Sunday, 31 July 2011

Bad news and good news from Germany

Photo: Frank Vincentz [GFDL (
or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
Brauerei Schwelm in Nordrhein-Westfalen is threatened with closure after administrators failed to renegotiate debt.

The brewery, in existence since 1830, was bought out from Veltins in 2000 but has been suffering from uneconomic rents for hired equipment, though the business is basically viable and the beer is popular locally.

Overnight the situation has deteriorated with over half of the brewery staff given notice and told not to bother turning up for work on Monday.

Also affected is the Schlegel brand from Bochum, which is contract brewed at Schwelm.

Unlike the administrator, the employees have not given up hope and are urgently seeking investors to secure the future of the business. @SchwelmerBrauer has the latest news.

Happier news from Munich, where after a period of uncertainty it has been confirmed that the Forschungsbrauerei in Perlach will re-open this month. The retirement of the owners caused a longer than usual winter break while a successor was sought. Now the Silbernagl family have taken over and – with the exception of a few tweaks to the menu – they're not going to change a thing. According to Blog ums Bier, whence I've nicked all the news on recent developments, the Pilsissimus is as good as ever, and will be served unfiltered in future.

It’s reassuring to know that the Forschung will still be there the next time I’m in Germany. I hope that Schwelmer is too.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A visit to The Kernel

There’s no denying that people like the romantic story of The Kernel: a homebrewer setting up shop in a foodie corner of the South Bank, and within a year winning widespread respect among beer connoisseurs, awards from fellow brewers and coverage in the national press, complete with the inevitable mention of the brewery’s location in a railway arch. You don’t get much more London than being underneath a slowly crumbling Victorian railway line in red brick; it gives the enterprise an immediate sense of place. Just south of Tower Bridge and round the corner from where Barclay Perkins and the hop factors of Southwark once did business, it’s immensely satisfying to drink a 19th century style London porter in the heart of the city where the stuff was invented. One can almost feel the ghostly presence of Dr Johnson — [Get on with it – Ed].

Be that as it may, it’s The Kernel’s beers that have cemented its reputation. “The brewery springs from the need to have more good beer”, is the refreshingly matter-of-fact mission statement, and the beers are similarly unpretentious: revivalist porters and stouts, pale ales loaded with Oregon and antipodean hops, simple beers done very well. London’s brewing heritage and New World influences meet here and combine; it’s much more exciting than just copying the Americans.

When I arrive on a fresh Friday morning, Toby greets me and shows me around the brewery. It’s bigger than the “brewing under a railway arch” trope leads one to believe; London has some pretty big railway arches. Most of the space is taken up with storage, though, and the brewing space itself is about the size of someone’s living room.

Evin appears and the first thing he does is check the progress of the beer in the fermenters. There are four round open fermenters, one square and one odd windowed affair resembling a bathysphere. All have a thick yeast head on them and smell fantastic. In particular I am rather tempted to climb into the square that contains the export stout, but I think better of it.

Then it’s onto brewing. Though The Kernel is known for its strong, hoppy pale beer and stout, we are brewing an amber ale of under 5% today, rather less typical, so we need a bit less malt than usual. This is absolutely fine by me, as I’ve volunteered to dig all the spent grain out of the mash tun again when we’ve finished.

There is no grain hopper in the brewery. No point in over-engineering these things, remarks Toby, and we use the simple method of sticking a hose into each sack of malt and turning it on to let the jet of hot water wash the grains into the mash tun. It works very well and the mash is pretty well mixed by the time we have added all the malt. The grist is pale, crystal and wheat.

We leave the mash to its own devices for an hour; there’s work to be done elsewhere. Over the road in another railway arch is a stack of empty pallets. They need to be loaded onto a van so that Chrigl can drive them back to their rightful owners. The teetering pile of wood is scary and I contemplate that if I have to die I’d probably rather drown in that vat of export stout than be crushed under a pile of timber. Eventually we manage to get the van loaded up and Chrigl drives off while Toby and I head back to the brewery to do the sparge.

When we get back across the road, a stack of trays of bottles marked LARRRGER is at the front of the brewery. There are nearly two thousand of them and they all need to be labelled by hand. It’s the “Imperial Märzen” brewed in collaboration with Dark Star. Its 9.1% leads Evin to joke that it’s a tribute to Tennent’s Super and should have been packaged in cans. Mark from Dark Star has also arrived with an essential bit of equipment – the rubber stamp with Dark Star’s logo, to be added to the house label on the bottles.

First, though, we stop for a taste of the beer. It’s dominated by the “traditional” (ahem) hops used – Centennial and Motueka, and not very larrrger-like at all, but it’s delicious. Then it’s on to polishing and labelling bottles. Packaging beer is a pain for small breweries whichever approach they take. At The Kernel, doing everything by hand means they spend one day a week brewing and three days packaging. Alternatively, you can have it contract bottled, squeezing your profit margin, or you can invest in a huge bottling line that’ll take years to pay for itself even if you can get finance for it in the first place. There are no easy answers.

Toby tends to the sparges and run-off. While we were away Evin has thrown some extra roast malt in the mash to darken it a little.

I get to weigh out the bittering hops. Toby notices the surprised expression on my face as he tells me a figure only slightly more than the amount I’d use for five gallons at home, and explains that this is just the first charge and a much greater quantity will be used at the end of the brew.

Back to the bottles. Sitting around labelling bottles and chatting about beer is not that bad really. Especially since we keep trying new beers. Mark has brought along some Thornbridge/Dark Star Coalition. With grilled cheese sandwiches one of Evin’s IPAs is perfect.

Time to dig out the mash tun. Fortunately the mash tun is so small that it only takes about twenty minutes to have it emptied and all the draff in two wheelie bins (Tip for all beer writers: make a point of visiting tiny breweries). Then back to bottling again.

Toby comes over with a sample jar of wort from today’s brew. It tastes full-bodied with lots of digestive-biscuity malt, not so bitter. The hop character will emerge as it ferments and dries out. The original gravity is 1.047. Amber Ale. It’s going to be nice. I could woffle about the renaissance of brewing in London but Evin would probably just say it’s another couple of barrels towards satisfying the need for more good beer.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

My new favourite London pub

Photo used by kind permission of
One of the things I like about the vast, bloated metropolis that we in the provinces refer to as “that London” is that there are always new things to discover. Not necessarily newly established things either, just things that I haven’t got around to before.

London readers may look away now, as the pubs I am going to mention are surely familiar to them (and if they’re not, they should be). This post is mostly about the Royal Oak in Borough. But I actually start my evening in the Lamb in Bloomsbury, having arranged to meet a friend there. The Lamb was one of the first London pubs I ever visited and it’s remained on my list ever since. It’s central, the beer is good and I like to take friends there, since they’re invariably impressed by the immaculate Victorian interior.

It’s the first time I’ve drunk Young’s Ordinary since the move to Bedfordshire and it’s still a pleasant pint. I’m fortunate too in bagging the last free table before the place fills up. As I approach the end of my pint with no sign of my friend, I get a message. Can’t make it to the Lamb, how about the Royal Oak? Well, why not?

The Royal Oak is utterly mobbed when we arrive, and rightly so, for it is one of those pubs with something of a time warp about it, where you immediately feel at home. Ancient interior, lots of painted wood and best of all, what appears to be a genuine social mix, not just suits, pensioners or beer geeks. Even the handpumps are fascinating, a design I’ve never seen before and, delightfully, no screw threads on the spouts, so that even should some madman wish to attach a sparkler, he would be unable to do it.We are still gawping at the surroundings halfway through our first pint.

Our first pint. Harvey’s Mild. Oh, the beer! The offering is simple: the beers once offered by every family brewery in the second half of the 20th century. Mild at 3.0%. Pale Ale at 3.5%. Best Bitter at 4.0%. All cask of course. There was a time when 4.0% was the strongest regular beer.  “Ooh, careful with that,” my friend jokes when I order a pint of Old Ale, rocket fuel at 4.3%.

Then there are the bottles. Nut Brown Ale, Sweet Stout, the styles of beer that were dying out even when Michael Jackson wrote about them in the 1970s. India Pale Ale, true to style at 3.2%.

We’re hungry so we each order a pie. It’s pricey — £11 for a pie? but it’s London, we say to ourselves. When the pies arrive, though, we are convinced. Huge portions. Side dishes of obviously freshly cooked vegetables, and mountains of chips. Pies filled with enormous chunks of meat: if a pie is ever worth over a tenner, it’s here. Later, we discover there’s a secret, cheaper menu; we had just ordered from the specials on the blackboard.

The beer is heavenly. It just disappears as we chat – Mild, Pale Ale, Sussex Best and back to Mild again. The ridiculously weak Mild has more flavour than many beers of twice the strength; albeit most of it comes from the Harvey’s house yeast and the hard, minerally water. An acquired taste but one which rewards the effort.

Many pints later, we stumble out into the night, happy in the way only an evening in a perfect pub can make you. You can keep your “craft beer” bars. Give me a pub. This pub.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Finching line

While other students have been enjoying the summer, the four Heriot-Watt undergraduates of Natural Selection Brewing have been hard at work on their project to devise a beer and bring it to market.

Since I last wrote about them in June, the beer, Finch, has been brewed and successfully sold in cask and bottle to a number of Edinburgh outlets. I went along to their launch party to taste the result. 

So how has it turned out? The aim was a strong, hoppy red ale. The cask version being drunk in the Guildford Arms last night surprised everyone, including the brewers, by showing much less hop character than expected. The rich, full character of the beer dominated, with a substantial bitterness. More than one person commented that it resembled a slightly cloying 80/– with American hops. At 6.5% it’s not a session beer, the levels of crystal malt becoming overwhelming by the second pint – it’s possibly not best suited to pub drinking at all.

For comparison, the bottle the brewing team gave to me to take away opens with only a light scoosh, and the beer pours a murky brown colour. It’s slightly lighter on the palate than the cask version, and the grapefruity notes of the hops are more apparent. Much better balanced between bitterness and hop aroma, but ultimately the toffee sweetness bludgeons everything else into submission.

Probably time didn’t allow for it, but perhaps this particular beer could have benefited from a few more generations of evolution before being released. However, it’s a creditable beer and I’ve drunk much worse from established brewers who don’t have the excuse of inexperience or brewing on unfamiliar kit.

As a one-off project, the students can now relax and congratulate themselves at having reached the end. Most brewing students would – rightly – be delighted to have their own beer on sale in pubs and off-licences so soon in their careers. To a real start-up brewery, of course, the launch party would just be the beginning of the hard work. We will surely be hearing from the Natural Selection boys again at some time in the future.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Mass-Market Brewers Attract Female Consumers By Making Less Shitty Beer

Sadly it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing this headline in the Morning Advertiser anytime soon.

I still think it’s a good idea. How about it guys? I’ll even waive my consultancy fee. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Pedalling towards a pint

Somehow beer and cycling just go together.

Perhaps it’s that beer always tastes best when you’re thirsty and you can convince yourself that you’ve earned it. Or the cycling helps burn off the beer calories. Although personally, having a bike makes getting about the city so much faster that I just go to the pub more often.

So there were a lot of reasons to have a cycling-based event during Beer Week. To recognise the cyclists who turned up at Market Gallery Pub last year and helped make it a success. A nod to Portland, Oregon, where cycling is almost as trendy as beer and brewpubs cater for bikes. Because it was a bank holiday and people want to get out into the countryside. To visit the Antonine Arms, an out-of-town pub that was keen to take part in Beer Week but which isn’t really accessible any other way.

But most of all, to give me an excuse to post my favourite video in the world ever. Watch the first part for context; the beer is in part two:

Here we can see the continued relevance of beer, as the chap at 1:12 sinks a delicious glass of what looks like dark mild. Observe, too, the glasses of bitter at 0:38 and 5:46. Pretty pale, not what you’d call brown, and at 0:28 there even appear to be two varieties, judging by the difference in colour (There is a prize for whomever can decipher the name of the brewery on the pub at 4:26, and if you feel like being a real smartarse, name both the pubs in the film and state their location).

But anyway. We met up in the west end, as you have to go up there to get onto the canal path. The canal once joined the Forth and the Clyde and was used for transporting freight, including beer of course. Now the towpath is popular with runners and cyclists who want a traffic-free journey to Bishopbriggs, Kirkintilloch, Falkirk.

As we left Glasgow to the north, the heavens opened and we all got soaked, but fortunately it cleared up again soon and by the time we passed Kirkintilloch we could discard our kagouls and let the sun slowly dry us out. If only there were a decent pub halfway along the route we would have stopped for a break, but there’s a Spoons and a riverside Tennent’s-n-cider house and that’s about it, so we kept on.

On arrival in Twechar we crowded into the bar to find a selection of Houston beers on sale. Now I think Houston beers get a bad rap; the hideously tacky pump clips and beer names like Top Totty and Helga’s Big Jugs surely contribute to that, but the beers (at least the ones I can bring myself to buy) are perfectly palatable. In good condition Killellan Bitter is a very nice beer with a subtle but satisfying smack of hops, and a pint of that went down very well indeed after a 12 mile cycle.

I was tempted to go for the infamous “coronary platter”, but in the end, like everyone else (I think) I had a burger with the chef’s real ale chutney – delicious stuff it was too. More Killellan and a look round at the dark wood walls and antique brewery mirrors as the sun streamed through the windows. I could have sat there all afternoon but our fellow cyclists had to head home again.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Why lager conquered Northern Germany

This anonymous English author has a simple explanation: because what they had before was crap.
Conservatism has many peculiar ways of displaying itself. In Berlin it is shown by drinking white beer, and ignoring the claims of the Bayerisch, which has almost entirely ousted that pernicious beverage from the market. For our part, we are not surprised a bit, for the beer in North Germany was really atrocious. During our residence there, we suffered from these atrocities in the shape of beer. First there was Brunswick Mumm—eugh! tasting for all the world like treacle and vinegar badly mixed: then came Schwarzbier, which you were flatteringly told was like English porter, and at which a pauper would turn up his nose; and last came white beer, which was just endurable, and that was all. Perhaps, though, the great fault was that you were served by men. After living for years in and around Bavaria, and listening with delight to the “Wos Schoffens” of the pretty beer girls, as plump and hearty as their barrels, it caused a sudden revulsion to be waited on by a male creature, who talked excruciatingly polite German that set your teeth on edge. But, we still maintain it, the white beer in itself and apart from the waiter, was a mockery, delusion and a snare. You took a heavy pull, and about a yard of froth adhered to your moustache, and you found that the pretentious Seidel was only half full. Perhaps, though, regard being had to the nature of the beverage, that was a mercy. Still, there are patriots in Berlin who stick to this stuff, when they can procure the delicious Salvator beer! It evidently emanates from the same feeling that made the women for a time drink that villainous acorn coffee, and give the difference towards the German fleet. The oak trees were not cut down to build it, and yet the ladies soon recovered from their folly. But the white beer houses are few and far between in Berlin, and they are already beginning to be regarded as antiquities. Ten years hence and guide-books will describe them with the same reverence as the Coliseum in Rome, or the Palace of the Doges in Venice. Ten years later there will be a case in the Berlin Museum containing the mysterious goblets, representing a “white or a half white” and the so called “cool blonde.” Yet, in our own knowledge, time was when a large class of deep thinkers and clever orators was known in Athens on the Spree by the name of the “white beer Philistines” and the brewers of that beverage were regarded by the thirsty populace as unapproachable Brahmins. Alas, sic transit even the glory of beer! Pale ale is destined to become the great mistress of the world. Imagine the Great Eastern chartered by an Alsopp solely to carry XXX to our pining brethren in the East! We really should not be surprised if the leviathan were eventually employed for that purpose; but, even then, the old argument may be applied—her untimely shipwreck would prove a national calamity!
Of course a stranger rarely puts an unhallowed foot in these few surviving white beer refuges. If a pedlar or a hurdy-gurdy boy dare to enter, the whole establishment takes up arms to repulse the invader. The guests are all respectable old gentlemen who have met together for years, and play their customary game of cards. But enough—perhaps too much—on so vulgar a subject: we only allude to it as a characteristic of social life in Berlin.
(Bentley’s Miscellany, London 1859)

One important point there. “The Bayerisch” — Bavarian beer, i.e. lager — had “almost entirely ousted” white beer by the 1860s.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Beer Week redux #2

Still catching up on these Beer Week posts. I needed an early night on Friday as it was up early on Saturday morning to go to the farmers’ market. Tapa organic had beer bread for sale. The stuff was in short supply as I only managed to try one of the two varieties they’d made. It was a tasty oatmeal loaf, a little crumbly and less dark than I expected porter bread to be. Sadly I have only seen pictures of the other bread, rye and red beer.

Then over to Peckham’s for the main event, one of the “beer festivals” they put on a couple of times a year. The structure is US-style rather than what we think of as a beer festival – you buy a ticket and each brewery or distributor has a table where they then pour you tasters ad lib.

The sneaky bit at these is that they don’t tell you which tables are staffed by the breweries and which aren’t. I spent a good five minutes telling one chap how great I thought his beers were, until it eventually transpired that he worked for Peckhams and knew less about the brewery than I did.

The last time I was at one of these I was very hungover and forcing myself to taste the beers in the interest of science. This year I was much more sensible.

Žatec beers were there, both the common svetlý ležák and a darker version. There was also Baronka from the same brewery, which judging by the cheap-looking label is meant to be the budget brand. I actually thought it somewhat better than the Žatec-branded pale, which you can tell is trying to be a gold standard beer but falls terribly short of the mark. The dark lager was far and away the best of the three. I didn’t know this at the time, but the brewery and their previous distributor Molson Coors have apparently parted company in the UK market, supposedly because they weren’t happy with progress. I don’t know who the brewery imagine is going to be able to pimp the stuff any more effectively here.

On the same table were some dumpy bottles from Wooden Hand Brewery; I don't remember much about those except that they were pretty poor. Barrhead's Kelburn were there at the next table with bottled Ca’Canny, a strange choice for May as it’s their winter seasonal, but hey ho. It was nice with loads of raisin flavour and I look forward to seeing it in pubs when the weather cools down again (in Glasgow, that means August).

I don't go to these event for ticks. But I do try to use them to get tastes of things that I wouldn't normally spend money on. Pacifico, for example, which tasted as expected of bugger all. Or AB:06. On principle I don’t buy BrewDog’s beer anymore, but I’ll still taste it if it’s on offer. It was a perfectly nice beer from the bottle but light years away from being worth the tenner they charge for it.

I skip Williams Bros’ table, not because I don't like their beer but because I do and hence already know their range inside out and back to front. New beers were in the pipeline but not ready. Strathaven Ales are here too; though I'm not bothered about most of their beers I do like the seasonal Summer Glow and find out that the citrussy aroma comes from orange peel as well as hops.

Lastly on Saturday was a women-only beer tasting, held at swish female-owned bar The Two Figs in the west end and moderated by the boss of WEST, Petra Wetzel. I wasn’t there, but I am assured it went very well indeed. The beers on offer were WEST Hefeweizen, Fyne Vital Spark, Williams Bros Fraoch, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil and Highland Orkney Porter – a deliberate choice to show off beers with radically different flavours and characters. We found that every beer was someone’s favourite and definitely disproved the “women only like fruity beer in a tacky glass” cliches. In fact, a quite impressive number of the ladies were going for the 9% Orkney Porter.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Younger’s No 3 is back …

I was surprised a while back to see Younger’s No 3 on sale in a Glasgow bar. Surprised because it was discontinued years ago. More surprised because it was in a bar which has Stewart Brewing’s No 3 as one of its regular beers. The Stewart beer is widely thought of as an imitation of, and excellent substitute for, the discontinued and quasi-legendary Younger’s product (though ask the brewery and they won’t admit it), so it was a perfect opportunity to taste both side by side. Brilliant!

Younger’s: Chocolate malt, some yeast character. Bit of dark sugar maybe, not sure. No fruit to speak of. Respectable bitterness, satisfying aftertaste. It was selling very well as it happens, a lot of people clearly remember it.

And the old-style pump clip too!
Stewart: Very similar actually, slightly fruitier and a little sweeter. Rich and chewy, not as dry.

There are a lot of mysteries here. Why did S&N discontinue this in the first place? Why have Heineken started brewing it again (presumably at the Caledonian)? Having decided to brew it again, why didn’t they tell anyone? Not sure but it’s probably something to do with the sub-contracting of the sales and marketing of the S&N “heritage” brands (McEwan’s & Younger’s) to the secretive Jygsaw Brands outfit. Perhaps we are just part of a bit of market research to see if the stuff sells?