Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Will WEST wreck what Punch couldn’t?

The new layout as proposed by Punch in 2012
The saga of the Halt Bar continues. I’ve been sent drawings of the proposed refurbishment to be completed in the next few months as the transformation of the pub, presently trading as “Pop up WEST”, into “WEST on the Corner” is completed.

Sadly it looks like the same thing is being planned that Punch tried to do in 2012. The Edwardian central bar is to be removed and a new bar installed at the edge of the space, to make more room for seating. It looks like the separate snug – a very rare feature in Glasgow – will also be ripped out. CAMRA’s Heritage Pubs Group said in 2012 that these features along with the wood panelling on the walls are of significant interest.

Plan proposed for Noah Beer (WEST’s holding company) in 2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Narziss slams the state of German brewing

Professor Ludwig Narziss wrote the book on German brewing. Literally. His two-volume work (with Werner Back) titled simply Die Bierbrauerei is one of the standard textbooks for brewers, so much so that it is referred to just as “der Narziss”. He was already teaching brewing science at Weihenstephan in 1964.

So when the veteran professor, now 89, got up to sharply criticise the decline in standards in German brewing last week, it should have been a big deal.

As news site Biertäglich.eu reports, Narziss spoke at a seminar run by the Austrian Brewers' Federation at the end of October. His remarks were about the development of flavour in German beer in the last fifty years. And when you have been around as long as Narziss has, you can demonstrate long-term change with data.

Before 1993 the German beer duty regime was based on strength categories: Schankbier, Vollbier, Starkbier, etc., with a flat rate within each category. The move to taxation strictly on the basis of alcoholic strength brought with it the possibility of shaving off a couple of points to save some tax. Narziss showed that this was precisely what had happened in recent years, with a significant drop in the original gravities of beers. Even half a degree Plato has a discernible effect on the beer’s flavour, said the Professor.

Boiling and fermentation too have been compromised for the sake of efficiency; the decoction mash of the past largely abolished, and in some cases the wort is not even boiled vigorously enough to drive off the DMS which gives beer that sweetcorn aroma.

A slight acidification of the mash before brewing has many advantages and has therefore become widespread practice, said Narziss, but this has also meant convergence of flavour.

The development over the last 50 years has been toward ever more similar, more and more neutral beers. Distinctive house flavours from esters, higher alcohols, resins have been reduced, and the use of high-alpha bittering hops and hop extracts have robbed beer of the complexity that the other components of hops give it. Narziss finished by challenging the assembled brewmasters to return to beers of character, with a proper three-addition hopping schedule; to experiment with different hopping techniques and new varieties.

Narziss’ critique is in line with what other observers have been saying for several years. This 2012 documentary has not been the only TV programme on the subject. A couple of weeks ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine too ran an article on the same topic, focussing on the closure of the once proud Iserlohner brewery.

All have come to the conclusion that beer is being dumbed down to compete at the unsustainably low prices forced on the brewers by supermarkets. When the brewers formed an illegal cartel in defence, they were pilloried in the press. Three out of every four crates of beer are now sold at a promotional price as low as eight euro.

Eight euro for a crate of 20 half-litre bottles: it may sound like a paradise for beer drinkers, but the consequence of such low prices is that the beer itself must be bastardised – and there are, as Professor Narziss points out, plenty of ways to do that within the constraints of the Reinheitsgebot.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A visit to Jaw Brew

Industrial estates are generally pretty grim places, and the one on the south-west edge of Glasgow where Jaw Brew is based is no exception. But it’s a sunny day, the train station is not far and there is an attractive view of the Kilpatrick hills in the distance, beyond the airport. That’s more than most such estates have going for them.

Jaw is just off the main drag and round a corner, where owner and brewer Mark Hazell is in the middle of a boil on his tiny 5-barrel kit. In the last few months Mark has done a good job of getting his beer into local outlets. It’s become such a common sight that I often forget how new the brewery still is – he’s been brewing commercially only since May.

Mark is particularly proud that his own local pub sells Jaw beer, and has landed another coup by getting it into the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow, which usually sells Fyne Ales exclusively. Pubs are generally quite happy to take his beer, says Mark – it’s the big pub companies that are the problem. They have a list of suppliers they can be bothered to deal with and the tied pubs can only take what they are given. Some of the smaller pubcos are no better either.

Mark pretending to take a sample from the fermenter for the photo

Jaw Drop and Jaw Drift are the two main beers, one selling more in cask, the other in bottle. Unusually (I think), the two main beers are both pale. Drop can taste a little burnt to me with a rather harsh bitterness. I am keener on Drift, which is sweet and full-bodied but bitter at the same time, with a gently floral hop flavour.

Today though Mark is brewing a new beer for the first time in the brewery – a mild provisionally entitled Fathom. The grist contains Maris Otter, crystal, chocolate and black malt. We taste a sample of the trial brew: it’s rich, oily and liquoricey with a genuinely surprising thick, viscous mouthfeel that suggests a beer of 8% or more, not the sub-4% ale it actually is. Perhaps it’s a bit too full for the quaffing beer it’s meant to be.

Mark has little time for new-fangled beers with weird ingredients. “Simple” is a word he keeps using. Plain beers for people to drink in quantity. So far, there seem to be plenty of customers who agree. Between my visit and finishing this post, Fathom has been released to pubs and won Jaw’s first SIBA award – pretty good going for a beer that’s been brewed once.
Photo courtesy of Laurieston Bar (hi Joe)

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why can’t Tennent’s make a success of a premium lager?

The 1980s was the decade of “premium” lager. All manner of well-known lager brands – even Harp – sprouted premium extensions, the formula of slighter higher gravity and more sophisticated packaging being an easy one to replicate.

Tennent Caledonian – then part of the Bass empire – came up with Gold Bier, a lager that many still remember today. I remember that I liked it a lot, though I can’t say whether I would like it now. It had nice typography and glossy double-page adverts with stylish copywriting, in the days when lager drinkers were treated as literate.

Gold Bier lasted well into the 1990s and seemed to be fairly popular, but it eventually disappeared. I have no evidence for this claim, but I have always assumed it got the chop after the Belgian group Interbrew bought Bass and Whitbread. The merged group already had heavyweight premium lagers Stella Artois and Beck’s and didn’t need Gold Bier competing with them.

Tennents had another go in 2008 with a beer called 1885, after the putative date when Tennents, according to themselves, started brewing lager (there has been some dispute in the Scottish Brewing Archive’s journal as to whether this claim is accurate). 1885 was another pale, green-bottled 330ml effort, with a husky, grainy flavour. It didn’t last long. Apparently there was an ad campaign for it, but I don’t remember ever seeing it.

Fast-forward now to Tennent’s Original Export Lager, launched just two years ago. Original Export had very plush packaging indeed and some impressive adverts. The beer was quite drinkable too, all-malt and full-bodied; I’d have bought it regularly if there had been a few more hops. Both the beer and marketing were, in my view, head and shoulders above that of the keg ale Caledonian Best launched around the same time.

And yet Best has flourished and Export flopped, which just goes to show that brewers shouldn’t take my advice about anything.

I’m looking at a six-pack of the new Black T. It’s Original Export re-branded, I am told – I haven’t tasted it yet. I suppose the idea is to link it with other allegedly premium products: Stella Black, Smirnoff black label, Johnnie Walker black label. Whether it will be any more successful than its predecessors remains to be seen.

Why have Tennent’s efforts to get into the premium sector failed so regularly?

Well, that has, I think, something to do with who drinks (or doesn’t drink) Tennent’s and how they regard it. I tend to divide them into four groups.

1. TL fans. These folks love Tennent’s Lager and consider it the best lager available. They like the standard lager, so have no real motivation to buy the premium version (You see expat examples of these on the Tennent’s Facebook page, begging to know where they can get a frosty can of TL in Australia or America).

2. Tennents-haters. Do not believe anything remotely drinkable can ever come out of Wellpark. It should be fairly obvious why a new beer is not going to sell well among this group.

The Tennents brand is quite peculiar in being loved by the first group, but toxic among the second. 

There is a third group which I think is a bit unusual.

3. Contemptuous consumers
. There is in Scotland a discernible group of consumers who think Tennent’s is rubbish. But they drink it anyway.

Why exactly this contempt exists, I’m not sure. Perhaps the local, ubiquitous beer will always be scorned, irrespective of its actual quality. I think Tennent’s is no worse than most standard UK lagers and better than some. It’ll never be my favourite beer but it doesn’t deserve the abuse it gets from some quarters.

Which brings me onto my fourth group, which consists of me and three or four other people.

4. Agnostics. I am not joking about the small size of this group. Every Scottish drinker, it seems, has an opinion on Tennents; it’s almost as divisive as Marmite. I have only ever met one other person who was willing to judge a Tennent’s beer on its merits (I’m vain enough to imagine that I try to be objective).

Over and above that, though, we have to consider other factors: the commoditisation of premium lager itself, and whether there is actually room for another brand. But that’s for another time.