Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s only rock ’n’ roll but I like it

Head brewer Rich is driving a fork-lift when I arrive. Perhaps this is self-selection bias, but all the brewers I meet in New York are big Anglophiles. At Singlecut Brewsmiths in Astoria, Queens, they are big cask beer fans too, and make a lot of it. They opened in 2012 and have already expanded once. They also have outstanding graphic design and beers with weird names, and it’s the first brewery tap I have seen with a drumkit on a mezzanine level. A large collection of vinyl LPs is behind the bar. The dust and humidity in a working brewery can’t be all that good for them, I muse. But the brewery is music-themed: live music is a big part of the taproom’s draw, and all the tap handles are shaped like guitar necks.

The first beer I try is an English pale ale called Keith, after Keith Richards, I gather. Served on nitro, it’s made with East Kent Goldings, Styrians and Target and tastes very fresh and slightly citric.

It would be wrong to treat Singlecut as a tribute band, as it were. There’s a lot of experimentation here too. Shine on Summer Sour Lagrrr is a sour lager, amazingly enough, which has spent a whole year in a dedicated souring tank. A beer called Kim is a hibiscus sour lager, which is basically a Berliner Weisse grist fermented with a lager yeast and then moved to the souring tank. Why bother with the slow, time-intensive lager fermentation for beers like this, I ask. Just to mix it up a bit, is the reply, and to have a unique twist on things. The technique seems to produce a nice beer, fruity and malty at the same time, though this is oddly reminiscent of Froot Loops cereal. There’s some sour cherryade and yoghurt flavours in there too, a milky salty lassi of a beer.

One wall of the brewery is stacked with wooden casks. These are rum casks rather than the more common bourbon casks. It’s usually a stout that goes into these, but at the moment there’s a rum aged lager, sweetish with only a light rum character – it’s the 14th fill of the cask.

Heavy Boots of Lead, made with 2-row, crystal and Munich, is like a chocolate brownie in a glass. There’s no other way to describe it, that’s what it tastes like, a fantastic beer.

Possibly the finest beer I taste in New York is the super-fresh 19-33 lager. No funny business in this one, just a straight up superbly made pilsner. A hint of sulphur and soft but intense bitterness from Saaz and Hallertauer Blanc hops. This is another one worth carrying across the Atlantic and that’s how I ended up drinking a growler of it in a field at Fyne Ales’ festival back in Scotland. Jay at Flagship was right, New York is lager town.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Girl, I wanna take you to a cheese bar

New York’s venerable cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese Store in Greenwich Village took a new leap a couple of years ago by opening a cheese bar a few doors down the street.

Not quite a ploughman’s, this is a selection of three cheeses with paired beers. Grimm IPA (which I know nothing about except that it comes from Brooklyn) is citric, perfumey and slightly sweaty; looks like apple juice, light-bodied, medium to bitter finish.

Something that can perhaps only exist in Vermont, Beanery Brewing is a company which sells exclusively coffee beers. Their Beanery IPA, brewed at Smuttynose, has only light coffee flavour but a vanilla-ey, sherberty lightness.

Other Half IPA (not sure exactly which one, as they have tons of IPAs) has tropical fruit and resin. Sorry, no cheese tasting notes except to note that this type of resiny IPA tends to do well against any washed-rind cheese.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Over the water to the forgotten borough

There is beer everywhere. Waiting in the ferry terminal the kiosk where I buy my morning coffee and bagel has draught Budweiser and Lagunitas IPA.

It’s a pleasant trip over the water to Staten Island, on the incongruously communistic free, municipally-owned ferry, which takes you to and from the heart of global capitalism in Manhattan. While the Staten Island Ferry is one of the iconic journeys in a city stuffed with icons, the island itself is known as “the forgotten borough”.

One of the newest breweries in NYC, and the only one on the island, is Flagship which has just celebrated its first birthday. Its slogan is “Unforgettable beer brewed in the forgotten borough” – but it wasn’t that which caught my attention. In the first instance it was because they brew a couple of British styles: wee heavy and dark mild, which I found intriguing.

Finding the brewery couldn’t be easier: take the train one stop from the ferry terminal and the brewery is across the street. It’s a baking hot day and a whiff of fermenting spent grain across the yard doesn’t put me off.

Brewery boss Jay is kind enough to show me around and let me taste some beers. He’s keen to talk about their lager, which they have just started brewing. Jay was in sales before starting the brewery, so ought to have an idea what will sell. They were very eager to bring a lager to market, because New York is lager town, he tells me. I am reminded again of that Yuengling–Brooklyn lineage (and the more beer I drink here, the more convinced I am that Jay is right).

While Flagship are already selling everything they produce, it’s only been recently that they have been able to tie up tanks for the required fermentation and conditioning time for a lager. On tasting it, it’s smashing. The best way I can describe it is to tell you to imagine if Brooklyn Lager had all European hops instead of Cascade. It’s a creamy, amber lager with satisfying bitterness and a herbal noble hop aroma.

Pale Ale is the beer which sells most in the other boroughs of New York City and the first to be bottled. This is, I think, the very first batch off the new packaging line – the bottles have no labels yet. It’s a tasty beer with maybe a slightly rough bitterness to it, made with seven types of C-hops and Mosaic. In addition to the up-front hoppiness, it’s chewy and biscuity. No murk here either.

Obviously I have to taste the Wee Heavy: a very heavy roast barley and hop bitterness, chewy too and drinkable enough for the 8% abv to get you into trouble. Not much like any Scottish wee heavy I’ve tried, but a tasty beer nonetheless.

It’s so hot waiting for the train back that I’m tempted to break into my six-pack. By the time I return to South Ferry it’s definitely time for a beer. The Fraunces Tavern is a tourist attraction in its own right, having been headquarters for various pre- and post-revolutionary organisations in the 18th century. Trying to get a small glass of the 6.8% Ommegang Fleur de Houblon, though, is futile – it’s only sold in pints. I have to chuckle to myself, remembering that most British pubs would probably do the opposite and insist on only serving a beer of that strength in halves. The beer is spicy and citrussy with that musty bitterness that comes from hopping up a wheat beer.

I saw a lot more cask beer in New York than I was expecting to, but didn’t get to drink much. In the case of the Fraunces Tavern, I really want to try the Bronx Pale Ale from the cask, but it’s not on. Just as well as a second pint at 6.3%, in this heat, would not be the best idea.

I find more cask at the well-known Ginger Man bar: KelSo Pale Ale, which has a high bitterness and splendidly flowery, geranium-like hop aroma.

I read a lot of curmudgeonly complaints about American cask beer. The main issue traditionalists have with it is the practice that American brewers have developed of adding not just hops, but fruit, chocolate, cake and other additional flavourings to the cask. Indeed, sometimes it seems that “cask” in the US means, in one sense, the same as “craft” in Britain: an opportunity to add a load of weird stuff to your beer post-fermentation.

I don’t see why US cask beer should have to be a carbon copy of British cask beer, though, and the other cask beer the Ginger Man serves up has, if anything, the opposite issue. It is almost too much like an English beer. More English-tasting than a lot of English beer, Sly Fox Chester County Bitter  has minty bitterness and creme brulee sweetness, like an old-school country bitter from Wadworth’s or somewhere. While I am sure the temperature is within the approved range, New York in summer is quite a bit hotter than most places in Britain ever get, and I don’t think the beer would be hurt by being a bit colder.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Brew York, Brew York, what a wonderful town

New York is weird for the first-time visitor. Because it’s so familiar from films and TV shows, it feels quite surreal to actually be there. I keep expecting to look out of the window and see Spider-Man fighting Dr Octopus on the flat roof of one of these Manhattan office blocks.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, my first beer in a random bar is Brooklyn Lager. I have never been impressed by this beer in the UK, where it’s usually old, poorly served and extortionately priced. Here, it’s still extortionately priced, like everything in New York, but it tastes much fresher with a solid hop flavour. Yuengling Lager, which I order because it’s a legendary brand that I’m never likely to see at home, is frankly disappointing – but I realise there’s a sort of continuity here; these brown, proletarian Yankee lagers.

There’s much more beer-wise to New York – much more to Brooklyn, in fact, than Brooklyn Brewery. Rather like London, the city is experiencing mushroom-like growth in small breweries, brewing a diverse range of styles.

Transmitter is the first brewery we make it to – “always well received” is the delightfully corny slogan. Transmitter is so small that it has neither a bar, nor draught beer, nor a customer toilet. You can only taste small samples and buy bottles to take away. We try them all, of course. As is usual in such places, what’s available depends very much on what’s been packaged recently and what is sold out.

Transmitter’s speciality is what the Americans call “farmhouse ales”, which is more than slightly ironic, as it’s in an industrial building between the Pulaski road bridge and a railway yard, which does have a certain gritty romanticism to it, but is about as far from a farmhouse as it’s possible to get. But damn if the beer isn’t good. A grapefruit witbier tasted, well, like a witbier with extra grapefruit, and New York Saison is seriously drinkable.

Given time, I would have happily spent an afternoon supping a few bottles of New York Saison, but the bar is higher: I need to choose which one is worth schlepping back across the Atlantic. F4, a “Brett Farmhouse Ale” brewed with three strains of Brettanomyces hits the spot: tasty, funky and complex.

If we’d had more time, I would have done this differently. We end up travelling all the way across Brooklyn to the next beer. Transmitter is practically in Queens while the next brewery, is at the opposite end, right down in the south-west at Red Hook. But Sunday opening times being what they are, we have no choice.

Other Half  is the hot brewery in New York right now. Their occasional releases of super-fresh cans – canned on Friday, sold on Saturday – provoke the kind of madness that leads people to queue up hours in advance for their IPAs. We arrive the day after one of these releases. Predictably, there are no cans left.

It’s just before closing time and we have time to squeeze in just one beer each.

Green Diamonds (9.1%) with Amarillo and Galaxy hops is sweet, oily and well balanced, with long sustained bitterness. Very pleasant with slight sweaty, yoghurty notes.

Equinox IPA (7%) has a big “dank” or marijuana-like aroma, all the better for the somewhat lower alcohol content, making it light-bodied and very drinkable. There’s a bit of fruit salad sweeties too. Quite dry so never gets cloying. It reminds me a little of one of Adnams’ single-hop pales, and I am forced to think how good it would be as a cask beer.

Both beers are good, yet neither are really in the category “I must seek this beer out again”. They have only a slight haze, no murk here. I do like the tap-room a lot – it is very small and very nice, done out in that hipster paint (guaranteed to flake off after three months). Despite the hipsters it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, as UK bars often do.

Though the beer has little in common with Transmitter’s, Other Half’s location also adds fashionable urban grit to its appeal. The brewery and tap-room are opposite a drive-thru McDonald’s and underneath a freeway, which I guess is the New York equivalent of London’s railway arches.

Back in Manhattan for dinner – it takes half an hour longer than anticipated to get back on the subway – Heartland Brewery is a small chain of former brewpubs. It still feels very much like the type of brewpub you can read about in Michael Jackson’s books, food- and family-oriented.

A few years ago Heartland decided for reasons of efficiency and consistency to consolidate all their brewing in one place and downgrade the pubs to outlets for their beer. The facility, now named Greenpoint Beer Works, now produces all the beer for the restaurants. Heartland’s head brewer Kelly Taylor wanted his own range of beer, but rather than leave, he chose to contract the brewing out – to himself. So his KelSo beers are now also made there.

I only get to try one Heartland beer because we’re just in for dinner, not beer ticking. Although there are more exotic options available, I choose the beer in the “classic American Pilsner” style, which, according to legend, is what American lagers were like before Prohibition. This style combines substantial bitterness with a large dose of maize in the mash, which supposedly helped German immigrant brewers to clarify beers made with dodgy American barley in the late 19th century.

I think I prefer my lagers all-malt, but I wanted to try this as there isn’t really anything like it in Europe. There are maize-laden lagers in Belgium and Italy, of course, but they do not have the hop bitterness that this does, whereas the hoppy German and Czech lagers are all-malt.

I’ve noticed that the American brewers tend to brew a fair number of what they call “classic styles” – your Dunkel lager, ESB and so on. More so than the fashionable UK brewers. Don’t dismiss Heartland as conservative though: brewers from Other Half and Flagship worked here before moving on.

It’s fascinating to trace the generations through New York’s breweries: the brand that contract-brewed until there was money to build a facility (Brooklyn); the chain of pubs with a slightly dated feel (Heartland); the hipsters making tiny amounts of beer under bridges (Transmitter, Other Half, Big Alice). What they all seem to have in common is a connection with the city they’re in. It’s an exciting time to drink in New York.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

“Craft beer” crumbling

I didn’t go to Craft Beer Rising at Drygate last year because I have no interest in craft beer. How can you be interested in something that doesn’t exist?

I’d found CBR rather irritating in advance, because it was, at the time, at the forefront of “craft beer” hype in the media, along with journalists who smelled the promise of a lucrative stream of articles misinforming the masses.

I went this year. I’ve changed my tune on Craft Beer Rising. I now think it’s great. But possibly not for the reasons they hope.

I like it because it’s so transparently opportunistic and cynical. Not for them the tedious discussions of what “craft“ means. They’re only interested in one criterion: “Have you got £1200 for a stall?”

This allows all manner of brewers to take part who are otherwise sneered at by “craft” enthusiasts: Caledonian, Greene King and the like. Even the hated Tennents/C&C are there, in the shape of Heverlee, their Belgian lager brand.

This in turn devalues the c-word, making it more and more obvious to all that it’s a marketing term, as meaningless as “premium lager” or “world beer”. This is an excellent development. Once it’s completed we can all get back to actually talking about beer and what it tastes like.

What of the very small brewers who balk at ponying up the reduced-rate £700? It might put most of them off, but then “craft” has never been about them. It’s always been a label for industrial breweries to distinguish themselves from rather larger industrial breweries with better quality control. Nearly every actual microbrewer I speak to thinks it’s nonsense. Observe who shouts the loudest about “craft beer”. It’s not the people who brew in railway arches, it’s the people with PR agencies.

Speaking of PR agencies, it must be awful for Brewdog. They’ve been placed right next to the supposedly “faux-craft” Meantime, and just three stands away from the presumably even faux-er Blue Moon, in a venue, Drygate, that James Watt once pompously declared was “exactly the sort of thing that should not be allowed to call itself craft”. In line with the purported principles of their United Craft Brewers club, to defend the term from being hijacked by bigger operators, by rights they should be boycotting this event and denouncing it loudly. On the other hand, there’s a shitload of money to be made here, which any brewer can tell you is more important than principles or consistency.

It is, though, mildly interesting to observe who’s here and who isn’t. Stewart of Edinburgh. Harviestoun. Belhaven/Greene King. Brewdog. Meantime. Inveralmond. Heverlee. Blue Moon. Budweiser Budvar. Thistly Cross cider. Oakham. Hardknott. Beer52 the online retailer. Caledonian. Dent. McEwans/Charles Wells. Lerwick. Wooha. Dunns wholesalers. Thornbridge. Nobody would call this the cutting edge of fashion. But it does represent a strata of producers ready to fill the retail space that the interminable “craft” hype has helped create. It doesn’t matter really that, actually, hardly any of them are the small brewers that “craft beer” ideologues pretend it is all about.

I was complaining that I wanted to be talking about beer, right? Let’s get on. My first drink is from Dent, a brewery from Cumbria which I am slightly surprised to see here; it has always struck me as a typical country brewery happy with serving its local market. The beer is unsurprising: Aviator, 4% bitter, but splendidly fresh-tasting. Another beer, Kamikaze, has unfortunately been attacked by diacetyl beetles.

On the other side of the room is Hardknott, also from Cumbria but in a way the polar opposite of Dent; much newer and with aspirations from the start not to be limited to the local market. They’ve brought along Intergalactic Space Hopper, which brewer Dave thinks may be the hoppiest beer at the festival. He could be right. Although Dave says there is only a small bittering charge, the beer has a big, clean, aspirin-like bitterness. It’s quite fun but gets heavy going after a while.

At Harviestoun, new beers are on offer. While they have flown the pale’n’hoppy flag longer than almost anyone else in Scotland, only now have they produced a beer actually called IPA. It’s resinous with English hops and has a bit of caramel, tasting slightly heavy.
For the tickers, there’s a raspberry imperial stout at 10.5% which may resurface at some point in the future.

Belhaven are masters of producing beers that you can’t actually buy anywhere. What intrigues me about this stall are the bottles of Wee Heavy. I’ve never seen this beer in a pub in twenty years of drinking in Scotland, and assumed it was all exported, but I am assured they sell it here. In the Belhaven pubs, perhaps? Well, no, because it’s down to the managers what they order. Isn’t the point of having tied pubs so that you have a guaranteed outlet for your grog?

This is a shame, because the Wee Heavy is excellent – rich and sticky with huge flavours of raisins, raisins and more raisins. If they wanted to, Greene King and Belhaven could  run pubs with a killer range of beers: XX Mild, Abbot Reserve, Twisted Thistle, Wee Heavy, Strong Suffolk. Probably a bit conservative for today’s market, but hell I’d drink there.

At the Oakham stall, Green Devil on keg is a good example of why cask beer is better. It’s somehow sweeter than the cask version and tastes “closed”, without any unfolding of its flavour. Good luck to anyone trying to sell this at crafty prices, when the superior cask version is flowing out elsewhere in the city at £3 a pint.

Budweiser Budvar has a stand, so I guess that means craft breweries can be state-owned too. There’s a tankové pale lager on draught. I have to try that, but I can’t say it tastes any better than the bottled version. Try this too, says the bloke. Unlike other Czech dark lagers I’ve tried (which often deliver the rich maltiness that German dunkel beers promise), the flavour of Budvar Dark is mostly roast malt and liquorice. I’m not too impressed by anything here, but then I’ve always preferred Pilsner Urquell anyway.

I was wrong earlier. Tennent’s are here too. Although their stall has been banished inside, where a lonely-looking rep is giving out samples of Tennent’s Whisky Beer. This seems to have gained more whisky flavour than it had when it was launched.

My permanent quest for decent lager leads me back to Thornbridge’s stand, where the magnificent greenish-yellow Bayern pilsner is being poured. Now this is what it’s all about. A beautiful beer with soft carbonation and gentle bitterness – possibly in the top three British lagers I’ve drunk this year. For a moment the idea crosses my mind that they could send all the other breweries home and just serve Thornbridge Bayern all weekend. In litres.

I liked Inveralmond Sunburst lager previously, but it doesn’t stand up well against Bayern. Too biscuity, inappropriately fruity and badly poured. Of the many lager brands on show, only Thornbridge seem to have bothered teaching people how to pour the stuff.

Once I got there, I liked Craft Beer Rising much more than I was expecting to. A friend was complaining about the lack of “real” craft brewers and about the non-craftiness of some of the brewers who did turn up. I kind of liked it for precisely the same reason. It lets us see which “craft mavericks” are charlatans; whose premium lager is all piss and wind; and which mass-market accountant-led brewery still has a decent beer or two lurking in its portfolio.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Funding success for new breweriana exhibition

Brass bushing from a wooden cask
Brewing Heritage Scotland, a new community interest company set up to create a permanent collection of Scottish breweriana, is on course to open its first exhibition.

The company was created by members of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association to find a home for the three-dimensional artifacts such as beer cans, keg fonts, promotional items, ashtrays etc. which have been donated to the Scottish Brewing Archive but cannot be usefully held at the archive’s base at Glasgow University.

BHS has now succeeded in winning funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to transform its collection into an exhibition telling the story of Scottish brewing. The first exhibition is to be at the Central Library, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, from 1 to 31 October inclusive.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Ask for Rudi

You know that beer tourism has become a mass phenomenon when you check into your hotel and there’s a notice in the elevator trying to sell you grey-market Westvleteren.*

Roeselare is a smallish town, a bit out of the way but surprisingly easily accessible by train from London. Jump off the Eurostar in Lille, change at Kortrijk (it is essential when checking the departure boards at Lille to know, or learn very quickly, that the French railways list Kortrijk only by its French name, Courtrai) and you’re there.

Outside Belgium, Roeselare is probably recognised more by homebrewers than drinkers, as it’s the name under which one of the American yeast suppliers sells a particular blend of microorganisms. But mention the name Rodenbach, and eyes light up. This is the small town that is home to the world’s most famous oud bruin.

We are unsure whether it’s possible to visit the brewery – the website is rather vague and suggests you can book only in a group of 20 – but when we ask at hotel reception there is a satisfyingly stereotypical Belgian response. Should not be a problem. Ask for Rudi. Everyone in the town knows Rudi.

When we roll up at the brewery there are a few other would-be visitors milling about. We don’t need to ask for Rudi – it turns out to be no problem to join a tour. Hooray! First of all we are offered (excellent) coffee in a room a little like a university lecture theatre, and shown a film about the history of the brewery. The film dwells heavily on the great historical achievements of the Rodenbach family. The family has not controlled the brewery for ages – if they did the hagiography in this part would be just a little bit creepy.

Then it’s into the brewery. All you think you know about Belgian beer goes out of the window here: no cobwebs, definitely no monks, no blokes in flat caps turning antiquated cast-iron wheels. The actual brewhouse itself is so modern and fully-automated that it’s not worth showing to us, and we just get to peer through the windows from the brewery yard.

Rodenbach pre-maturation sounds like a pretty dull beer, to be honest. A basic top-fermented beer with not much in the way of hops, made from a grist of malt and about 40% maize. The magic takes place later, in the foeders, huge oak vats where the beer undergoes a second fermentation with lactic and acetic bacteria. At Rodenbach they call this regime mixed fermentation (gemengde gisting in Flemish).

A tantalising glimpse of a time when
Rodenbach made something other
than Oud Bruin.
I was surprised to learn later that there are several ways to produce Flemish red and some other producers have quite different fermentation regimes. At least one is made by blending a straightforward brown beer with lambic.

Expansion over the years means that there are now several levels of foeder storage. The smell of the foeder rooms changes the further down you go. On the top floor the aroma is fresh oak and acetic acid; as we descend it becomes mustier until in the oldest cellar a rich, balsamic-vinegar scent fills the air.

At the end we get to sit at tables between the foeders and sample the beers. From the brewery we try standard Rodenbach and Grand Cru, as well as the latest new product, Rosso.

We are sitting with an American couple who have also made the pilgrimage to Roeselare; one of them holds a position with the US Brewers’ Association. They want to see Rudi too. Sadly Rudi has gone home for the day. He is off on a trip tomorrow and probably packing his suitcase, explains our guide. The Americans are disappointed, for they have a gift for him: a bottle of a special Allagash beer. They give Rudi’s bottle to us instead rather than schlep it back across the Atlantic.

Perhaps strangely, there’s no foederbier – the straight, unblended aged beer – on offer at the brewery. We track that down at Kornbloeme, one of the town’s better-regarded beer cafes. Until fairly recently there was a cafe on Groter Markt which offered this on handpump, but this has apparently gone and the version we encounter in Kornbloeme is from a keg. Maybe a slightly wider distribution of this beer is planned in the future? 

The foederbier is accompanied by two ubiquitous features of Belgian cafes that the guidebooks don’t tell you about: spaghetti bolognese, and a menu in Comic Sans. 

If you ever see this post, Rudi, I’ve got a bottle of beer for you.

* It’s actually a very nice hotel, and the staff were very helpful when I needed a phone call made in Flemish. The resale price was also only around half of what you would shell out in the tourist shops of Brugge and Brussels (which are awash with the stuff). 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Heverlee pops up and pops out the new beers

You know, I’m starting to think that C&C, owners of Tennent’s and Magner’s, actually know what they’re doing in the beer market.

They’ve quietly (and not so quietly) been diversifying their product range for the last couple of years. There’s Tennent’s for the lads of course. Drygate for the experimenters and beer geeks, Heverlee to compete with Stella Artois, and most recently Menabrea to compete with Peroni and Moretti. All these appear as separate brands to the consumer, but enable C&C to serve diverse market segments without cross-contamination.

This is quite important, as a large part of the appeal of the premium brands is that consumers believe (in their own minds at least) that they are trading up to a superior product. The big red T has a peculiarly polarising effect on consumers. For selling standard lager it’s a big plus; but I’ve pondered before why it seems to be toxic for anything else.

It can also be amusing: I saw one drinker on Twitter telling Tennent’s in no uncertain terms to go to hell, as he now liked Heverlee better. I was slightly tempted to tell him that Tennent’s and Heverlee were the same company, but why be so cruel?

The latest episode in the promotion of Heverlee – and definitely one of the less quiet ones, where the PR machine has been revved up substantially – is the establishment of a “pop-up” bar in Glasgow’s Tontine Lane. This lane was sealed off to the public without explanation three years ago, and has now been opened for the bar – not “opened for the first time” as parroted by ignorant bloggers and journalists. We are promised Witte and two “secret” new Heverlee beers too.

The new beers turned out to be what might have been predicted – got the lager, got the wit, what else can we have? Yes, they are the classic double act of a blonde and a brune, as found on the menu of just about every Belgian cafe.

There is no information given about where the three new beers are brewed, so I’m going to assume that they, like the lager, are made at Brouwerij Martens in Bocholt. The bar promises to offer a line-up of other Belgian specialities, but there was no sign of these. It would be interesting to try Martens’ own Pils and Wit to see how different they are.

While Heverlee Witte has been popping up around Glasgow all summer, I hadn’t run into it yet, so it was nice to have a chance to try it (I’ll try any beer once). It’s noticeable that in the UK at least, witbier has become a style of beer that corporate breweries rather than small ones push. I guess it’s easy-drinking and therefore mass-market-friendly. There’s Hoegaarden, Blue Moon, Vedett and the rather odd but nice Flying Dutchman cask wit that Caledonian brewed with Henk Oexman as a nod to the Heineken mothership. Now Heverlee Witte joins them. It’s light-bodied, very heavily spiced with coriander and quite drinkable, certainly less bland than Hoegaarden.

Filament lightbulbs and incongruous bicycles
The lager is still a slightly better take on Belgian pils: decent hop character and surprisingly high bitterness for what it is. The pouring of it seems a quite crucial factor though: a subsequent glass just tastes of nasty metallic CO2. The bar staff faithfully skim the foam off the top of the glass with a wet knife, Low Countries-style. They do it for the blonde and brune as well as the lager. I’m not sure I like the effect this has on them, giving the head a smooth, plasticky sheen reminiscent of old-fashioned keg heavy.

The blonde (6.1%) is full-bodied but bland, with just a few yeasty notes to add interest and a crisp, candy edge which is pleasant enough.

Heverlee Bruin is my favourite of the four: Treacle toffee, a little umami, slight note of soy sauce, rich smooth caramel. At 7.1% a nice warming beer for these cold, rainy July evenings in Glasgow.

The bar itself is the a former workshop or loading bay of one of these old industrial buildings that stand around in Glasgow, unused and neglected even in the high-rent Merchant City district. The back court is an impressive edifice of white glazed brickwork, and houses Douglas Gordon’s artwork Empire – along with a genuine relic, the neon sign which once hung outside the Mitre Bar a few streets away.

It’s enlightening too to observe how easily the pop-up aesthetic has gone mainstream and been commodified. All the cliches are in place: glazed tiles; beer list written on the same tiles with a marker pen; painted pallets with flowers; cutlery in baked bean tins; and of course those bloody Edison light bulbs – the most inefficient bulbs in existence.

A nice touch is having the signs for the toilets in Flemish and French.

My portion of mussels and chips costs £12 – well, mussels are pricey and it is a generous portion. They are cooked in a tasty, slightly under-seasoned broth with onion and parsley and, allegedly, white wine. An achievement in itself, considering the temporary kitchen here is built of chipboard. There are several other mussel dishes on the menu, and I’m surely not the only one disappointed that in a beer-centric place like this, having the mussels cooked in gueuze is not among them.

I like the space and will be back. It’s a creditable offering and the beers are decent and workmanlike – certainly somewhat tastier than the brands they’re competing with in the UK market. Due to the location, if you feel like extending your Belgian fantasy, you can just nip along the street to Blackfriars afterwards and have some of their bottled lambic.

“Heverlee at Tontine” is open until 2 August. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

I drank bitter all night

I didn't intend to go to the Glasgow Real Ale Festival and spend all night drinking bitter from old-fashioned family breweries. I really didn't.

But as soon as I got into the hall and saw that there were five Harvey’s beers on sale my fate was more or late sealed. I love Harvey's and it's so rarely seen up here that I will take any chance I get to drink it, even though in principle I approve of the fact that it's hardly ever distributed far from its home turf.

The sweet yet dry and austere flavour of Harvey's is common across all the beers I sample from the proper 3.5% IPA to the stronger, sweeter Thomas Paine.

A new brewery in Great Yarmouth, Lacons, seems to draw on brewing heritage for inspiration too – it is named after a defunct former brewery in the town. Head brewer is Wil Wood, formerly of Fyne Ales, which is probably why the festival organisers have chosen to stock the beers. On tasting them the Wood signature of a clean, satisfying hop edge is immediately apparent. I've wanted to try these since Wil left Fyne, and I was not disappointed. The glorious 8% Audit Ale is rich and luscious with fresh orangey notes rather than the shrivelled raisin flavours found in other barley wines. A substantial resiny hop bitterness balances it out.

But it’s so luscious that a half is enough. I am greedy and try to cram in a second at closing time, and it's too much.

Theres wood of a different nature further down the bar. Theakston Old Peculier is by all accounts not the beer it once was. I only have it because it comes from a wooden cask. You can really taste the wood, notwithstanding Ron’s research suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to. It doesn’t save the beer though, which tastes of treacley water that's had some pencils in it.

You'd think that people wouldn't come to a beer festival to drink beers as common as Timothy Taylor Boltmaker, but they do. Well, I do. This mousy, unchallenging beer is subtly addictive and massively drinkable.
If Old Peculier has lost its mojo, on the other hand, I am reasonably sure that Timothy Taylor’s and Harvey’s beers have not changed much. There’s surely a reason these old-school breweries are so revered. So I spent my evening mostly drinking those. Not a bad choice, and there's always tomorrow. The G-RAF is on until Saturday.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Iain Turnbull

A while back I went to a brewer’s funeral. Iain Turnbull was a man I hardly knew at all—in fact I only ever met him twice; but he made such an impression on me that I had to go.

Iain was the type who would, and did, do things like request a Welsh-language census form while living in Stornoway, just for the fun of being wilfully vexatious. He worked at Courage before moving to Brains in Wales, took a break from brewing for some years and returned to work in microbreweries when they started to appear in Scotland. He was involved in the re-establishment of brewing in the once-famous brewing town of Prestonpans, and was one of the group who set up Restalrig and then Fisherrow breweries in Edinburgh, but the sudden death of their managing director David Murray hit the latter business hard and it closed a year later.

Iain was a believer in the adage “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself,” and had elected to conduct his own funeral service from beyond the grave, via a pre-recorded CD. It was something of a surprise to suddenly once again hear his light, melodious voice that had never quite fitted his beardy exterior. Before the service I had been told a rather indiscreet anecdote about Iain by an old friend of his, but Iain himself managed to outdo this by some margin. It was certainly one of the more eccentric funerals I have attended: the coffin arrived in a brewery van carrying three empty casks on its roof in the departed’s honour, and once we left the chapel to the strains of “Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” we were taken to the highly-regarded Staggs pub in nearby Musselburgh, where Iain’s funeral beer was on tap.

When I first met Iain he had already been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been featured in the press as the brewer who’s brewed his last beer with the proceeds going towards a cancer charity. This extremely strong and sweet beer had been in cask for three years since it was brewed. Iain had actually brewed his “last” beer several times, having neglected to die when the doctors had predicted he would. The last time I saw him a few years ago he was still working, consulting on some brewery project or other down south.

For a terminally ill man, I had thought Iain showed remarkable devotion to the cause of beer when he made the not inconsequential journey from his home in Stornoway to central Scotland to work at CAMRA beer festivals. But at the funeral one of his daughters mentioned that he had later undertaken even more arduous trips to South Wales to visit them — by public transport, mind you.

I meant to get in touch with Iain and interview him for this blog, and now it’s too late. The breweries he worked at, Restalrig and Fisherrow, are in danger of being forgotten, because they didn’t survive, coming in a rather odd period when the likes of Tryst and Fyne Ales were being set up but the explosion of new breweries of recent years hadn’t started yet.

There’s a much better tribute to Iain than I could write here, and some history of Fisherrow, in the form of its archived website over here.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wait, yes it IS your grandad’s homebrew – so what?

It’s a truism that advertising and other PR campaigns are disproportionately aimed either at the young and would-be hip, for reasons which are better explored elsewhere. It seems to me it’s as true of beer as of anything else.

Why the rest of us should care what the young and fashionable are drinking, however, remains something of a mystery. Nonetheless, much of the discourse – especially in the mainstream media and especially around beer festivals – focuses quite unnecessarily on demographic aspects. Does your beer festival attract young, trendy people? Great! Do an older, beer-bellied and tatty-jumpered crowd come? Uh-oh – no double page feature in the Sunday paper for you!

So it was quite refreshing to hear from the PR agency of the charity Royal Voluntary Services. Over the last weekend the RVS put on a one-day festival in Hoxton, GrandFest, “celebrating the craft skills of the older generations.”

Eight masterclasses were on offer, each given by a practitioner over 70 years old who has been doing it for years. One of the classes was homebrewing, given by George, who claims never to have drunk commercial beer. Here’s a wee video:

I asked George a few questions about his brewing.

I wanted to know whether George, who said in the video he’d been homebrewing since the 1970s, had done it continuously since, or given up for a while like many others. Continuously, more than ten litres of beer and wine a week, was the answer.

George’s favourite kit is Premier Bitter and he likes blackcurrant and elderberry wine,  although he says the Elderberry can take years to settle.

What commercial beer did George drink, if any? None! Only what he made. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Last goodbye to the Brauhaus

I’ve been hoping against hope that it wouldn’t come true, but — it looks like my brief taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt beer in December was my last after all. The Russian brewery that was supposedly going to buy and continue the business cancelled at the last minute, and no other investor could be found to take on the brewery, which had been losing money for some years.

The doors finally closed at the end of April. The regional giant Kulmbacher (itself a merger of Erste Kulmbacher (EKU) and Reichelbräu) has bought such assets as were of any value to it, but the brewery itself no longer has a future in making beer.

It’s a sad end to a brewery with more than 150 years of history.  But Kulmbacher has been gobbling up its regional competitors for years, some much older than the Brauhaus – fifteen years ago it picked up the struggling 200-year-old Hiernickel brewery of Hassfurt (between Schweinfurt and Bamberg), and ten years ago it bought the Würzburger Hofbräu which had existed since the 1600s.

The only remaining brewery in the town is now the much smaller Brauerei Roth, which some years ago also had a struggle to regain its independence, having been sold to the Munich Löwenbräu conglomerate.

I cannot conceive of Schweinfurt without its brewery, because it has always been such a central part of my visits there. What’s worse is that no one much seems to care. There’s been no outpouring of grief as happened at the Brauerei Schwelm, for example; and going by the comments on online boards, many local drinkers had no appreciation for the Brauhaus beer anyway. It seems some would still rather buy a crate of Krombacher on special offer than have a local brewery of their own. And that’s a tragedy.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Well, what’s wrong with being sexy?

So now you know.

Our motion about sexism in the beer industry for the CAMRA AGM – many thanks again to all the people who commented and helped develop it – was rejected by the conference procedures committee on the grounds, basically, that everything we were proposing was already CAMRA policy and/or the law of the land.

It’s good that our main points are uncontentious, but as the point of bringing a motion to the AGM was to raise the profile of the issue, I am a bit disappointed that it will not be on the order paper there.

I have appealed the decision, but do not expect anything to come of it.

It would have been nice if CAMRA had taken the opportunity to have headlines reading “CAMRA raises call for fight against beer sexism” rather than “CAMRA issues sexist leaflet”.

But what do I know? I wasn’t the marketing genius who came up with this:

“If you don’t like it, submit a motion to conference,” is what gripers are always told. Well, it’s not as simple as that and perhaps we were naïve. You also need people who know CAMRA’s decision-making set-up and procedures inside out, just as you wouldn’t represent yourself in court or try to get legislation passed without professional advice.

However, next year’s motion is already written and much more concise, so I hope for more success. Here is the full text:

“Conference instructs the National Executive to read the existing equality policy.”

Monday, 6 April 2015

Every Scottish brewery now officially “craft”

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the United States a couple of weeks ago, due to the news that “craft” breweries, as defined by the Brewers Association, have achieved a share of 11% of the American beer market, reaching double digits for the first time.

Good for the brewers involved, but I’m afraid they have a bit of catching up to do. For another bit of news last week reveals that Scotland has achieved an amazing 100% market share, with every one of the nation’s brewers now making “craft beer”.

The Craft Beer Clan is a marketing effort aimed at boosting sales of its members’ beer, focusing at first on emerging markets in the Far East, but also with point-of-sale promotions run in UK convenience stores supplied by one of its principal backers, wholesaler J W Filshill. The alliance is run by a group of mostly ex-Diageo consultants, with the best-known face being Chris Miller, formerly of Caledonian and Harviestoun. We learn:

The Craft Beer Clan of Scotland have gathered humbly with a simple quest: to enjoy and share the finest Scottish craft beer with the world.
Our mission is to team up with Scottish brewers and partners, who wish to join us in our quest to introduce the great flavours of Scottish craft beer with new drinkers around the world. Drinkers who value quality over quantity, who seek out new and interesting flavours, and are never satisfied with the ordinary.

The breweries signing up to be involved in this – currently 19 are listed on the Clan website – range from tiny Jaw Brew through heavy hitters Inveralmond, Fyne and Williams Bros right up the scale to Heineken-owned Caledonian and lager behemoth Tennent’s.

Even though its core products are in long-term decline, with volumes slowly slipping year after year, Tennent’s still brews more than half the beer drunk in Scottish pubs. If they’re a craft brewer, then so are all the others smaller than them.

I am sure this will wind up many “craft beer” enthusiasts – for most of whom Tennent’s is the devil incarnate – tremendously, which is a very good thing. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The beer that changed my life

By Dr. Volkmar Rudolf/Tilman2007 (Own work)
[GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I was dismayed shortly after New Year to hear that the old-established Brauhaus Schweinfurt brewery from the town of the same name in Franconia had gone into liquidation. It’s a brewery that has a very special place for me, because it was the first beer I ever drank and enjoyed.

The Brauhaus is a typical regional Bavarian brewery of the type which still have a strong position in their local market, although their numbers are in long-term decline as more and more disappear, replaced by a Krombacher and Bitburger monoculture. You won’t find their beer in Britain either, although bizarrely enough their alcohol-free lager did turn up occasionally some years ago.

So, most beer drinkers will never come across it. Unless, like me, you come from Motherwell, a post-industrial dump in the West of Scotland. Due to a common interest in heavy industry, the formerly steel-producing Motherwell has a twin town partnership with Schweinfurt and its huge ball-bearing factories.

More than 25 years ago now, and through a complete coincidence, I got to take part in an exchange visit. This so nearly never even happened, as I was on the reserve list rather than in the original group. As a raw 18-year-old I was thrown into a week of worthy tours of factories and social enterprises – combined with evenings spent at beer festivals. The visit was in summer and at that time of year southern German towns are alive with local festivals organised by groups as varied as church choirs and the ward branches of political parties.

I swear I couldn’t have had a better introduction to beer than being submerged in this. We were confronted with litre glasses overflowing with frothy beer, whole evenings drinking with the other participants. Much of my knowledge of the German language has definitely been acquired by osmosis. Sat on the hard, orange-painted wooden benches typical of beer gardens, my command of it seemed to improve with every mouthful of beer I took.  

The golden liquid was strangely bitter to my inexperienced palate, but there was a rich sweetness to it as well. The taste grew on me, litre by litre, until by the end of the trip I was a lager drinker. I remember carrying ten bottles home in my luggage. The same year Michael Jackson’s The Beer Hunter series aired on British TV and I was enthralled.

How the Brauhaus Pils label looked when I first encountered it
So I’m perhaps a bit unusual among British beer lovers of my generation, in that I discovered the world of beer through proper lager rather than through cask ale. There was no real ale in Motherwell then (with the exception of Wetherspoons there still isn’t), so my first exposure to a beer that tasted good was the Bavarian stuff. I scorned other beers at first, turning up my nose at anything that wasn’t German, but the bug had got me and soon I was trying and sampling my way through as many of the locally available beers as I could afford. It was quite a simple methodology. There were no beer rating websites then. I simply bought every beer once. If I liked it, I bought it again. If I didn’t, I didn’t.

When I briefly lived in Schweinfurt a couple of years later, I got to know the Brauhaus beers better. I decided the Pils was still may favourite. They made wheat beer as well, but I thought those of the local rival – the long since taken over Werner-Bräu of Poppenhausen – were better. On the other hand, Brauhaus made better lagers than Werner. It was a good combination.

This week it was reported that an investor – a family-owned Russian brewery which has not been named – has been found to take over the Brauhaus business. As well as the brewery, the company is purchasing the (currently separately owned) land on which it sits, and promises significant investment in the plant.

As the alternative would have been a complete asset-stripping and closure of the brewery, I am glad that it will survive for at least a little longer. We can only speculate what plans the new owners may have in the long term. To me, what matters is that I will get to take at least one more trip to Schweinfurt to drink the Brauhaus beer that changed my life.

Recently – but before the insolvency news broke – I was in Schweinfurt again for the first time in years. It’s only about half an hour away from Bamberg so I tend to give the latter my attention. I only had time for one beer but dropped into the Brauhaus am Markt restaurant in the pretty town square opposite the Rathaus. This was the original site of the brewery before it moved a bit down the road to its current site shortly before the First World War, so seemed appropriate enough.

I didn’t know it at the time, but had no investor been found that would have been my last taste of Brauhaus Schweinfurt.

Ordering a Pils – “Peeels” as the waitress called it in the local accent – I was prepared for the worst: to find that nostalgia had coloured my memory of a dull, bog-standard lager that only a neophyte would find impressive. I once thought that Warsteiner and Hacker-Pschorr were superb, after all.

But when my beer arrived, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve thought for a long time that there is a distinct style of Franconian Pilsner, more similar to a Czech beer than to the Pils of northern Germany (which shouldn’t be that surprising when you observe the proximity of Bohemia and Franconia on a map). It was as good as ever, full-bodied with a slightly citrussy hop aroma. I was quite delighted, and I hope to be delighted by Brauhaus Pils again for quite some time to come.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

How can CAMRA lead in combatting beer sexism?

[Note: This post has been edited.]

I don’t have time at the moment to write an introduction explaining why this document is here, but I am just putting this draft up here so that people can comment. Thanks to all who have already made suggestions for improvements.

One of the starkest problems of British beer is that it is still widely seen as a drink for men. Many women who do drink it comment regularly that they experience sexist behaviour in the world of beer – whether from fellow drinkers, bar staff, festival volunteers or from the beer industry itself which regularly markets itself with material that assumes its audience is male (and also sexist).

Some people think that CAMRA is part of the problem. I think that CAMRA is actually a bit better than society in general, but being a bloke I could be grossly mistaken. If I’m right, CAMRA should be showing a good example and tackling sexism, rather than turning a blind eye to it. The idea that CAMRA should be in the forefront of making things better is one I owe to this post by Yvan.

On paper CAMRA is already committed to equality.

It’s time, I think, for us to adopt a stronger commitment to being on the right side of this, and the motion you can read below has been submitted to CAMRA’s AGM to be held in April.

After some discussion in the comments, we amended the motion as follows, which is the motion as submitted for the Members’ Weekend (struck-out portions have been removed, and additions are highlighted).

In the interests of reaching a consensus, we stop short of imposing mandatory sanctions on branches, pubs or breweries.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the discussion.

Draft motion below:

CAMRA has a long-standing commitment to equality. We have never sided with self-styled "traditionalists" who maintain that pubs are men's domain. 
CAMRA has an existing policy that we do not tolerate racist or sexist harassment.
Yet time and again we hear from women who say they are not comfortable drinking beer in pubs and at beer festivals. They complain of being patronised, leered at and having to put up with inappropriate comments. 
This is not CAMRA’s fault., but CAMRA needs to step up and show through action that it is on the side of equality. We cannot solve the broad problem of sexism in society, but we can play a part in improving things.
Our aim should be that real ale pubs and CAMRA festivals are better than the average. We are already proud of the fact that fights at CAMRA festivals are extremely rare; we should try to ensure that sexual harassment is equally rare.
Festival volunteers should be aware that both male and female festival visitors may be experienced real ale drinkers, or have never tried it before, or anywhere in between.
CAMRA is pro-active in making the world of real ale welcoming and attractive to all.
CAMRA festivals must be exemplary in this regard. 
1. Measures for beer festivals
a) CAMRA beer festivals shall not order beers that have inappropriate or sexist names or pump clips. CAMRA festival beer orderers shall have discretion not to order beers that have inappropriate or sexist names or pump clips.
b) If branches have difficulty in determining what is inappropriate or sexist, the NE or RD may use their discretion to constitute some kind of formal adjudicating body.
c b) If necessary (e.g. repeated complaints), food and merchandise vendors may be vetted on similar criteria. 
d c) Festivals shall have a public policy against harassment (printed in the festival programme).
e d) CAMRA shall produce education materials and provide training for festival volunteers on tackling inappropriate behaviour. 
2. Measures for pubs
a) CAMRA shall communicate to pubs that equality is a concern for us. We encourage pubs to adopt similar measures to our own: training staff, not selling sexist beers and not tolerating harassment. 
b) Pubs that are known to be dangerous or unwelcoming for women shall not be eligible for the Good Beer Guide. Branches shall maintain a confidential register of pubs which are problematic, and ask members to provide feedback/complaints. b) Branches may maintain a confidential register of pubs which are dangerous or unwelcoming for women, and ask members to provide feedback/complaints. Branches may exclude such pubs from the GBG at their discretion.
3. General measures
a) CAMRA shall take steps to ensure that its own publications and publicity materials are not sexist.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Giving succour to the enemy

Dear old CAMRA seems to have a knack for putting its foot in things.

For Tuesday night saw the award for CAMRA’s Parliamentarian of the Year go to the MP for Burton-on-Trent, Andrew Griffiths.

The rationale is that Griffiths has -- as he well ought to do as chair of the All-Party Beer Group -- supported the cut in beer duty that CAMRA has called for for many years, and was finally implemented in 2013.

But another of CAMRA’s key campaigns has been for reform of the parasitical pub companies that are making it impossible for so many publicans to make an honest living. This campaign too had a major parliamentary success at the end of last year -- but it was no thanks to Griffiths, who was arguably the parliamentary leader of opposition to the reform and fought against the legislation every step of the way.

It makes no sense to dish out awards to people who are enemies of your most important campaigns, whether or not they were allies in the past. It negates the acres of editorials and the thousands of pounds of its members’ money that CAMRA has spent arguing for reform.

It will most certainly alienate the struggling publicans that CAMRA has allied with to fight for pubco reform -- and it will also drive away many of CAMRA’s own members who have -- at the request of St Albans, by the way -- spent time and effort lobbying MPs.

What is the logic here? I genuinely can’t see it.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Maclays Inns in administration

Monogram detail from former Maclays brewery
I was as surprised as anyone to hear yesterday that Maclay Inns had gone into administration. I have no inside knowledge of the company, so am not going to speculate as to the cause.

But on reflection, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. The company has a history of making decisions which – with the benefit of hindsight – can be seen to have been spectacularly stupid. First among these, of course, is its decision in 1999 to give up brewing and concentrate on running its estate of pubs – just as a wave of new brewery openings began to revive the Scottish beer landscape. The last remnant of the brewery offices in Alloa, now a shitty Belhaven pub, is a reminder of Maclays’ folly.

Hindsight is easy, of course. Perhaps Maclays didn’t have the means in the late 1990s of hanging on for a few more years. It wasn’t a large brewery. That’s why it was still independent. Larger breweries like George Younger or Aitken’s of Falkirk had been bought up and closed in the 1960s. According to this contemporary article the brewery was worn out, needed rebuilding and the business wasn’t profitable enough to finance that.

Maclays has in recent years made considerable investments in the pubs it has retained, and now runs some attractive pubs, which by all accounts are profitable. Hopefully all the pubs will continue trading without job losses. Perhaps those of their staff who know about beer – if they are still in work – may even relish the prospect of no longer being forced to run ridiculous “craft beer festivals” featuring beers from the once revered, but now widely derided Caledonian Brewery.

It is quite possible that Tennent’s and Magners maker C&C – which already owns 25% of Maclays – will seize the chance of buying the rest. We know that C&C is looking to get back into the on-trade – its abortive bid for the Spirit pubco shows that. If not C&C, I am fairly optimistic the pubs will find other buyers.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Here come the nanos

Around eighteen months ago I was talking to someone who asked me about the beer scene in Glasgow. I said that I thought we were on the cusp of something big about to happen. And for once, I was right – although it was hardly a difficult prediction.

For several years we have looked east with slight envy as new brewery after new brewery sprang up in and around Edinburgh and the Forth Valley. Meanwhile, an hour to the west Loch Lomond started up in an enviable location – making it all the more inexplicable that local pubs in Balloch wouldn’t sell their beer, but they have been able to build up trade in Glasgow and Edinburgh. 2014 saw the launch of Bute Brewing Co in Rothesay. Adam has visited and provided a much better report than I could have done. It could be that the Clyde Coast could experience a renaissance as a tourist destination, now that there are more and more places to get a decent beer.

In Glasgow city proper, scarred by a legacy of failed brewpubs (Pig & Whistle, Millers Thumb, Glaschu, Leonardo’s, etc.), we still had only three breweries since 2006 – Clockwork, Tennents and WEST. We have the same population as Portland, Oregon, who have ten times as many. It took until 2014 for the dam to break as two micros began operating – Jaw Brew in Hillington, technically inside the city, and the achingly hip Drygate, clinging to the side of the Tennents site in Dennistoun.

Within days of the beginning of 2015 we already have news of two new outfits in Glasgow city, and one slightly outside.

Ride Brewing Co. is the brainchild of Dave Lannigan, one of the names behind 2013’s South Side Beer Festival. This is a tiny operation which, as I write this, is setting up in the basement of a relatively recently opened restaurant in Drury St, bang slap in the city centre. The brew kit is the German-made Speidel Braumeister, an automated piece of equipment which the manufacturers actually target at wealthy homebrewers. Ride promises to support local good causes with any profits – which is just as well, as I can’t see it (or any of the others mentioned below) being viable as a commercial operation. Drury St (the bar and restaurant) plans to bring a new high-end beer bar to Glasgow, but without the high-end prices charged at some other locations. With its neighbours the old-school Victorian gin palace the Horse Shoe Bar, a lap dancing club on one side and the pro-independence “Yes Bar” on the other, Drury St (the street) is becoming one of Glasgow’s more eclectic back alleys.

Chris Hoss started brewing when he lived in New Zealand. Returning to Glasgow he introduced Callum Mcleod to the joys of making beer at home. The pair tried several very experimental batches including a “South East Asian Pale Ale” with lemongrass, lime leaves, coriander seeds, chili flakes and ginger. Now as Monolith Brewing with the addition of Sean Brown, a bottled IPA, Bellwether, described as “big and fruity” has been launched commercially and the trio, currently brewing on the studio kit at Drygate, are looking for investment to acquire their own premises and equipment. “We've been approaching our brewing like making music: every beer’s like a song with its own reason and meaning and eyecatching cover art.” says Chris.

Just outside Glasgow in Cumbernauld, Lawman Brewing Co is a hobby nanobrewery and proof that you can in fact run a commercial brewery from your kitchen. Craig Laurie is the man behind this and the name comes from his university law studies, before he decided to go into brewing instead. The first beers were launched at Cloisters Bar in Edinburgh before Christmas: Horizon, a juicy APA; Steadfast, a Kölschalike beer that isn’t quite sure it’s not actually a Pilsener; and Obsidian, a strong export stout. A prototype imperial stout is even richer and smoother than Obsidian.

It’s only January. I fully expect to see more new producers springing up throughout the year.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Golden Pints of 2014

Every year I find myself rooting backwards through my Untappd checkins to try and remember what outstanding beers I have consumed; and every year I resolve to blog and check in more, to make the Golden Pints task easier. But life getting in the way of beer ticking is a blessing, not a curse.

Best UK Cask Beer
I am tempted to nominate Batham’s Bitter, as I spent all day drinking it with a friend back in March and still wanted more. However, there is a more suitable candidate that is available in Glasgow, though also not a local beer: Oakham Green Devil. There is a group of dedicated drinkers who follow this beer around the city, waiting to pounce on it as soon as it appears. Cosy free house or city-centre Spoons, the presence of Green Devil is the key criterion. And I can’t say I blame them. It is a superb beer, both tasty and consistent: it looks great (with deep yellow colour and dense white foam), it smells great and it tastes great.

Best UK Keg Beer
Fourpure Pils. Since I raved about it in the summer, I’ve been to the tap room and tasted some of their other beers. They were perfectly alright but not outstanding in the same way as the Pils. I don’t care. One beer of this quality is enough for any brewery. As runner-up, I really enjoyed Drygate’s Inevitable Conclusion, a 9.9% double IPA with gorgeous tropical fruit and root ginger aromas, and if I could have afforded to, I’d have drunk far more of it than would be wise.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Five Points Railway Porter has become a reliable, tasty go-to beer.

Best Overseas Draught
Spezial Lager

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier as usual.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
Ah, who cares?

Best New Brewery Opening 2014
It’s taking some time for them to find their feet, but we have already seen some more than decent beer coming out of Drygate and I think the best is still to come. Every time I have the bog standard Bearface Lager I am reminded of how good it is, and several of the bottle-only or draught-only pilot brews have been really nice.

Runner-up here is Fallen. Paul Fallen has been getting his beer contract-brewed for a couple of years now. Since earlier this year he’s got his own gaff and the difference in the beers is like night and day. One of my major beery regrets of 2014 is not having drunk more of Paul’s beer.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2014
I really liked Grunting Growler’s pop up in the Halt Bar – read why here. Since the sudden end of that, Jehad has found space in the Drake Bar just down the road.

The runner-up here is the Raven on Hope St. I’ve found myself going in here quite a bit with friends. There is usually a more than decent cask beer available and the prices are very reasonable by city-centre standards. Some of Maclays’ other establishments could take lessons here. The music is always too loud.

Best beer and food pairing
People still do that? On the other hand, a pint of barley wine, some cubed beef and about 16 hours in the slow cooker makes an excellent pie filling.

Beer Festival of the Year
For some reason I have failed to make it to the usual round of festivals this year. I made it to Larbert and Paisley and GBBF, and of course the Glasgow CAMRA festival, but missed SRAF, Alloa and others. FyneFest stands out as ever; there is nothing quite like drinking a fresh pint of cask beer in a field.

Supermarket of the Year
To tell the truth, you cannot complain about any of the supermarkets – they all now have a range of perfectly drinkable beers. Not that I buy much beer in them. But this year I got to a Booths store for the first time and the praise this chain gets for its beer is well deserved.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Oh, this is a tough one. Hippo Beers should, by rights, get this as they have gone to considerable lengths this year: from hosting a homebrewing demo to commissioning their own beers from friendly local breweries to launching their own beer festival in the coming spring. I would like to use the award to honour a shop that is providing a splendid selection of beer in a much more challenging location: Maxwells in Pollokshields. Far more than a convenience store that sells decent beer, the range here makes it the best beer retailer on the entire South Side of the city.

Online Retailer of the Year
I have bought beer online precisely once this year. Worthy of an award? The beer arrived safely and postage wasn’t too expensive, but that’s about what you would like to be able to expect.