News, nuggets and longreads 24 July 2021: decoction, dimples, De Baets

Here’s all the writing around beer, pubs and brewing that leapt out to us in the week past, from packaging problems to dirty old rivers.

No news this week – let’s jump straight into the good stuff with a piece for Ferment, the promo mag of a beer subscription service, by Matt Curtis, on why canned beers sometimes don’t seem quite themselves. He calls this “can shock”:

“I’ve experienced the phenomenon with pretty much every beer I’ve packed since joining the industry,” Zoe Wyeth, a production brewer at Villages in South London, and previously for Suffolk-based Burnt Mill, tells me. “It’s pretty strange that a beer can taste how you’d expect when taking a sample straight from the [tank] but opening up a can straight off the line it feels like something is a bit off.”… Zoe agrees with my assessment that freshly packaged beer tastes “unbalanced, like all those lovely hop aromas and yeast esters are disjointed from the malty background.” It’s interesting to hear that tank samples taken before packaging don’t taste this way, reinforcing my theory that the very act of packing and immediately shipping beer is having a short-term negative effect on its flavour… Bottle shock isn’t solely the premise of beer either. In fact the term comes from the wine trade and is also sometimes referred to as “bottle sickness.”


At Casket Beer Kevin Kain has been inspired by Matt’s forthcoming book, Modern British Beer, to reflect on trends in beer glassware in the UK:

For Five Points Brewing Company in London, glassware is an “advertiser and an amplifier”, as Ed Davy from the brewery notes. It’s no secret that glassware offers a wonderful opportunity to advertise a brand… Regarding amplification, Davy says “well-designed glass can improve the drinking experience by intensifying existing elements of the drink.” While different styles of glassware can amplify in different ways, he adds “you can create feelings of nostalgia by serving cask ale in ‘traditional’ dimpled jugs”, and this is something the brewery does at its taproom for its cask beer.

Eoghan Walsh continues his series of posts about the history of Brussels beer in 50 objects with a bottle of water from the river Zenne:

Right from its founding, Brussels’ residents tinkered with the Zenne digging channels and creating new man-made islands. The Grand Île was one of these, engineered in the 11th century and home to a church honouring the mythical dragonslayer. It was here that the densest congregation of Brussels breweries emerged, remaining a brewing centre even as the Zenne’s influence on Brussels’ form and function declined. These were household breweries, or breweries in outhouses, cantilevered over the river and brewing for the neighbouring streets in the most populous district in Brussels. The earliest brewers harvested the Zenne to make beer, their successors extracting water to clean their equipment. 

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

At Craft Beer & Brewing, Joe Stange prods Belgian brewer Yvan De Baets to elaborate on his claim that “yeast is the biggest myth about saison”:

I mean that for many people, a saison can be made only with “saison yeast.” But what is it? A “saison yeast” seems, for some, to be a yeast named “Saison Something” or “Something Saison,” sold by a commercial yeast company. It’s a sort of magic powder: You add it to a wort, and you get a genuine saison… My point is that these two (or three) yeasts do not represent all the strains that have been used for making saison—nor all those that could still be used… Meanwhile, could some other classic or newly discovered yeasts—such as a local wild yeast—be used for brewing a genuine saison, respecting its spirit? Of course!

SOURCE: Tandleman.

Tandleman provides notes on a new opening in London – Pivo, a specialist Czech beer bar. This sounds like the kind of place we’ll want to pop into next time we’re in town:

This is a modern looking two roomed establishment with contemporary rather than traditional furniture, a big bar, large windows and a downstairs area, which you could describe either as cosy, or claustrophobic, depending on your sensibilities.  We chose upstairs and were rewarded with good views of the whole room. Service was quick and pleasant considering that it was the first couple of hours of opening, the choice of beers was good and rather unusual. Prices were very fair indeed, ranging from around £5.50 to £7 or so a pint, for beers that you won’t usually encounter, plus Budvar, which you will.

Beer being poured, from an old advertisement.

Pivo also gets a mention in Anthony Gladman’s piece on decoction for Good Beer Hunting – an article we watched him researching in real time via Twitter, with questions and hints popping up over the course of the past few months. In it, he gets an answer to something that’s always puzzled us – if we accept that decoction makes better lagers, why should that be the case?

“If you have [malt] that converts the minute you add water, that’s not the point of brewing,” [Eric] Toft [of Schönram] says. “I want to be able to create the wort myself, rather than having it done in the maltings. I try to get malt that’s not as highly modified as it could be. I always ask the maltsters to leave the mashing to me. I’d rather spend an extra half hour, hour in the mash. With decoction I achieve this higher degree of apparent attenuation that I can’t with infusion, at least not in the same time.”… Toft runs trial brews once or twice a year to compare the results of infusion and decoction mashing on the same batch of malt. In his 90-hectoliter (77-barrel) brewhouse, a decoction brew will use an extra 10 liters of fuel oil. “By using 10 liters of oil more per brew I get a final attenuation of 87%. If I do a step infusion I save the 10 liters, but I only achieve 84%,” he says.

Finally, from Twitter, some remarkable – you might almost say incredible – statistics…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

Beer history

Harp: the cool blonde lager born in Ireland

Harp Lager was once a household name in the UK but, never much loved by beer geeks, and outpaced by sexier international brands, has all but disappeared.

It was launched in Ireland in 1960 as Guinness’s attempt to steal a slice of the growing lager market, hitting the UK in 1961. It is still brewed in Dublin and apparently remains popular in Northern Ireland. We can’t recall ever seeing it on sale in England, though – even in the kind of social clubs where you might still find Whitbread Bitter or Bass Mild.

There’s always something fascinating about brands that arrive, dominate, and disappear. Harp Lager in particular is interesting because of the sheer amount of time, money and energy which Guinness sunk into it over the course of decades; because it provided a glimpse into the era of multinational brewing that was just around the corner; and because it tells a story about the early days of the late 20th century UK lager boom.

The tale begins in the post-war era when, for reasons that are much debated, British drinkers began to turn away from cask ale and towards bottled beer, with hints that lager might be the next big thing.

Guinness was then very clearly an Anglo-Irish business, with major brewing operations at both Park Royal in London and at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and managed largely from London.


News, nuggets and longreads 17 July 2021: objects, culture and fairy tales

Here’s all the writing about brewing, beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past seven days, from coolships to Scotch Ales.

First, we ought to offer some brief notes on Monday’s further relaxation of COVID-19 regulations in England but, ugh, what’s left to say? We’ll be continuing to be careful – masks on public transport and indoor spaces – but perhaps taking advantage of the relaxation to skip some of the more theatrical stuff, such as wearing a mask to cross the two metres between our table and the street at the local beer garden. Others, like Martin Taylor, will be glad to see bar service return – with sensible caveats. It seems as if most people are in a similar frame of mind, at least according to new survey results from the Office for National Statistics.

A woman shouting through a loudspeaker
SOURCE: Patrick Fore/Unsplash

The story about sexism, bullying and harassment in the UK craft beer scene isn’t going away. A month or so on and it’s still on the front page of the BBC news website

“They are almost a victim of their own success,” said Erika Percival, chief executive of advisory firm Beyond Governance. “They grow, they’ve got great ideas, they’re really entrepreneurial… Then it gets to a point where you end up with a challenge of having structures that work with a small number of people but not with a large number of people.” That’s why it is key, she said, to have corporate governance measures in place. It means “you have got the right structures so that you can intervene at the right points in time before decisions are made and move along too quickly and you can’t go back”.

…and it was also the subject of Radio 4’s The Food Programme last week.

Marble, one of the UK breweries which attracted criticism, issued this statement on Thursday, which seems to have hit the mark:

The roof at Cantillon brewery in Brussels.

We’ve long been advocates of long-term projects as fuel for blogging so were pleased to see that Eoghan Walsh at Brussels Beer City has launched ‘A History of Brussels Beer in 50 Objects’ starting with ‘#1: Cantillon Coolship’:

It is not particularly old. Nor is it particularly impressive. But Brasserie Cantillon’s coolship is living history. As the vessel where Lambic’s alchemical brewing magic begins, it symbolises Brussels’ unique centuries-long brewing tradition. And as Brussels’ last active coolship, it binds that heritage to the city’s modern beer scene… Five metres squared, 30 centimetres deep, and housed in an attic room, the coolship was built out of salvaged spare brewery parts and installed when Cantillon started brewing in 1937. It is essential to the mythology of brewing Lambic, Brussels’ indigenous beer style.

Montana on a map.

At Beervana, Jeff Alworth asks whether regional preferences still exist, with reference to a print-only article by Kate Bernot which reveals that, in Montana, Scotch Ales live on:

Unlike Kate, I wasn’t able to access Nielsen’s state-level data. Through a bit of clandestine back-channeling, I was able to find a source willing to make a dead-drop in the tailpipe of an abandoned Camry on Burnside containing Nielsen’s regional data. (In fact it arrived, less atmospherically, as a series of screenshots in my inbox.) Regions are far less helpful because they average across states. One wouldn’t be able to easily discern this Montana Scotch ale phenomenon by looking at the Mountain region (eight states), where the style is the 20th most popular, two slots below fruit/veg beers. Nevertheless, one can see quite a few interesting tidbits by comparing the regions. Preferences do vary.

A glass of saison.

Joe Stange has written about saison for Craft Beer & Brewing, kicking off a thoughtful piece with the rhetorical equivalent of an air-horn:

Let’s get this much straight: Saison is not a style. It’s a story. Maybe that won’t sit well with some brewers who like to see the wider beer world through a codified set of style guidelines. Such guidelines make sense for competitions (as long as the guidelines evolve with the times). But when it comes to learning about beer, they’re shorthand—a poor map. The map is never the territory. That’s true for any style of beer, but it’s especially true for a story. Rather than an imperfect map, any static description of saison is more like a rough sketch from a single chapter of a fairy tale. What’s really cool is that this fairy tale is essentially true.

Now, that’s how you sell a piece and grab your readers.


We hadn’t heard the word ‘Gullah’ until we watched High on the Hog on Netflix last week; now, at Good Beer Hunting, Jamaal Lemon opens a three-part exploration of the historic beer culture of Charleston, South Carolina, with a Gullah proverb – “Mus tek cyear uh de root, fa heal de tree.

Thanks to my enthusiasm for beer and brewing, I’m always excited to check out taprooms and alehouses wherever I go. That weekend was no different. I called one of my buddies, and we linked up at a brewery. Three hours later, we’d popped into three different spots, all within a quarter-mile radius. While standing in line waiting to order another pint, he nudged me and muttered a question: “Where are all the Black people?”  Depending on who you ask, there are two ways to answer that question, though neither gets at the whole truth. Going to breweries is some white-people shit. Alternatively: Black people don’t drink beer… In Charleston, one of the many reasons there are so few faces of color in breweries is homegrown, tracing back some 150 years—though less than a mile away from where we stood that day—to the Schützenfest.

Finally, from Twitter, the beer writing equivalent of one of J.G. Ballard’s condensed novels…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.


News, nuggets and longreads 10 July 2021: brewers, startups and dives

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that leapt out at us in the past seven days, from baby breweries to Belgian baths.

The big news is that the UK Government has declared its intention to remove remaining coronavirus restrictions in England from 19 July, including requirements to wear face masks while moving around pubs, and the ban on bar service. Some people are delighted. Others are apprehensive, given the direction of travel of the daily statistics. Based on some of the pubs we’ve visited lately, this won’t actually make all that much difference: masks have been slipping, literally, for some time now. One piece of anecdotal evidence: Ray’s parents had been hoping to come to Bristol for a pub trip later this month but are now feeling hesitant, having found the presence of some rules reassuring. It seems to us that it’s more than restrictions keeping people away from pubs.

Roger Protz has been speaking to Ralph Findlay, chief executive of Marston’s, about the future of pubs and of cask ale:

“Cask has taken a terrible hammering,” he says. “The beer market is no longer a cask market. It’s a changing demographic – young people are not drinking cask and brewers are putting their money behind craft beer.” If Hobgoblin and Wainwright’s are now Marston’s top brands, what’s the future for such famous beers as Banks’s Mild and Bitter from Wolverhampton and Marston’s Pedigree from Burton? “Banks’s and Pedigree haven’t performed well,” he says bluntly. “The market is changing and the Banks’s market is disappearing. There are no mild drinkers left – the industry has gone.. We’re working hard to ‘premiumise’ the sector with branding and glasses, which means we will have to charge more. People will pay £7 for a pint if it’s part of a good experience.”

For Pellicle Laura Hadland (author of the recently published official history of CAMRA) profiles Brewster’s Brewery and its founder, Sara Barton, in Grantham, Lincolnshire:

Sara looked to the past for inspiration to create Brewsters’ visual aesthetic. Art Nouveau was characterised by the use of long sinuous lines that ran organically without rules or restriction. Visual representations of women were common, and were adopted by Brewsters to represent female emancipation… A typical figurative Art Nouveau image was used on the packaging; a successful design at first, but as uneasiness about sexism in the industry became a growing topic of discussion it was seen as inappropriate by some. Ironically, the flowing, flimsy garments of the Art Nouveau heroine which attracted negative comment were originally a statement of her independence from the stifling girdles and restrictions of Victorian society… Sara was not deaf to the complaints. The messaging needed to be clearer.

For Ferment, the promo mag for a beer subscription service, Nicci Peet has spoken to the founders of four ‘lockdown babies’ – breweries that started up during the pandemic – including Newtown Park in Bristol:

Starting a brewery in a pandemic might seem like an impossible task, but for Newtown Park it was an advantage. They could design everything around the market at the time; not just how they were going to sell and package their beer, but also staff levels and operations to ensure they weren’t over-committed. A canning line was a must, but not just for survival. “We wanted to build a direct-to-consumer brand, no matter what we did,” says Michael [McKelvaney], so having a canning line was important to them long term. “It was challenging being a brewery in small pack from the start. It’s a very tricky thing to do. Building a market direct-to-consumer is also tricky, so we’ve done it the hard way” he adds. 

We enjoyed this rattle through ‘The 10 Best Dive Bars’ dive bars by Grace Weitz for Hop Culture. The dive bar is a peculiarly American concept and even in listicle form, it’s hard not to get a scent of issues around gentrification and identity:

Delux Cafe has defied all odds in the South End neighborhood of Boston. As chain restaurants and bougie dining groups moved in, driving up rents and the price of eating and drinking, South End’s small businesses started being driven out. But not Delux Cafe. Located at 100 Chandler Street, the dive bar has remained for over five decades as a place to grab a cheap can of ‘Gansett. While the hole-in-the-wall has changed hands and names a few times during its historic run, it’s always been a place for locals to bathe in the glow of Christmas lights, revel at the collection of album covers on the wall, and enjoy a cheap pint or two.

At Brussels Beer City, Eoghan Walsh provides a vignette of the kind of institutional bar where people watch football, play pool and drink cheap lager:

Conversation turns distractedly to football. The barman says Busquets is too old. The lean player rolls around the name of the Czech goalscorer. The stout one in seesawing tones condemns the corrosive decadence hampering Belgium’s performance. The barman rouses himself, crosses the room to the bar. He reaches into a mini fridge, skips past the Orval, Goose IPA, and Karmeliet, and returns to the billiards table with two more dripping bottles of Jupiler… A tangle of bedraggled children run up the stairs, announcing the end of this evening’s swimming class and trailing in their wake the sweet-salty memories of afterschool Monday afternoons, stinging red eyes and shaming side-long looks. The barman gets up to dole out Haribos, paprika chips and Cote D’Or chocolate to children with the means to buy them.

Finally, from Twitter…

For more good reading check out Alan McLeod’s round-up from Thursday.

Generalisations about beer culture opinion

The UK loves Helles – or Hells, at least

Camden Town Brewery has done something Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson never managed: it has made a specific style of German lager, Helles, ‘a thing’ in British brewing.

Why do we credit Camden in particular? Because every time we order a Helles from any other brewery it’s presented to us by waiters and bar staff as ‘Hells’.

But Hells, minus the extra E, is Camden’s own brand name, and one they’ve invoked lawyers to protect.

It’s also the word that people have been seeing on keg fonts and packaging since 2010 – and even more so since the brewery was taken over by AB-InBev in 2015 and got heavy distribution.

It was a clever move, that slight tweak to the word. It gave them ownership, for one thing; it also removed any ambiguity over pronunciation. How would an English speaker naturally be inclined to pronounce Helles? As hells, of course, about, what, 80% of the time? German speakers and people who Simply Live to Travel will sound that second E – sort of like ‘hell-ezz’.

Helles means ‘light’. Beers badged as such tend to be very pale, light-bodied and with relatively low alcohol content. It’s got broad commercial appeal, as Camden Hells has proved, because that basically describes most mainstream lagers.

Calling your lager a Helles is a great way to have your cake and eat it: it’s simultaneously (a) a normal, non-scary lager that people will actually want to drink and (b) a craft beer with heritage worth an extra pound a pint.

See also: the fetishisation of the Willibecher beer glass.

Our impression is that the term Pilsner performs a similar function in the US market. In the UK, though, that sub-style is already associated with, for example, Tennent’s, Carlsberg and Holsten.

Whatever the reason, there seem to have been quite a few beers around with Helles on the can in the past decade, such as…

  • Hofmeister, 2016 (!)
  • Thornbridge Lukas, 2016 (?)
  • BrewDog Prototype, 2016
  • Purity, 2019
  • Cloudwater, 2019 (?)
  • Brick Brewery, 2020
  • Amity Brew Co Festoon, 2020
  • Lost & Grounded, 2021

You can also possibly, maybe, see the growth of interest in the term in the post-Camden era via Google Trends, based on frequency of searches:

Of course Camden wasn’t the first UK brewery to produce a Helles. Calvor’s first produced theirs in 2009, for example, and Meantime had one in 2004 – and would like everyone to know it.

It’s worth noting, we suppose, that brewer Rob Lovatt went from Meantime to Camden to Thornbridge, leaving Helles beers behind him as he went. Perhaps he deserves the credit, or the blame.