Saturday, 30 June 2012

When strong meant 3.9%

Here is an advert from the Glasgow Evening Times of December 26, 1957.

“Mackeson is a strong stout.” In 1957 Mackeson was 3.9% abv. It seems as ludicrous as back in the 1980s when the likes of Red Stripe at 4.7% used to be marketed as “Strong Lager”. It was only strong in comparison to the watery “standard lager” pub drinkers were used to, such as the unlamented 3.0% version of Heineken.Bu

But even at 3.9%, Mackeson actually was stronger than most beer drunk in Britain at the time. This 1971 exchange from Hansard, prompted by the Sunday Mirror’s notorious exposé of the gravities of widely available beers, suggests that the strength of beer remained pretty much the same from the 1950s through to the 1970s:

3. Mr. Ashton
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will introduce legislation to control the alcoholic content and gravity of beer.
Mr. Anthony Stodart
I see no need for legislation. There is no evidence that the alcoholic content, or gravity, of beer has changed significantly since 1951. Nor is it evident that consumers are incapable of selecting a beer which meets their taste from the many on offer.
Mr. Ashton
Has not the hon. Gentleman seen the Sunday Mirror report, which is quite contrary to what he just said? If it is possible to have the proof written on the label of a whisky bottle and the octane rating on a petrol pump so that the consumer can have a proper choice, why cannot the same be done for beer? If the gravity is declared to the Excise authorities, as it must be, why cannot it be put on the beer pump or the beer bottle label?
Mr. Stodart
The hon. Gentleman has asked several questions. I have read the Sunday Mirror, but a comparison of its article with the article in Which? in 1960 shows no marked trend. If the House wishes, I will circulate the complete comparisons in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The average specific gravity has varied by only 0.2 in 20 years; it has gone up very slightly since 1951. As to the comparison with whisky and petrol, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that they are different. The hon. Gentleman will give just as good a performance on light ale as on heavy.
Mr. Farr
Is my hon. Friend aware that the specific gravity and the alcohol content of beer bear no relation to the quality of the drink, and that the quality of British beer brewed today is higher than it has been at any time since the war?
Mr. Stodart
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. There are other things that interest beer drinkers. There is colour and there is flavour, and alcohol content is not one that particularly interests me.
Mr. Michael Cocks
Does the Minister agree that it is regrettable that the House must rely for information on a survey in 1960 and a more recent report in the Sunday Mirror? Will the hon. Gentleman consider cutting through all the objections raised on both sides by publishing the tax the drinker pays on a pint, so that the drinker can make his own comparisons?
Mr. Stodart
That is not the Question that was asked. The House does not have to rely on the Sunday Mirror, The Customs returns show that in 1951 the average gravity of all beers was 1036.51 and in 1970 it was 1036.78. Therefore, they show that it is higher.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Prohibitionists try salami tactics

How long before drinking a delicious cool
beer on a train is outlawed completely?
I wasn’t expecting this at all.  I hoped that ScotRail’s consultation document in which they asked for opinions on a possible ban on drinking alcohol on trains was just a bit of kite-flying, which would be struck down by common sense. Sadly, common sense in relation to alcohol is in increasingly short supply in Scotland.

It seems like Scotland’s busybodies and window-twitchers have submitted an unexpectedly high number of responses asking for a ban. And ScotRail’s bosses have sensed an opportunity to curry favour with the neo-prohibitionist Scottish Government.

From July all ScotRail trains after 2100 and before 1000 will be declared as dry, and the consumption of alcohol on them will not be permitted. Drunk people may be refused passage (though who will be deemed to be drunk is still unclear).

Evidently a complete round-the-clock ban is still too politically sensitive and would look too much like the extremist measure it is. Too many “respectable” people would be affected by the banning of a dram of malt whisky on a trip to the Highlands. Not to mention the revenue that would be lost if ScotRail had to stop selling cans of crap beer at inflated prices on daytime trains.

But ScotRail clearly think they can get away with a ban at other times.

Late evening trains will not be safer as a result. Most drunk troublemakers are not any drunker than other perfectly peaceable passengers. They cause trouble because they’re arseholes, not because they’re drunk. But no politician is brave enough to say this. It’s easier for Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to blame the liquid rather than demand responsible behaviour from people who can’t handle their drink.

British Transport Police’s website still carries the statement “Alcohol brought on trains does not generally cause a problem. People being drunk before they travel does.” This sensible position appears to have been thrown overboard, with Supt Ellie Bird quoted as saying: “The consumption of alcohol is prohibited on other forms of public transport, such as buses, and trains should be no different.”

What’s more, a ban before 10am is a solution in search of a problem. I’ve never encountered rowdiness on an early morning train. Neds aren’t awake by 10, never mind on trains supping lager.

But a ban at that time is politically possible and will meet little resistance. What reasonable person would want to be drinking at that time in the morning anyway? Well, nobody except alcoholics, obviously. Unless you’re coming home from night shift, or on holiday, in which case, tough. ScotRail will push this through with the backing of all those whose thinking goes along the lines “I don’t have any desire to do something, so nobody else should be allowed to do it either.”

Shamefully, not a single one of the MSPs and MPs who responded spoke out in favour of allowing responsible drinking.

Let us be under no illusions. This is nothing to do with preventing drunk bams causing trouble. It is a politically motivated ban with the aim of further socially denormalising alcohol. I fully expect that within a couple of years, or even sooner, some report will appear “explaining” what a success the policy has been and recommending that it be extended into a complete ban around the clock.

The solution to drunks causing a nuisance on trains is, as has been pointed out for years, is to enforce the laws we already have. But this takes manpower which ScotRail are eager to eliminate – they have been attempting for years to do away with union agreements that insist on a guard, conductor or equivalent traveling on every train. Supposedly British Transport Police will enforce the ban. Wouldn’t they be better employed dealing with the few people actually causing trouble?

Much easier to inconvenience people enjoying an innocent and completely legitimate pleasure. Especially as it closes a loophole in public policy. Since the 1990s more and more local authorities have introduced bye-laws banning the consumption of alcohol in public spaces. The situation of being able to drink on a train – as was once the norm everywhere – now appears like an exception.

There are now very few places left in Scotland where it’s legal to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outside of licensed premises or your own home. Fine if you have a garden. Fine if you can afford to do your drinking in pubs. Fine if your horizons are so limited that you can only conceive of drinking in the context of downing eight pints on Friday night, or twelve cans in front of the TV.

That this compartmentalisation of alcohol consumption in fact reinforces Scotland’s hard-drinking culture rather than weaken it  — this is something which our political class has completely failed to understand.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Well the Fallen are the virtuous among us

You can’t turn your back in Scotland at the moment without a new brewery popping up, and one of the newest is Fallen Brewing Co, a.k.a. Paul Fallen, who has moved back home to Stirlingshire to set up shop.

Like a number of new outfits, the beers are getting brewed under contract at Traditional Scottish Ales in, erm, wherever it is they are these days.

Paul let me try some pre-production prototypes of two of his core range: Dragonfly is an amber ale and Blackhouse a smoked porter.

On pouring the Dragonfly it’s rather darker than amber, more deep copper, and fairly murky. It’s nicely aromatic with New World hops; as it warms up the resin becomes more apparent spicy notes of ginger and cinnamon emerge. This is not an aggressive beer but one which rewards careful study.

I can think of ways it might be tweaked, but to be honest it might well come out so different on the professional kit that it’s far too early to criticise it. I definitely think it will be a decent pint, though maybe doesn’t have enough to distinguish it from competing brews.

Blackhouse smoked porter on the other hand is an instant classic and the type of beer that might turn out very well from TSA, whose own beers all seem to be on the sweet side. Smokiness is subdued; the main flavours are coffee and chocolate and a buttery creaminess. It’s in a border area where he could equally well sell it as a milk stout or even a strong mild.

The first batch of smoked porter is already sold and may be in pubs by the time you read this; the next batch is lined up and all destined for cask. Look out for it.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Is this the programme that will be a wake-up call to German brewing?

The video may disappear, so grab the podcast while it’s available: Video podcast on ZDF site

Who makes the best beer in the world? is the provocative question which begins this report by Peter Ruppert shown on German TV last week. Although his discoveries and conclusions will be unsurprising to knowledgeable observers, I think it’s significant to have the status of German beer put on the agenda in mainstream media.

What follows is a summary in English to make the programme easier to follow. I’ve done this because I think the programme is well worth watching for beer lovers elsewhere.

He starts by showing us the award ceremony at the World Beer Cup in San Diego. For years the gold medal for the beer styles thought of as typically German have gone to brewers from elsewhere.
One thing is certain, says Ruppert to camera: the best German style pilsener is not brewed in Germany. He takes us to the place it is made: Sierra Nevada, where he talks to Ken Grossman. In America, the land with no purity law, no beer culture, no centuries of tradition, where almost nobody even knows the word pilsener.

Grossman started as a homebrewer with two cooking pots, and now has coppers made in Germany.

We Germans thought we were the world champions in brewing, he confronts Grossman – what happened?

Grossman replies that although German brewing tradition is superb, German brewers did not pay any attention to what was happening in the rest of the world and fell behind. They all brew the same beer and have not kept up with the development of new hop varieties or techniques. He had been in Germany three weeks previously and encountered no beer that had wowed him. The development is towards a monoculture such as previously existed in the USA, less hop, less aroma, less malt, less distinctive beers.

German drinkers think American beer is all like Budweiser and Miller, says Ruppert. Yes, says Grossman, we had a situation of commodity beer with no real identity, so we stood up and wanted something better.

Ruppert moves on to St Louis. To camera, he lists the German brands that are now owned by A-B InBev. Hasseröder, Diebels, Spaten, Franziskaner, Löwenbräu, Beck's.

Florian Kuplent is a brewer from Upper Bavaria who worked at A-B and has now set up his own microbrewery, Urban Chestnut. Why did he stay in the US rather than return to Germany? Because the German beer market is currently marked by consolidation and price wars. Small breweries are closing because German drinkers will not support their local breweries and buy the discounted big brands instead. The trend is the opposite in the USA where the number of small breweries is growing.

Back in Germany, Ruppert goes to Dortmund to meet Karl-Heinz Schmeissing, former chair of the works council at Dortmunder Aktien-Brauerei (DAB). The pair walk around the city to the sites of closed breweries. This is where the Stifts brewery was, this was the Kronen brewery, this was the Ritter brewery which later became Brinkhoff's, this was Thier, this was the Dortmunder Union brewery.

Dortmund was once the biggest beer producing city in Europe. Then corporations moved in with a strategy of cheap beer in cans. Over a plate of Currywurst, Schmeissing speaks of the heyday of Dortmund: 6800 people worked in eight breweries with a combined production of over 7 million hectolitres; it is painful to see the decline. DAB, Dortmunder Union, Brinkhoff's, Wicküler now all come from the last remaining beer factory, owned by the Radeberger Group. Radeberger in turn is owned by Dr. Oetker, a food conglomerate whose name is still most associated with baking powder.

Even the boss of the Radeberger Group is forced to admit on camera that quality and diversity have suffered as a result of price wars. Albert Christmann says brewers have not been enough concerned with what makes their product stand out among the competition. He thinks they are turning a corner and will concentrate more on regional roots. Yes, they still make cheapie brands, because they do not want to lose the consumers. Asked directly if beer will become more expensive: Consumers in Germany take very cheap beer for granted, but in the long term brewers have to make money, says Christmann.

The next interview is with a former brewery manager. He was one of the tough rationalisers who helped to close breweries and make workers redundant – until the axe in turn fell on him. He is afraid of former colleagues and wants to speak anonymously. Of course diversity suffers when breweries close, he says, even if consumers can still buy a beer under the same brand. Cheapie brands brewed to their own recipe and premium beers come from the same copper. The ingredients are generally identical. He sees this process likely to continue for some time to come. Growth was the priority, not creativity or diversity. So the mass-market beers grew to resemble each other more and more.

A blind test with members of the public is set up, featuring the five best-selling German beers: Krombacher, Oettinger, Beck’s, Warsteiner, Bitburger. The punters have great difficulty telling the beers apart, and none are able to correctly identify all five.

Analysis in the laboratory at the brewing school Doemens Institut confirms the similarity: all five beers have a similar gravity and level of bitterness.

But the Sierra Nevada Pils also goes through analysis and is both maltier and hoppier than the best-selling German brands.

BrandOriginal gravity in PlatoBitterness in IBU
Sierra Nevada Pilsner12.242
(Source: Doemens)

Wolfgang Stempfl of Doemens is unsurprised by the results – the dumbing down of beers is an ongoing process to cut costs. Today's beers are also more heavily filtered to increase shelf life. The lagering time for a Pils can be as little as two to three weeks.

Beer sommelier Sebastian Priller is next to subject the beers to sensory analysis. None of the beers are convincing – too little hop aroma. Asked straight out if they are bad beers, Priller equivocates: they have no character, he says. Does the average drinker even recognise a beer with character, asks Ruppert. No, says Priller.

“Now that’s hops!” exclaims Priller delightedly when presented with the Sierra Nevada beer. “Like when you rub hops between your hands – you should get that in a Pils.”

The tasting continues with a wheat doppelbock that tastes of bananas and fruit salad and a Märzen redolent of tropical fruit.

Food chemist Udo Pollmer is next to explain what processing aids are permitted in German beer. Many brewers are no longer even capable of using whole hops, he says. Because hop pellets and hop extracts are still 100% hops, they are completely pukka by the Purity Law. PVPP, a clarifying aid made of plastic (“smells of UHU”, says Ruppert), is no longer present in the finished beer and hence doesn’t have to be declared.

The trade has completely failed to communicate with its customers and hides behind the Purity Law, complains Pollmer. “They hope they gain an advantage over the competition by being cheap, but they do not understand that they are all collectively sinking for this very reason.”

Finally we are shown how the lazy brewer can create a whole range of beers, simply by adding colouring beer to a pale beer.

What can the consumer do? Before reunification the average German drank 142 litres of beer a year. Now it's only 107 litres – 25% less. The declining choice in German supermarkets could play a part in this.

The president of the “Free Brewers”, Georg Schneider of Schneider Weisse, thinks beer should become an article consumed for pleasure again rather than a commodity. In the sixth generation the Schneider family also sets its store on New Zealand hops and barrique-aging. We see the bottles of Schneider doppelbock being aged in the catacombs. “Are there bats here?” asks R, “Yes”, replies Schneider. The aged bock goes to America; the export market is growing and the German market declining.

“Brewers have failed to make interesting and exciting beers”, says Georg Schneider.

Cut to San Diego, disappointment as the gold medals for German styles from Pilsner and Kölsch go to American, Australian and Icelandic breweries. German breweries do pick up seven golds, but German honour is saved not by the big brands, but by small and speciality brewers, whose beers are rarely found in German supermarkets, is the conclusion of the programme.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


It’s difficult to know what to say about Fyne Ales’ annual festival, now in its third year, that I didn’t already say in previous posts about it. Everything that was true in the past is still true: the scenery is gorgeous, the line-up of beers on offer is a roll-call of breweries who specialise in pale ’n’ hoppy, Fyne is a brewery at the top of its game and currently defines the pinnacle of Scottish brewing.

There are changes this year, as there were last year. The beer tent has moved even further into the fields! There are showers for campers! The latter would be very welcome, but I’ve hurt my knee and wasn’t up to camping this time. I just manage to make it up for the day – it’s an early start on the 0915 bus from Glasgow, returning at teatime; there are only four buses a day in each direction, which makes pre-planning essential.

The first, most noticeable change on arrival is that the former slightly dingy brewery shop has been revamped, extended and transformed into a swish, stylish brewery tap. No less than five cask beers were on when Adam and I roll up shortly before 11; I suspect there may be fewer on offer when there’s not a festival on.

The shop continues along one wall of the bar: as well as items of crucial importance to the festival, spare tent pegs, there are bottled beers, glasses and clothing, including the new Jarl t-shirts, the only brewery clothing I have ever felt inclined to purchase or wear. Unfortunately it has the C-word printed on it, but luckily it’s below the belt-line where nobody will see it.

Wisely, the bar offers wi-fi, an absolute necessity, as we are so far in the countryside that mobile phone signals are decidedly erratic. We get stuck into the first beer of the day, a new one called Rune at just 3.5%. It’s straw-gold and intensely bitter, pretty much what we’ve come to expect from a Fyne beer.

The next beer is quite different – the other beer making its debut at the festival, Superior IPA (7.1%). It’s early for a strong beer still, but the other beers are old favourites and we want to tick the new ones. The heavy body outweighs the hops at first, with some butteriness, with the oily-resiny bitterness not really coming through until the end. It’s their first go at a strong IPA and although good it’s not quite spot on yet; it’s still less than three weeks old.

The folks from AleSela wander in in search of food, preferably involving bacon. I don’t know if they get any bacon but they do get tea served in chunky, expensive-looking Le Creuset mugs. I am a bit concerned these are going to get nicked. Then again, the dogs will catch up with you before you get off the farm, so perhaps the mugs are safe enough.

Now it’s down to the marquee in the field where the real action is. I say action; it’s still quiet, a combination of the first Sunday arrivals and the hungover zombies packing up their tents. One pair of such are Jake and Chris who will be back at the end of the month to brew a special beer with head brewer Wil; they’ve won an Institute of Brewing and Distilling competition with their spectacular homebrew and having their recipe brewed commercially was the prize. Then we run into Dom and Colin who have been here since Friday night.

Somehow we get onto talking about Boddington’s Bitter. It’s only once we’ve parted and I’m finally in the beer tent that I wonder how Dom can possibly know so much about Boddington’s, as he’s far too young to have been drinking it when it was good.

Yes, finally in the beer tent! A Moor Nor Hops has magnificent hop aroma and smells properly beery, not anaemic and one-dimensional like so many new-wave hop-heavy beers. The flavour is underwhelming after that, but it’s brilliant just getting your nose into the glass every time you take a sip.

Then onto Lismore. Fyne are doing a series of IPAs this year, released in pairs: always the same beer in blonde and dark versions. Lismore is the second in the series and comes in blonde and red versions, following on from the black and blonde Davaar. I preferred blonde Davaar and it turns out I like blonde Lismore better too – fruitily sweet with a lingering bitter finish.

The problem with Fyne’s festival, as I’ve noted before, is that their own beers are so good it takes an effort of will to switch to the guest beers they’ve gone to all the trouble of putting on.

Not all the beers have travelled well. Oakham JHB should be dry and lemony, but is biscuity. Marble Pint on the other hand is a damn fine ordinary beer, and unsparkled as God intended. Their Brown Ale is superb too but we’ve reached the stage where notes get forgotten.

There are brewery tours every hour on the hour. Poor Wil is quite hoarse already. The brewery is operating at full capacity to produce enough Jarl for the thirsty and he is looking forward to the construction of the planned new 40-barrel plant. Jarl was introduced as a seasonal at the first festival just two years ago; now it’s their de facto flagship beer. And to think I didn’t want them to make it a regular beer.

We have seen the brewhouse before of course; secretly we’re hoping there will be a rare beer to sample, as there was last year with the two-year-old IPA that just happened to be lying about. (There isn’t; maybe there was and it got snaffled the day before).

Time is getting on and back in the marquee I want to have another go at the Superior IPA to decide whether or not I like it. I wouldn’t have believed two casks of the same beer could be so different. The butteriness has gone but it has an inexplicable coffee taste to it.

A quick last beer in the tap and it’s time for the bus home. Just as well. Can't beat beer festivals in fields.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Made with 100% recycled ideas

On my way into town on the bus the other day, I spotted this ad for Tennent’s new-ish (launched onto the market six months ago) beer Caledonia Best. 100% Scottish barley is a good claim, I suppose, but doesn’t it sound a wee bit familiar?

Oh, hang on.

Yeah, I did think I’d seen it somewhere before.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Since the launch of Caledonia Best, a carbon copy of Belhaven Best, the latest new product from the brewery, just a few weeks ago, was Tennent’s Export Lager, a carbon copy of Stella/Peroni/Beck’s in the obligatory green bottle.

Now that they’re even recycling other brands’ slogans, it seems that original ideas are not in demand at Wellpark.

I can exclusively reveal that this is just the first in a series of posters – the forthcoming ads are shown below for the first time in any media (because I made them up):

(The invoice is in the post folks.)

Friday, 1 June 2012

The ghosts of Edinburgh United Breweries linger on

When Knops Beer revived black cork last year, a beer name that once made Edinburgh’s Bell’s brewery famous, I didn’t imagine that it would be so soon that another skeleton from the tomb of Edinburgh United Breweries would get disturbed.

Along with Disher’s and Bell’s, one of the four breweries Edinburgh United Breweries was formed to take over was Robin, McMillan & Co.’s Summerhall Brewery near the Meadows. In the process of consolidation by EUB, the Summerhall Brewery was closed and the site became The Royal (Dick) Veterinary College, which was later subsumed into the University of Edinburgh. Another parallel: decades later, after the collapse of EUB, the University also acquired the site of Bell’s brewery and used it for its physical education department.

The “Dick Vet” moved to a new campus on the outskirts of the city last year, and Summerhall has been transformed into a trendy new arts centre. I don’t know the details of this set-up but it seems a similar project to what has been done with the old Truman brewery in East London — with one important difference, in that in Edinburgh, brewing will be returning to the site!

Tanks being moved in (Photo nicked from Barney’s Facebook page)

Barney’s brewery, which has been operating from Falkirk, has been granted planning permission to operate at Summerhall and equipment is already being moved in. It’s great to see brewing returning to the heart of Edinburgh; although I doubt any brewer will be able to afford to brew on the North Back of the Canongate in the future as they once did.

Now we just need someone to start brewing Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale again.