Wednesday 31 July 2013

A trip to the North Pole

We had a pub crawl research trip around Islington the other week. We started at the Craft Beer Co., which unlike most craft beer bars has the benefit of being a pub.

Though the definition of craft beer is a thing of great controversy amongst beer nerds on this side of the Atlantic, craft beer bars are much easier to define: places with a good range of beers where scotch eggs cost a fiver. Because of this we'd come prepared:

50p each seems much more reasonable 

The Craft Beer Co. had a good range of beer but they were a bit on the warm side so we soon went the short walk to the Hundred Crows Rising for a delicious drop of Old Dairy.

It was time to get trekking after that, and we were able to satisfy our new found love of canals on the way to our next stop.

It was an excellent looking old gin palace called The Island Queen that we were heading to.

It was Landlord for me here, but we could only stop for one as our goal was to reach the North Pole and that takes some serious trekking. OK, not that serious really as it was another pub we'd definitely reached a North London post code and that was quite North enough for us. This was where we had the best beer, look they had all three colours:

Yellow, brown and black: what a selection!
Saltaire Triple Chocoholic was probably the pick of the bunch. Having reached the North Pole things could only really go down from there. We didn't booze with our meal at the Guanabana, nice milkshake mind but the food wasn't quite what we'd hoped for, and then it was just a swifty before the train at the Coal Hole, which didn't set the Thames on fire.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Seventy Rolling Years by Sydney O Nevile

One thing I remembered from the Ronathon I recently enjoyed was the mention of a book about a brewer's seventy year long career that sounded right up my street. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology a 50 year old book had soon landed on my doormat and more fascinating facts were making their way into my head.

The book covers Sydney O Nevile's 70 year long career in the brewing industry from a pupilage aged 14 in 1888 through to being on the board of Whitbread and just about every industry committee. Though he tends to focus more on policies he was involved in shaping, rather than technical details of brewing, there was still plenty to keep me interested.

His tale of the tribulations suffered by breweries in the early years of the twentieth century really make it look like we're having it easy in the early years of the twenty first.

"There must be few today who realize the manifold trials and tribulations of the brewers in those days; the continual political attacks, and the absurd prejudices of the licensing authorities, to say nothing of the reckless purchase of public houses at high prices and cut-throat competition for the trade of free houses at prices below the cost of production; a combination of disasters and ineptitude which lead to many large concerns in the metropolis and elsewhere being unable to pay dividends on their shares, and in some cases interest on their debentures."

The anti-alcohol lobby today really aren't a patch on the miserable puritans that at one point had a disturbing degree of influence. That in the middle of the First World War the Prime Minister can say: "We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink" really shows quite how over the top their influence became. Intriguingly later on in the book the author states that one of the reasons there were less restrictions on drink during the Second World War is because it had caused industrial unrest, but provides no further details.

Surprisingly the author was in favour of the restricted pub opening hours brought in during WWI, which were to a large extent still in force when I started drinking and still influence my drinking habits to this day. I've got the hang of drinking through the afternoon mind, but I'm still seldom up to drinking past 11 pm.

The author describes how he was involved in a long battle to improve pubs, something that I don't think would be controversial today, but was very problematic back then as it was seen to be encouraging drinking.
In fact he was keen to not only improve the buildings but change their character by doing things like serving food and soft drinks. Eventually he won support from the industry and the authorities, and one of the pubs he talks about is near me in Guildford. Sadly it's now a shop, but then again a pub changing use is not quite as big a change as the fact that Whitbread is no longer a brewer.

This used to be the Bull's Head

 During Nevile's career the number of breweries in Britain went from over 10,000 to under 500, which makes the current rise in brewery numbers seem relatively modest. As now, many were very small though, and he unambiguously states that industrial beer was of better quality. His policy was that "quality not cheapness is the foundation of success" which really makes me wonder when the big breweries decided to reverse it! Certainly the management of Whitbread were concerned about the flavour of their beer, when Nevile got a job on the board he had to promise not to carbonate the bottled beer (though that didn't stop him doing it in the end).

Another delight in the book include confirmation that White's Golding was the original name of Whitbread Golding Varitey. I'd not been too happy only having The Encircling Hop as a reference for that so it's good to hear it from the man at Whitbread who bought Beltring farm where the variety originated.

I was also interested to see that there used to be an exception from beer duty for very small producers, a situation that still exists today for cider makers.

His comments on cellarmanship, made before 1910 are rather depressing though:

"My attention was particularly directed to lack of training when studying the difficulties of the brewing trade during the early years of the century. At that time, as a result of minor research by way of systematic sampling from a number of houses during a period of some months, I found the average quality of the beer offered to the customer fell far below standard. I found, too, that cellars were not always as clean as they should have been; they were often badly and uneconomically designed, in many, the temperatures (so important a consideration) were neither uniform nor consistent, and there were other defects traceable to the scanty knowledge of cellar management among those in charge and their unskilled employees. The natural result of such mismanagement of cellars already unsuitable was of course that the quality of the beer which reached the consumer was unsatisfactory."

I wouldn't be surprised to something like that written today, it's enough to turn you to keg beer!*

The mystery of milk stout is also made clear thanks to his involvement in making Mackesons a national brand, firstly how it initially had problems from the customs authorities and secondly how the term 'milk' came to be dropped:

"Some years before our acquisition of the brewery, the Mackeson company had taken up certain patents in connection with the use of lactose, a form of sugar obtained from milk, and had put on the market a stout sold as 'Mackeson's Milk Stout'. The merit of lactose lay in its being non-fermentable and it gave the stout a smooth taste as well as dietetic value. The output when we bought the business was small and at first there was doubt whether the product would be worth continuing. But presently inquiries came from different parts of the country, asking where Mackeson's Milk Stout could be got, the inquirers having been on holiday in Kent. It looked as if the demand might be greater than expected. I found on investigation that the quality was impaired by certain restrictions imposed by the customs authorities on the use of lactose, restrictions which seemed to me capable of revision. I was able to arrange with the heads of Customs for these to be modified."

Not entirely certain what the restrictions were, but with customs involved it probably related to duty, milk stouts having a high original gravity but low ABV due to the non-fermentability of lactose. He continues:

"After the end of the war the Ministry [of Food] embarked on a campaign to ensure the correct terminology of food sold for public consumption. They held that the term 'Milk' was an incorrect description, since 'whole' milk was not used, the 'milk' element - lactose - being merely a sugar obtained from whey, one of the by-products of cheese making. There was much criticism of the Ministry's action as officious interference, but they stuck to their guns and indicated that if the term was continued in use, a restrictive order would follow. So the word 'Milk' was dropped and, so far as were were concerned, the term 'Mackeson's Stout' was established in its place. 

So no actual ban of the term was put in place, just the threat of a ban.

The book details Sydney O Nevile's 70 year long career, but in his obituary written in 1969 it talks of his 80 years in the brewing industry, and mentions how it was his foresight and work that eventually lead to the foundation of the Brewing Industry Research Foundation for which I'm sure we're all grateful.

The book was an interesting account of a long and active life in brewing. Thanks to Ron for the recommendation!

* Only joking.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Bottle bomb?

I recently found out that there's a group of militant french wine makers waging guerrilla warfare. Impressively bonkers, it makes the brewing industry look like a very sober and sensible bunch.

Friday 19 July 2013

Craft beer revolution predicted in 1924!

That's the American craft beer revolution that emerged from home brewers interested in making tasty beers to be more specific.

Rummaging through the archives of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing can bring some unexpected findings. Since the entire back catalogue went online I've been looking for more on Horace Brown and I've recently branched out into his friend Henry Armstrong, as he seems a very entertaining character. Seeing that he had a paper called "Humour and its potency - a character study" I thought that sounds like fun so it was a definite one for downloading.

As it turns out the meat of the paper seems to be about (incorrectly) saying that water molecules aren't polar, but being a quality eccentric it takes him a couple of pages to get into that, as he once again takes the opportunity to decry the state of post-WWI beer, and brewers concerned too much with science and not enough with the art of brewing and the flavour of beer. This time though he mentions a glimmer of hope shining from an unexpected source:

"I am told, by recent visitors to the USA, that prohibition has lost its terrors. As was formerly the custom in this country, householders are taking to brew their own beer and gradually learning the art. We may look forward to a new race of Re-brewers being developed, more worthy in the eyes of society than the Re-seachers, whose office it will be to repeat the miracle of Canaan in Galilee [i.e turn water into wine]. The critic of flavour will again come to the fore, under such a system."

Though he may have been rather more farsighted than he thought, it's still fascinating to see that back in 1924 an eminent brewing scientist was saying that brewing has become too concerned with the technicalities to the detriment of the flavour, and that hope lies in home brewers!

Tuesday 16 July 2013

No one Ever Told Me About Chiron!

Back when I were a lad I memorised the names of all the planets. I don't use any of that fancy mnemonic malarkey, just the names in order from the sun:
  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Earth 
  • Mars
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn 
  • Uranus
  • Neptune
  • Pluto
Of course Pluto's been demoted since then but never mind, it'll always be a planet to me.

Back in those pre-internet days I was rather proud I'd crammed into my brain some facts that were occasionally of use. So I was rather distressed when browsing though a dictionary of science to see an entry for Chiron describing it as a "minor planet". "No one ever told me about Chiron!" I cried, appalled that my teachers had been withholding information from me. I soon learnt that teachers are often economical with the facts, so much so that I shortened "No one ever told me about Chiron" to the acronym of NETMAC as it was a lot less effort.

This all came back to me when I saw Thornbridge had brought out a beer called Chiron. Presumably they had a similar experience at school and wanted to publicise the fact.

It took me ages to track a bottle down, eventually I saw it in Cobbetts Real Ale. It's an American pale ale, so as you would expect, lots of citrussy hops, and it went down very nicely. I'd happily drink it again.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Two lips in Amsterdam

My two lips have recently been spending time in Amsterdam clamped around glasses of Brettanomyces brewed beer. A "wild yeast" beer festival was being held and two of my beers were there.

Three bars and an off licence were hosting the festival, all within a handy short walking distance. In fact being the stuff of epics the distances were shorter than what we're normally used to which lead to us overshooting and getting temporarily misplaced on more than one occasion.

Our first port of call was the Prael, a large bar complete with its own brewery. Each beer was named after a Dutch crooner and I can't for the life of me remember what any were called, which is probably for the best.

The next venue we checked out was the Bierkoning, an off licence with a fantastic range of beers. In fact it was a bit overwhelming. Particularly as we'd flown with hand luggage only so couldn't take any back! Lambic legend Frank Boon was there doing a tasting when we arrived and I have to say I was mightily impressed with his wares. Traditionally made, but not as acidic as Cantillon, his geuze was refreshing and his fruit beers were neither sour nor syrupy. Both went down a treat. 

The event I was most looking forward to, Ron Pattinson talking about Brettanomyces in British brewing, was later that day at the Prael.

Imperial Russian Stout, Stock Ales and India Pale Ales were all covered, complete with relevant beer to taste, my own Vintage Ale making its first public appearance (complete with new name and increased ABV) as the stock ale.

We went for a Chinese with Ron and the delightful Dolores after, but the beer was Heineken so I'll say no more.

Saturday was a time for us to wander round Amsterdam, it's a lovely looking city, canals, historic buildings, cyclists and trams itching to run into you. What more could you want? Actually we could have done without the dangers of crossing roads. Not only do they drive on the wrong side but we could never work out what were the cycle lanes or where would cars come from, and that's not to mention how trams can creep up on you at a frightening rate. Having been chatting to someone in a Subhumans T-shirt the night before the song "I don't wanna die" did tend to pop into my head whenever we needed to cross a road.

Eventually our wandering took us to Ron and Dolores', where I got a chance to admire Ron's beer book collection, and we got taste a fantastic selection of historically based beers complete with complementary nibbles. Gose and grodziskie were just the warm up before we moved throughout time and space in the world of beer, though the definitely seemed to be an upward trend as far as the ABV went. I seem to recall an Adambier was my favourite, but then I do have a soft spot for the Adamites.

Sadly we couldn't stay all day as I was due on In de Wilderman. Fortunately it turned out to be a "meet and greet" so I didn't have to do a talk, and just chatted to beer bods for an hour or so which was all good fun. Amongst the people there were someone else who'd come over from England, and some friendly Dutch brewers.

The Wilderman was my favourite bar of the trip, having the feel of a pub about it, but in our slightly befuddled state we forgot to get any food though and by the time we left it was too late. Not that we couldn't have bought on the way home, it was because the mobs of shouting drunk stag parties had filled the street and we really just wanted to get back as soon as we could.

The emergency bag of peanuts had to do us for dinner, well that and all the liquid bread I suppose. The morning was much more civilised, with a leisurely roof top breakfast and copious quantities of caffeine.


We had time for more wandering before we headed home and took a boat trip round the canals and looked into what bars we could find. Unfortunately despite Amsterdam being a cosmopolitan metropolis many bar owners persist in spending Sunday afternoons enjoying conjugal relations with close relatives rather than selling beer so the choice was more limited than we'd hoped. We did our best but really need to make a return trip. As ever more research is necessary.

Thursday 4 July 2013

The stuff of epics

We successfully completed our longest pub crawl last week. Three pubs over three days meant it wasn't a massively boozy affair, but hey, there was some great scenery.

Starting from Great Langdale the first point we were aiming for was the three tarns by Bowfell. "Shall we go up the band" I said to the Lovely Lisa? "Go to hell" she said, so we did, ascending the path by Hell Gill instead. We were on our way to Boot in Eskdale for the first time in many years, and it gave us the opportunity to tick off a Wainwright with a beery connection along the way: Hardknott.

Despite trying to keep the amount of gear I was lugging around to a minimum I'd brought a bottle of one of Hardknott Dave's delights to celebrate the occasion.

We didn't actually drink it on the summit as the wind was picking up so we waited til we'd got down to Hardknott Castle, a Roman fort which must have been very impressive in its day. 

We were staying at a Youth Hostel, and though I'd been slightly concerned about this before hand it was really good. Perhaps that we got go outside in the sun and wander round their nature reserve helped, but it was a lovely setting and the lack of traffic compared to Great Langdale was another bonus. It was also conveniently close to the Woolpack Inn, which we'd been to once before back when Hardknott Dave's first name was still Woolpack and the brewery was based there.

The new owners have obviously put some money into the place and opened it up so you can get through to the plusher side of the bar.

Innit plush?

Let's see that a little closer...

There were four or five beers on and Continuum was our tipple of choice, until the craving for Sneck Lifter lead us back to the youth hostel so we could get a bottle from their bar.

Next day we were heading over to Wasdale via Scafell, an excellent route but quite possibly the longest 3 1/2 miles I've ever walked, our average speed must have been around the one mile an hour mark. We only saw one other person until we'd nearly reached the summit, I suspect it would have been busier if we'd gone up the neighbouring and 14m higher Scafell Pike though.

The descent into Wasdale was a bit more scree ridden than we'd have liked, but we survived. Refreshment was at the Wasdale Head Inn, another pub that used to have a brewery in it. Plenty of hand pumps, which included Cumbrian Legendary Ale's Langdale and that was enough for us.

It was also enough for us bagging peaks, as after two days of trudging we took the easiest route back to Langdale the next day, going up to Styhead and then onto Esk Hause. The descent down Rossett Ghyll was even more tedious then we'd remembered, and the Old Dungeon Ghyll still seemed a long way off when we finally reached the bottom. But when we got to the pub the Old Peculier we'd set our heart on was waiting for us, and though it wasn't the best pint I've had it certainly did the job and eased our walk back to the hut.

We were in Langdale for the rest of the week and met up with my mountaineering club at the weekend. I even managed to get some climbing in, though we found the first pitch of Mendes, which was meant to be easy, quite a struggle, and certainly harder than the crux pitch. Perhaps if we'd actually climbed the right bit of rock we wouldn't have had so much trouble!

Monday 1 July 2013

The philosophy of craft beer

The problematic question of "what is craft beer?" has now had a philosopher get involved. Brewer & Distiller International magazine has an article from some time philosophy lecturer and Heriot-Watt brewing graduate Andrew Jorgensen addressing this.

Of course those of us at the cutting edge of beer nerdery have long since decided it's simply a marketing term but it's interesting to see the IBD discussing this topic.

In the article the Brewers Association official definition is dissected and found lacking, and the usual guff about "passion" is dismissed as being too vague and usable by anyone. Instead what philosophers call "Direction-of-Fit" is called in to play:

"For a beer to sell well and be successful there needs to be a match between the attributes of the beer and the taste of the public. But there are two ways this 'fit' can be achieved. Either the beer takes its direction from and is designed to fit people's tastes. This is a beer-to-public direction-of-fit because the fit is achieved by making beer that conforms to people's tastes. Or the beer is made according to the brewer's tastes but s/he hopes to bring the public over to them. This is a public-to-beer direction-of-fit because people's tastes have to conform to the attributes of the beer if the brewer's desire to brew a successful beer is to be realised."

Though different philosophies might be at work, I still don't see this how this actually makes "craft beer" something distinct from other beer, as surely a brewer doesn't have to consistently stick to one of the philosophies and in his or her range of beers they could have some that are "beer-to-public" and some that are "public-to-beer".  

I remember a conversation I had a few years back with the last Head Brewer of Young's. He described Young's Special London Ale, an excellent IPA of 6.4% ABV, as a "brewer's beer" because it was the sort of beer brewers make to their own taste, not the taste of the public. This seems to closely match with the "two philosophies" idea but though the philosophies behind Young's Special London Ale and Young's "Ordinary" may be different they both come from the same brewery.

"Craft" beer and "non-craft" beer may be aimed at different markets but really that just seems to confirm that "craft beer" is just a marketing term. Some breweries focus on one type of beer, some on the other, and some do both.