Sunday, 12 March 2017

Pedigree vs. Pedigree

There was disbelief and scorn aplenty a few months ago when Marston’s announced a radical rebranding of their core range. Say what you like: the defining feature of craft beer is distressed type and a style of graphic design that was briefly fashionable ten years ago. Nothing else matters. It can be cheap, expensive, brewed in a small brewery, brewed in a large brewery, brewed in somebody else’s brewery, made with silly ingredients, not made therewith, hoppy, bland, well made, badly made, anything. The only thing that counts is the distressed type.

Funnily enough, the old labels described the beer as “crafted since 1834”, but the new ones don’t. Gone, too, is the claim on the old label that Pedigree is “matured in oak barrels”, a lie so outrageous that I meant to blog about it two years ago, but never got around to it. The beer is also now an “Amber Ale” rather than Pale Ale – 200 years of Burton brewing heritage thrown in the canal just like that. It appears marketing people throughout the industry now consider a Pale Ale to be one of those vaguely citrussy golden things.

I don’t drink much Pedigree usually. I find the cask version quite bland, but frustratingly it is (like its cousin Bass) only a few steps and maybe some extra dry hops away from being a nice beer. I also crave the sulphury whiff which – equally frustratingly – Burton brewers have been successfully trying to eliminate from their beers for the last three decades or so. At times I have even thought the bottled version was superior, possibly because one has lower expectations of bottled beer to begin with.

Nevertheless, Pedigree is inarguably an iconic British beer, and I thought this change would be a nice opportunity to compare the old and new bottled versions.

Given the pig’s arse Marston’s have made of the branding, I am pleasantly surprised to report that the beer itself has improved. The major difference is that the bottles are now bottle-conditioned (and presumably, corollary with that, no longer pasteurised).

Both pour with a nice dense collar of foam. Old Pedigree appears much paler in the glass than New Pedigree, but that is possibly because, surprisingly, it is not entirely bright (remember, this is the brewery-conditioned one). Obviously this beer is a few months older than the new bottle (I bought it and then had to wait for the new version to appear on the shelves, which took longer than anticipated), but still well within the best-before date (31 July 2017). The aroma is slightly sugary, the taste crisp and minerally as a Burton Pale Ale ought to be, the finish dry and only slightly bitter. Sadly, this bottle is showing its age despite still having a notional five months of shelf life, which just goes to show you shouldn't buy old beer whatever the label says.

New is a generally cleaner and fresher-tasting beer, the sugary note on the nose has gone and although it is a lightly hopped beer, there is a fair bit of hop flavour and a decent bitterness. There is very little yeast sediment, and you’d probably never realise it was bottle-conditioned if it didn’t tell you on the label. Only on the nose, or if you swill the dregs around is there a bit of yeastiness. Whether the fresher taste is down to the bottle-conditioning, the lack of pasteurisation, or the fact it actually is fresher (best-before date 31 December 2017), I guess we’ll never know.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

A law unto himself

Cumbernauld is one of the Scottish “new towns” stamped out of the ground in the aftermath of the Second World War, to ease the overcrowding of the big cities and allow for massive slum clearance there. To outsiders, it’s best known as the setting for the Bill Forsyth film Gregory’s Girl.

It’s only a very short walk from Cumbernauld railway station to the little industrial estate, and if I were a Cumbernauld commuter I’d wish the brewery down the wooded path had an off-sales licence. Maybe one day, but on this still rather frosty morning it’s time to get to work.

With over 100 brewing operations now active in Scotland, it was inevitable that someone would start up a brewery here, and Craig Laurie was the man to do it with his Lawman Brewing Co.

The name comes from Craig’s legal studies at university; there, however, he discovered homebrewing and real ale, and on completion of his degree went to work at a brewery instead of at court.

Craig struck out on his own in late 2015, first brewing tiny amounts in his own kitchen and then moving to a dedicated unit. Brewers often like to latch on to the history of a previous, defunct local brewery, but that’s not an option here: as far as anyone can find out, Lawman is the first commercial brewery that’s ever existed in the town; the villages that made way for the New Town were too small to have supported one, even prior to the 1960s conglomeration of Scottish brewing.

Craig started out with an American pale ale, Horizon, and Steadfast, a Köln-style effort. The most impressive of these early beers to me was Weatherall IPA, a marmaladey strong country bitter which perhaps is not much like what people think of as an IPA these days, but none the worse for that.

The main beers now – at least the ones I see most often – are the pale ’n’ hoppy Pixel Bandit, featuring Admiral and Belma hops, and Onyx stout, which has been dubbed “Stouty Stout” by drinkers. A rye beer called Mr Beast followed and there’s a black IPA occasionally which I haven’t tried. 

Craig is brewing Pixel Bandit today. I’m “helping” (i.e. trying not to get in the way too much.) I once had the knack of pulling the rip-cord on these sacks of malt, but have lost it. Craig helpfully hands me a pair of scissors.

It is an extremely basic brewhouse at Lawman. Craig’s mash tun is basically a simple metal vat with no hatch or any other mod cons. That means stirring the mash, by hand, A lot. It also means that once the mash is done and run off, someone has to climb in and shovel out the draff. My turn. This is why I try to get to new breweries as soon as I can, before they expand: the smaller the brewery, the less mash I have to dig out. So I pull on my wellies and jump in … and immediately sink up to my ankles in the swampy, wet, very hot grain.

Digging mash is hard on the back and the wrists (if you’re an unfit softy like me, at any rate), but you have a strong motivation to clear a space to stand in as fast as possible, before the heat around your feet and calves becomes unbearable. Back in the old days, when even big breweries had to do this by hand, whole teams of draff men would be in the mash tun, stripped to the waist and with wellies filled with cold water for protection.

The newer beers too are still being developed: Pixel Bandit started quite dry and citrussy and has since become more full-bodied and tropical. Craig is enamoured of the effect of a small amount of Belgian melanoidin malt on the beer; less so of the effects of sudden changes to the mains water supply which led to unexpected problems with the beer.

Obsidian is the occasionally produced, stronger, barrel-aged big brother of Stouty Stout (inevitably titled Stoutiest Stout). Craig acquired some rather unusual whisky casks thanks to connections in the whisky trade of his investors – by unusual, I mean from distilleries that have not previously made a habit of passing their casks on to brewers. The resulting beer is smooth and rich and I think the best thing Lawman has produced yet. When I tried the beer on draught at the Paisley Beer Festival last year, the first thought that came to mind was that if I had tasted it blind I would have guessed it to be from Harviestoun – that’s a compliment, by the way.

Others agree, for the bottled version of Obsidian Imperial Stout went on to win the “craft beer” category in the Great British Food Awards, beating competition from Wold Top and Magic Rock. Not bad for a brewery less than a year old. Suspecting he was onto a good thing, Craig has roped in a well-known face on the Edinburgh brewing scene, Benji Bullen, a.k.a. Elixir Brewing Co, to help with the latest barrel-aging project.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Saturdays at Lommi

One of my must-dos on every Cologne visit is downing a few glasses of Kölsch at the splendid little boozer Lommerzheim, in Deutz on the east side of the Rhine. Like another of my favourite pubs, the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow, nothing much has changed in the fabric of the building for about fifty years. The sign outside advertises Dortmund beer, but inside Kölsch is the only beer on offer. Fortunately, it’s Päffgen, so that is no hardship.

In Cologne itself, the pub is already a cult and you have to know when to turn up if you want a seat, especially at the weekend.

When we arrive at 1620 there are already 60 people waiting for the pub to open at 1630. By the time the doors open the crowd has swollen to 80 or more. Thirty seconds after the doors open, every seat inside is taken. It seems a very efficient way to run a drinking establishment, and the place is, if anything, more popular now than when old Hans Lommerzheim was alive.

In the best Rhineland establishments, the single beer is served by gravity from a keg on the bar. Because there is no choice, the beer pours constantly, never becoming flat or warm. One waiter is dedicated to pouring beer. Clack-clack-clack go the small glasses as he rotates the round tray underneath the tap. The first keg is emptied and rolled away 25 minutes after opening time, replaced by a fresh one. This 25-minute rhythm holds up for at least another two hours.

We have the legendary Kotelett here, an enormous pork chop which is a minimum of an inch and a half thick and often closer to three. Tender and delicious, it’s served with chips just in case you’re not completely sated.

You might have assumed, from experience with over-vented British ale served by gravity, that gravity-tapped beer never has much of a head. Not a bit of it. The Kölsch at Lommerzheim is so saturated with natural CO2 that the beer pours milky at first and soon settles to show a dense, creamy head. I never tire of looking at a freshly poured glass. Sometimes I examine this incredible foam a bit too closely and the waiter asks with a concerned expression if there is something wrong.

You never leave a Cologne pub having drunk only one beer. Even a quick stop sees two or three notches on your beermat. I don’t mind.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Golden Pints 2016

Oh, hello. It’s yourself is it? Well, as you’ll have noticed, I’ve been blogging less in 2016. I have not stopped drinking beer, just found it increasingly hard to find the time to write about it. In fact, I’ve been on more trips than ever, even though there is also more going on at home in Glasgow than ever before.

Please note that I am so far behind with blogging that some of these awards are due to experiences that have not been written about here yet. If you’re curious about any of my choices, wait a while…

Best UK Cask Beer:

I know everyone is saying it (though I was saying it before them, if you must know), but these days I am looking for drinkable, subtle beers. However, due to the butterfly-like drinking behaviour that I, like many others, have succumbed to, it’s tricky to find examples that I have drunk more than once or twice. Aside from the usual suspects (Harveys, Bathams, etc), I guess the acid test are beers that I have gone back for a second pint of, and one of those is Orkney Brewery’s Corncrake, which was found in stunning condition on more than one occasion. On the face of it, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill golden bitter with nothing particularly notable about it, yet I find it massively drinkable. A chance encounter with RCH Hewish Mild in December was also extremely pleasant.

Best UK Keg Beer:

I don't drink much keg – more for financial reasons than on principle – but one that sticks out was Lost & Grounded Kellerpils. Even with more and more lagers appearing from independent breweries, it’s still rare to find one which comes close to the fresh, malty unfiltered lagers of Franconia. This one doesn’t quite match the best of them, but is well on the way there. A great achievement for such a new brewery. (Mind you, the only other beer I've had from them I didn’t like at all, so take your chances...)

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer:

Ahab from Up Front Brewing in Glasgow. Jake Griffin, the head of this outfit, is a master of stout grists, and this “American Stout” dances between coffee and chocolate Ready Brek. If drinking 6% stouts every day were sensible (it isn’t), it’d be in my fridge all the time. Look out for an Ahab variant in 2017.

Best Overseas Draught:

Ulrich Martin Pilsner from Hausen, Franconia; a delight of a beer, with marvellous foam and a magnificent citrus hop aroma; the perfect antidote to ignorant idiots and ideologically motivated craft beer fanatics who claim that German beer all tastes the same. Although looking at my photos would suggest I have drunk more draught Päffgen Kölsch than any other foreign beer.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer:

Probably Rodenbach for 65 cent a can from a Belgian supermarket.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label:

Cloudwater undoubtedly have have some of the slickest and most tasteful labels. Unfortunately every beer I've tried from them has been meh (see below), but one lives in hope. Boundary Brewing from Belfast have similarly attractive artwork, but the print quality lets them down. An honourable mention goes to Glasgow cuckoo brewer Gallus, whose minimalist branding is reminiscent of 1980s photocopier acrobatics (Their production is so tiny that you have to be quicker off the mark than me to actually get hold of their beer – I think I managed two of them all year – one literally the last glass out of the keg).

Under-Hyped Brewery Of The Year:

I’ve had a few very nice pints from Cumbria’s Fell Brewery, but never seen a blog or feature about them. Going by the quality of their beer, you ought to be hearing more about them.

Pub/Bar of the Year:

It was devastating to hear of the death of Jason Lyons of the State Bar halfway through the year. Hard as it must be to pick up the pieces and keep going, that is precisely what the State Bar has done, with the beer quality still holding up enough to win it the local CAMRA Glasgow Pub of the Year award for the third year in a row.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2016:

While Glasgow has a fast-changing restaurant scene, the rate of change in the pub scene is more relaxed. But there have been quite a few new openings worth mentioning. It was particularly delightful to see the Old Toll Bar re-opening after over two years of closure, bringing back a historic mahogany pub interior as handsome as any in Edinburgh. I have high hopes for the new Crossing the Rubicon in the west end, which adds another outlet to the Williams Bros empires and offers fine beer with freshly cooked curries. I have a soft spot too for the wilfuly unfashionable MacGregor’s Ale and Pie Howff, which as the name implies serves ale and pies and that’s it. My favourite of the new openings though is the Hippo Taproom on Sauchiehall St: an unlikely location given that street’s reputation for Stella binges and taxi-queue fights, yet the quiet basement space is an oasis. With seven changing keg lines and three casks, the draught beer selection is small but refined. That it is just round the corner from the State is a bonus.

Beer Festival of the Year:

I haven’t been to many festivals this year, something which needs to change.

Supermarket of the Year:

Not much change in this category. This has to be Booths (again): the last branch I was in had a display of cans and local bottles which outdid a few specialist retailers I can think of. Mind you, they were running a promotion of Warsteiner and Marston's EPA too.

Independent Retailer of the Year:

In Glasgow, several excellent new retailers are well bedded in that didn’t exist five years ago. The one I've been to the most, though, is Grunting Growler, which in March finally opened in its own location after a series of pop-ups. Sadly it doesn’t have an on-sales licence yet, which has limited boss Jehad’s ability to offer samples or run tastings. Hopefully the licensing board will see sense in the new year.

Best Beer Blog or Website:

For several years Lars Marius Garshol at Larsblog is going out week in, week out, doing the primary fieldwork that nobody has ever done before, interviewing Scandinavian farmer brewers about their beer and their way of brewing, breaking new ground in beer research. All this without any outside funding or sponsorship from a commercial operation. If you want to out-nerd your friends, buy his book on Norwegian farm ale now so you can say you had it before it was translated into English.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer:

Goes to @pilotbeeruk for frequently hilarious tweets.

Most Overhyped Brewery: 

Well, maybe it was just a dirty glass.
Even before Cloudwater had launched, complaints appeared about an alleged backlash against them which was, as far as anyone could tell, completely imaginary. A series of, in my view, deeply mediocre beers followed, which were praised to the heavens. Being fair, as far as I can make out none of the hype has actually come from the brewery. Their double IPA has been praised to the heavens elsewhere, but I won’t be forking out or queueing up for it, as I gave up when served this Mittelfrüh Lager which had lost its head entirely by the time I was half way down the glass.

Most Embarrassing Attempt To Be Down With The Kids:

There’s really only one serious contender for this: Marston’s rebranding of their entire range which throws their old-fashioned labels overboard in favour of new designs in a grungy style which was briefly fashionable ten years ago and makes their bottles look like supermarket own-brands. But hey, marketing consultants were paid a fortune to come up with this, so it must be good. My tip to Marston’s: it’s your beer that’s the problem, not your branding. Well, actually, now it’s your branding too, so well done there.

But this thing from Harviestoun for the new canned edition of Old Engine Oil is pretty poor, too. It doesn't match the branding on the bottles or on the other cans, and is gaudy and juvenile (It'll sell like hot cakes then).

Runner-up in this category is Hawkshead with their green-bottled Lakeland Lager, which, as they know full well, will be lightstruck by the time the drinker cracks the cap off. But craft brewing is all about quality over marketing, right?

Weirdest Own Tasting Note Of The Year:

“Amber, peaty, hot, toffee-ish. Smoked courgettes.” Absolutely no idea what I was thinking here.