Sunday, 30 March 2014

Glasgow brewers jump on oak-aged bandwagon

What’s the oldest brewery in Scotland? Caledonian? Belhaven? Traquair House? In fact, the oldest is – Tennent’s of Glasgow. Though today it is a massive, not particularly romantic beer factory, brewing has been recorded on the Wellpark site in Glasgow’s East End since 1556, making it not just the oldest brewery, but one of the oldest surviving enterprises of any kind at all.

Despite this, Tennent’s marketing in recent years has been relentlessly modern and laddish, concentrating on music and football sponsorship. Now, in view of the spectacular success of Innis & Gunn with its fake heritage, someone at Wellpark has evidently thought “Hang on – we have all this genuine heritage – surely we could make that work for us?”

The first evidence of this new tack is at the brewery itself, which has recently been festooned with a huge banner featuring archive photos from the early twentieth century and the comically modest claim “We’ve been doing this for quite a while now.”

Alongside that is the website to promote a new product: Tennent’s Beer Aged In Whisky Oak (I think that is its formal name) which is also full of this sort of stuff.

Drinkers who know that Innis & Gunn is contract-brewed at Tennent’s may suspect this is the same beer in a different bottle. Sources at Tennent’s assure me this is not the case. I believe them, but I wonder how they are going to convince consumers of this; it seems an uphill struggle, similar to the trouble they have trying to explain that the Tennent’s Super brand is nothing to do with them (InBev kept this particular brand when they sold the rest of the Tennent’s business to C&C). 

The main difference in the process is that the Tennent’s beer uses whisky-infused oak (we are not told exactly how the infusion takes place), whereas I&G uses plain oak. Just to prove the beers are different, I did a blind tasting. Cynics will note the two beers both come in clear glass and to the lay person appear exactly the same colour.

Beer A: immediately very lightstruck, amber in colour, plasticky, a little oak, bit of toast. The taste is sweet, caramel, sweeties and wood shavings. Considering the strength, there's not a lot to it, very sweet, vanilla, just tastes artificial.

Beer B: grainy in aroma, head almost completely gone. Not much flavour at all, bit of sweetcorn. Unlike the first this does have some hops in it, though not enough to detect more than a slight balancing bitterness. Slightly metallic, much dryer than the other beer, a little bit of whisky but not much ... if you didn't know you wouldn't notice. The wood (barely discernible) just kind of sits on top of the beer but does dry it out a bit.

Beer A is Innis & Gunn and Beer B is the Tennent’s whisky beer; but the differences are so obvious we don’t need to check the labels.

Innis & Gunn have been known to tell American consumers concerned about lightstrike in their clear-glass packaged beer that it doesn’t matter because the beer has such a low hop content (seriously). My experience with this bottle suggests this is bullshit.

Tennent’s say their beer is made with four different hops, though none impart a distinctive character to it; to me it tastes pretty much like Tennent’s lager with some caramel in it, that’s had some wood shavings waved at it briefly.

They are definitely different beers; on the other hand, neither of them are exciting either. However, the Tennent’s product is much less offensive than Innis & Gunn and has no defects as such; it’s just rather timid in flavour. 

Just a kilometre or so to the south of Wellpark, however, is German-style brewery West, who have gone outside their lagery comfort zone to produce a cask-aged Scotch ale under the name of Opus Six. Opus Six is definitely the most interesting of the three beers, but it goes in the other direction – you definitely have to be a fan of peaty whiskies to enjoy this. It is aged in casks used for Douglas Laing’s “Big Peat”, a vatted all-Islay malt. Treacle toffee or blockmalz in the foreground. Dry, tannic, woody finish. Oily, spirituous warmth. A stonker and it’s worth noting that at 5.2% it packs much more flavour in than either Tennent’s (6.0%) or Innis & Gunn (6.6%). Sadly this beer seems destined to be a one-off, so if you can get down to the brewery while there’s some left it might be your only chance to try it.

• West Opus Six (5.2%): £5 a pint, draught only at the brewery and possibly a few other places;
Tennent’s Beer Aged in Whisky Oak (6.0%): 33cl bottle £2.50 at branches of The Whisky Shop;
Innis & Gunn Original (6.6%): 33cl < £2 pretty much everywhere.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Heverlee needs to haver less

A while ago – months ago, in fact – I was invited with some other bloggers to come and taste a few Belgian beers with Joris Brams, who is billed as “a Belgian brewer” and the creator of the new Heverlee lager which has been quietly appearing on the bars of Glasgow for the last few months.

The invitation, oddly, forgot to mention that Joris is not just any old brewer, but sits on the board of C&C, the parent company of Tennent’s and Magners, who are rolling out Heverlee in the on-trade in Scotland.

Joris talked us through a selection of Belgian beers. We enjoyed Duvel, McChouffe, DeKoninck, Bourgogne des Flandres, and most interesting for me, Mort Subite – not the usual sweetened gueuze that brand is known for, but the traditional Oude Gueuze which was really rather nice.

Then it’s on to the Heverlee.

I had a slight cold so can make only very general comments on the flavour. It was, surprisingly, satisfyingly bitter with a creamy mouthfeel. Sweetness is a nice contrast to the bitterness, but it’s a corny sweetness rather than a malty one (the grist is 20% maize), so you have to drink it fast – come back to it when it’s warmed up and it’s less pleasant.

According to C&C, Heverlee is a heritage beer “based on” historical recipes once used by the monks at the Park Abbey, in Heverlee, Belgium.

It’s quite amazing then that the result is precisely what you would get if you set out to come up with a product to compete against Stella Artois.

The beer is brewed for C&C by Martens Brewery in Bocholt from 80% pils malt and 20% maize. It is bittered with Hallertau to 21 units of bitterness, and Saaz hops for aroma. It’s fermented at 15C and lagered for two weeks.

To give the Heverlee beer a fair chance, I tried it again a week or so later – in a straight fight against Stella Artois,  I found Heverlee softer and chewier, with a tad more bitterness, but the difference is not large. (If you would like to repeat this challenge, it’s handy to know that Alfredo’s bar in West Nile St sells Stella, while the Iron Horse on the other side of the road sells Heverlee.)

There is a school of thought that maintains Stella Artois was once much better than it is now. I myself am not convinced it was ever great, but if you do believe that it was, creating a new product, with the character and quality that its rival once had, seems to me a perfectly respectable strategy, and, in my view, laudable. It is a positive thing for breweries to put more flavour into their beer, rather than taking it out.

Why the PR people have then decided to dress the story up with extraneous and more than dubious historical decoration is beyond me. We learn that the monks of Heverlee developed light lager in the sixteenth century, and it was so popular in nearby Leuven that the brewers’ guild forced them to close down their brewery.

This is a spectacular historical discovery, meaning that Belgian monasteries were on a level with the Bavarians in developing lager beer and several centuries in advance of Josef Groll at Pilsner Urquell with a pale one. Sadly, I think we will be waiting for documentation of these claims for quite some time yet.

The dodgy claims in the press release then turn into the ridiculous headline in The Scotsman, “Medieval Belgian beer on sale in Scotland”, which shows the dangers of spreading misleading stories to clueless journalists.

In reality Heverlee cannot be anything more than – at the most – “inspired” by the beer which was once brewed at the abbey, given that it is a modern beer, made with a pure yeast culture and filtered to be bar bright, then dispensed from a keg.

It was very nice of Joris to take time to meet a handful of bloggers and bring us some beers to taste. I never imagined I’d find myself listening to someone from C&C explaining the production process of traditional gueuze, and the thought that people on the board of that company are familiar with Orval and Rodenbach is very positive.

But I can’t help feeling that if C&C are serious about the authenticity in beer that Joris talks about, they need to let him tell the story and stop the marketing people padding it out with ahistorical nonsense.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Wacky font – must be craft

There have been murmurings for a while that Greene King were preparing to relaunch the beers of its Scottish subsidiary Belhaven in a “craft beer” direction. And here they are, turning up unannounced in Tesco. On an end-of-aisle display underneath some alcopops. Not the presentation I would have chosen, but what do I know about marketing?

What strikes me is that similarity of the labels to the newly repackaged Greene King-branded “craft” offerings like St Edmunds and Craft English Lager or whatever it’s called.

What also strikes me is how cheap and tacky the labels look. The old ones might have been a bit dated, but they had a bit of dignity. The new bottles have none.

Still, at least the beers are in brown glass now. I’d rather have a drinkable beer with an ugly label than a lightstruck one.

I’ve thought for quite a while that it’s only a matter of time until Belhaven brewery closes, and this convergence of the packaging design has the alarm bells ringing just a bit louder.

It looks very much like all the Greene King speciality beers are getting this treatment, including the venerable Strong Suffolk, which deserves better. Seeing it packaged with this childish typography, which for some reason I find reminiscent of a blackcurrant smoothie, is vaguely distasteful.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Bavarian beer steins “could have been banned”

Students of the art of journalism know that the word “could” in inverted commas in a headline – as in this blog post – actually means “probably won’t”, but has a most positive effect on sales, the more so the more remarkable the phenomenon is that you are warning “could” materialise.

Did you know that the traditional grey Bavarian beer mug was in danger of being banned? Nor was I, until I found out that the supposed risk had been averted.

The grey stoneware mug is opaque, and therefore, says the EU, may not be used for draught foaming beverages after 2015, as it is not possible for the consumer to see that it has indeed been filled up to the calibration line.

Germany’s economic ministry has negotiated an exception for the mug, usually referred to as a stein in English, though the Germans have several more precise terms – Steingut-Bierkrug, Keferloher or just Steinkrug. Drinkers will be informed by notices that they can have their beer transferred into a glass vessel to check the correct amount has been poured.

At least, all that is what the “news” magazine Focus reported, and the story was picked up by other media. Since Focus’s original mission to displace the venerable Der Spiegel has long since been abandoned in favour of sensationalist tripe, it wasn’t a surprise when the EU commissioners hotly denied that there had ever been a planned ban: the EU guidelines are to do with lined drinking glasses and there was never any intention of banning stoneware mugs, said their German spokesman Reinhard Hönighaus to the press agency dpa.

I really like the Keferloher. It is perhaps one of the most iconic drinking vessels, but it’s become rarer in Bavaria than you might imagine. Experienced beer-pourers and drinkers can tell by the weight when a Maß is full, but I’ve taken mine to beer gardens more than once where the staff, though willing, have struggled to get it full. For the drinker, the secret of making sure it’s full is to blow on the foam until you can see the surface of the beer.

The irony of all this is that there is one event in Germany where you are almost guaranteed to get short measure – the Munich Oktoberfest, which switched to clear glass Krüge decades ago. Despite the clear glasses the beer tents there are notorious for brazenly and shamelessly serving “litres” which, according to research by the consumer group Union Against Fraudulent Beer-Pouring (Verein gegen betrügerisches Einschenken) can contain as little as 800ml of liquid* (personally, I was surprised it was that much).

While this racket continues, protected by corrupt local politics, you are much better off finding some quiet little place in the countryside that still uses the grey steins.

* VGBE research in 2012 found that the fullest mugs were served at Löwenbräu (0,94 Liter), with the other tents in descending order: Hacker Festzelt (0,92 Liter) - Hippodrom (0,90 Liter) - Bräurosl (0,88 Liter) - Ochsenbraterei (0,87 Liter) - Armbrustschützen (0,87 Liter) - Augustiner (0,86 Liter) - Fischer Vroni (0,86 Liter) - Winzerer Fähndl (0,84 Liter) - Schützenzelt (0,84 Liter) - Schottenhammel (0,81 Liter) - Käfer (0,80 Liter)

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

No new ideas at Heineken

I confess I felt the tiniest bit sorry for multinational brewer Heineken a couple of weeks ago when the Advertising Standards Agency decided their advert for Kronenbourg was misleading, because the advert implied the lager was brewed in France using Strisselspalt hops. In fact it is made in Britain and Strisselspalt is only one of a blend of hops used in the brewing.

Although they were caught bang to rights, at least the advert mentioned hops and their effect on the beer. What other mass-market lager advert has done that in the last ten years?

Whatever sympathy I had for the company evaporated, however, when I saw the news of their latest desperate gimmicks. These are a new (allegedly) New Zealand “cider” brand – in “kiwi and lime”, “passion fruit and apple” and “summer berries” flavours, natch – and a new device to serve Heineken at 2ºC into frozen glasses, so that the beer ends up at precisely 0ºC.

Really, Heineken? Is that all your R&D millions can come up with? Another alcopop masquerading as cider, and even colder lager? Is that it?

Saturday, 8 March 2014

New beers from Harviestoun

It is sobering to think that when I started writing this blog, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted was one of the hoppiest draught beers on the Scottish market. Pale and hoppy, it came in the wake of the spectacular success of Deuchars IPA, which was once a well-hopped bitter similar to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Twelve or thirteen years ago Deuchars was a superb beer which seemed to be available almost everywhere, giving the lie to the idea that good beer can’t also be popular.

Deuchars was so popular that other brewers rushed to copy it, and there were a crowd of Deuchars-a-likes such as Houston Peter’s Well, Cairngorm Trade Winds and others.

With Bitter & Twisted, Harviestoun went a step further than a mere clone, far more bitter, citrussy and juicy than Deuchars ever was.

But times change, and Bitter & Twisted does not seem as extreme as it once did. Even hoppier beers such as Fyne Jarl came along to dazzle beer drinkers, just as it once outshone Deuchars.

Nowadays, most new Scottish brewers hop like lunatics, as if in a subconscious attempt to compensate for fifty years of people saying “Well, of course traditionally Scottish beer wasn’t hoppy because hops don’t grow in Scotland etc etc etc.”

Harviestoun have reacted to the changing market by launching two new bottled beers with weird names – “The Ridge” and “Broken Dial” (explanations on the website), in which they ramp up the hops enough to keep things interesting; the resulting beers remain, however, eminently well-balanced.

The Ridge is the pale beer – deep gold in colour, it has a woody, pungent hops aroma with just a touch of digestive biscuits. A deep, long-lasting bitterness, slightly medicinal like endives or dandelions, but so smooth with no harsh edges. The finish is long and satisfying.

Broken Dial is also very aromatic, old-school and new-wave at the same time with a tinge of best-bitter caramel and a long, resiny finish, though not excessively bitter. Horribly quaffable, this would make a great cask beer, I thought while I was drinking it – and what do you know, it’s coming out in cask too, so the brewery appears to agree. Actually, I think The Ridge would make a fine cask offering too.

Disclosure: Harviestoun sent me some samples of these beers. If you weren’t so lucky, I recommend you go and buy some with your own money. They are really very good.