Sunday 31 December 2023

Golden Pints 2023

It's that time of year again.

 Best UK Cask Beer:

As the Craft Beer revolution seems to have run it's course I was pleased to see cask beer was becoming more prominent again at the Beer Writers dinner. Fuller's Vintage Ale and Gale's Prize Old Ale both served as god intended! Marvellous. Which one though? Let's go with Prize Old Ale as my mate Henry was behind its current revival. 

Best UK Keg Beer:

Hmmm...yes, definitely suckled at the devil's drainpipe this year. The best though? Oh yes, Queer Brewing barley wine. 

Best UK Bottled Beer:

Armagnac barrel aged Thomas Hardy Ale. Lovely, lovely, lovely. . 

Best UK Canned Beer:

My favourite sister got me some cans from a nano brewery for xmas which I must confess did fill me with fear. Cans from a nano brewery I thought, what's the dissolved oxygen on that? But my fears were unfounded and the beers are lovely so Middle Child Party on the naughty step. 

Best Overseas Draught:

That would be one of the 8% Budějovický beers guzzled from the conditioning tank. :-)

Best Overseas Bottled Beer:

What have I had this year? Not sure so I'll play it safe and go with Orval.

Best Overseas Canned Beer:

They've started selling Sierra Nevada beers in the shop at work and the Celebration IPA was very good. 

Best collaboration brew:

Have I had any? Not that I can remember. 

Best Overall Beer:

Prize Old Ale

Best Branding:

Not really my thing this so I'll just go with whatever Too Much Black Coffee have done for Thurstons again. . 

Best UK Brewery

Taking the unprecedented step of swerving from my beer choices and I'm going for Coniston as I had a great time visiting there. Great beers too.  

Best Overseas Brewery

Sierra Nevada

Best New Brewery Opening 2023

Can't think of one.

Pub/Bar of the Year:

The Crown again. I bet there aren't many pubs that will have a Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man night!

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2023

Can't think of one of these either. 

Beer Festival of the Year:

GBBF. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from me when I heard there won't be one next year. I didn't do the rending of clothes though as it was a bit parky for that. 

Supermarket of the Year:

I don't buy much bottled or canned beer currently as I can blag them from work. I did do some stocking up when I was near a Booths though which makes them the winners. 

Independent Retailer of the Year:

 Cobbett's Real Ale is handy when I'm in need of something special so they're this years winner. 

Online Retailer of the Year:

Not my sort of thing either but I did get sent a case of beer by Gadd's so them. 

Best Beer Book or Magazine:

There can be only one winner this year: Desi Pubs by David Jesudason. Amazing stuff he's been writing and I got so into the book I managed to miss a train stop!

Best Beer Blog or Website:
This year it's Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer:

Sadly the decline of twitter is continuing but I think Jessica Mason has been best for news this year so @drinksmaven

Sunday 17 December 2023

A visit to Coniston Brewery

Back in the Summer (mid-October) I took the opportunity of being in the Lake District to visit Coniston Brewery. I have a work connection that was dead handy for getting in touch with Ian Bradley who runs the company. I'd been keen to visit for some time so I'm glad I finally got round to it. The brewery has won the highest award for its beers, The Champion Beer of Britain (CBoB), not once but twice, and with two (2) different beers.

The brewery has the cramped look so popular with breweries and the 10bbl brewing vessels are wooden clad. Whole hops are used, which have to be dug out of the copper by hand. 

Don't put your head too close

Fermenting Bluebird (CBoB 1998)

The conditioning tanks (CTs) are shinier and all hard piped in. One of them contains No. 9 Barley Wine (CBoB 2012) which is brewed just once a year. 

The CTs have their own CIP (Clean in Place) set too!

Bottled beer is also available.

The brewery is located behind The Black Bull, where bottles of Bluebird (CBoB) the tell us the beer is best served in s straight pint glass at 58°F. We put this to the test and I have to say the bottle's not wrong. Ian looked after us extremely well, not only keeping us well supplied with beer but giving us t-shirts too! We worked our way across the range up to the barley wine, which is not something you often see on draught. One of my friends hadn't drunk barley wine before and was mightily impressed. 

And even better the other friend I was with was driving so there was no trouble getting poured home. 

Thursday 21 September 2023

Cask - the real story of Britain's unique beer culture by Des De Moor

A new book about cask beer, the pinnacle of the brewing art, what's not to like? And yet despite my love of cask beer I must confess I had concerns about CAMRA's new publication.

The author Des De Moor had previously written an article about hating pubs which had disastrous consequences on a global scale and certainly made me question if he was the best person to write the book. Pubs and cask beer are as close as lips and teeth so surely someone what hates pubs is no lover of cask beer?

So it was with an inquisitorial eye that I read the book. It covers a lot of ground, including many things I've researched myself so it's good to see it gathered together in a publication. It starts with details of how beer is made, packaged and dispensed. The latter surprisingly has autovacs, where beer from the drip tray is recycled, getting a positive write up! I have a morbid fascination with myself but really they are just minging. 

Cask is then compared to other lesser packaging and dispense formats before moving on to beer tasting and beer styles. This drifts away from cask beer and goes into foreign territory, discussing amongst others things Czech and German lagers, but strangely not mentioning their unfiltered and naturally carbonated forms, which surely is the closest cask equivalents. 

Food pairing follows, though once again crisps are overlooked, before going back to the prehistory of beer and working back forward to the present day. There's a lot on a subject dear to my heart, Brettanomyces and secondary fermentations, though I don't agree with some of the conclusions reached: that original IPAs weren't real ale and cask beer is a relatively modern invention. 

Cask is a large and comprehensive book about beer but despite it's subtitle it is not the real story of Britain's unique beer culture. There is hardly any mention of pubs at all and culture only really comes up in terms of yeast cultures! It's more a big book about beer and cask's place within it. Technically it is generally sound, the main problems were as I'd feared of a spiritual nature. 

As a man of simple faith I have had trouble adjusting to the ecumenical times we live in. I understand we should try and avoid offending heathens by denigrating the emissions of the devil's drainpipe, but our Mother Church still rightly teaches that cask beer is the pinnacle of the brewers art. So when Des wrote "Cask beer was already Britain's lager" I did think fuck off, bollocks, you're a cunt this is a poor analogy and out of step with with the detailed research present on other matters. 

We're also told that the problem with keg beer when CAMRA was formed was not that it was keg, but that it was bad keg. This is making the common mistake that the opposite of good beer is bad beer. Those of us with that follow the one true faith know that the opposite of good beer is in fact evil beer*. And later we see just how evil as Des confesses that "it's undoubtedly true that craft keg has abstracted volumes from cask". Even a godless heathen will realise that this is bad news for cask beer so I would have expected to see more concern about it in a book called Cask. The promiscuity of "repertoire drinking", where people are not faithful to one drink type, may no longer be anathematized but every pint of keg drunk is a pint of cask not sold.

Inevitably the reactionary position that cask beer should be more expensive is promoted, though to be fair opposing voices are heard. In the final section the author seems intensely relaxed about cask beer becoming a niche product but I can't help but wonder how much poorer the world of beer would be if our church's founding fathers had felt the same. Fortunately they founded a church militant, a campaigning organisation, and we must not tire in our constant struggle to promote beer served as god intended. 

The book contains a lot of good information but its theological shortcomings mean it can't be recommended to the general public and should only read by CAMRA members in good standing. 


* Yes I did gratuitously write that blog post purely so that if I ever got round to writing this review I could link to it. 

Tuesday 5 September 2023

Castlehill Compleator

Some people keep score of the number of different beers they've drunk, and others tick off pubs in the Good Beer Guide. But how many have done the Castlehill Crawl eh? Me and my mate Si that's who. 

In fact we even stopped at a warm up pub, The Kingston Arms, before we'd even started. Oh yes. 

Swerved the Bass mind

We passed the old Dale's brewery on the way, closed by Whitbread in 1958. Whitbread were so fond of closing breweries they even sold off their own in the end.

We passed over the bridge from the Town bit to the Gown bit for our first official stop: The Pickerel. 

It was dead posh round here, the Cambridge universities having more money than you can shake a stick at. Cask beer was selling well though so well done students and tourists!

Stop two for us was the Castle Inn, an Adnams pub but I went for the beer from Cambridge Moonshine brewery and I'm delighted to say it was the beer of the day!

It was a big pub and we sat in the beer garden, which a helpful sign you could only see from the beer garden told you about. 

Think it through lads

The Architect opposite followed, Cambridge's first dedicated fish and chips and pie and mash bar. 

Yes, I thought that was a bit odd too. We were still in the dead posh end of town so you could buy dead posh snacks for your dead posh dogs here. 

The place also stank of fish so we sat outside. We headed up hill next to the pub at the far end of the crawl, The Grapes. 

Entering here it was obvious that tourists and students don't like going uphill as it looked like they were about to have a meat raffle. More my sort of pub to be honest. 

Then, much like our higher functions, it was downhill to our last stop the Sir Isaac Newton.

We finished on Old Peculier and slightly to the surprise of the person serving us (it not being at an end of the crawl) we got our last stamp. 

Five (5) stamps each in a different colour! Which I think shows how great our achievement was. 

Friday 25 August 2023

I've got binoculars on top of Box Hill

The Surrey Alps is one of Southern England's most impressive ranges, towering to almost a thousand feet in places. The ascent of perhaps its best known peak, Box Hill, is not to be taken lightly particularly if you've already been to BJJ training that morning. But did I let that stop me? Oh no! 

My mate Dan was keen to do some navigation practice so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to do one of CAMRA's South East Pub Walks that I'd wanted to do for ages. Our start point was some way from the official start, which meant we walked even further than the route in the book. That's how heroic we are! 

It also meant we passed what looked suspiciously like an old maltings to me:

I suspect this is an old maltings

When tax was paid on malt people would shovel it out of the windows when they saw the tax man coming so a law was passed requiring maltings to have bars on the windows. 

The route took us down tunnels...

over stepping stones ...

and up lots.

I didn't actually have any binoculars with me. I'm more a cup of splosh and a greasy dog man myself anyway, but there is a good view. 

View from Box Hill

We had a look at the fort that kept Napoleon out of London:

Though from the cave art it looks like it's also the site of ancient fertility rituals:

After that it was back into woods, which personally I find a lot harder to navigate than hills. You do get a better class of mushrooms in woods though:

There were some unexpected sights too:

I reckon a folly

And this was definitely folly

The late Bob Steel's pub walks have never let me down but I have to say I was getting worried as the started drawing nearer to the first pub. We had most definitely earned a pint by this stage but as I've said navigating in woods can be hard and the guide book did little to calm my nerves:
"... the confusion of paths on Mickleham Downs make it a bit of a navigational graveyard so stick to my directions carefully here if you want that beer"

Stick carefully we did until we got to what we hoped was the required "indistinct path to the left". This was the point I was most concerned would go wrong and by this stage I was quite prepared to knock on the head temporarily suspend the navigation practice and see if I could get google maps on my phone. I needn't have worried though as Bob saw us right and we got to the William IV. We were told it was table service and though we didn't get any grief when we said we weren't eating I was staring to suspect the place was an abomination unto the lord. Then the beers arrived and I remembered our Mother Church values beer quality above all else.  

Shere Drop, Champion Beer of Britain 2019-2023

As we were heading outside a door sprang open and someone leapt out saying "Hi guys!". It was only someone from the BJJ club! Bumping into someone we know definitely boosted this places pub credentials, as bumping into people is definitely a pub thing. We were in good spirits when we left.

Soon after we had to dash across four lanes of traffic, which made getting delayed by a herd of cows next all the more surprising. 

Though not as surprising as the communist base we passed: 

Should I ever be a soldier 'neath the red flag I would fight

At least I think they were communists, what else could a red flag mean? After passing the Leatherhead Soviet I put the map, compass and guide book away as we'd been told the pub was just over a bridge and you can trust Bob. And sure enough there it was: 

Oh yes

I've wanted to go to the Running Horse for ages, after reading Alan McLeod's blog about it. The pub's been around for ages and there's even rambling sexist doggerel written over 500 years ago by the poet laureate of the time about the then landlady. I guess that's the sort of thing people did before television or feminism were invented. 

The poem features prominently on the outside of the pub but I must confess I was more interested in the inside and more refreshment. I loitered outside a little while before entering as I had a pasty to finish and the smell of pub was wafting out of the doorway. Had it brought back any specific memories it would definitely have been a Proustian moment. But as it didn't it was just a moment when I thought "cor, bet this is a proper pub!" And indeed it was, complete with horse brasses: 

When we left I spotted it even had two bars and you don't get more proper pub than that. It's a Sheps pub but they had Surrey Hills on so I swerved the Spitfire and went for that. Glorious it was too. 

Ranmore Ale

That was the pub walk done, which definitely had a high walk to pub ratio but that's probably for the best as more beer wouldn't have helped with the heroic amount of walking we did or the navigation. 

Sunday 20 August 2023

Where craft beats cask

Devout member of our mother church that I am I have to admit that the London Craft Beer Festival (LCBF) was vastly superior to the Great British Beer Festival

Though I was able to get free tickets for both events at the GBBF I had to pay for my own beer whereas at the LCBF all the drinks come with the ticket so I spent zero (0) pounds and zero (0) pence on beer. There may have been rank heresy on display at the LCBF and most of the beer came from the devil's drainpipe but you can't argue with free beer. The GBBF is going to have to up its game in the giving me free beer stakes if it wants to win the crown back. 

One drawback at the LCBF is the beer is served in tiny "samples". But if you put the work in you can still get pissed, particularly as several types of tramp juice were available. If fact the barley wine from Queer Brewing was my beer of the festival.

It's an awful venue though, too hot, loud, cramped and confusing but I guess you can't have everything. 

Sunday 13 August 2023

There's no conspiracy at Greene King either

 I was entirely unconvinced by the twerps whinging on that the Champion Beer of Britain competition was fixed because Greene King Abbot Ale came second this year. Boak and Bailey have posted on their blog about their experiences judging the CBoB and the title of the post is unambiguous: There’s no conspiracy behind the Champion Beer of Britain.

There's also a secondary conspiracy theory which has been which has been discussed online though: that Greene King didn't send their normal beer to the competition. As I know an ex-Greene King brewer that I think it's fair to say has no great love for the company I figured I might be able to get to the bottom of this one. So I asked them if GK got up to anything with competition beers and the answer came back:

"they didn't do anything different for festival beers when I was there"

Now it's possible things have changed since my friend left the company but why would they? Doing well in the CBoB competition isn't anything new for GK, I can remember GK IPA and XX Mild also doing well (and also similar whinging afterwards!).

I think that's wrapped it up for the CBoB conspiracy theories so if GK could send me the promised money that would be grand ;-)

Monday 7 August 2023

The Great British Beer Festival 2023

What a happy coincidence that my professional body hosted a meeting at the start of the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) trade day. Seeing as I was in the area I of course headed to it for some more networking. But first the CPD:

Pete Brown was giving a talk on the Cask Fresh Campaign, a short marketing pilot aimed at promoting cask beer. 

I was rather disturbed to hear that some pub companies are actively opposed to cask beer because they make more money from lager. There have long been people saying that cask beer should be more expensive but surely the fact that cask beer is cheaper than keg is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy? 

Then we were told that the brewing industry talks cask beer down more than consumers, often repeating old man stereotypes which most of the public don't hold, they're just ignorant about cask. I found this a very interesting point as this crap is something I've heard in the industry, and my non-beery friend's don't say it when I talk about beer. Their eyes do tend to glaze over though, but that's probably just because they're concentrating so hard on what I'm saying.

The usual terms used to describe cask beer, like secondary fermentation and containing yeast weren't used and instead freshness was chosen as it's a popular term with young consumers. It didn't have the impact that was hoped though as it's too close to refreshing which is it seems lager territory. 

Pubs with more engaged staff did better but the small size of the study meant that the results were inconclusive. It was pointed out that cask beers are now the only beers poured below the bar, something I'd not thought about before. And a new marketing slogan was suggested:

Take a fresh look at cask

My background is not in marketing so I take a more spiritual approach and would suggest something along the lines of:

HEATHENS! Do you want to spend eternity in the fiery pit or in paradise? Stop drinking keg beer and drink cask. 

That would surely get the ungodly thinking about the consequences of their actions. 

The networking went well, even if the next morning didn't. I saw Ross from Surrey Hills Brewery right at the start and got as close as I'm ever likely to to the cup the Champion Beer of Britain (CBoB) winners get:

I caught up with everyone I'd hoped to and more, and even briefly spotted an unpopular figure responsible for legislation favouring the rich:

Totally missed Rishi Sunak though. 

And though the next day was a bit of a struggle it was brightened by the return of twerps whinging on about the GBBF on twitter, this time because Abbot Ale got overall second place in the CBoB. CAMRA and the blind tasting panel are in the pay of Greene King it seems. Which I suppose makes a change from Wetherspoons. To me the twerps are just showing their ignorance. The wonder of cask beer means that at times it can elevate beers to highs you would never have expected. If people spent less time suckling at the devil's drainpipe and more time drinking beer served as god intended they would realise this. 

Sunday 6 August 2023

Expound good and evil

Many people think that the opposite of good beer is bad beer. They are mistaken. The opposite of good beer is evil beer

Cask beer, served as god intended, is good:

Cask beers

Keg beer, served from the devil's drainpipe, is evil:

Keg beer

Be pure! Be vigilant! Behave!

Wednesday 19 July 2023

How much lager is really drunk in Britain?

After a hard day's Continuing Professional Development there's nothing better than an evening of Networking. It's like CPD but with more drinking and less technical stuff.  

You can learn a lot when Networking too. As I did recently when I was gobsmacked to hear that Fosters is brewed with an ale yeast. Which given the way beers are generally classified nowadays means not as much lager is drunk in Britain as was thought.  

Ale or Lager?

I have pondered on the problems with classification previously. Would it really help anyone if Fosters was reclassified as an ale? I don't actually know what it tastes like, I might have drunk it as sometimes needs must but I can't remember. I'd be very surprised if it doesn't fit the flavour profile and specifications of industrial lager though, which is surely what people buying it are after. Still, I guess I've got another thing I can bore my non-beer geek mates with. 

Monday 3 July 2023

A visit to Budweiser Budvar brewery

Last stop on the study tour was Budějovický Budvar or the Budweiser Budvar brewery. As someone who drinks in the ways of righteousness I've never been much a lager drinker and I've always preferred Pilsner Urquell to Budweiser Budvar. But our mother church did campaign to keep it independent and it is a fascinating brewery. Ninety days lagering! Bonkers I tell you. 

The head brewer was there to meet us and show half the group round. He said we could take any pictures and they have no secrets, "what we do is in the text books". 

The brewery was built in 1895 on the road to Prague above a good water supply. We passed a couple of massive water tanks and when I asked how big they are some wit piped up "πr2h" but failed to provide a tape measure so I remained ignorant. 

Actually the brewer showing us round did tell us and my ignorance is due to me getting lost somewhere in the explanation. They're definitely big though. They remove iron and manganese from the water by aerating it and whirlpooling it in the water tanks, which is a new one on me. I did a lot of work on brewing water a few jobs back but I'd never come across this. It does leave a sludge so every couple of years they have to drain the tanks to remove it. 

The 300m deep well

With annual production at 1.8 million hl a year and growing they're reaching the limits of the water supply. The water to beer ratio is 4.5-4.6: 1 and they're trying to get it down to 4:1. 

The had an automated warehouse built seven years ago and it's decoration is based on the Czech flag apparently. Maybe if you squint enough you can see it. 

Unsurprisingly there are lots of big tanks ...

... and gleaming copper! 

It's copper cladding over stainless steel. But still, an absolutely stunning brewhouse. 

They weren't brewing when we were there but normally do 12 brews a day with two sets of vessels. A third set is being planned. They do double decoction mashes and you can consult a brewing text book for more details. Oh alright, decoction mashing is a primitive European way of brewing that was developed before the invention of the thermometer. By mashing in at blood temperature and removing and boiling a portion of the mash (typically a third) before re-mixing it with the rest of the mash the temperature is raised in stages which hit the optimum temperature for the action of different enzymes (proteases, beta-glucanases and amylases) needed to get starch from poorly modified malt broken down into fermentable sugars. It does have the additional benefit of driving off the unpleasantly flavoured DMS (dimethyl sulphide) which plagues many lagers. 

There are four brewing vessels per brew stream: Mash Conversion Vessel, Mash Kettle, Lauter Tun and Wort Kettle. The have a hop separator (screw and screens) before whirlpooling. Spent hops are mixed in with the spent grains and go to farmers. The brew length is 600hl. 

Your chance to improve your knowledge of Czech brewing terms

For Budweiser Budvar it's 10 tonnes of lager malt and approximately 120kg of whole cone Saaz/Žatec hops which are added by hand. So it's a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beer, something I try and avoid as a professional brewer because it leaves you vulnerable to supply shortages and seasonal crop variability. They have three hop additions, at start of lautering, at start of boil and near the end of the boil. 

The beer has a colour of 10 EBC and though (apart from the hop additions) the brewhouse is highly automated they still run wort through the taps at times as it adds 1 EBC of colour due to oxidation. They don't believe in hot side aeration problems! The bitterness is 22 IBU. 

They collect the wort at 7°C and it rises to 12°C during fermentation, which takes 10 days for 10°P (1.040) beers and 12 days for 12°P (1.048) beers. 

Budweiser Budvar, which makes up 80% of production, is matured for 90 days at 0-3°C so they have 300,000 hl of maturation capacity. Amongst other things they've got the 90 days maturation written into the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) which will surely prevent anyone trying to brew a Budweiser elsewhere. 

Our hosts did deliver when we got to the maturation area.

Getting closer

Bring on the CPD!

Sumer is icumen in

We had a glass of Budweiser Budvar from the tank before moving on to try some experimental beers. 

The brewer showing us round brought his woolly hat for the cellars, which I'm sure those in shorts and t-shirts were jealous of. I can smugly state I'd brought a fleece.

They had three tanks filled with beer from hop trials. One of them we were told was a cross of Saaz and Jester, which isn't physically possible what with brewing "varieties" being female plants but still, interesting all the same. We we left to help ourselves to the trial beers and at this stage I was reminded that there's always more to learn about beer. One of people in the first group managed to get separated when they left so was forced to stay with the second group until we left. I guess he was going "full gas".  Whether it was a happy accident or masterstroke I couldn't say, but it is something I'll be remembering for future brewery visits. 

See the joy that doing CPD brings!

One thing I didn't find out was why exactly a brewery mostly making a 5% ABV beer chose to make its hop trial beers which will pretty much only be drunk by brewery staff 8% ABV. A complete mystery that one. 

Unlike most large breweries they still used manual flow plates instead of automated values for controlling beer/wort/yeast/cleaning fluid movements to and from tanks. This also caused us some confusion until it was pointed out to us that tanks were only used four times a year!

On the way to packaging to my surprise and delight I saw there's a brewery railway. I never even knew I had an inner train spotter.

It's the sort of thing I've only seen before in brewing history books  

They use a kieselguhr filter on the beer prior to packaging. They have three bottling lines, one canning line and a keg line. The bottling lines have 108 head fillers which run at 40,000 bottles per hour. 

The tunnel pasteurisers give 20-25 pasteurisation units to the beer.

Then we exited via the gift shop, and I'd enjoyed myself so much I was even tempted to buy something before I remined myself that most of my wardrobe is brewery branded clothing as it is.