Sunday, 28 June 2020

And so this is Kulmbach

I’ve got a sausage in my pocket. Train sausages are as essential as train beer, when you’re in Franconia, in my view. Mind you, I think the younger generation of Germans would rather die than be seen eating a piece of Krakauer in public like their grandad.

If there is a Franconian equivalent to Burton-on-Trent, it is probably Kulmbach.

It is the home town of the Kulmbacher Brauerei, a conglomerate that fused the previously competing Reichelbräu and EKU breweries. Reichelbräu had previously taken over local rivals Sandlerbräu and Mönchshof, and since the fusion Kulmbacher has gone on to absorb substantial breweries such as Scherdel of Hof and Würzburger Hofbräu, which are still brewing, and acquired the brands from the remnants of Brauhaus Schweinfurt and Kitzmann of Erlangen, which aren’t. Ultimately, the majority shareholding is held by the Paulaner group. It’s a major player.

Beer geeks speak disparagingly of its beer, and yet it is the repository of several critical aspects of beer heritage. Once, Kulmbacher was its own style of dark lager – though as far as I can make out, the original Kulmbacher beer is extinct. Two unique bottled beers survive, too: EKU 28, sometimes called Kulminator, at one time the world’s strongest lager; Eisbock, pioneered by Reichelbräu, freeze-concentrated to increase the alcoholic strength.

But I wanted to go to Kulmbach because I can say with a fair degree of certainty that EKU Pilsner is the first German beer I ever drank. On my first trip to Bavaria, I remember buying this six-pack of EKU stubbies, purely because our 19-year-old minds were boggled that this beer was cheaper than cola. We probably drank it warm and weren’t used to beer, so none of us thought it was very nice. But never mind that.
The former Mönchshof brewery has been preserved as a brewery museum, and it is enormous. I had rather naively set out to walk there from the town centre, and it’s a fair hike, so I was already quite tired by the time I started going round the many, many rooms. It is pretty good value at 6 euro, especially as you get a free (small) glass of the on-site micro-brewery’s beer at the end. It’s an amber export lager with toasty malt notes, full-bodied and süffig, but needs mair hops.

The on-site brewery is a new, modern affair – from the supplier who made the kit for the Johann Albrecht chain of brewpubs – which seems ironic when you consider that what looks like the entire Mönchshof brewhouse is preserved upstairs in the museum. I guess it would not be economical to switch that on.

There are brewhouses older than this still in production in Bavaria.
I do like a Grant.

Lagering tanks!

There was no explanation of what this machine does, as far as I could see, but I think it is a device for lining casks with pitch.

On the way back into town you can stop off at Kulmbacher Kommunbräu. The Beer of the Month is a pale Christmas bock. No ABV given. It smells of fresh apples and pears and tastes of sweeties, but is not unpleasant. Marzipan, nuts and vanilla, and did I mention it is a sweet beer? We have left the hop-loving part of Franconia behind: here the range of beers starts with Helles and gets less hoppy from there. 

Back in the town centre, I want to try the EKU Pils again. I’ll give any beer a second chance on its home turf. Italian and Greek restaurants in Germany are the vernacular eating places, and almost always have local draught beer, which is why I end up in the EKU Fäßla, which is really a pizzeria. My draught Pils surprises with a rather odd aroma of butter and linseed oil, but has good, bitter, meringue-like foam that is perhaps not quite as stable as it might be.

Malty, full-bodied with a bitter edge. I was wrong in 1989! This is not bad. I quite like it and am glad I came in here to drink it, especially since I get to sit inside a huge old barrel – although from the size and shape of it I am inclined to think it held wine rather than beer originally. Or maybe it’s completely fake to begin with, who knows?

There is a proper dedicated beer place in Kulmbach as well, the Bierhäusla. Initially I am attracted by the beer of the day chalked on a blackboard: Krug-Bräu Lagerbier.

I’ve heard of this but never had it. The dark beer everyone else is drinking looks so good, though, that I decide to have that instead. Of course, it turns out to be the same beer. I hadn’t realised Krug’s lager was dark. It is wonderful. It tastes basically of dark malt. That’s about it. The texture and mouthfeel is perfect too. I wonder if the strange-looking beer font in use on the bar has something to do with that. The only thing wrong with this place is that the regulars are all crowded round the bar stopping me getting a photograph of the bizarre dispensing apparatus. Apart from that, I really like it: it’s a place for beer geeks, but not wanky; and there are no pastry stouts, just terrific regional beers.

I picked up bottles of Eisbock and EKU 28 in the nearest gedrinkymarket to the old Mönchshof brewery. Leaving them out on the balcony overnight, I was a bit concerned I had inadvertently invented the twice-frozen version of Eisbock, but it was fine. Very dark mahogany brown, with aroma and taste both of Munich malt and toast. Not a complicated beer. The 28 is similarly syrupy, but I’ve lost my notes.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

1978 Courage Russian Stout

A few years ago, I acquired a box of old beers, which have been sitting in a corner ever since. Some look more exciting than others.

One of the exciting ones is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout from 1978. I’ve never had one this old, so decided to crack it open.

Now that every other brewery in the world seems to make something they call Imperial Russian Stout, it is quite difficult to imagine the peculiar status the original Courage beer had back in the 70s and 80s. I am lucky to be old enough to have tasted it in the early 1990s when Courage had a bit of a marketing push on it, giving it a fancy new Constructivist-style label.

More recently I enjoyed the revived version that Wells & Youngs produced in 2012, although I seemed to always order it as a rather expensive treat in Edinburgh pubs when I was already quite drunk. I thought that was still a lovely beer, even though it did not have the classic secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces.

First waft of the 1978 bottle on opening: well they certainly didn’t forget to dose this with Brettanomyces. The secondary yeast has completely taken over, leather, prunes, balsamic vinegar. Residual sugars have almost completely dried out since 1978, but the beer is still drinkable: still some carbonation, still quite viscous and oily, though lighter than it once would have been, yet no sweetness. Blackcurrant and some empyreumatic flavours reminiscent of wood smoke, perhaps a little smoked beef, any acrid or chocolatey notes long since mellowed out. There is still quite a bitter aftertaste on this, though it is camouflaged by the massive Brettanomyces aroma. Would probably have been better not quite so old. If you happen to also have a 42 year old bottle of Russian Stout, drink it fifteen years ago.

It’s a tragedy this beer is no longer made.

In the meantime, you might try brewing your own from this 1976 recipe that Edd Mather has recently published.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The fictional beers of the Queen Victoria 2005–15

“Chamber’s Best Bitter” on the EastEnders set, 2015. Picture: BBC

It’s literally decades since I last watched EastEnders, but I remember – this must be 1989 at the latest and God alone knows why I remember it – Pete Beale ordering a pint of Churchill’s.

Thanks to these high-resolution images of the EastEnders set that the BBC has helpfully placed on the internet for people to use as backgrounds for their online meetings, we get a rare chance to see the array of fictional beer brands created for the Queen Victoria. Normally publicity images are not detailed enough for this, and of course on TV the camera does not stay still for long enough to read anything.

Now we get to see that Churchill’s is still on the price list in 2005 at £2.30 a pint.

I wonder how much of a brief the props department gets for this sort of stuff. Obviously there are not unlimited resources. Given infinite time and money, it could be someone’s job to create fake brewing logs for Luxford & Copley going back to the 19th century. And why not? Is that any more reprehensible than thinking up the endless tortuous twists and turns of the pain-filled lives of soap characters?

Table 1: Fictional beer brands on sale in the Queen Vic, 2005–2015:
2005Melbourne StarLagerBox keg font
2005Thames BitterKeg bitterBox keg font
2005Fo***am’s Ale?Stemmed fontcan't quite make out name
2005Chamber’s Best BitterKeg bitterKeg fontmodified Castlemaine XXXX font
2005Jenkin’sLagerBottleresembles Budweiser
2005Jenkin’s Pale AlePale AleBottle
2005North ExportLagerBottlemodified Miller Draft label
2013Bramford ExportLager?Wedge keg fontresembles French “33”
2013Cromer LagerLagerWedge keg fontBlackletter type
2013Biermann Deutsche [sic] BierCask lagerHandpullAn in-joke?
2013AleCaskHandpullPumpclip with a wolf, or a seal or a bear or something
2013Chamber’s Best BitterCask bitterHandpull
2015Chamber’s Best BitterCask bitterHandpull
2015AlwentCider?Keg fontNo idea what kind of product

I had imagined that all these fake brands were created to comply with the BBC’s strict rules on avoiding product placement or anything that looked like it. But if that was the case why are there genuine brands on offer next to the fake ones? We have Coors, Murphy’s and Michelob next to the Devlin’s and Jenkin’s bottled beers, and a Guinness font on the bar top.

We can also see the Licensed Victuallers’ Association membership plaque on the wall and in one picture the Queen Vic seems to have acquired a couple of Adnams and John Smiths ashtrays.

By 2013 the Chamber’s bitter is on handpump (we also see the Vic does not use sparklers on its cask ales). There’s also something a bit odd: Biermann German beer served on a handpump. I suspect someone was either ignorant or – I prefer to believe – trying to see if any viewers would be observant enough to notice that a fictional beer was using an implausible dispense method, and also pedantic enough to complain about it (with a bonus score if you also point out that Bier is neuter in German (das Bier) and the clip should therefore read “Deutsches Bier” rather than “Deutsche Bier”).

I could have gone into this in more depth, but that would involve more knowledge of EastEnders storylines over the last 35 years than I have or am willing to acquire, and I have wasted an afternoon on it already. A brief glimpse shows the history of the Vic to have been, shall we say, turbulent, since Sharon bought it from the brewery in 1991. I can only say, if you think the real pubcos are bad (which they are), count yourself lucky you’re not running the Queen Vic.

One thing that is striking is that there are no beers from the brewery that purportedly owned the pub when the series started, Luxford & Copley. Did Sharon buy herself out of the beer tie in 1991? Did she buy the freehold or just the leasehold? Are Luxford & Copley even still in business? Researching these things is left as an exercise for the reader.

Next week: the effects of the consolidation of the brewing industry on beer choice in the pubs of Trumpton and Camberwick Green, 1955–1970.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Central Bar, Renton

There is not much nightlife in Renton, and as lifestyles have changed, people do not swarm to the local pub as they once did. The first time I was in the Central Bar a few years ago, it was nearly empty on a Saturday night, one of the snugs remained in darkness and there was a strong smell of damp.

It has had its ups and downs in recent years. Shortly after my first visit I heard it had closed. Then it opened up again. And closed once more. At the moment, of course, it is shut like everything else.

You cannot claim it is not friendly. I was urged to bring my bike inside the pub so it doesn’t get stolen outside. Although a pair of large dogs block my way, I am assured the only danger is that they might lick me to death.

Unlikely as it may sound, Renton’s claim to footballing fame is that its team was once champion of the world. Yes, really, although it was a very long time again. In 1888 Renton FC, the then holders of the Scottish Cup, played a friendly against FA Cup winners West Bromwich Albion. Renton beat the Black Country team 4–1; as the infant game of association football had not spread much beyond the UK at the time, this made them de facto the world champions.

It would be nice to think this event was celebrated in the Central Bar but alas, the pub did not open until 1898, ten years later.

So many features in this bar have not changed much. The rude but functional gantry behind the bar, overshadowed by the enormous spirit casks.

The glorious high windows letting sunshine in, something sadly rare in Glasgow since the licensing board’s demented crusade a century ago to conceal the sinful sight of fun from passers-by, the legacy of which is still felt today in a number of pubs with no natural light.

The Central Bar was only seven years old in 1905 when another Renton footballer was born: Alec Jackson, who was to become one of the “Wembley Wizards” Scotland team which beat England 5–1 in 1928.

When Jackson signed to Huddersfield for the then record-breaking fee of £5,000 the Huddersfield manager Herbert Chapman supposedly took Jackson’s father for a dram in a Renton pub and bought a round for the entire bar. Jackson told Paris-Match magazine that this took place in the only pub in the village, though why he should have said this I am not sure. There was more than one pub in Renton back then, surely.

There is only one pub today. Tam, on the other hand, tells me that Renton had six pubs at one time, and he remembers drinking in five of them. Tam is a joiner and carried out a good deal of internal reconstruction in the Central some fifteen years ago, removing a wall to turn what had been a back room into a snug. He used repurposed wood to do the work and I wouldn’t have guessed it wasn’t original.

The plasterwork on the ceiling is quite ornate too, with the gaps filled by textured wallpaper, all covered by decades of paint and nicotine stains. I find myself wondering how many millions of cigarettes must have been smoked in here to give the ceiling its rich brown-cafe patina. And whether any of them were Club, the brand Alec Jackson advertised.

In London Jackson played for Chelsea and later went into the pub trade himself, becoming licensee of the Angel & Crown in St Martin’s Fields. That has been transformed into a tacky cod-Victorian gin-in-teapots place these days. At least the humbler Central, should it survive, has kept its original character.

Friday, 1 May 2020

How alike are Gordon Scotch and Traquair House Ale?

On the face of it, this ought to be easy.

One is a beer found in Belgian supermarkets, contract-brewed by the biggest Scottish breweries of their day and now churned out somewhere in Belgium.

The other is, whatever its other merits may be, certainly the most romantic of “Scotch ales”: brewed in the big hoose in the centuries-old brewery and fermented in oak.

Can I tell the difference?

It’s time for a blind tasting of Gordon Finest Scotch Highland Ale versus Traquair House Ale.

The amusing thing is that Gordon is the older brand, brewed since 1924, first at George Younger in Alloa and then at Scottish Brewers’ Holyrood and Fountain breweries in Edinburgh before the move to Belgium, its chief market.

Traquair House Ale dates from 1965 when the laird of Traquair, Peter Maxwell Stuart, began brewing again in the long-abandoned house brewery.  His friend Sandy Hunter, the boss of Belhaven brewery, helped a lot, and – I am just speculating here – I suspect the recipe for Traquair House Ale owes more to Belhaven’s wee heavy at the time than to whatever was being made when the brewhouse was abandoned.

Anyway, what do these two ales taste like? Well, the first surprise is just how similar they look. Both a deep ruby red and even the foam appears identical. To look at them you’d think they were the same beer.

While both are quite sweet, beer A is drier than beer B, while also being not so much fuller in body as chewier. Slight vanilla, crystal malt (I never like to identify specific ingredients, but if there is no crystal in this I will eat my hat) and a slight huskiness. As it warms up, more and more malt character comes to the fore. Possibly, just possibly a touch of oak – but it could also be barley husks.

Both are bright, as far as I can tell from such dark beers.

Beer B is sweet and rich, but immediately more sugary in character. Traces of vanilla and caramel fudge, yet a surprisingly high bitterness in the finish. Creamy and smooth with bitter chocolate notes. As it warms, the odd whiff of malt vinegar (the best malt vinegar has a comforting sweetness to it). Becomes fuller and richer as it warms up. Somehow, a little pencil-shaving woodiness in here too.

By the time I have finished the samples I am pretty sure that B is Gordon Highland Scotch and A is Traquair House Ale. And (for once) I am right. It’s the general sugariness of B that gives it away, but in general these two are more alike than I would ever have believed.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A further note on Bell’s ‘black cork’

Between 1818 and 1822 Robert Fleming of the Summerhall brewery kept a scrapbook which is now one of the oldest items in the collection of the Scottish Brewing Archive. It has been written about a couple of times, most recently in the 2018 Journal of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association.

I have only just noticed that Fleming also mentions the nearby Bell’s brewery on the Pleasance. I can claim no credit for uncovering this, for it was transcribed as far back as 1994 by Alma Topen, the archivist at the SBA and published at the time in the SBA’s newsletter.

Fleming clearly thought quite highly of his late neighbour Mr Hugh Bell:
Of the many eminent characters who have rendered themselves popular as brewers, Mr Bell it is but just to remark ought to be placed first on the list. His plan was to form and adapt every part of his buildings in the different offices in such a manner as that the whole should concur in accomplishing one great object and of this plan he began to feel the good effect when by his death the world was deprived of his further assistance. He set out on a very extensive scale and purposed brewing for the west India bottling trade and no other.

His ales were of the palest kind, his manner of malting very cool and thin on the floors. In brewing some variation in heats was at times made as the state of the air varied and the quality and age of the malt might suggest to be necessary. The mean gravity or strength of the ales being not more than 25lb the barrel the reduction of that gravity by the attenuating affect of the fermentation before cleansing down might bring it to 13 but the most singular and striking part of his practice was in the manner of beating his ales after cleansing.

It should have been remarked that Mr Bells cellars consisted of three different kinds arched vaults one below the other extending to the area of the whole yard. Into the first of these vaults the ale at the time of cleansing descended from the tun into casks of about four or five barrels standing upright where it was carefully attended to by being filled with clean ale of the same kind during the time of its working after it had apparently done working it was slightly bunged down and hopped with hops that had been boiled once in the first wort in this state it remained six or eight months and was then drawn off fine to descend in to the second range of vaults below into clean casks of the same description as those from whence it was drawn in these its new apartments it was destined to remain for an indefinite period until it was likely to be called into service by bottling off a few weeks previous to which it descended into the third and lower regions into other clean casks where it was fined down and suffered to remain flattening for bottling off shipping [last word illegible].
There is quite a bit of information in this. It tells us Bell was making his own malt, common at the time. The cleansing and vatting regime also sounds extremely interesting. I haven’t seen a multi-level cellar anywhere other than at Rodenbach.

But more important than that, there are two notes that tell us a bit more about what kind of ale Bell was brewing.

Cool malting as practised by Bell would produce high quality malt with low acidity and high extract potential – exactly what you would want for premium export ale, especially one you were going to mature for several months.

I argued back in 2011 that Bell’s famous “black cork”, whatever it was, almost certainly wasn’t black – however, I think by the time I came out with this, Bob Knops had already decided to use the name for his porter.

But Fleming tells us “His ales were of the palest kind,” and that the gravity of it was “not more than 25lb the barrel” which might ferment down to 13lb. So we have a pretty good idea of the colour and the strength of Bell’s ale.

25 brewers’ pounds per barrel expressed as original gravity is 1.069, but 13 pounds is 1.036. That seems high, but remember this is only the gravity before cleansing and the beer might well ferment quite a bit further during its six to eight months in the cellars.  With modern techniques you might expect a wort like that to ferment down to perhaps 1.015 or so. Sadly we do not know the actual finishing gravity, which would allow us to calculate a satisfyingly exact figure for the alcohol content of Bell’s black cork; but it does look like we have a pale drink of roughly 6% alcohol.

What we can say, though, is that I was mistaken in suggesting black cork was the ancestor of strong Edinburgh ales such as Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale. It is far too weak for that.

I was led astray by the use of the term strong ale. That does not mean what it means today: something substantially higher in alcohol than an everyday drinking beer. In Bell’s time it was a duty category: beer and ale described as “strong” attracted higher duty, small beer a much lower rate. At the time of Hugh Bell’s death in 1802 the duty on strong beer was 10/– a barrel, five times as much as on small beer.  It’s in this sense only that black cork was “strong ale”.

Edinburgh ales, according to Roberts, might range in OG from 1.080 to 1.125. True, today an OG of 1.069 might appear strong to us, depending on what we are used to drinking. But it is definitely on the weak side for what Georgians and Victorians regarded as strong.