‘Danksauce’

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After a getting a job in craft beer, one of the first and most startling differences I noticed was the vocabulary used by brewers in the comfort and privacy of their own breweries. I don’t mean colourful swearing (well, actually, now you mention it…) but rather the kind of words a brewer might use to describe their beer as opposed to a marketeer, PR, and therefore, many writers and bloggers. A lot of the language used to describe beer is inadvertently determined by label copy, the brewery’s tasting notes, other bloggers’ reviews, or even just the name of the beer itself. Put simply, there a some words brewers use casually that sales and marketing people would avoid entirely.

Recipe design, does not, as some might be surprised to learn, involve ticking off that never-ending list of tropical and citrus fruits that beer reviewers refer to so studiously. Increasingly, terms like ‘dank’ (resinous, earthy, cannabis-like) and ‘savoury’ (garlicky and oniony) are used not just liberally, but as positive terms. ‘This is great juice, but we should really shoot for a more oniony flavour next time’ are the kind of phrases I now hear and accept almost unconditionally. Brewers are often the first to use the language that eventually filters down to drinkers, way before it become part of the common parlance. ‘You’re going to love this new IPA guys, it’s our most oniony release yet!’ is not a tweet you’re likely to see very soon, but you can bet somebody in the brewery said it.

However, that sort of language describing these types of hoppy beers is now starting to gradually trickle through to consumers and budding aficionados, and this is because of the kind of beers being released. By way of example, a handful of articles and blogs have recently noted the rise of the ‘Yeast Coast’ IPA (included in a great post by Emma at Crema Brewery on what’s going on in IPA at the moment) in the States, a sort of cultural counterpoint to the pale, strong and bone dry West Coast IPAs. These beers that look like milk-thick fruit juice and smell like cannabis and hot dog onions are, to the astonishment of many, remarkably balanced, sharp and juicy on the palate with a pleasing savoury edge. They are complex, intricately-constructed and require a razor-sharp balance that is incredibly difficult to execute. They are impressive in so many ways but to describe them requires words with which not everyone is comfortable. How did we end up talking about beers like this?

For a long time, the buzzword in craft (and IPAs in particular) was bitterness. It was something that a layman could put their finger on and notice immediately as a point of difference between mainstream beer and craft beer. Hops had aroma and flavour sure, and a lot of the varieties being used were all about grapefruit and bitterness, so IBUs had a correlation of sorts with hop character. IBUs were the Top Trumps stat of choice, slapped onto label copy with a kind of swaggering braggadocio, as if it was the barbell weight the head brewer could deadlift anytime, anywhere, pal. It in turn influenced consumer habits. What’s the IBUs on that IPA? 150? *kisses biceps* No problem, dawg. I can handle it. We ended up with International Bro Units.

Of course, bitterness is relative, one of the tangible factors of flavour mitigated by the balance of others; a single number in a more complex equation. Imperial Stouts have huge bittering additions for balance, but don’t taste nearly as bitter as a lighter pale ale hammered to hell with Chinook. As a term, IBU has started to fall by the wayside. It’s a less useful way of understanding flavour than perhaps it used to be, if indeed it ever was.

Next, it was all about aroma and fruit. Ever more supercharged hop varieties were released, with brand names as finely honed as the latest miracle drug, sports car or running shoes. We wanted to know about fruits, and we weren’t just going to settle for grapefruit, oh no. Crap, I’ve never even had a gooseberry and mango sundae before but God damn it if it isn’t what this beer tastes exactly like, uh, I think. Increasingly myriad hop combos competed for the ultimate Carmen-Miranda-hat-fruit-salad of aroma and flavour. Whilst fruit and juiciness were what we were talking about, bitterness was still there, balancing out these super-fruity beers, keeping them dry and clean and drinkable. We just stopped talking about it. Savoury notes were there too, but so far beneath the radar of commenters that, in flavour description terms, they didn’t exist, like unseen falling trees. We didn’t see them because we weren’t looking for them.

And now? We’re starting to get into dank and savoury, pal, big time. Gimme some of that Mosaic and Summit-soaked onion-and-mango juice. It smells like a university dorm room and looks like a colour Dulux might call Terracotta Sunrise (Matt), but it’s taking my palate into new dimensions. I’m ready. I want to know more. I want to taste Other. Send me through the Stargate to the dank and savoury galaxy.

In many ways it’s a real victory. The tyranny of the word ‘lychee’ in beer blogging may at last be coming to an end. People are beginning to get comfortable with savoury and the dimensions of flavour beyond sweetness and bitterness. There’ll be reactions, appropriations, satire, over-exaggerations and all the usual resistance, but by the end we’ll all have richer vocabularies and more exciting beers. It’s just the next level we have to play through, and there will be plenty more beyond.

‘Danksauce’ was a phrase used by Modern Times recently, both casually on their website and social media, as well as on actual label copy (along with dank, dankness and more), which really struck a chord with the wordsmith in me. It’s kind of silly, but also quite heartfelt and honest about how weird beer can be sometimes and how not to take it too seriously. It sums up a kind of free-wheeling, ambitious yet laidback approach to tasting language and cavalier artistry in brewing that I wholeheartedly support.

Obviously, I’m a sucker for a snappy craft portmanteau. I fall head-over-heels for the hottest zymurgy wordplay. I love a Juicy Banger. I like anthropomorphising beers and flavours, and I think it’s because craft beer is, like language, constantly evolving. As a result, we’re not just getting better beer; we’re getting better at describing and understanding it.

Tunnel Vision

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British craft beer is an exciting subculture to be a part of, but whilst its proponents and their beers are progressive, many are blind to what might be holding it back.

Agility, more than anything, is why craft beer captures the public imagination. A small brewery has the ability to change course quickly, pivot on its heels and kick out in a new direction before Big Beer has even booked the meeting room to discuss the first draft of its committee-authored instructions to the engine room. It’s a characteristic that defines this subculture’s energy and momentum, and yet, we can’t help but be limited by existing thinking.

Story time: there’s a popular forwarded email yarn about the relationship between a space shuttle and a horse’s arse. The solid rocket boosters that sat either side of the main fuel tank had to be transported across the country from Utah to the launch site in Florida, using mountain tunnels built for trains. The story says the tunnels were based on the width of old roads for horse-drawn carriages, and that since the width of two horse’s rear ends is roughly the same width as the standard US railway gauge, a horse’s arse determined the width of a solid rocket booster. It’s mostly rubbish of course (you can read the Snopes take on it here) but the most interesting bit, about the tunnels, is basically true: that advanced space vehicle technology was to some extent designed to be compatible with tunnel design from hundreds of years ago for shipping purposes. As the launch of a space shuttle was in some way determined by old tunnels, so too is British craft beer determined by something just as old, if not older: the imperial pint.

To understand the scale of the issue, we must first look at the leading beers in several style categories (looking at just the overall ‘top rated beers in England’ on Untappd and RateBeer reveals little, or rather, quite a lot: both lists are dominated by imperial IPAs and imperial stouts). Unfortunately, this in itself does not give a full picture either, because both Untappd and Ratebeer are used by self-motivated enthusiasts, not by most drinkers, even by many who are ‘into’ craft beer. For this to be of any value, we have to look at the beer styles in growth, not those already selling the most, since almost all of those are in decline. That way, we can get a reasonably good idea of what is doing well and impressing people in each style category, and even the most jaded or optimistic beer person should still be able to see a fairly objective overall picture from which to draw some conclusions.

To keep this manageable, we’ll look at American Pale Ale, American IPA, Session IPA and Lager. These are the styles arguably winning the most hearts and minds at the moment, and more importantly, the most repeat purchases and safer spots on the bar. It’s not a perfect sample set (not helped by the fact that “pale’n’hoppy” is broadly what’s driving the market, but isn’t a category on any rating website, and in itself could include about twenty or so ‘styles’), but it is one from which you can at least get broadly comparable results, from both Untappd and Ratebeer. Plus, it provides useful benchmark examples we can all point at and understand. Finally, and most crucially, in each style, we can see how the pint glass is determining the state of play.

For example, in American Pale Ale from England, the leading lights unsurprisingly include a wide variety of recipes from The Kernel’s Pale Ale series, alongside Beavertown Gamma Ray, Pressure Drop Pale Fire, plus the occasional outlier from Salopian, Wiper & True, Vocation and the like. All great breweries, but the best rated beers tend to be ones around the pint-friendly 5.4% ABV mark. In the broader context of APA as a style, this is to be expected (it’s pretty much the target ABV for an APA), but that mid-five strength is worth remembering.

Next, let’s look at American IPA from England. Most of the highest rated are between a much broader spectrum of 6.2% to 7.4%, mostly modelled on US West Coast IPAs (though that ‘Yeast Coast’ sub-style is already making inroads). They are either rotating hop varietals from the likes of Kernel, Wiper & True and Cloudwater, or ‘brand’ IPAs with mostly consistent recipes from breweries like Magic Rock, Siren and Buxton. Interestingly, many (but not all) of these again fall into the ‘special release’ category, particularly the collaboration brews and single hop seasonal specials, and only a few could actually be described as ‘core range’ beers. This tells us that the American-style IPAs being brewed in England are not as likely to be flagship products, despite the much-held opinion that IPA is somehow driving the market. Pints are not part of the context of the style, therefore these beers are not currently the biggest selling beers from any brewery in England (Scottish elephant in the room to be covered later). Plus, anyway, these beers are (or should be) proportionately more expensive to make in the first place, limiting the likelihood of affordable pint-sized servings.

What about Session IPA then? For those breweries doing them particularly well and true to style (that often means quite expensively), Session IPAs are hopped with similar additions by weight as much bigger IPAs, but brewed to retain some residual sweetness to back up their lower ABVs and keep them balanced. Being ‘just’ a pale ale will simply not cut it. Appealing to consumers for both their lower strengths and big hop characters, Session IPAs tend to sit around 3.8%-4.5% abv, and ratings-wise, in England are led by two beers from Vocation, several from Brew By Numbers, The Kernel’s Table Beer, Gipsy Hill Hepcat, Northern Monk Eternal, and Beavertown Neck Oil (which has alternated between describing itself as Session IPA and Session Pale). Session IPA is practically defined by the fact it can be enjoyed in multiple, pint-sized servings, hence the prodigious growth of the category in recent months. It’s a style of beer that represents what consumers new to craft beer seemingly want – something interesting and exciting that still retains the safety and familiarity of something pale in a pint glass.

Lager is trickier to get useful information on, but by comparing a few different subcategories (‘Pale Lager’, ‘Pilsener’, ‘Pilsner – Other’ and so on) on both Untappd and Ratebeer, a hazy picture emerges. The quality alternative to mainstream, pale European lager is still a battleground covered in the fog of war, but the likes of Weird Beard, Camden and Fourpure are still leading for the most part, with recent efforts from Howling Hops, Redchurch, Northern Alchemy and Beavertown showing promise. Strength-wise, 4.8%-5.4% seems to be the norm. Naturally, this is a style also defined by its pint-ability.

Whilst more meaningful than looking merely at ‘Top Rated’ overall, trying to get useful data in this way is still problematic. Requiring a focus on a single country makes it all but impossible to get a complete picture of the UK, frustrating when such huge leaps are being made in Wales and Northern Ireland, and particularly when several of the UK’s leading producers of craft beer are in Scotland alone. Specifically, the absence of BrewDog from this set of results skews things somewhat. BrewDog has, perhaps more than any other UK brewery mentioned above, succeeded in getting its beers in an ever wider range of ‘mainstream’ outlets. It is on this particular point that we can start to see an anomaly in IPA, but one which helps form some correlation with the other results overall. BrewDog famously reduced the ABV of its flagship beer, Punk IPA, to 5.6%, and from looking at the some of the most popular beers being produced in England by the most successful craft breweries, regardless of style, the ABVs tend to be in the mid-fives (Thornbridge are obviously the other brewery to have most successfully straddle craft and mainstream, though it’s worth noting that most of their cask beer is around 4% and the keg beers are mostly around either 5% or 6%, rather than between. There’s a whole other post to be written about breweries with ‘cask’ and ‘keg’ beer ranges that are vastly different strengths).

Right then, so there’s lots of evidence of something happening, but what? We need to imagine not some sterile list of beers with ratings and ABVs listed next to them, but the taps of beer lined up on a bar in front of you the next time you go for a drink. How many of the ‘self-consciously craft’ offerings (not described as Session IPA) are in the region of 5.5%? How many of those beers, regardless of strength or colour, are being served by the pint as standard? Session IPA notwithstanding, in the UK a five-point-something beer can be both strong and/or different enough to be ‘craft’, whilst still ‘sessionable’; a sort of Goldilocks Zone for a beer industry determined, and arguably hamstrung, by the pint glass.

However, if you want be the fastest growing food and drink brand in the UK, or if you just want to help pay for that new steam-jacketed mash tun and kettle, or if you just want to establish a sturdy foothold in an ever more crowded marketplace, pints mean prizes. Volume means security, cashflow to finance the next big project (or duty return) and frequent, loyal custom.

But how much of this is about financial security, and how much of it is about ingrained attitudes? Instead of the huge gamut of strengths seen in American craft beer, enjoyed in anything from pitchers, pints or 2oz pours, we seem rigid to our proportions of pints and halves, and only recently opened our minds to the idea of third-pint and two-third measures. Even in the most wide-ranging, smaller-serving-focused craft beer bars in the country, we remain interested in filling a pint-shaped hole, and if it remains an unchangeable line in our programming, our industry will remain defined by the beers that fit this space, and not by what we could, or perhaps should, be brewing.

I would have ended this piece right there, were it not for one small fact: I love pints. To some extent, I still judge certain beers by how they fare over the course of 568 millilitres, and if that beer still impresses me at the end, then it was undoubtedly a fine beer indeed. There’s something about the pacing of a pint, depending of course on the drinker and the setting, which other serving sizes don’t seem to possess. Another curiosity of our beer culture is that thirds, halves and two-thirds of a beer are most likely to be followed by a similarly-sized serving of something utterly different, whilst a pint of something is often followed by ‘the same again’.

There is no doubt that pints will continue to be popular and that there will continue to be a variety of serving sizes, but there will be a crossroads. The future shape of the market will be determined by whether we hold fast to our culture of quaffable, boshable, crushable pints, whilst acknowledging the variety of serving sizes as a ‘nice to have’; or, instead, actively try to embrace that variety in full, and shed no tears if pints become no more common an option than the third-pint.

A Year in Beer: 2015 Reviewed

(L-R) Troubadour Obscura, Magma Tripel Yeast, Westkust and Gollem's Precious IPA (2)

2015 has been a turbulent year for beer, and for beer blogging. With several bloggers (myself included) making moves into the industry, whether full-time, part-time or freelance, there’s been some big changes. Some blogs have come out of retirement, gone professional, and thrived, and new ones have begun. My own has suffered from me gaining meaningful employment that engages much more of my energy than my previous jobs, but hopefully I’ll be back to posting more frequently quite soon.

Whilst professional writers and journalists hold forth on ever weightier issues and find ever more column inches in mainstream media to write about beer, it is bloggers who are pushing the envelope and setting the agenda. Mainstream media becomes increasingly oriented toward shorter attention spans, churning out ‘listicles’ and content-lite pieces to fill bandwidth. Meanwhile, in a way some might find surprising, it is in blogs that lengthy, considered and thoughtful pieces are being written on a huge variety of subjects and with a massive spectrum of opinions fueling them.

Blogs are beginning to get slicker, winning more professional awards and attention, putting their creators into positions where they can make a real difference. The maturing of the British craft beer scene, and its bloggers/broadcasters/communicators, continues apace.

It’s not all peachy though. There’s a continued trend of antagonism, of tribalism and, ultimately, trolling. The internet is becoming a very strange village, with bad neighbourhoods you don’t want to stick around in, and the world of beer blogging suffers from the same problem. It would be great to see more constructive criticism; worthwhile and good-spirited debate. The alternative is disheartening to say the least. It’s becoming more and more tempting to bloggers to switch off comments on their blogs, retire from social media for several days, or simply disengage from the scene entirely. So many complex issues have been argued back and forth in a gruelling, fruitless fashion. As ever more people want to ‘get involved’ in craft beer one way or another, we should remember that even if we don’t all agree, we ultimately have to live in this world of beer together.

Whilst a number of new blogs have started, several writers find themselves writing on a more professional basis, and less frequently on their blogs. As a result, whilst spectrum of opinions is wide, there has been a slight stagnation of voices in beer blogging, and whilst the variety of subjects is huge, there is a lack of variety of content. Speaking personally, I’m determined to post more frequently this year, and find new forms of blog posts to write. I really enjoyed writing my recent fictional post about an imagined path-not-travelled in the history of British and Belgian brewing, but it was not received entirely as well as I’d hoped. I know this is mostly due to me not communicating my intent clearly enough, but it hasn’t put me off writing more beer fiction in future on my blog.

Something that still concerns me is the relative lack of voices in beer and beer writing which aren’t those of white, straight men. There’s a lot of reasons for that of course, some much easier to tackle than others. But whilst many of us think our beer scene and industry is open, diverse and inclusive, it quite clearly isn’t. It’s just incredibly open and inclusive to us. I think it’s starting to change, gradually, but I’m interested in what people think about it, and if there’s more that could be done.

Of course, no post about 2015 would be complete without pondering mergers and acquisitions. Thinking back to the beginning of the year, few of us could have predicted the voracious appetite of Big Beer in its quest to buy what it can’t do itself. There’s little sign of it slowing down, and we should brace ourselves for just as many if not more sizeable shocks in the industry this year. One issue about which I’m curious, and intend to write a post about soon, is the perceived scale of ‘small brewers’ among the public. We’re now getting to a point where a handful of breweries that started only a few years ago have expanded to the point where they no longer benefit from paying lower rates of duty, yet are still seen ‘small’ or ‘craft’ breweries by the average punter. When Punk IPA and Gamma Ray and sit alongside beers from much smaller concerns, we might start to see some breweries begin to be priced out of the competition. For those breweries committed to staying ‘small’, 2016 might be the year they face difficult choices about their survival.

As predictions go, they’re admittedly pretty vague, but one thing I am certain about is that the overall quality of British craft beer has massively improved in the past twelve months. In the months ahead, critics and consumers used to this quality will forgive substandard beers far less easily than they might have done before.

We’re in a new era now. We’re way, way past the new wave of good beer being a ‘fad’ or trend. There has been a cultural shift, and we’re writing our own rulebook now. The next chapter promises to be just as important as the last. I for one can’t wait to see what 2016 brings.

 

A Report from #EBBC15, Darkly

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The following is a piece of fiction, inspired by a thought that occurred to me earlier in the year: what if the monasteries of England were never dissolved, and our brewing history remained as strongly associated with monks and abbeys as it is in Belgium? What might change if England remained Catholic, and if Belgium became its greatest brewing rival? What might the 2015  European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Brussels be like, if history was different?

 

From the other side of the glass, it was a dark view.

Among the journalists and bloggers in the conference centre, there was conversation, warm greetings, a sense of community: a bustling, thriving discussion of Belgian brewing. It’s what we came for. But as I approached the Chairman, eager to put to him some stickier questions than he’d faced in the far-too-polite press conference itself, the dark side of the famous Anglo-Belgian brewing rivalry showed its face. I witnessed first hand the segregation, the suspicion and the prejudice.

Excusez-moi, monsieur – sorry – please, sir, you must step this way.” A polite voice in my ear and surprisingly firm grip on my arm turned me away from the relieved-looking Chairman. “You will be far more comfortable, we are sure, with your countrymen and colleagues in the viewing gallery.”

I glanced up at the dim-lit room behind smoky glass on the balcony above.

“Will there be any opportunities to-”

“Please.” An implacable smile, an extended hand gesturing to the top of the stairs. Inside the ‘viewing gallery’ I found fellow bloggers from the British contingent, looking as peeved as me. Unwelcome guests, tidied away to a place out of sight. “Typical bloody Belgians, eh?” one asked aloud, to no one in particular. “What have we done to deserve this?”

The answer was obvious, but uncomfortable. We had done the same thing to them on several occasions. This was the first time the European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference had been held outside of the UK, and naturally our longstanding brewing rivals were first in line to welcome the EBBC organisers with open arms. Whilst colleagues from across Europe and the world were given full access, we were treated with cool suspicion, even overt contempt. Had we really been so frosty towards the visiting Belgian bloggers at the previous EBBCs?

Until now we had only seen the representatives of the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) – dusty and opaque corporate bodies with their roots in the ancient Trappist monastic breweries – in the pages of the business press, but from the viewing gallery of the Hotel Orval’s conference centre, the people below seem no different to our own British Abbey Brewers Association (BABA). Their habit-inspired suits were tailored with longer, wider cuffs, the collars broader and looser, the branding more intricate, but they were largely the same white middle-aged men talking about ‘beer as it should be’.

The BABA’s Council may choose to wear, over their robe-like uniforms, the stylised stoles appropriated from the faith from which their fortunes historically stem, but the appearance was largely the same. They even seemed to share their Belgian counterpart’s fondness for sprinkling their speech with Latin to make themselves sound reverent and important. Links to the past. Eyes on the future. The similarities were stark, and quite surprising, to those of us from the UK. These men who spent fortunes on outperforming each other were actually quite alike.

In the UK, only the handful of independent brewers outside of the jurisdiction of the BABA’s ‘Designated Monastic Brewing Regions’ display any form of transparency or open dialogue with the press and blogging community. Still, gaps in the overlap of DeMBRegs have encouraged unlikely artisanal brewing scenes in areas of post-industrial decline such as Grimsby and Rhyl. Not so in Belgium. Here, the established Belgian brewery conglomerates (some four companies owning over 3000 brands between them) make up over 99% of the domestic market, with the scant remaining few hectolitres produced by private individuals and sold on the black market, much of it to private British collectors. Belgian beer covers the counters and shelves of bars across France, Italy, Spain and beyond, yet, like British beer, unable to break the German market, which has grown ever more stagnant and inward-looking. Still, its hold in North Africa, Asia, and South America makes for eye-watering volume figures, with the soaring demand met by ‘Supervised Trappist Breweries’, plants built abroad to meet domestic needs. Growth seems to continue apace, driven by the sheer choice of brands Belgian brewers are able to offer.

British brewing seems more rigid, its markets unchanged over hundreds of years, output spread along historical trade channels, to the remnants of the Holy Empire in the South East Asia and New English States, throughout the Baltics and Nordic Federation, and as far south as South Africa and Australia. Britain’s world-famous Aged Pale Ales (APAs) astonish palates on every continent, but despite unparalleled scientific achievement, lack the magic and mystery conjured by the Belgians.

It’s easy to be cynical about Belgian beer’s appeal, when they hide so much and yet continue to trade on a monastic heritage all but sterilised by corporate governance, but the opportunity to discover more about their brewing industry was irresistible, especially for British bloggers used to a similarly homogeneous beer scene. We came to learn, not to spy, but the chance to dish out some of the prejudice served to Belgian visitors to the UK must have been too tempting.

The hubbub below that we were now excluded from had begun following the BFB’s press conference, which was used to announce its latest campaign promoting the superiority of Belgian beer. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff, a good way to burn through 20 million francs, but didn’t really add much beyond a slick new font and sharper photography. The message remained derivative of previous campaigns, this time using the form of words ‘Belgian Beer – The Pinnacle of Brewing Excellence’ with a series of images depicting giant glasses of Sixtus and Orval towering over the Alps, Andes, Kilimanjaro and so on. The Q&A session was a joke; nothing but fluff questions from pocketed journalists about how they can keep up with the growing demand and how they live up to such constantly high expectations. The answers were right out of the scriptbook, as expected. Raised hands from non-vetted journalists, mostly the people I now stood with in the viewing gallery, were ignored.

It wasn’t as though we were trying to catch anyone out. We had questions because the amount of detailed information about the Belgian brewing scene in our home country is near non-existent – a smattering of specialist forum threads, piecemeal and highly dubious encyclopedia pages. Social media provides images and opinions, but so few facts. I’ve attended a number of tastings of Belgian beers (held in relative secrecy of course, in private groups) and been impressed with a number of beers, but, like with so many ‘classic’ British monastery styles, wondered if something has been lost in the battle for global brewing supremacy? The nationalistic fervour imbued in each of our brewing cultures, celebrated by many as a link to our past and powerful indicator of our place in the world, seems increasingly narrow-minded, even totalitarian, in a nation like ours where the cuisine of the world arrives on our doorstep.

Belgian beer bloggers interacted with us cautiously, as if unsure whether they will be tainted by association. Some, however, approached us enthusiastically in private, like us, eager to learn. We were pleased to have our suspicions confirmed on one issue though: the key battleground is in the New English States, where the gradual institution of federal democracy (with His Catholic Majesty the Prince of New England remaining as constitutional monarch) has seen the emergence of real diversity in the beer marketplace. The much-discussed grassroots movement of homebrewers starting, incredibly, their own brewing companies separate of BABA control, has undoubtedly set in motion a excitable reaction in the BFB, and confusion in the BABA.

Complacently assuming that brand loyalty and history would ensure superiority, no provisions for industry regulation such as the DeMBRegs were written into the Colonial Charter. The States could potentially be a clean slate, or rather, a blank canvas upon which a wholly different brewing industry could be set out. The BFB is naturally hoping to capitalise on this (the new ad campaign notably contained a version with Rochefort looming over the Rocky Mountains). Belgian bloggers may be able to access more privileged information on this issue. For now, we can only speculate on how the battle will play out, but as the last remaining free market to conquer, it’s be expected that both the BABA and BFB will be spending considerable resources. The real unknown element here is the the growing number of so-called Independent Craft Brewers in the States, whose beers are are reported to be quite unlike those from either Britain or Belgium. If they produce beers that capture the public’s imagination, the BABA and BFB might that money alone won’t buy them victory. Here’s hoping there’s a Conference in the States one day so we can try and find out for ourselves.

#EBBC15 – Belgian Family Brewers and the Future of Belgian Beer Culture

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At the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference (EBBC) in Brussels today, glasses of gueuze, tripel and blond clink and gurgle as they are filled. Conversation rolls in waves, and each one covers the same issue: the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) have announced a new campaign to define Belgian brewing as a family tradition on a par to those around the world. The campaign will include print and online advertising and in-trade events, seeking to educate consumers about just how seriously the profession of brewing is seen in Belgium, but also seeks to secure, in a roundabout way, a common understanding of what a ‘proper’ Belgian brewer is: one that is a BFB member – an historic, family-owned business.

Slides comparing brewing in Belgium to salsa dancing in Cuba, rodeo in the United States, bullfighting in Spain and even the Carnival dancers of Brazil reveal a slightly limited, awkward and stereotypical worldview, but the intention is clear. It’s a single-minded campaign, trying to show the heart and soul in Belgian brewing in way the country has not seen before, but one that raises many questions about the BFB’s long-term intentions.

So what is the BFB and how is this a change from its current campaigning? The BFB is a non-profit organisation and represents 22 Belgian, family-owned breweries and has existed since 2007, created with the aim of ‘passing on knowledge’, in real terms protecting the status of its members and marketing their credibility to consumers (in a way not dissimilar to the Authentic Trappist Product stamp on Trappist brewery beers). Most crucially, its members must have brewed beer in Belgium for at least 50 years.

This time criteria fascinates me, and it sets the BFB apart from many other such organisations of which I’m aware. The aim to preserve heritage has been made abundantly clear to EBBC attendees, but like any brewery in the past 20 years, many of them have adopted a number of recent fashionable styles and methods to benefit from the increased interest from consumers in speciality beer styles. Much of this heritage, whilst thought be many hundreds of years old, is often based on styles from the 20th century at the earliest. ‘Authenticity’ is another term which they are defining with their own set of criteria – unsurprisingly they choose that it means a family business owning its own brewery.

The conference has seen the BFB set its own narrative; explain in unmistakeable terms that it is the champion of ‘proper’ Belgian beer. The curiously grandiose phrase ‘Heritage Guardians’ has been injected quite deliberately into panel discussions, presentations and beer tastings. The phrase reminds me, in a strange sort of way, of something BrewDog might announce if was a 7th generation blond and oud bruin brewer. There can be no doubt that we have been carefully warmed up for this announcement: a smattering of words such as ‘preservation’, ‘innovation’, ‘passion’ and – inevitably – ‘craft’, have been deployed with press-release-like precision, put into the mouths of commercial directors and brewmasters with rehearsed annunciation and repetition.

Of course, as the leading Belgian organisation representing beer that bloggers would likely be interested in, the BFB’s headline sponsorship of the EBBC in Brussels is far from surprising. A representative attended last year’s conference in Dublin with the express intention of gauging the likelihood of 2015’s taking place in Brussels. But more interestingly, the BFB has timed its press conference for the conference attendees arrival. An obvious choice if they wish to best communicate their message, undoubtedly, but the events taking place throughout the conference have been designed to help convince attendees of the BFB member breweries’ artisan and craft credentials. The almost breathless pace of the conference so far has astonished many attendees, but also hinted at an agenda to represent the maximum number of BFB members and their beers in a shortest possible time for a specific reason; to make a specific case in time for the announcement of its new campaign.

Has the case been made successfully? My own personal understanding of the organisation and the Belgian beer industry has been greatly expanded, but the more I have learned, the more questions I have. There’s definitely a sense of banding together to preserve heritage, a laudable aim, but also a feeling that these are proud, inflexible dynasties clinging on to businesses that stretch back hundreds of years. They have every right to preserve what they have built, and they seem to feel they are being open by showing us their beers and their brewmasters, but there’s a clear discomfort about the growing popularity of brewers in Belgium who are not BFB members. ‘Gypsy’ or cuckoo brewers who contract brew on other brewers’ equipment, and those who make great beer but lack the 50-year-heritage to be members, are starting to gain acclaim, and are benefiting at home and overseas from the credentials and reputation of being Belgian.

This clearly riles the BFB, and this new campaign to enforce the ‘family tradition’ message may be the beginnings of a longer-term strategy to preserve their place among self-consciously ‘craft brewers’ in Belgium.

 

The pride in its achievements – and fear of being forgotten – motivating this organisation is a curious thing to observe and understand. BFBF members delight in reeling off the awards and history of one of their beers, but they clearly struggle to see how they fit into what is currently happening in the world of beer. If the BFB wants to convince the world that their version of Belgian brewing culture is primary, they must learn that traditions do not simply spring out of the ground. They are grown, and acting more inclusively towards newer brewers is an absolute must if they wish to be taken seriously, and if they wish for their traditions to survive, and thrive in the future.

Race To The Middle – What I learned judging at the World Beer Awards

Last month I was invited to judge at the yearly World Beer Awards, at which over 400 beers are submitted to the Europe panel alone. It was on the European judging panel that I learned an important lesson about the beer market, and the perils facing emerging craft brewers.

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As the second round of Hefeweizens finds their numbered positions on the placemat in front of me, a fresh cloud of clove, banana and bubblegum fills my nostrils. It’s the fourth style I’ve tasted so far on the first day of judging at the World Beer Awards, and I’m having the time of my life. I’m tasting some of the finest beers from across Europe, surrounded by seasoned professionals, even having the privilege of judging in a pair with Tim Hampson, the Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It’s a young beer writer’s dream gig, and one I relished the opportunity of doing.

Beer judging is a strange business – forcing you to accept on one hand that beer is an amazing equaliser that brings people around the world together in simple, pleasing, mildly alcoholic euphoria in their day-to-day lives; and on the other hand that beer is something that must be taken seriously by some in order for others to enjoy it casually.

There’s a frequently repeated assertion that, when tasted blind, without their labels, glassware or reputation to bolster or hinder them, beers in the same style all taste broadly the same. It’s complete crap, of course, but the worry that I might struggle to distinguish from one to the next when ten beers are placed in front of me was a lingering doubt before the judging began. The reality was far stranger than I expected: that some beers would indeed taste almost exactly alike, whilst others in the same category would seem to belong somewhere else entirely – and that these would be the ‘normal’ ones.

What struck me most from my judging experience so far (there are a further two rounds of judging to be completed, so don’t expect me to name any beers that were entered), was that the more populated style categories, those with dozens of commercial examples but which are distinctly European, such as hefeweizen, Tripel, Helles, pale ale, seemed to have a lot in common. Not in terms of flavour or other physical characteristics, but that in each style category there were a large proportion of entries that really did all taste very alike, whilst a handful of outliers proved to be the most interesting for better or worse.

With such traditional beer styles, there is always that fear that you perhaps don’t like a certain more commercial or typical example of the style because you don’t ‘get it’, or you are ignorant of its nuanced charms. This is why my experience taught me so much: most of the time, the unusual and more remarkable outliers were the beers that tasted most atypical or traditional for the style. It was the homogenised mass of commercial beers, all quite deliberately designed to taste like each other, all quite plainly desperate to capture the centre ground, that fascinated me. These beers clearly represented what many people would associate with those beer styles, and yet in comparison with others, were plainly miles away in flavour. So how do I know which ones were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? In many ways, I don’t, or rather, I can’t, but when it comes to flavour and authenticity, I was confident I made the right calls. Reassuringly, my judging partner almost always agreed.

When judging these categories, it can sometimes take a few beers to get one’s ‘eye in’ for the style, after which it can become a box-ticking exercise of discovering which beers have or have not the desired characteristics and excel at displaying them. Other times, more interestingly (for the inquisitive palate), you find each beer provides the dimensions and borders for your appreciation of the subsequent beer, and that the ones after that inform and can cause you to reassess your impression of the earlier ones. I would have loved to have seen a live brain scan of various synapses firing as I tasted different beers (anyone with some spare lab time and equipment leave a comment below). With some categories it was a rollercoaster, causing verbal and physical reactions like reading a good suspense story.

So what to make of these style categories with an abundance of imitators lightened up by occasional marvels? Well, you might not be that surprised that the traditional styles of European beers have become bogged down in the perceived parameters of what they should be, and that those owned by larger concerns lack the flavour of more esoteric or eccentric examples. What concerned me was that amongst the more modern beers, and here I’m referring to hop-forward pale ales as well as modern takes on traditional styles, there was evidence of this same phenomenon. It gave me pause for thought: would the beers I identify now as ‘juicy bangers’, breaking down style boundaries by serving consumer thirst and brewer creativity, face the same fate as the traditional heavyweights? There is early evidence to suggest they might, and more generally I have noticed a gradual move to towards less complex flavours in New World hoppy pale ales as craft beer in the UK gathers apace.

I worry that the beers that are changing everything in UK beer right now might begin to coast, or worse, actively seek a more ‘generic’ mildly citrusy flavour to seek broader appeal, at the cost of their initial promise and early brilliance. We’re seeing more smaller breweries losing that ‘smaller’ modifier, and with that growth comes the temptation to seize margin, to take a firm hold of a certain flavour and make it duller, simpler, cheaper to broaden appeal. There are surely lessons to be learned here from beer styles from around Europe with incredible histories, reputations and flavours, that have been gradually diminished in an attempt to out-average each other in competition.

When the only race is one to the middle, there are no winners, only competitors, caught in a gravity well of their own making, forever chasing after an ideal that in fact lessens what they were before. It’s admirable and encouraging to see smaller breweries try to improve and expand, to provide an ever more stable and commercially successful product to win over more people to the side of good beer. As they do so, they should remain cautious of freely and gladly handing away that which made them great to begin with, and in doing so, becoming yet another competitor in a game they should have no desire to play.

 

My work as a judge at the World Beer Awards is for a fee. My employer, Brew By Numbers, did not enter any beers into this year’s awards.

A Shot at the Bar: Brewhouse and Kitchen, Bristol

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When the brilliant Brewhouse & Kitchen Islington opened near Angel station last year, I was embarrassed to learn that there were already successful branches of the brewpub group in Dorchester, Poole and Portsmouth, of which I was completely unaware. My blinkered capital-view had hidden these excellent brewpubs from me, and it gave me a dose of what I call London Guilt. My partner’s family lives in Bristol, so when the latest branch opened there last month, I was determined to check it out on our next visit.

I couldn’t make the launch event sadly, a disappointment all the more crushing for the fact that the man who was the body of Darth Vader (Bristolian bodybuilder David Prowse) was there at the party. Like the other Brewhouse & Kitchen brewpubs, the brewers here take their cues for beers from the city the pub is in. Naturally, a Sith-influenced Papa Darth oatmeal stout is available (‘on the dark side’ jokes abound), alongside Yankee Cabot (named after the Italian explorer who was a citizen of Bristol and after which many landmarks are named), Deception Rye IPA (named for Derren Brown who studied in Bristol and first performed there) and others. All their own beers are brewed onsite in the very visible and pretty brewkit, and as seen in the picture above a decent array of keg and bottled beers are also available.

The beer that really impressed me both on my first and subsequent visits was the 3.9% Hornigold Blonde Ale, the vibrant pint pictured above. Hornigold was the mentor of Bristol’s more famous pirate son: Blackbeard, and the brewers clearly thought his name would look nice on a golden ale. I’d arrived at the bar early afternoon and fancied something fairly light and easy-going, but was blown away by the peach-and-melon sweetness running through Hornigold, sharpened by a juicy grapefruit finish. It was remarkably similar to a great pint of cask Oakham Citra, but maybe 18 months or more ago when Citra was in its best form. Hornigold was a pint upon which I lavished the highest compliment: the same again, please.

 

Brewhouse & Kitchen Bristol, 31-35 Cotham Hill, Clifton, Bristol BS6 6JY

@BKBristol

Recipe: Porter, Beef and Bacon Stew

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I had doubts about posting this hearty recipe today, given how the weather has massively improved recently, but apparently it will go back to cold, blustery rain soon, so you’ll be thanking me later.

Beef stew with beer in it is a simple, classic dish that every beer (and beef) lover should have under their belt, ideal for banishing the last of the colder days. I love making a meal that’s a strong, simple idea, with loads of flavour but not loads of ingredients, just the right ones. I hate seeing those once-and-never-again-used jars of unobtanium and eye of newt at the back of the cupboard, when I only bought them so half a teaspoon would go into something I’d never make again. This is a full-flavoured stew that uses good quality, everyday things to tasty effect – but using which beer?

BrewDog’s first seasonal beer of 2015, the resurrected Alice Porter, is now at 5.2% and without the leafy blackcurrant notes of Bramling X and dessert-like flavours of vanilla, but it still has a wonderfully full, sweet and nourishing body and velvety mouthfeel, sharpened by the oily lemon of Sorachi Ace. In this dish, the idea is to enrich that beef and sauce with the oaty, chocolatey notes of the porter, and get the oily lemon notes to interact with the thyme and vegetables. Of course, there are lots of beers you could use here – oatmeal stouts, brown ales, Belgian dubbels – but generally you want something that’s rich, darker, sweet without too much roast or bitterness.

 

 

Ingredients:

The below makes a portion for 1 person, so scale up as you wish:

  • 200g stewing steak
  • 1 rasher smoked streaky bacon, chopped
  • 1 large shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped to roughly 1cm sq pieces
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 a bottle of porter (in this case BrewDog Alice Porter)
  • 150ml beef stock
  • Thyme, small bunch
  • Salt and pepper, for seasoning
  • Parsley, finely chopped, to serve

Cooking time: 90 minutes

Method:

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, season the beef with the salt and pepper and sear it on the outside in the pan. You don’t need to fully cook it through, just brown the outside. Depending on how much you’re cooking, you might find this easier to do in small amounts, rather than all at once. Set the beef and the juices aside once you’ve seared all of it on all sides.

2. In the same pan, stir fry the bacon for a few minutes, then add the butter, onion, carrots and garlic, softening the vegetables for about 7 or 8 minutes.

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3. Now return the beef and its juices to the pan, stir everything through, then add the thyme, porter and beef stock (but keep about 100ml or so of stock back). Make sure the liquid covers everything. Once it’s simmering, get the heat down low, cover the pan and leave to cook for about an hour and a half. If it starts to look like it’s drying out, add some of the reserved stock.

4. Once the stew has thickened and the beef is tender, taste and season if necessary. Garnish with the parsley and serve with potatoes however you like them (for me you can’t beat mustard mash) or with some crusty bread and butter. Oh, and a glass of beer.

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Beer Match:

If you have more left, Alice Porter is perfect, picking out the softer herbal elements of the dish as well as boosting the thick, beefy goodness. Alternatively, pick your favourite dark beer in the cupboard. Westmalle Dubbel, Kernel Export India Porter or an American porter like those by Anchor or Sierra Nevada are great matches for this type of dish. As ever, balancing the intensity of flavour in both beer and the food is key, but it’s also important to find other aspects they have in common – comforting sweetness and complex flavours. Enjoy!

 

Dead or Alive: Are single-hopped beers still interesting?

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One of the textbook rites of passage for the modern, budding beer geek is to buy ‘single-hopped’ beers to find out the flavour and aroma characteristics of specific hop varieties. With each flavour, some increased knowledge or understanding of it is (hopefully) stored subconsciously, and the next time we experience it, it becomes a little easier for the firing synapses to locate the relevant file of previous experience.

A brewery that has truly committed to the single-hopped idea is BrewDog, which recently released its fifth annual IPA is Dead series. The hops selected are chosen based on a combination of public interest (including suggestions from social media) and, mostly, I suspect, brewer curiosity. With new BrewDog bars opening on an almost monthly basis, it’s getting easier each year to pop along to your nearest one on day of release and order a flight of the latest series to try them out. For some, the appeal is simply to taste something they haven’t had before. For homebrewers and committed beer geeks, single-hopped beers represent an opportunity for personal development and gaining valuable experience.

The thing is, most hops, like most people, are normally only very good at one or two things, and not many people can even claim to be that talented. Single-hopped beers require the hop variety in question to be used at multiple points in the process, instead of just where they would normally perform best. Sometimes the ‘truth’ of a hop’s character is blunted or stymied by it being used at every stage in the brewing process. Others, meanwhile, revel in the challenge and reveal incredible depths, clarity  or raw flavoursome power.

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The latest BrewDog IPA is Dead series sees another eclectic mix of craft beer favourites and up-and-coming new varieties: Mandarina Bavaria (a great potential Bond heroine name), classic US bitter monster Chinook, juicy Oz-German hybrid Ella and modern British hop Pioneer.

Mandarina Bavaria certainly delivers a lot of sweet orange and pithy peel in its aroma. There’s also something stickier and alcoholic like peach schnapps, perhaps revealing the hop’s difficulty in overcoming the beer’s 7.2% abv. I found the Mandarina Bavaria very sweet, but with a tangy lemon sherbet flavour rather than full-on mandarin. The bitterness is sudden and schizophrenic – twisting juicy fruit into a raspingly dry finish reminiscent of Jever. The strength of the beer was much less evident in the flavour, in fact I gulped it down like it was a juicy and bitter pale ale, so here the hop really shined.

Pioneer, a British hop, can have bright lemony flavours and woody, cedary notes when used well. In a 7.2% IPA, the flavours seem to come down quite hard on woodiness, almost piney in the finish, whilst the aroma was somewhere between warm lemon curd and marmalade. It didn’t quite gel with the strength and malt profile of the beer, but certainly taught me in explicit terms what Pioneer tastes like.

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Ella, meanwhile, is an Australian variety related to the super-peachy aroma hop Galaxy and the German bittering hop Spalt. Brewers like its flavour-efficiency, as it can be used in moderate amounts to replicate full-bodied continental lagers, or in larger amounts to deliver massive tropical juiciness. As it’s the only hop in the beer, Ella turned the IPA into a dangerously quaffable blend of sharp bitter grapefruit, tart lime and caramelised peaches. The finish is actually my favourite part, leaving just enough of each flavour to make the mouth water for more.

Finally, Chinook delivered a somewhat predictable hammer-blow. A hop that can be used for bittering or aroma, Chinook is a notably piney and spicy US hop that tends to dominate the finish of any beer it’s used in. It’s a favourite of BrewDog’s so I had a fairly good idea of how it would taste, and I was glad I elected to drink this one last. The bitterness and pronounced pine and woodiness was palate-shifting.

This is the funny thing, though: whilst each of the beers seemed to have markedly different levels of bitterness and hop flavour, all of them were brewed to have 75 IBUs. As any brewer will tell you, that number on the brewsheet is not the same as perceived bitterness in the final beer – the reason why a 45 IBU pale ale can taste less bitter than a 45 IBU pilsner. Brewing each of these beers to 75 IBU isn’t necessarily the best showcase of each hop, and often, individual hops, like people, perform best when partnered with others that have different strengths.

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Since this was the first time I’ve had all four of the series in bottles at home, so I couldn’t resist flipping the concept on its head. In previous releases, the hops used for IPA is Dead were often so diametrically opposed that it would never occur to many people to try blending them, but this year’s release seemed to have traits that could work in unison. After opening each bottle I poured roughly 100ml into a growler that I kept in the fridge, and after tasting all four I had an equal-parts blend of each beer.

The result was surprising, in that each of the component beers could be tasted and seemed to interact with each other – the resinous spike of Chinook evened out the peachy syrup of Ella, the lemon and orange in Mandarina Bavaria softened the bitter, woody tang of Pioneer – but whilst it broadly worked, it was not in any sense a complete beer. Each beer had used its hop at all addition stages, for bitterness, flavour, aroma and dry hop, so the positives aspects were spread thinly across the palate. What would be more interesting, would be if the IPA is Dead series starred a fifth beer, where the brewers used the hops from the four single-hopped beers in different proportions at different stages to best suit their characteristics. Just as important as learning what hops taste like when working alone, is learning how they can work together. The lessons learned from the flavours of the single hopped versions could be galvanised in the the fifth, when you see how and when they should be used to best effect together. What do you think?

 

Thanks to BrewDog for sending me this year’s IPA is Dead series.

A Shot at the Bar: The Bohemia and London Brewing Co

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It’s Wings Wednesday that typically brings me to North Finchley’s The Bohemia pub, the recently refurbished flagship pub from the owners of The Bull in Highgate. The offer of 500g of spicy Buffalo wings (some of the best this side of the Atlantic I’ve been assured) for five pounds is hard to resist. As North London goes, The Bohemia is very north, but more than worth the extra minutes by bus (134, 263, N20, 460, 82) or tube (North Finchley, Woodside Park) when you get there.

The place is wide and deep, lavishly furnished and skilfully halfway between modern and traditional, in proportions more in common with a spacious, town centre pub than anywhere else in London serving La Chouffe and Veltins on tap. Of course, the key difference here is the Bohemia is home to a brewery as well as a well-stocked bar – the London Brewing Co, which also brews at The Bull. Whilst the beers brewed at The Bull are packaged in casks, The Bohemia’s kit generally brews beer for keg.

The brewers have already turned out a wheat beer, stout, rye IPA and session IPA, which are naturally all available at the bar just a few metres away. Currently the most impressive of these are the ‘Stout’, displaying a creamy coffee yet dry, herbal hoppy character I’d most recently enjoyed in O’Hara’s Stout in Dublin, and the ‘Upright’ session IPA, which tasted every bit as good as fresh Founders’ All-Day – orangey, oily, boisterously bitter – but fresher. Brewer Daniel Vane has recently returned to London Brewing Co with plenty of ideas in mind, as recent shots of a brewday for a lychee pale have shown. He’s assured me there’s plenty more in the pipeline, some of which will be available at the forthcoming Northern Line Beer Festival on 22-26 April, which will feature beers from a number of celebrated Northern-Line-based brewers (including the new, Derek Prentice-helmed, Wimbledon Brewery) and will also include beer and book matching from Pete Brown and a beer-paired dinner at The Bull.

What I love most about The Bohemia, even more than the wings (somehow), is that there’s damned good beer there, made just a few steps from the bar. That distance travelled to the pub itself is compressed, folded and shrunk somehow by the difference made by that short distance between the brewhouse and the bar. There’s nothing quite like taking a gulp of daisy-fresh session IPA and being able to see where it was lovingly brought to life.

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