Category Archives: opinion

Gimmick or Twist?

Ahead of our saison tasting spree (first batch tonight) we’ve been thinking about the place of herbs, spices and fruit in beer.

Back in February, Masterchef winner and Japanese food expert Tim Anderson wrote a post suggesting some obscure citrus fruits to use in brewing:

I understand that there’s something irresistible about yuzu, but if everybody uses it then it loses some of its appeal. I fear we may have reached ‘peak yuzu.’

(There’s nothing to make you feel uncool like reading that something you’ve only vaguely heard of is already played out.)

He gives a reason, in passing, for why you might want to use obscure fruits: to make ‘a dish or a beer exotic and intriguing’, which additive-sceptics might read as different for the sake of being different – what’s wrong with beer that tastes like beer?

So, there is a question of motive, which probably, or maybe, coincides with the success of the experiment. A brewer who is trying to meet demand for a ‘new’ beers by chucking cinnamon or maple syrup into base products (a problem in ‘real ale’ before it became a problem in ‘craft beer’) will inevitably turn out a few duds where the Guest Starring additive clashes or overrides.

On the other hand, a beer that is thoughtfully designed and carefully developed, where the left-field flavour is brewed in rather than merely added at the end, may well do a better job of truly integrating it into the finished product. Camden’s Gentleman’s Wit isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the bergamot that is its unique selling point is not clumsily done, and does, indeed, add a twist which makes the beer intriguing, without surrendering its essential beerness.

When Lars Marius Garshol wrote about traditional herbs in Norwegian farmhouse brewing earlier this week, he reminded us that such additives aren’t a trendy new thing. We were particularly taken by his description of Myrica gale:

Home brewer Micro Maid made a Myrica beer for the Norwegian home brewing championship last year that won the prize for Audience Favourite. She used leaves picked in the forest, crushed in a kitchen blender, 23 grams for 26 liters of beer, boiled for 25 minutes. I tried the beer, and it really was excellent, with a lovely fruity flavour, not entirely unlike lime or yuzu.

Maybe the reason this seems, to us, less gimmicky than some such experiments is because it is in some sense historically and regionally authentic?

If all that matters is how the beer tastes, as some insist, then the brewer’s motives, or the authenticity of the additives, is neither here nor there, but we suspect that brewers who consider why they’re using a particular ingredient — who think about what the story is — might just generally be more careful and thoughtful, which tends to lead to better beer.

And if you’re a brewer (pro or at home) and you need more ideas than those provided by Tim and Lars, here’s Stan Hieronymus’s hot tip:

Main image adapted from ‘Fruit’ by Nils Dehl, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Malty

Unlike some (Melissa Cole, p6; Mark Dredge), we don’t object to the use of the terms ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’ as over-arching descriptors, but one thing does bug us: ‘malty’ shouldn’t just mean ‘not hoppy’.

Malt flavour is a positive addition to the flavour of a beer, giving it another dimension. The best hoppy beers — that is, those with a pronounced flowery hop aroma and/or bitterness — also have malt flavour, usually sneaking up as a bonus in the finish.

These are the kind of things we think of (no doubt via Michael Jackson and others) when we spot that taste:

  • toasted nuts and seeds
  • fresh bread
  • crackers

It’s dry as in crisp, savoury but not salty, and just downright wholesome.

The best of the lagers we mentioned yesterday all have veritable maltiness, as do many of the pale-n-hoppy c.4% cask ales at which North of England breweries seem to excel. Our local equivalent, Potion 9 at the Star Inn, is defined by bright citrusy hops, but it’s that bread-crust and cream cracker snap that ultimately makes it so satisfying — the bun without which a burger wouldn’t be half as enjoyable.

A beer with fairly restrained hop character might allow the malt to take centre stage, and that can be good too.

But some beers aren’t hoppy or malty — they’re just sugary, gritty, vegetal or (worst of all) watery.

Don’t blame malt for that.

A Disruptive Influence?

One of the most critical and questioning voices in the world of British beer is not a writer but a brewer: Jon Kyme of Stringers.

When he blogs, it is usually because someone has provoked him by, for example, making a claim in marketing material that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and he often adopts indirectly the persona of ‘The Professor‘ to deliver lectures laced with economics, science and philosophy.

On Twitter, he often posts acidic sub-Tweets picking up on factual errors, grandiose claims, or even just typos. In comments on various blogs, he is similarly sharp, in both senses of the word.

Continue reading A Disruptive Influence?

What if… BrewDog & Greene King?

What if BrewDog entered into partnership with Greene King to roll out second-tier BrewDog packages in places where their flagship bars cannot reach?

Yesterday, we promised a prediction, but it would be more accurate to describe this as a bit of fanciful thinking plucked more-or-less from thin air. We just want to put it in writing so that, if it does come to pass, we’ll look dead clever.

1. We can’t stop looking at the keg beer menu at the new Greene King ‘craft beer concept’ in Cambridge as pictured on the Pints and Pubs blog: it features one GK beer, Hop Monster, but four from BrewDog.

Keg beer list at the Grain Store, Cambridge, by Pints and Pubs, used with permission.

2. Wetherspoon’s Craftwork package, which borrows heavily from BrewDog’s aesthetic and features their beer in bottles and keg, hints at how such an arrangement might work.

Craftwork point of sale materials at Wetherspoon's.

3. Though they have ambitious plans, finding and fitting out suitable premises seems to be holding BrewDog back. Greene King, meanwhile, have 1600 pubs up and down the country, few of which anyone interested in beer will touch with a bargepole.

4. The Scottish Wunderkinder have already dabbled in franchising.

5. They’ve been critical of Greene King’s beer in the past, but they work happily with Tesco, arguing when this relationship is criticised (as we read it) that they’re spreading the gospel of Craft Beer in an otherwise barren land.

6. For Greene King’s part, this would be a route to instant credibility, even assuming that such a partnership might give a temporary hit to BrewDog’s own reputation.

7. We keep coming back to the similarities between BrewDog and David Bruce’s Firkin chain in the 1980s: that went truly national when he sold his company to a bigger brewery which turned what he’d developed over the course of a decade into a (not as good) out-of-the-box branded package.

Just to reiterate: this is just guesswork, for fun — we have no ‘specific and credible intelligence’, as they say.

But what do you reckon — are we barking up the wrong tree? Or, to put that another way, if something like this was announced next week, would you be surprised?

(And, as an aside, imagine what fun might ensue if BrewDog got a batch of GK’s Old 5X stock ale to play with…)

Excluded From the Party

‘When I was up north recently, I spoke to another brewer who said that beer had split into two worlds and that there’s a party to which regional brewers are not invited.’ — Roger Ryman, Head Brewer, St Austell

There aren’t many flashpoints in British brewing but the invisible, fuzzy line between traditional-family-regional brewers (TFRBs) and ‘craft beer’ is one.

From the perspective of small brewers struggling to establish themselves, and that of their fans, when a 100+ year old brewery swings the weight of its distribution network and pub estate behind a new ‘craft’ sub-brand, that looks like bandwagon-jumping and perhaps even an attempt at sabotage.

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This clever hoax caused many to flip their lids precisely because it played into people’s fears and expectations — if it had been true, it might not have been that surprising in a world which has given us Charles Wells/Dogfish Head DNA New World IPA.

For their part, TFRBs seem to take it rather personally, sometimes dismissing craft beer as a lot of silly superficial nonsense on the one hand, while desperately angling to join the club on the other. This statement from Stuart Bateman, as quoted by Roger Protz, offers one expression of those conflicting instincts:

I’m fed up with being told I can’t call myself a craft brewer because I’ve been brewing for more than two years… People who say that are denigrating the industry. I haven’t got a pony tail, ear-rings or tattoos but I’m producing craft beer…

When we spoke to Mr Ryman, he also said, with some sadness, that the manager of a craft beer bar in one of our major cities had told him he could never stock St Austell beers, however good or interesting they might be, because no-one would buy them. For those venues, and the customers they target, it is certainly not ‘all about the beer’.

And Craft Beer Rising (London, 19-22 February) is arguably the least hip of the wave of new non-CAMRA festivals precisely because it is so welcoming to brewers such as Thwaites, St Austell, Belhaven and Sharp’s.

Once again, it all seems to come down to that least tangible of qualities — ‘cool’. It is decided by a hive mind, not always on the basis of consistent logic; you’ve either got it or you haven’t; and, even if your products are selling like billy-o without it, it’s quite natural to yearn for that badge of status.

UPDATE 30/01/2015 11:00: Some sharp responses on Twitter in re: Craft Beer Rising.

Disclosure: we were paid to write an article for Craft Beer Rising magazine last year; Roger Ryman made us a cup of coffee and shared some beers with us.