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.