Saturday, 25 June 2011

Natural Selection has intelligent designs on the beer market

Natural Selection Brewing is the name being used by a group of students at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh for an innovative practical project that involves them designing a new beer and bringing it to market in the real world. In a few weeks’ time the beer will be launched in selected Edinburgh outlets. I spoke to marketing manager Steven Kersley about the project.

Who are you and what is the project about?
We are a team of four: me, Steven from Oban, Scotland (sales and marketing); Damon Scott from Colorado, USA (brewer); Kevin Emms from Vancouver, Canada (team manager); and Colin Lymer from Texas, USA (brand designer/builder). We are four students completing our one year MSc projects at Heriot-Watt Uni.

This project is the first of its kind from the University: never before have students released a beer to the public. The idea came from Dr David Quain (ICBD professor) and Steve Stewart (Stewart Brewing). Both are ICBD graduates and were looking to give the students a new opportunity, and came up with the idea of giving the students first-hand experience in the industry.

Everything we are doing is off our own intuition.  Recipe, branding, marketing and launching: we have totally been given the reins on this one and we’re loving the experience and learning all the time.  From concept to launch we have had about three months, so if we pull it off and it’s successful it will be a great achievement.

Is this programme run every year? Is it the first time? Will it be happening again?
The project is the first of its kind, a completely new concept that hasn’t been done before.  The view is to make this an annual event for MSc students if we are successful, so there is a bit of pressure on us to nail this.

It’ll be easier for the guys who come after you, won’t it, because it’ll be a familiar idea – ah, it’s time for the student beer again ...
Yeah definitely, I think the view is that this year was a trial run so to speak. The originators will measure our success and have strongly hinted that our team is laying the foundations for the coming years. They’ll learn from this year and have a better idea of where things can be improved in the future. It’s a learning experience for Quain and Stewart too, but we believe that this will be a successful project, and so long may it continue. 

The programme seems to be focussed on giving you experience of running an entire business rather than just the brewing side. I take it that’s intentional?
You’re spot on here, of course the brewing part is the maker or breaker. We need a solid product to launch to the public.  However, as I said, everything we do is on us, from brand design to marketing our beer and then finally getting the sales out the door.

It should also be noted that many of us are inexperienced with regard to the non brewing side of things, so we have been thrown in at the deep end, and are being forced to think fast and learn quickly so that we can achieve our goals. I speak personally here as the marketing and sales guy: I love chatting to folk and building rapport with folk but translating that to sales and marketing has been challenging, I’m Scottish but this is my first year in Edinburgh. I’ve come to know a few good bars but we’re trying to sell 15 casks and 3000 bottles – this is a big challenge and I have very few contacts, so a big part of my job has been hitting the streets and building relationships with bar staff and off-licence owners.  This is the opposite of Damon, who is tweaking his recipe and concentrating on the beer.
Colin, our brand god, is completely focused on labels for our bottles and also flyers and posters. We all help out in the brewery when we put on a test batch (there have been three), which is great, but our jobs are completely different and cover all aspects of the business.  Kevin is team manager and he oversees our work and keeps us on target with regard to timelines and such.

So all the marketing is solely in your hands, no support from Stewart’s or Heriot-Watt? It’s not as easy as it looks on Morrissey Fox’s TV programme, is it, where the two guys make some homebrew in their shed and a week later Tesco have agreed to list it ...

The marketing is solely in my hands. I’ve had a few tips from Stewart with regard to how to plan ahead, getting everything on paper so you have a written outline and a clear structure, but as for marketing our beer and getting it known, that’s solely my job. It’s been tricky being new to the city and not having any contacts but on the plus side, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people and the contacts I am making have been very receptive so far and are keen to hear about what we’re doing.  We do have a budget that we will make use of, but for now I’m trying to network by using Facebook, Twitter and by getting in direct contact with people.  Oh and it certainly isn’t as easy as Morrissey’s show! We’re having to work a bit harder to secure sales but cask sales are moving nicely and case sales will be on the way soon too.

Will the brewing be equally hands-on and left to your own devices? Is it a case of “here are the keys guys, let me know when you’re finished?”
The brewing will be also hands-on. At the pilot brewery at Heriot-Watt we have had almost free reign; we’ve been able to operate in the brewery as we like but under a little supervision. At Stewart’s we will be brewing with head brewer Ian, simply because we don’t know their brewery that well and obviously Steve can’t take the risk of something going wrong and neither can we. It’s a one-off brew so has to be done right, and so Ian will be working with us to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Did you do any market research or just decide to brew a beer you liked?
We did a fair amount of research. We asked 200 people from all kinds of different bars in Edinburgh, asking males, females, young and old.  I tried to get a feel for what Edinburgh was drinking and what exactly the market was wanting.  We did have a fair idea of what results this would yield, simply because the American craft scene is buzzing at the minute and those styles of beer are really getting popular over here.  The research supported this, with a lot of folk interested in hopped beers whilst many still liked the traditional malty characters that have been traditional in Scotland.  We also wanted to do our own thing so we came up with a nice compromise.  Do what we want but just be sure the market won’t freak out.

What direction do you think the Scottish beer market is going?
The Scottish market is interesting at the minute, talking from experience of only really the Edinburgh market. From our market research, folk are really willing to try new beers.  Our market research showed that the majority of people are trying up to 7 different beers a month and with edgy brewers such as BrewDog, Tempest and even the more traditional breweries getting a little adventurous, it shows that the market is really opening up.  Hoppier beers are enjoying a big surge and becoming very popular.

Edinburgh seems to be the big focus for brewers, and I think if they can establish themselves in the Edinburgh market then you’ll find they’ll have enough revenue to push their product further afield, which would be great.  Of course Tennents, Carling, Fosters etc. are going to sit at the top of the tree, but I think what will happen as the smaller breweries build their brand e.g Stewart’s, Black Isle, Fyne Ales (when they move out of their barn) etc., they could really command a decent wedge of the market.  In the coming years people are going to become much more educated about beer in Scotland, and that will grow the craft industry nicely.

Bringing this back to our project I believe this is why our project can be a big success. Edinburgh folk are loving the amount of different beers that are available to them at the moment, and are keen to try new brands and styles. This plays into our hands and we can really push the boat and see how folk respond.

So what is the beer going to be like and what will it be called? I have deduced from the photos you’ve been posting on Facebook that it’s American-inspired, all those Chinook and Cascade and crystal malt ...
Our company name is Natural Selection Brewing and the beer will be called Finch.  The story behind this is that the team members have come from a diverse background, and when bringing this beer to life we had ideas from everyone, and so it really evolved into what we have now, which is a Red Ale, and we will market it as a ‘Robust Red Ale’ at 6.5%, which we know is strong, but we’ve tasted a couple of the test batches and it is very well balanced.

Our brewer, Damon Scott, is from Colorado; therefore, the beer is inspired by Odell’s Red Ale, Victory Hop Devil, Deschutes Green Lakes Organic Ale, SKA Decadent IPA and similar well-hopped, well-balanced beers. Finch is noticeably malty and deep red in colour. Amarillo hops make up the flavour, aroma and dry hop additions, providing a spicy, floral and citrus complement to the caramel/toffee-like flavour from the UK malts. Nottingham yeast adds a unique fruity character that suits this beer perfectly. We believe a strong beer (~ 6.5% ABV) can be well balanced, and Finch aims to prove just that.

What does Finch refer to?
Finch: this name came around after a bit of consideration from Colin, our brand designer.  He wanted to tie in the beer name to the company name. The Charles Darwin link to Edinburgh is well known when he studied here, and as I said, the beer style choice really evolved from all our brainstorming, again a play on natural selection. Also, as we only use natural ingredients, that also fits well.  Furthermore it was a bit cheeky calling our company natural selection but we wanted to get noticed. Finch is kind of short and punchy, it’s not a mouthful, and it ties in nicely with Natural Selection Brewing.
The graphic design has a kind of hippy/California feel to me, reminiscent of US microbrewers in the 1970s and 80s – intentional?
It’s kind of an art nouveau style that you don't really see anymore but it was a deliberate style choice.  I don't believe we had the 70s–80s style in mind when it was designed but I think the final design was chosen simply because there's not really anything like it on the market (in Scotland at least), and for a small one-off release we wanted to be a bit bold and stand out from the crowd. Drawing folk in with a unique label design was always part of the plan – it may not be to everyone's taste but you are going to notice it on a shelf.

And where will we be able to buy it? What’s it like trying to get it to market?
The beer will be launched around the 20th of July – at present I’m finalising cask sales, also off-licences in Edinburgh, [at this point Steven names a few off-licences but I’m not allowed to mention them until the deals are done]. Also we’re trying something very different: 80 cases have been assigned to internet sales. We’re going to try and reach the maximum amount of folk possible, and to do that we want it available online. We will have links to a separate sales page on Stewart’s website which will allow folk to purchase online. Our hope is also to get some folk in the states interested, we’ll be drawing on the yanks on our team for that!

The market has been very receptive so far. You find in this industry that folk are really sound and will love to help, so I’ve not been told to use the door on any occasion. And if a bar can’t help they’ll usually recommend me someone who would be interested. The market is very close knit and everyone knows everyone, so you can build up a nice network with a lot of people – it’s great.

Thanks for the interview and good luck!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The pub with no beer … well, the pub with no pub, actually

Some headlines just write themselves. At least, they write themselves for the story you start off intending to write. I had this post planned out in my head. But it's not going to turn out the way I imagined it.

The Mitre Bar in Glasgow was a classic pub: tiny, cosy and popular. It was full if there were half a dozen customers, and it never seemed to have the 60/– ale that the Good Beer Guide claimed it sold, but it was such a charming place that that didn’t seem to matter.

I was lucky enough to drink there a few times when I was at university. Just a few years later it closed, ostensibly because the building had become dangerous; in reality because it was in the way of a planned Selfridges store. Ironically the retail development hit the rocks of the credit crunch and has been postponed, probably for ever.

So I was delighted to hear that the interior of the Mitre Bar had been saved and would be the centre of an exhibit at the new Riverside Museum at the Clyde harbour, which opened this week. There is a street scene building on the popularity of the original at the old Transport Museum, featuring shops, a Glaswegian-Italian cafe ... and a pub, “The Mitre”.

Except it's not The Mitre at all. The original signage is there on the outside, but you go into the “pub” and it's just a generic mock-up of a bar. It's not even the same shape as The Mitre and doesn't have its furnishings - notably the comfy leather benches are missing. I think parts of the back bar are original; the bar counter on the other hand is freshly stained and obviously brand new. Some old beer and whisky bottles are dotted about, and a row of tall founts stand looking lonely behind the bar, but it's no use. Not what we had been led to believe was going to be presented. “The Mitre Bar has also been removed – lock stock and barrel – from its location in the Merchant City”, the BBC announced shortly before the museum opened. Well, where is it then? It's not in here. Pretending that this is the Mitre is a falsification.

A great disappointment. I was going to complain about something else entirely, namely that paranoid anti-drink hysteria at the city council and its associated quangos mean that this exhibit will never serve a drop of actual beer. And I was going to ask why the museum didn't invite the last licensee of the Mitre, Gerry Febers (who is still in the trade, running the Beer Cafe in the Merchant City), along to get his picture taken for the press? At least I know the answer to that one now: because he wouldn't recognise the place. What a crying shame.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

SRAF: the reckoning

The Scottish Real Ale Festival has now been and gone and everyone else has written up their impressions of it. I thought it was great -- with some reservations.

On the downside, most of the beer was far too warm. This isn’t just a personal preference: physics means that warm beer also goes flat quicker. CAMRA is fighting against the combination of June weather and a less than optimal venue and in this particular case they lost.

The organisers seriously underestimated the number of people who would turn up for the festival. I wasn’t there on Friday but reports described the evening session as “carnage” and the entire festival had to close its doors early on Saturday as there was no beer left, despite emergency deliveries from Stewart Brewing. This is unfortunate, especially for those who could only make it on Saturday, but it shows the astonishing growth in popularity of real ale. The festival is a victim of its own success. And it’s encouraging that the Edinburgh Evening News article is broadly positive and only mentions the beardy sandals stereotype in order to debunk it, since it’s, judging by the attendance on Thursday, just not true any more.

One person complained the beer list was boring. I don’t agree; I think it was more interesting than in previous years. I certainly found enough to keep me busy from the 140+ beers available. Let’s face it, a dozen halves is enough for most of us and there were definitely more than that that I wanted to try.

On to the beers. Burnside is a brewery from Aberdeenshire I hadn’t encountered before. Their Black Katz Mild (3.6%) had a lot of interesting flavours: chocolate, wood, vanilla, substantial bitterness, but was thin-bodied. Belhaven IPA (3.8%) next: better than Greene King’s sorry effort but only just. Fruity, green, too warm, not bitter enough, complete crap. I’m starting to think that Greene King are deliberately making Belhaven’s beers as bad as possible in the hope that nobody will complain when they close the place.

DemonBrew is the new name for the beers brewed at the Gothenburg in Prestonpans. Davie Whyte has taken over the brewing after the sad death of Roddy Beveridge last year. Roddy made a very charcoaly Gothenburg Porter with heaps of roast barley character. Davie’s version is called Demon Black (4.4%) and is more subdued and chocolatey, with a slight acidity.

The beers from Tempest were the ones I was keenest to try. Everyone who’s drunk them raves about them and the couple of pints I’d had previously had been spectacular. Not at all bad for a one-man brewery that’s been going for less than a year. RyePA (5.5%) is very much in the American vein: perfumey, woody and resiny. Very true to style, slightly more sweet and not bitter enough for my palate which is also my complaint about most US examples. I rather prefer Emanation Pale Ale (4.5%), which to me defines “American Bitter”, if such a thing exists. More bitter and quaffable than RyePA, though both are excellent. Best of all though is Elemental Porter (5.1%), superbly balanced with dark, black malt and a touch of smokiness. Tempest actually had six beers on the list but only three were delivered as the brewer apparently didn’t think the others were up to scratch. A praiseworthy attitude.

Tinpot from Bridge of Allan is making some of the most experimental beers in Scotland at the moment. I went for Blueberry Lager (3.7%), but sadly it was dreadful. Foul sulphury lager yeast flavours mix with tart fruit and the result is unpleasant. I should have had Beetroot and Black Pepper Pot instead which was interesting when I had it last year, and people said this batch was excellent too.

Deeside is another north-eastern brewery whose beers never make it to Glasgow. I loved their Talorcan sweet stout (4.5%) at this festival last year and wanted to try it again. Sweet, bitter and roasty all at the same time, I didn’t think it was quite as good as last year, but still very nice.

My next beer was a real stinker and I should have known better than to try it. It was terrible last year but I thought I’d give Orkney Dark Island Reserve (10%) a second chance. It is much acclaimed in the bottle (as it ought to be given it retails for £15 a pop) and it should be something special to see it in cask. Unfortunately it’s far too young, too oaky and just awful. Guys, do yourselves a favour and stop doing this. Or get Harviestoun to show you how to do it better. Whatever.

Stewart Brewing was well represented, as you’d expect from a local brewer. I didn’t get around to tasting their single-hop trial beers, but I did have their 40th Birthday Beer (4.0%), brewed in celebration of both the 40th anniversary of CAMRA and the 40th birthday of brewery boss Steve Stewart. It’s pretty nice, chewy, unchallenging and relaxing and if you think those are bad things in a beer you’re mad.

A legendary Scottish brewer (more legendary in the US than in Scotland it must be said) whose beers are rarely seen in cask is Traquair House. They had sent one beer, Stuart Ale (4.5%). Tasting mostly of toffee on toast, it's too sweet for me. I need to balance it with some hops from the old stalwart Tryst Raj IPA (5.5%). This is suffering from the heat and has a sweet aroma, full-bodied, grainy weetabix-type flavours and a bitter finish. And with that I had to leave.

The final controversy of this controversial festival was the result of the Champion Beer of Scotland award. After SIBA had awarded the top prize to Fyne Ales’ Jarl, a decision understandable to everyone, it was something of a surprise to hear the top three places go to Isle of Skye, Cairngorm and Houston. I don’t think any of the prize-winning beers are bad, but they surely don’t represent the pinnacle of what is being made in Scotland these days. As I’m not particularly interested in awards anyway, I am not especially bothered but it does seem that the selection process could do with an overhaul. Al has some ideas at his new blog that I don’t agree with at all, but I’m happy to leave the discussion to those who care about it. Loads of terrible beers regularly win awards. They mean nothing to me.

On balance though, apart from the heat, this was a good showcase of Scottish brewing. Most of these breweries didn’t exist twenty years ago — hell, a good number of them didn’t exist two years ago. When I recall that when I started drinking real ale we were happy to find Theakston’s XB or Caledonian 70/– on sale in a pub, I’m reminded how far we have come.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Real Ale Festival

The vanguard of the beer revolution will assemble in Edinburgh over the next few days, as CAMRA and SIBA put on the 2011 Scottish Real Ale Festival. Over 140 beers from Scotland’s top breweries will be available.

The variety continues to increase year on year with pale’n’oppy and porter taking their place alongside brown bitter. Suits me as those are precisely the types of beer I like to drink. 18 Scottish-brewed varieties of porter and stout are on the list; not bad for a genre that was practically extinct north of the border ten or fifteen years ago.

One of our most promising new breweries, Tempest from Kelso, is represented with three beers and advance reports suggest their RyePA (groan) is one of the best beers at the festival. What I’ve had of theirs, porter and lager on trips to Edinburgh (unfortunately, as far as I know not a single cask has yet ever made it to Glasgow) has been very impressive so I’m looking forward to trying all three.

It’s also good to have a chance to drink the beers of superb breweries from the North East of Scotland: Burnside and Deeside. Others I’m keen to try include the latest from the ever-experimental Tinpot, the new IPA and Mild from Knops and Luckie respectively, and a rarely seen draught Traquair beer. This is a great time to be a beer drinker in Scotland.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Linger on those pale (beers under) blue skies

Although it's only the second year, Fyne Ales' summer festival is already a firm fixture in the Scottish beer drinkers' calendar. The formula is simple: great beer in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings.

It looks remoter than it is. In fact it's only just over an hour on the bus from Glasgow. A couple of people even cycle up. I'm not that hardcore and the hike of just under a mile from the bus stop to the brewery is enough for me. My timing is perfect and I have just enough time to put my tent up before the bar opens.

Jarl was launched at this festival last year and went on to become a minor cult, enough so that it was upgraded from a seasonal to a regular beer. It was one of the first Citra beers on the market and was followed by a rash of similar ales as brewers realised that Citra beers are pretty much guaranteed to succeed.

So everyone was waiting to taste this year's seasonal – well, I was, anyway. Outdoing Jarl is a formidable challenge to any brewer and I wasn't convinced it could be done.

The new beer is called Fiddler's Gold and is 4.3%. I like it, not everyone did, but even though both are pale'n'oppy it's a quite different drinking experience from Jarl. It has none of the citrussy notes. What it has is intense, medicinal bitterness. Clean and vaguely lagery, it uses a new hop, Delta (bred from Cascade and Fuggles) and Perle, which is possibly where the lageriness comes from.

Did I mention pale'n'oppy? This must be the top pale'n'oppy festival line-up in Scotland. Marble, Hawkshead, Thornbridge, Otley, Moor, Steel City, Oakham and more. When I comment on this, head brewer Wil shrugs and says "I just bought beer from my mates", which is as good a way of choosing beers as some others I can think of. There are dark beers as well but the straw-coloured session beers definitely predominate.

My next scoop is one from the ultimate scooper brewing company, Steel City. Riot in Paradise has a lot of yeasty flavour and doesn't taste anything like the claimed 100 IBU. Good but not outstanding. Quick halves of Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout and Hawkshead Windermere Pale don't quite live up to my expectations of them, based on memory in the first case and other people's opinions in the second, though both are good.

Should I take the brewery tour? I'd already been round it last year, and it's not a big place. What's changed since then? Three new fermenters? OK, I'll go and look at fermenters then; that's always fun (I am quite serious, I do really like seeing fermenters, especially when they're full of beer).

Wil is leading the tour and it draws a substantial crowd; about 30 people are crowded round the mash tun as he explains the brewing process. Every time I am here it amazes me that such stunning beers come out of this tiny brewhouse – there literally isn't room to swing a cat, at least not without it hitting the brew kettle. The set-up is not unusual: malt comes down a pipe from a grist case mounted in the ceiling into the mash tun. If you want to know the exact mash temperature and boil times you'll have to go and take the tour yourself. Most of the beers have a little wheat in them for head retention purposes. Hops are all whole and the aroma addition is 5 minutes before the end of the boil.

Then it's into the cold room where the tall fermenters dominate. It smells lovely. All that beer … Yeast health is a priority here, explains Wil, since they are operating at capacity and if the beer isn't ready to cask he doesn't have a fermenter to put the next brew in.

There's a treat for visitors on the tour – a cask of two-year-old Benleva IPA (5.7%) is set up. It's smooth, mellow and oily. Actually, there are two treats, because there's also some Alchemy X111 from Thornbridge Hall, an American brown ale which is dry and roasty. So yes, the tour was a good idea.

Back outside the sun is shining and someone is playing Johnny B. Goode on the fiddle (it's better than it sounds). Some of the local lads have discovered Oakham Attila, because it's the strongest beer at the festival. Uh-oh. Me, I've moved on to Thornbridge Evenlode; like coffee liqueur chocolates in liquid form. Marble No 3 Pale Ale is GOOD and Thornbridge Sequoia isn't really, though not bad as such, just not to my taste, too oxo-cubey).

Earlier in the day one might have questioned the wisdom of having Fyne's 6.8% Sublime Stout and Thornbridge's 7.7% St Petersburg at a festival in the sunshine. I recall avoiding them last year for fear of falling over. Now, as the temperature plummets, we move on to these and gather round the bonfire in an attempt to keep warm. Drinking Sublime Stout by firelight while hippy girls sing California Dreamin' in the distance isn't the worst way to end an evening, and as I settle down in my tent I chance upon a passage in the new book from Charles Bamforth: "beer is never better than when drunk close to the brewery". Charlie's right, I think.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Gravity Book was right, I was wrong

Do not doubt the Gravity Book. That should be the lesson. Or, more generally applicable, don’t assume that because something is the case now, it was necessarily so in the past.

As detailed in this post on Ron’s blog, the Whitbread Gravity Book states that the two best-known brands of Scotch Ale for the Belgian market in the 1950s, Gordon Scotch and Gordon Xmas (still available today), were brewed by George Younger in Alloa. This struck me as odd because one thing we did know was that these brands, as far back as anyone was aware, had been brewed by McEwan/Younger/Scottish Brewers in Edinburgh.

Would Whitbread have got their Youngers mixed up? It didn’t seem very likely, but we couldn’t think of any other explanation. Back then brewers didn’t contract brew for each other willy-nilly and sell brands to each other like they do today, as far as we knew.

Dyranian provided proof that the Gravity Book was right, in the shape of neck labels clearly stating that the beer was brewed by George Younger in Alloa. He also offered a more plausible explanation: After George Younger closed in the early 60s, the importers John Martin were left with a successful brand on their hands with nobody to brew it. So presumably they went in search of another brewer, and found McEwan’s/Scottish Brewers in Edinburgh.

A memoir of retired McEwan’s employees in the Scottish Brewing Archive, which I’ve quoted before, states: “Prior to Gordons Scotch Ales being made for Belgium after the relationship with Clark Doull McEwans had exported E/2B of 1088 gravity as Scotch Ale.”

That seems unambiguous. McEwan's had been exporting E/2B as Scotch Ale, and then started making Gordon Scotch Ale. Clark Doull appears to have been a prominent figure in the brewing industry in the 40s and 50s, but what exactly his relationship with McEwan’s was, or what bearing it had on the Belgian trade, I do not know.

Indeed McEwan Scotch Ale and Gordon Scotch Ale both appear in the Gravity Book during the same period. McEwan’s was slightly lower in gravity – 1.088 as opposed to Geo. Younger’s 1.090 — but made up for it by attenuating down to 1.020 as opposed to 1.029. Another point of interest is that both George Younger and McEwan were also brewing a Strong Ale for the home market a good 10 points lower in gravity than what they were exporting to Belgium as Scotch Ale.

Why the contract didn’t just stay with Northern Breweries, the group which took over George Younger and itself subsequently disappeared into Bass/Tennent Caledonian, is the second part of the mystery. Sweetheart Stout, the other famous George Younger brand, of course ended up with Tennent’s and is still just about hanging on today, with George Younger’s name still on the can. Perhaps they were short of capacity, or weren’t interested in the business. McEwan’s made Gordon Scotch for another forty years or so until that brewery also closed, so maybe passing up the contract wasn’t the shrewdest decision.

Many thanks to Dyranian for providing the missing link.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Beer Week redux #1

Sorry about the orange juice. You try setting up a picture at the
bar of a Spoons on a Friday night.
After enjoying the beer menu the evening before, the first night of Beer Week proper was pretty low-key. We started at WEST on Glasgow Green for a couple of glasses of their special dark lager, less alcoholic and roasty than their standard dunkel. It grows on you. Then back into the city centre. The Counting House, the vast cavernous Wetherspoons on George Square, was hosting a meet-the-brewer with Stewart Brewing. Stewarts are an interesting brewery, standing with one foot in the trad Edinburgh eighty-bob-supping milieu and simultaneously dipping its toes in the coconut porter and wheat beer pool [Please don't use such tortured metaphors again - Ed]. On this occasion the bustle of a Friday night in Wetherspoons was overwhelming and I'm not sure most people in the pub realised the brewery stall was there. Oh well.

Then round the corner to the Pot Still to see how their Cask King competition was progressing. The Pot Still, as the name implies, is mainly a specialist whisky pub (there are fewer of these in Scotland than you might imagine) but has sold real ale for as long as I can remember. Back then it was McEwan's 80/– and more recently Caledonian. More recently still they've started upping their game and getting in beers that are a bit more exciting. The idea of Cask King was to get a few guest beers in the pub over the course of the week, and let the punters vote on which should stay as a regular. We didn't know this at the time, of course, but Fyne Ales’ Jarl eventually emerged as the winner, which was not terribly surprising to its dedicated fans.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Beer night at Gusto & Relish

There's a little café around the corner from my flat. Not a greasy spoon; the modern, airy type of café where they've heard of salads. To look at it you'd suspect it was just another café of the type you see in every city, where you can get a respectable cup of coffee and possibly a sandwich that wasn't made in a factory.

This café is a little different in that it's the only place in Glasgow I know of where they make their own sausages and bacon. I approached the owner Iain with the idea that he could perhaps make some beer-brined bacon like that I had recently heard about on a radio programme. Bad idea, Iain explained; the beer was good food for spoilage organisms on the bacon.

But fresh sausages would work well! And he would make them the centre of a beer-themed supper club. So Iain went off to develop some recipes and came up with an impressive-looking menu.

French onion and pale ale soup with Gruyere crouton | WEST beer battered monkfish cheeks with minty mushy peas and tartare sauce | chicken liver pate with beer sourdough toast

Free-range chicken in a brick cooked with Jarl ale | Trio of sausages (pork, amber ale and honey; beef, stout and mustard; venison, cranberry and fruit beer)
both served with creamy mash potato | Risotto of wild mushrooms and dark ale

Sticky Stag pudding with beer butterscotch sauce | Chocolate stout cake with hot chocolate beer sauce | both served with ice cream

The evening approached and we rolled up to the cafe to find guests arriving. The one thing that struck me as odd was how many of our fellow diners had brought wine with them. More fool they! We had a mish-mash of things we'd brought along (the café has no license so diners can choose what they wish to drink).

Worthington Celebration Shield, an 8% special, made a good aperitif. It was somewhat lively and took some cajoling into our glasses (there have been reports of bottles exploding), with some of it ending up on the table top. It’s lovely and quite different to anything I've had before: strong, but dry and minerally as a Pale Ale should be with no syrupiness. There is a slight alcohol note, but pleasantly reminiscent of grappa.

A good match for posh fish and mushy peas. Peas tasting deliciously fresh and the tartare sauce so redolent of dill that they almost overshadow the succulent fish in light batter.

Pork sausages were lean and juicy. The beef sausages were, in one sense, too good; they were too lean to hold together well and went a bit crumbly. Venison was my favourite, surprisingly enough as I'm usually all about the holy animal of Germany. All the sausages had a moreish quality and the beer wasn’t apparent; it was just working in the background making you think “This is a damn good sausage”.

One of us had to forego the sausages and try chicken in Jarl. It was really good. I had feared Jarl would be too bitter to make a nice sauce, but the sauce was deliciously light with a hint of fruitiness.

I was hoping to enjoy some Kernel Export Stout with the pudding: chocolate stout cake. This is a heavy, flavoursome stout. But even it didn't stand up to the burnt, intense chocolatiness of the cake. A pity as both were superb tasted alone.

It would be somewhat snobbish to say that Iain is wasted cooking in a café, so instead I’ll say the cooking was as good as I’d expect anywhere. Now I'm going to steal the chocolate cake recipe and try it with an imperial stout.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Pop Up Pints at #gbw11

Where to start? I've been out drinking every night since last Thursday and it's been a blast. Now to get it all blogged. Just dive in, I suppose.

Pop Up Pints is an event that nearly drove me mad. It was conceived to be a key event of Beer Week, where homebrewers could present their beers to the general public. The brewers get feedback, the punters get to taste (hopefully) interesting beers and learn that you don't need to be a professional to make good beer.

As a venue, brand new indie bar Heavenly stepped in. I think they saw a connection between the DIY music scene they come from and what Beer Week was trying to do. The bar manager is also keen on interesting beer, so it could develop into a café with a serious beer offering too, which is a nice prospect.

Brewers were able to set up in the DJ booth, which was great because it was like being behind the bar … without actually being behind the bar, so not getting in the way of the people working behind the bar.

Quite unexpectedly, there was a mad rush for free beer.

The first half hour was pretty hectic as everyone wanted to try different beers, but as we were doing our best to avoid sediment by decanting the bottle-conditioned beers into pint glasses, then into halves, it was more a case of filling glasses from whichever bottle had just been opened.

Six beers were being served: Zombie Creeping Pale, Crocodile Fat Tail, Porter, Mint Beer, Bobcade and Caledonian Dark Ale.

The name of the last is of course a riff on the Cascadian Dark Ale, reflected in the label:

Since Beer Week grew out of Portland artist Eric Steen’s Glasgow Beer and Pub Project last year, it was nice to have a beer there with a Portland connection – especially since Eric designed the label for it. All the other beers had custom labels specially designed by volunteer graphic artists and illustrators too.

I’m envious of Portland. It’s unfair to measure Glasgow against the capital of American craft beer, but I like to think there is potential to close the gap a little. Portland, around the same size as Glasgow, has twenty-six breweries. We have just three in Glasgow proper … but encouragingly, people who work at all three came to taste the beer made by the amateurs!

Everyone seemed to have a good time and we gave out around 45 litres of beer.

I would have liked to hear more feedback on the beers, but I was just too busy on the night. What I did manage to hear was very positive, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

One comment I never, ever, get tired of hearing, though, is: “I don’t usually like beer, but I like this!” It makes all the effort worthwhile.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Should CAMRA embrace Keg 2.0?

I would comment on the latest rash of yay-for-keg blogs, but I decided to post this video instead. It is less irritating and repetitive.

Glasgow Beer Week update

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Photos from Beer Week, a set on Flickr.

Still too busy with Glasgow Beer Week to blog about it, but here are a few photos of the things that have been going on so far.