What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?

“If a beer has German malt, US hops and Belgian yeast, can it really be called a Belgian style beer?” That’s a good, if puzzling, question.

Michael Lally from Bushcraft Beer asked it on Twitter while putting together an episode of his podcast and we gave a 140-character answer: yes, because Belgian beer often uses foreign malt and hops, but the yeast is the source of its essential character.

Roman, a Belgian-born Londoner who brews ‘modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles’ at Solvay Society seems to broadly agree, as per this blog post:

The fruity and spicy notes that we have come to identify as ‘Belgian’ are the result of by-products generated by yeast during fermentation. Many Belgian beers — such as the tripel, wit and saison — have characteristic clove and white pepper aromas… Fruitiness in beer can be derived from hops, but it is also the result of esters… It’s quite clear therefore that we associate certain flavours and aromas with Belgian beers, many of which have been derived from the choice of yeast and fermentation profile.

But what about this: a Belgian brewer operating in Belgium uses US hops, British malt, and lager yeast shipped from a lab in Germany, to make a 4.5% ABV beer with no spicy or fruity notes; at the same time, a British brewer ships in Belgian malt, Belgian hops and a bucket of Westmalle yeast to make a 9% Trappist-style tripel in Barnsley. Which is more Belgian?

The other week when we considered a similar question — is Belgian a flavour? — someone (we can’t remember who — maybe Roman again?) suggested that Belgianness was as much about approach as ingredients. In other words, a Belgian will somehow make a beer taste Belgian under any circumstances.

This article from Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, on how Belgian brewers approach the global trend for in-your-face hoppy beer, provides evidence for and against:

[With] a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… [But at the] Modeste [festival] in Antwerp… [the] winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off… Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.

From Specific to General

This isn’t just about Belgian beer — you could ask the same kind of question about American, Czech, English or German beer. Or Yorkshire bitter.

At this point we started to think about a philosophical puzzle we only dimly understand — the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap. If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap. So 999,999 grains is a heap. If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap. So 999,998 grains is a heap. If …… So 1 grain is a heap.

With apologies to any real philosophers who might be reading, we take the point of this thought exercise to be that you either (a) accept 1 grain of sand is a heap or (b) acknowledge that some things in life, like how many individual hairs you can have and still be considered bald, cannot be made precise, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless or non-existent. (See also: ‘craft beer’.)

There are many, many variables that contribute to a beer’s national or regional identity; if you flip each switch, one at a time, at which point does that identity cease to be?

Actually, hmm, this is worryingly close to being more generally, real-world political. That yeast answer we came up with first was much simpler.

A Pleasingly Busy Pub

The Star Inn, Crowlas (exterior)

I took my parents to the Star Inn at Crowlas, our favourite pub, on two occasions last week and they were amazed at how busy it was.

They are former publicans, albeit almost 40 years ago now. It didn’t work out for them — they talk about Whitbread much the same way present day campaigners talk about pubcos — and kept muttering, astonished, and jealous: ‘We’d have been happy with this on a Saturday night, never mind a weekday teatime!’

Everything is stacked against the Star, on paper at least. It’s way out of town, and there’s no food. It’s a handsome building but not a quaint old inn by any measure, not with the A30 running right past the front door. Though there are campsites nearby Crowlas isn’t really a tourist destination either.

And yet, there the customers are, session after session, day after day.

A group at the bar.
Mid-afternoon at the Star back in January — a relatively quiet moment.

It’s tempting for us to argue that the Star’s success is down to the exemplary products of the Penzance Brewing Co, the onsite microbrewery, that dominate the pumps, alongside exotic guest ales from the North. Certainly that’s what gets into the Good Beer Guide and draws in at least part of the crowd — people who might otherwise not make the trek on public transport from places like Hayle, Penzance and even St Just. That the beer is relatively cheap by Cornish standards, as well as being great, probably doesn’t hurt either.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s a proper village local with a loyal core of regulars attracted, we guess, by the same thing my parents particularly liked: it’s completely unpretentious, without being rough. A tightrope walk for sure.

People come in tracksuit bottoms and trainers, overalls and work boots, tweeds and wellies, suits and ties, hiking boots and anoraks — in short, they wear whatever they like, in whatever condition they like, and no-one cares. Well-trained dogs roam about licking up pork scratching crumbs, sometimes joined by a child or two in the after-school window, drifting quietly from parents to relatives to family friends with pop bottles in hands. The management sets this familial tone — informal, low-key, bluster-free.

We’re not against food in pubs, or even anti-gastropub (see the upcoming book for more on that) but my Mum was right when she observed that it made a change not to smell deep-fat frying the whole time. The lack of dining also seems to encourage friendly groups to form in what would otherwise be inconvenient places. It also leaves tables free for scattered newspaper pages or for elbows-on-the-wood deep-level conversation. The absence of food changes the mood, in other words. It’s certainly another blow for the received wisdom that a pub can’t thrive without a kitchen in 2017.

When we left after our trip on Wednesday my Dad, not a demonstrative bloke, turned and looked back at the door. ‘Bloody lovely pub,’ he said, sounding almost annoyed to have been so seduced by an establishment 150 miles from his house.

Disclosure: the Penzance Brewing Co’s Peter Elvin has shouted us a few pints over the years, including a round for Dad and me last week.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 13 May 2017: Butter, Brussels, Belfast

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the last week, from buttery Czech beer to South African hops.

Max ‘Pivni Filosof’ Bahnson uses a report of a visit to a Prague bar to make some observations about trends and local tastes:

Most people describe diacetyl as buttery, to me, cheap margarine melting is a more accurate descriptor… and this beer smelled like plenty of it, and didn’t taste much better… If you follow the comments of the local beer intelligentsia, you might get the impression that diacetyl-laden beers have become a scourge, to the point that Jiří Kaňa wandered in Pivní.info whether 2016 wasn’t the year of diacetyl. And yet, that man sitting at the table in the opposite end of the room was clearly enjoying President 12°, and was probably in his fourth glass by then.


Goose Island on sale in Brussels.

The Beer Nut has been writing up a recent trip to Belgium from which we get this post observing the arrival of multiple taps of non-Belgian beer in Brussels:

Previously, the selection on offer was almost exclusively Belgian. I don’t recall foreign beer featuring at all until the Delirium Café opened its Hoppy Loft extension a few years ago, and it was always a novelty, very much outside the mainstream. Then I guess you had Moeder Lambic Fontainas, still resolutely local but with occasional guest beers from abroad. And then BrewDog arrived with an outlet pushing its own wares alongside the Belgians. It still didn’t feel like Brussels had any real interest in imported beer until my last visit a couple of weeks ago. The most shocking feature was the Goose IPA taps, popping up like mushrooms in the most unexpected places… Something has shifted and in this case AB InBev are doing the pushing.


Brussels Beer Project brewer Antoine Dubois, and founders Olivier de Brauwere and Sébastien Morvan.

Very much related is a piece from Will Hawkes for Beer Advocate about the growing influence of outside cultures, and especially the London brewing scene, on young Belgian brewers:

A visit to Malt Attacks, a bottle and homebrew shop on the elegant Avenue Jean Volders in the Brussels neighborhood of Saint-Gilles, makes his point clearly. Opened by Antoine Pierson in October 2014, it sells Belgian beer (but not Trappist ale) alongside offerings from around Europe, particularly Scandinavia and the UK. One day in early February, there were two draft beers available from the growler filler (the first, Pierson says, in Belgium): Wild Beer Madness IPA and Magic Rock Magic 8 Ball Black IPA, both of them brewed in England.

(Disclosure: we’re sometimes paid to write for BA.)


Video screengrab: Jim Caruso.

Here’s something thought-provoking: US centre-right news and opinion magazine/website Reason has a sympathetic account of the legal battle around Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch from a conservative free-speech perspective. It is built around an interview with the brewery’s boss, Jim Caruso, an avowed libertarian, available as video, or provided as raw (occasionally incorrect) transcript:

And for us, our marketing is built into this label. If you ban my ability to express my message, whether it’s a political message, citizens united, whether it’s a marketing message and idea, you’re effectively taking part of my identity away. This is unacceptable, so it went to [Alan Gura], a hero in Libertarian circles. Took our case, went to the ninth circuit, sixth circuit in Cincinnati. After several years the opinion was in our favor. And the minority opinion went so far as to say, ‘Yes, and they clearly violated your First Amendment right so go back and settle.’… We did… this was never about the money. We were awarded damages, obviously a lot went to legal fees. The rest went to form the First Amendment Society. This was never about the marketing, it was never about publicity.


The story about AB-InBev’s control of the supply of certain varieties of hops grown in South Africa blew up in the last couple of days after this Tweet:

It’s another front in the ongoing battle between those who believe Big Beer is attempting to crush, cripple or otherwise counteract smaller independent breweries, and those who are more pragmatic. Jamie Bogner’s account for Craft Beer & Brewing is illustrated with a photo of some hops IN A POOL OF BLOOD:

‘Given this situation and what they’ve just done, I wouldn’t be surprised if [buying out other exclusive hops varieties] isn’t one of their targets,’ says [hop broker Greg] Crum. ‘They have the money to buy out the guys who own the patents [on certain hops varieties]. And if they buy up enough craft breweries who need these hops, they may look to control the [hops] market again.’

Meanwhile, the perpetually level-headed Bryan Roth has broken this story down, concluding that it’s a storm in a pint pot:

If I’m translating numbers correctly, the International Hop Growers Convention estimated the entire South African hop crop at 1.9 million pounds in 2016. It is project to drop to 1.56 million pounds in 2017. There are 1,047 acres of hops expected to be harvested in South Africa this year, or a stone’s throw away than the acreage of only Cascade grown just in Oregon in 2016… Is it unfortunate that American brewers won’t be able to get aroma hops like Southern Passion from South Africa or alpha hops like Southern Star? Sure. But these are varieties to play with, not with which you build a portfolio of brands.

(But it’s worth noting, as a sign of how fraught things are as much as anything, that some have questioned Roth’s objectivity because he writes for Good Beer Hunting which has/had various connections with AB-InBev.)


Finally, this is a real highlight of the week which deserves the widest audience possible: footage of the complicated way Guinness porter used to be served recorded at the exact moment it went extinct in 1973. This really ought to inspire some experiments.

The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s

The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.

We found the photo in the autumn 1957 edition of the Hopleaf Gazette as shared by Raymond Simonds on his website — a wonderful trove of archive material from his family’s brewery. It accompanies a brief profile of the Architects’ Department which mentions Reg Norkett’s name in passing.

Without any great expectations we Googled him and found his address on the website of a professional organisation for architects; we wrote him a letter and have since exchanged a few emails. What follows is a lightly edited version of his responses to our questions with a little commentary from us here and there.

First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?

I was born in Reading in 1936, educated at Redlands Primary School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Reading Blue Coat School at Sonning near Reading as a boarder from 1948 to 1953.

During my time at school I realised I was interested in a career in the building/construction industry as, e.g. a surveyor or architect. I managed to obtain the required number of O levels to commence professional training and was initially employed in the Borough Architects Deparment at Reading Borough Council, as Junior Assistant in the Clerk of Works Section. I commenced training in part-time study for a National Certificate in Building at the local Technical College.

However I was keen to be involved in the Design and preparation of drawings and so on, which I discussed with the Borough Architect. He  approached the Chief Architect at H&G Simonds, Mr Reginald Southall, who is shown in one of the photographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you forwarded.

I was offered a junior position in the Architects Department, joining the company in 1954, and commencing study part-time at the Oxford School of Architecture.

Continue reading “The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s”

The Loss of Local Preference as Observed in 1966

Book cover -- H.A. Monkcton: A History of Ale & Beer.

H.A. Monckton’s 1966 book A History of Ale & Beer is these days interesting mostly for what its epilogue tells us about the period of its writing, and about the tension between local and global.

That section of the book covers the rise of keg beer and the trend towards consolidation from an industry insider’s perspective (Monckton was on the board at Flower’s of Stratford-upon-Avon) but there’s a particular bit we want to zero in on here because it chimes with our Session post from last Friday which touched on the globalisation of taste:

Throughout history certain districts have favoured their own types of beer. There are definite differences between those beers brewed in the North, in the Midlands, and the South. Recently the strong preferences of certain districts have begun to weaken, not because of a change in the customer’s palate but rather because brewery amalgamations are bringing about the closure of many local breweries, which has meant the discontinuation of many local beers… In the case of bottled beers the situation was usually accepted without undue trouble, but often customer reaction to the introduction of new draught beers was strong. So strong has it been in several instances that the substituted beers have had to be changed to a type more in line with local requirements…

Unfortunately, he doesn’t break this down much further except to observe that sweeter beers were particularly popular in places like London, Birmingham and Coventry with high concentrations of manual workers, especially during and after World War II when sugar was rationed. He observes that:

All the successful beers launched on a national scale in the ten years following the last war, whether pale in colour or dark, were sweeter rather than drier. Now, some twenty years later, the situation is changing again, and full-drinking bitter beers, both in bottle and in cask, are returning to prominence. It is interesting that some premises in the Midlands are now selling increasing quantities of draught bitter beers where only mild ales have been sold for a quarter of a century.

Dry, bitter beers, he suggests, are simply better suited to our climate than ‘soft sweet beer’ — an argument we don’t quite follow, if we’re honest.

But, anyway, that’s stage one of homogenisation, driven by national consolidation and distribution, and countrywide marketing: everyone drinking the same style whether town or country, north or south, toff or scruff.

Harp lager beer mat (detail)

Then in the last paragraphs of the book he forecasts (or, rather, fails to forecast) stage two: in the midst of a great push that saw lager’s share of the UK market creep up from less than 2 per cent to 7 per cent by the end of the decade he suggests a certain scepticism about its suitability for the English weather. He was wrong, and lager now makes up something like 70 per cent of the market in the UK, and the vast majority of the global market.

On a related note, Alec Latham has an interesting post on lager in the UK at Mostly About Beer in which he observes that ‘Lambic has leap-frogged Lager’. (It’ll make sense when you read it.) If not exactly a return to local tastes as described by Monckton the failure of new breweries to engage with the market for lager does at least suggest — in some small way, in odd ways — some sort of shift.

And, while we’re pointing outwards, here’s a thought on a declaration by Carlsberg’s chief executive Julian Momen that the Danish giant is considering acquiring a UK craft brewery. Rather than join the (admittedly fun) game of guessing at specific breweries that might be in the frame we’ll just observer that previous UK acquisitions by global players have tended to be conservative. Camden, Meantime and Sharp’s all had strong brands popular in mainstream outlets; flagship beers at accessible strength (under 5% ABV); in classic styles (lager, bitter, pale ale); and straightforward, easy-drinking takes on those styles at that. (We’re being polite to Doom Bar, there.) In other words, breweries that already act ‘global’ seem more likely candidates than those that go out of their way to express any particular local or otherwise distinct character.