Awash with light. It sounds like something from a photography article, but it describes Scotland in the 1950s; light being the low gravity beer drunk in pubs in vast quantities, equivalent to mild.

Steel Coulson had three draught beers: Edinburgh Ale, Brown Ale and P.X.A. Xtra? Edinburgh Ale and Brown Ale were both classed as 60/– at 1030 and P.X.A., a little stronger at 1034,was 70/–. Bizarrely, P 60/– retailed at a penny more in Scotland than in England.

Look how much more popular P 60/– is than the other draught beers – over 10000 barrels compared to just a couple of thousand. Makes you wonder why they bothered with the others really. Mind you, costing 4d more per pint, P.X.A. was 26% more expensive than Edinburgh Ale, but only 13% stronger. Perhaps that's why it didn't sell so well.

On the bottled side things look startlingly familiar. Little bottles of Export and Strong Ale and Sweet Stout. You still saw those on the shelves of pubs when I started drinking in the 1990s. And Elephant Pale Ale. What resemblance a nip bottle of 1.031 beer could possibly have to anything elephant-like, I do not know. Maybe you couldn't get drunk enough on them to forget things.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Adnams Spindrift

Adnams were nice enough to send me a bottle of their new Spindrift beer, which comes in a distinctive – some might say lurid – blue bottle with graphics that, while not really to my taste, certainly depart from the norm of British beer labelling.

People have argued that the blue bottle would allow the beer to get lightstruck. I don't notice any of that, but I did keep the beer in the fridge since I got it, and I think the obsession some people have with "skunking" is bogus anyway.

On opening the bottle, there are scents of perfumey flowers and sweeties; beyond that, the aroma is reminiscent – I don't know exactly why – of some of the lighter Belgian beers.

There's not much hop flavour – you almost have to hunt for it on your palate after swallowing – but there is vanilla, wood and mint and a very dry finish. I can't avoid the thought that someone has told the brewer "Make a beer that wine drinkers will like".

Perhaps they will, and if that's the aim it's a good attempt at a less "beery" beer. For me, though, it's too much of a halfway house, taking me out of my mild-and-bitter frame of reference and yet not quite different enough to be exciting. But it's easy drinking and I bet plenty of people will love it.

Opportunity

For those that can be bothered, the Caledonian Brewery is having a couple of "Meet the Brewery" events hosted by Wetherspoons in Glasgow and Edinburgh next week (see calendar in the sidebar). A chance to maybe use up those CAMRA vouchers and ask the brewery reps if they have any plans to sack the pipe band and spend the money on buying some bloody hops.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Scottish Real Ale Festival

The Scottish Real Ale Festival in Edinburgh is an odd beast. It's supposedly Scottish CAMRA's premier festival and awards the Champion Beer of Scotland, yet is dwarfed by the bigger Paisley Beer Festival and restricts itself to Scottish beer only. I'd never been before so wanted to give it a go.

Even having had my fill of Fyne Ales Jarl at the weekend, I couldn't resist a sneaky first pint and it was just as good as it had been at the brewery. The dust of the street washed from my throat, I paused for a quick discussion with CAMRA colleagues about ideas for how we can stifle innovation in British brewing in the immediate future. Nefarious plans made, it was back to the drinking.

I'm not too keen on whisky-matured beers in general because the whisky almost always overpowers the more subtle flavours of the beer. I'd rather have my whisky and beer in separate glasses. Having said that, I had been looking forward to trying Orkney Dark Island Reserve served cask-conditioned. Sadly, it was a complete mess. Hot alcohol, coffee, charcoal, astringent wood and overwhelming green-apple rawness. Maybe the bottled version is better.

Highland Sneaky Wee Orkney Stout was less than half the strength but much more enjoyable. Nice light-bodied black beer and had, unusually, a fair bit of English hop aroma in the finish. American stouts often have a strong hop finish, but using English hops for it was a new twist to me. While drinking it I noticed a lot of the same brewery's Island Hopping being poured, so I ordered that before it ran out. It's as pale as the Jarl but quite different in aroma; lots of citrussy hops and sulphur, a splendidly quenching beer with a magnificently dry, bitter finish.

Gothenburg/Fowler's from Prestonpans is a fascinating micro/brewpub drawing on the heritage of the onetime Fowler's brewery (closed by Bass in the 1960s). Prestonpans 80/– had toffee, roast grain, smoke and a little bit of butter. It tastes like someone's been reading the style guidelines for "Scottish Ale". Despite that, it's not bad and I could see myself drinking a couple of pints of this before I'd start screaming "Give me some hops!".

I'm starting to think there's a secret competition for who can dress up as the most stereotypical real-ale enthusiast. There's a chap here wearing a wooly jumper and an anorak, in June, and carrying a plastic bag.

Highland's Orkney IPA is a nice easy-drinking beer of the kind that just seems to disappear before you get round to writing about what it tastes like. Fowler's Gothenburg Porter is brilliant, light-bodied and sweetish with a prominent charcoal finish.

At this point I took a break from drinking and went for a wee walk in the Edinburgh sunshine. It's not too far from the Assembly Rooms to trendy Stockbridge and its pretty wine shops and delicatessens. The Stockbridge Tap is a lovely pub. Old brewery mirrors and a slightly more adventurous beer list than most pubs, alongside some scarily old and expensive whiskies. I had a half of Highland Orkney Blast which didn't impress; I found it flabby and too sweet, with a decent hop aroma but not enough bitterness to balance the syrupiness. Highland is a good brewery but I think several of their other beers, like the aforementioned Orkney IPA and Island Hopping, are much better. I made my way back to the festival — and was quite bemused to find that the same beer had been chosen as Champion Beer of Scotland in my absence. But having won the title three times in four years, Highland clearly have the knack for hitting the taste of the judging panel.

Islay Single Malt has a cute name, but wasn't very interesting. Deeside Talorchan, on the other hand, was spectacularly good — lovely, soft-tasting beer, chocolate and bacon, which is a much better combination than it sounds. It was nearly time for my train so I finished off with Strathaven Summer Glow. This appeared in my local a few months ago and I thought at the time it was staggeringly good. I hope Strathaven will make it a regular as it's streets ahead of their other beers. Here it had a nice, not too extreme bitterness and powerful aromas of tangerine and, unaccountably, shellfish.

I think that may have been a sign for me to give my palate a rest and go home, so I did, pondering on the train that despite the limitation to Scottish beer only, the brewing scene is now easily capable of providing a very impressive selection of beers.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Taboo

I'm off to the Scottish Real Ale Festival in Edinburgh today and looking forward to some nice beers. Orkney have Dark Island Reserve on cask which may be an exclusive.

I was also looking forward to trying West beers without extraneous CO2. Until I heard that the beer hasn't actually arrived. Boo.

Oddly, the beer list describes their Red and Dunkel as "German-style ales".

Seems the word lager is still taboo in some quarters.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Hops in the hills


Regular readers will know that Argyll's Fyne Ales is one of my favourite breweries. Everything they do seems to be excellent. And, for once, other people seem to agree with me with the beers winning multiple awards. So I was delighted to hear the announcement of a beer festival at the brewery, and made the trek up the West Highland Line when the weekend finally came.

I have nothing against the provincial town halls that most beer festivals seem to be held in; in fact some of them are rather nice, but they just can't compete with Argyll in summer. Stunning scenery all around the brewery and the beer tent set up in the brewery yard made for a delightful setting. Best of all, you don't get stewards at the entrance saying "Sorry mate, can't take your pint outside"!

As well as a good half dozen of their own beers, other brewers were represented, most prominently Oakham and Thornbridge. Both have a Fyne connection – brewer Wil Wood worked at Oakham previously, while Fyne Ales was Kelly Ryan's first job in the UK, if I've got my facts straight. Apparently Wil had also been nipping round the country picking up a few extra guest beers from lesser known breweries.

Pride of place in the middle of the bar, however, was given to a fake barrel containing a cask of Jarl, a new Fyne seasonal for summer. It's a beer in the same pale-and-hoppy vein that Wil helped make a trademark at Oakham and that's now fast becoming a trademark of Fyne Ales. More than that, it's made with the extremely fashionable new Citra hop variety. Hop merchants are rationing this hop and Fyne have only managed to get enough for another few brews, so if you see Jarl this summer, grab a pint as you may not get a second chance.

How does it taste? Well, it tastes pale and hoppy. It's a damn good beer but Citra is so over-hyped that any actual beer made with it will be underwhelming compared to the expectation. The dry hops someone left on the bar top were intensely bitter and orangey; I didn't pick orange up in the finished beer, though I did get flavours that I've tasted in Pilsner before (this is a good thing), and some lemon and lovely lager malt. If I'd thought of it I could have taken the chance to compare Jarl to Hurricane Jack and Avalanche directly. Direct comparisons, though, are difficult when you only have the one glass. I followed the first Jarl with a half of Avalanche, but that didn't seem its usual self at all, tasting rather biscuity.

Other beers I tried were Whim Ales' Schneeweiss wheat beer, which was disconcertingly clear and tasted of chlorine and coriander, and Thornbridge Pollards, a coffee milk stout. I do love a milk stout, yet I'd rather have had it without the coffee – coffee, like whisky, is a noble drink best enjoyed separately. Murmansk was also on, but I'm a softy and drinking 7.4% beer in the sunshine does my head in so I only had a little taste. Actually, I didn't do much scooping at all. There's no point when the host brewery's stuff is so good. I went back for several pints of Jarl and Highlander. Marvellous as the poppy beers are, I think Highlander may be the best of all. It's the kind of beer where you don't need tasting notes, you just say "Try this. You won't regret it." But you could say that about the entire range here. Which is just as well, because my notebook tells me I also had some Cairn Dhu and Innishail, for which I have no tasting notes. Scandalous, spending a festival just drinking beer and enjoying it … I can't wait for next year!

On my way home I was brought down to earth again with a bump when I dropped into a pub to wait for my train. With one of the finest real ale breweries in Scotland on their doorstep, they were serving Old Speckled Hen. After a semi-magical festival, it was a sad reminder of how desperately clueless so many publicans still are.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Poppy

A few years ago, at a beer festival, I made the error of describing something as "new wave real ale", drawing ridicule from other people at the bar. But the barman I was talking to knew what I was on about, which is the main thing. It was the kind of extra-pale bitter with American hops made by the likes of Oakham Ales. At the time I thought JHB with its intense, lemony hoppiness was a revelation.

There have always been straw-coloured bitters such as Boddington's, but this didn't stop CAMRA inventing a new category called Golden Ale to distinguish the new beers rapidly becoming more popular from old-fashioned brown bitter. CAMRA's categorisation body doesn't really seem to have got the point though, describing the style rather contemptously as a brewers' attempt to attract lager drinkers.

Now scooper extraordinaire (and now brewer) Gazza Prescott has gone one further and declared such beers should be known as Mid-Atlantic Pale Ales. Tandleman has stuck his oar in too.

I agree with almost everything Gazza (and Tandleman, for that matter) has written on the subject. Except for the name. Can you imagine going into a pub and saying "Hey mate, got any Mid-Atlantic Pale Ales on today?"

It already has a name. Pale and hoppy. Or, and this is the usage I would like to encourage, Poppy for short.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Beer Swap 2.0: what I really sent

I was late sending my Beer Swap this time. My excuse is that I was busy with Pub School and then spent a couple of weeks feeling rather under the weather (the two are not related, I don't think). But Mark has now posted his reviews of what I sent him, so here are my notes on them too.

Last time I didn't find it too easy to put a decent selection of beers together, which was down to poor availability of bottled beer. A lot of the smaller micros don't bottle, and those that do have trouble getting their beer into shops. Often, too, they don't choose to bottle what I think are their best offerings. Happily, there's been some progress in this area in just six months since the last Beer Swap. I can now buy bottles of Fyne, Strathaven and Tryst beers locally, which I couldn't last time, and I now have the problem of which beers to leave out rather than which to include.

Which would you rather get? A beer I think is outstanding, that you might have had before, that you might not think is so outstanding; or something merely good, and local to me, that there's no buzz about? I can't make up my mind which is better, so I went with my gut.

Two of the beers are the same as I sent last time, and I haven't purchased control bottles to revisit them, so you'll have to make do with what I thought of them in November:

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." If 80/– is a real style, which I'm not at all sure it is, this is one of the best there is.

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."

Traquair House Ale: Now that InBev have discontinued Fowler's Wee Heavy, this is one of the last remaining examples of a strong Scotch ale. Belhaven make one, but they refuse to sell it here, the weirdos.

Fyne Ales Avalanche: Regular readers will know that I like Fyne a lot. This is one of the reasons.

Also-rans:
Here are the ones I thought of sending, but didn't:

Tryst Raj IPA: I figured that Tryst beers, whose reputation is quickly spreading, will turn up soon enough at a beer festival near Mark; also some friends have had issues with the bottles being under- or over-carbonated so I'm a bit wary of posting them. Are those enough excuses so I can keep it for myself?

West St Mungo: I feel like I should be sending this — the brewery is a 15 minute bike ride from my flat, and everyone knows Glasgow is the spiritual home of British lager; but I know that Mark has had it before, and I don't really think it's at its best in the bottle.

Strathaven Claverhouse: This is a nice beer and pretty local (though nearer to my mum's house than to mine), but it's too similar to the 80/– and I don't want to send a bunch of clichéd sweet brown Scottish beer. I've not found Strathaven's beers terribly exciting in the past, but they did bring out a beer called Summer Glow recently which was really outstanding, absolutely excellent.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Dutch dilemma

When I signed up for World Cup Beer Sweepstake I thought, knowing my luck, that I would end up tasked with finding a beer from somewhere like Uruguay or North Korea to write about. I actually drew The Netherlands, which kind of gives me the opposite problem. There are loads and loads of Dutch beers and I need to decide which to choose.

The beer scene in the Netherlands has changed dramatically since the times that Tim Webb described thus: "Beer was Pils; Pils was Heineken or Amstel; Heineken and Amstel were the same company; take it or leave it."

And it seems cheating to just go down to Tesco and get some Grolsch or Oranjeboom, when other people will be scouring the local ethnic grocery stores, ordering online, calling in favours from friends living abroad or, who knows, crossing international borders to track down that elusive lager from Honduras.

On the other hand, Dutch pils is ~90% of the beer market so it's tempting to say, "this is what Dutch fans will be drinking, this it what I'm going to drink." On the other, other hand (I have three hands), I wouldn't even think of doing that if I'd drawn England or the USA. I'd much rather write about good beer.

I still haven't decided.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Arguments against sparklers (part 218)

I dropped into an unnamed pub (literally – the sign appears to have been taken down for refurbishment) the other day. It was a sunny day and the interior was pleasantly cool and quiet.

There were two beers on, one from Strathaven Ales and a Caledonian seasonal, Surf's Up. Like most of Caledonian's seasonals, it tastes pretty much the same as one of their other beers. Most of them are tweaked 80, but this one was slightly tweaked Deuchars.

The beer fobbed quite a bit coming out of the pump, causing the barmaid to complain about the condition of the beer.

"Better than having it too flat," quoth I.

"Oh, then you can always put the sparkler on and it gives it a nice head," says barmaid.

So there you go, in the minds of some pub staff, the sparkler is there to disguise flat beer.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010