Beer styles

On pastry beers and pastry sours in particular

Opinion: if it’s got ‘pastry’ in the description, it’d better taste like something you might have found on sale at Percy Ingle.

Most weeks, we write a note for Patreon about the most interesting beers we’ve tasted over the course of the weekend. This has had the positive effect of making us buy more unusual beers, just so we’re not always saying “Pilsner Urquell is good.”

We’re fortunate to live fairly near Pat’s News and Booze, a corner shop off-licence with a remarkable range of craft beer in cans.

That’s where we came across Yonder Brewing’s various pastry sours which we’ve been working our way through for a few months. There are lots for us to try yet but based on six or seven so far, opinions about so-called ‘pastry’ beers have begun to form.

As we say above, in our view, it has to taste like a sweet dessert – one with flour, butter, probably vanilla, maybe some spice. It can’t just be a very fruity, super sour or sickly sweet beer.

Obviously this subset of beer is not for everyone. Frankly, it’s not for us most of the time. But every now and then we like something a little silly to get us thinking about how far beer can be pushed – to define the outer limits.

Overall, we’ve probably had more misses than hits and our Patreon round-ups often include phrases such as “alarming” and “hair-raising”.

A few have stood out as particularly successful, though.

Yonder’s Cherry Pie Pastry Sour, for example, absolutely hit the mark. You can taste the pie case – melt-in-the mouth spicy crumby crumbliness – as much as the filling. Being pretty pink probably helps the illusion along.

Weirdly, though, the same brewery’s Blueberry Pie doesn’t repeat the magic. It was just muddy. Perhaps because blueberries don’t really taste of much in their own right.

Weirder again was the truly excellent Pie Saison by Little Earth Project which we drank a couple of years ago. It looked flat and smelt like vinegar from the pickled onion jar, but then, wow, how the flavour developed. Apple, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, buttery biscuit base – real Willy Wonka stuff. How did they do it? It could just be the power of suggestion, we suppose, but are we really so susceptible to Jedi mind tricks?

Proving that you can go beyond the pie was New Bristol Brewery Lemon Drizzle Donut Sour (5.5%) which we had at a mini-beer festival at the Llandoger Trow earlier this summer. Jess tested it blind on Ray, who hadn’t read the title or description, and he said: “It tastes like a Mr Kipling fondant fancy.” It was definitely cake-like with a powerful vanilla character at first, before a citric lemonade fizz kicked in – specifically, the sensation of sucking on an R. White’s ice lolly. Just delightful.

Which other examples strike you as particularly successful? By which we mean, both delicious and convincingly pudding-like.


News, nuggets and longreads 1 October 2022: Autumn Almanac

On this first Saturday in October, here’s our recommended reading from the world of beer, including good news, bad news, and lots in between.

First, the good news: Kelham Island Brewery of Sheffield has been saved by a consortium including Thornbridge, as Pete Brown reports:

I don’t know too much about the other people involved in the consortium, but I do know Tramlines now defines Sheffield as much as the brewing tradition Wickett began. But it feels so right that Thornbridge is part of this move. Without Kelham Island, there would be no Thornbridge. Now, without Thornbridge there would be no Kelham Island. There couldn’t be a more perfect end to what started out looking like a tragic story.

We’ve been wondering for a while why more independent breweries don’t merge and/or take each other over. As some established names fall in the current crisis, maybe we’ll see more of it. Speaking of which…

The bad news is that Skinner’s Brewery of Truro has gone into administration (BBC). We’ve never been hugely fond of Skinner’s beer, or of its rather old skool branding, but it is a major player in Cornwall. This will leave St Austell dominant.

Gale's Prize Old Ale

It’s no coincidence that the weekly article from Pellicle so often takes this top spot. The editors continue to commission interesting pieces from interesting people – and to give them the promotion they deserve. This week, it’s Martyn Cornell on the surprisingly interesting story of Gale’s Prize Old Ale:

If Gale’s Prize Old Ale were a building, it would long ago have been listed Grade 1 by English Heritage as something of exceptional national importance. The survival of this rich, strong, deep, sweet-sour, dark, fruity, umami-laden beer—since the takeover and closure of its original home, the Gale’s brewery in Horndean, Hampshire, by the London brewer Fuller, Smith & Turner in 2006—is almost miraculous… The beer is produced using the solera system, where a batch of each new brew has a quantity of the previous brew added to it. In return a vat of the old brew is topped up with new beer every year, ensuring the continuity of microorganisms going back year upon year to, in this case, the early 1920s.

A sign for Mahr's Brau on a wall in Bamberg

We’ve got Bamberg on our minds – just another week! – and have fond memories of Mahr’s Ungespundet, so one of Jeff Alworth’s latest pieces was a delight to read. In it, he lays out the history of that particular beer and comments on its influence on American lager brewing in recent years:

Americans get caught up in the concept of style, but places like Belgium and Franconia confound them. Indeed, in both places the much better way to think of local beer is through the lens of process and culture. The classic Franconian brewery reminds me of Czechia: local maltings that produce distinctive profiles, decoction mashing, open fermentation, and finishing touches that include unfiltered or naturally-carbonated casks. Not every brewery does these things, or even most of them, but the flavor profiles those techniques produce—a natural, rustic rawness, layers of character, a propensity for full malt flavors—remain the North Star for breweries… Americans are discovering these beers because of their rusticity and character. While many of the great Bavarian lagers are famous for their accomplishment and refinement, Franconian lagers are funky, unexpected, and unusual. Which of course makes them perfect targets for craft breweries.

The sign on the Brasserie de la Senne brewery

Eoghan Walsh is back! After the publication of his excellent book (do buy it) he had a well-earned break. Now he’s back on the beat with a substantial post about de la Senne Zinnebir which has just turned 20:

Now, I’ve written at length about the importance of Zinnebir both to me and to the origins of this very website… You might even call me a Zinnebore… So, instead of me rattling on about my love for this epochal beer, I thought I would ask some of the beer’s (and Brasserie de la Senne’s) ardent fans – brewers, writers, drinkers – for their favourite memories, their Zinnebir light bulb moments, and what inspiration the beer has played in the lives, personal and professional. And from Brussels, Prague, Toronto, Bangkok, Santa Rosa, and elsewhere – here’s what they had to say.

Uerige Altbier sign in Dusseldorf

Courtney Iseman had a rough week but found solace in a simple glass of Altbier:

I don’t like routine in the sense that I like each day to be a little different and fluid, but when something really rocks my entire life off of its tracks and the reality I know gets muffled and distant, I feel untethered, like someone Olivia Colman would play in a film. And so I begin to look for some kind of North Star. I reach for something familiar that will act as the cord to yank me back inside the space shuttle (again, that most likely makes zero sense)… This time, my North Star was an altbier. A good Altbier at a good beer bar with a good chat. As I swallowed the first sip of that Uerige, I felt like I had just been yanked from underwater, gasping for those first few gulps of life-giving air. I know that sounds very dramatic but a, it’s true; b, I do love altbier a whole lot; and c, if you don’t fancy a little ~theatre~ with your beer missives then perhaps this newsletter is not for you!

Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

Back to Pete Brown: he’s been thinking about cask ale again. This time, he’s got a radical suggestion – sell less cask ale to sell more cask ale:

These are the pubs where there’s maybe one handpull on, or three with two turned round for most of the week. That handpull probably serves Doom Bar or Greene King IPA, because if you’re reducing your range after lockdown, in theory it makes sense to stick to familiar brands. But this simply reinforces the dull, staid image of cask, on a bar where spirits, cocktails, craft beer and lagers like Madri all have a bigger, more colourful presence than they did three years ago. And so the cycle accelerates… So maybe it’s time to rip cask out of those 39.3% low volume, low share pubs, or at least a good proportion of them… An additional 13.9% volume loss might seem unbearable on top of the volume loss the market is already suffering. But you’d be cauterising the wound. You’d be getting rid of the vast majority of shit pints of cask beer that are being served every day.

Finally, from Twitter…

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


Prioritising what to drink in Bamberg in 2022

How do you decide which pubs and breweries to visit when you’ve only got so much time to play with?

A couple of weeks ago we asked a question on Twitter:

This wasn’t an idle query.

In a few weeks, COVID and other circumstances permitting, we’ll be back in Germany for the first time in four years – and we’ve got a daytrip to Bamberg in the schedule.

These days, given our ever-diminishing drinking capacity, we reckon we can realistically only visit a maximum of three drinking establishments.

(Building in a little room for manoeuvre in case we really need a second pint of anything particularly good, or there are any lethally strong seasonal specials on.)

We have been to Bamberg before but, to our astonishment, apparently not for about 14 years. Our tastes have changed, and Bamberg might well have changed, so we needed some up-to-date advice.

Here’s a log of the responses:

Mahr’s Bräu8

There were also three votes against – two for Schlenkerla, one for Mahr’s. But that doesn’t change the ranking.

We’re quite pleased with that list, based on our own past experience.

We can’t not visit Schlenkerla, given our memories of previous visits, and how much we enjoy the beer from bottles.

We also fondly remember how relatively hoppy Keesmann Herren Lager seemed. Apparently, its still good.

Then again… that trip out to Greifenklau was pretty special last time.

And can we really turn down the chance to drink a Mahr’s Ungespundet, even though people say that particular brewery is off the boil at the moment?

Just to further complicate things, there are also a handful of new breweries that we’ve never been to. Should we maybe prioritise trying something new over attempting to relive past pleasures?

Maybe the only logical conclusion to this tyranny of choice is to not go at all.

beer and food

What’s going on with pub food?

We don’t think we’re imagining it: pub food has got noticeably worse in the past year or two.

We eat in pubs more than we should, maybe.

Pubs just feel more comfortable to us than restaurants, for one thing. We’ve got pub-grade table manners and don’t like being fussed around by waiters.

We also resent having to leave the pub because we need to eat. The offer of food, whether it’s a cheese roll or something more substantial, means we can extend our session.

We rarely go to places that are known for their food, with food in mind. It’s generally a distress purchase of chips or squid rings to give us half a chance of functioning reasonably the following morning. So we tend to start with sensible expectations.

Even with that in mind we’ve been pretty consistently disappointed with the quality of the average pub’s food in the past few months. The portions are smaller, the presentation is worse, and the prices are up.

On the one hand, you can see the margins being squeezed, which really isn’t surprising. Raw ingredients and energy both cost more, with further increases expected.

On the other hand, you’ve also got problems with the job market. Recruiting and retaining experienced chefs for pubs has always been difficult but it’s almost impossible right now. Every pub we go in seems to have a pleading, desperate “We’re hiring!” notice or two on display.

Now, we find ourselves wondering: why are pubs bothering with food at all?

The rise and fall of pub food

We wrote in depth about the rise of the gastropub in our book 20th Century Pub – do check that chapter out if you can find a copy. There’s also a big chunk of it available here on the blog.

The key point is that, though beer enthusiasts tended to see it as the poshing up of pubs, those in the gastropub movement saw themselves as democratising good food. They wanted to serve simple, value-for-money meals in a less formal environment than the traditional restaurant.

The food was elevated only insofar as it was cooked fresh and used unprocessed ingredients. It often resembled home cooking more than haute cuisine. It also happened to offer decent margins for minimal effort – can you imagine the markup on lentil salad?

The success of the gastropub, both as a business model and as a buzzword, took it into the mainstream. By the late noughties, received wisdom across much of the pub industry was that you needed to offer food to survive and the wet-led pub was on the way out.

Wetherspoon pubs, with their vast menus and low prices, further normalised the expectation that a pub would have food available if you wanted it.

We’d argue this has reversed somewhat in the past decade. Between micropubs and taprooms, new wet-led enterprises have opened in most towns and cities in England, and are often go-to destinations.

However, this still leaves lots of formerly wet-led pubs clinging onto food as part of their offer, usually following the latest trends a year or two later. (You know a food fad is on the way out when Greene King pubs are on the bandwagon.)

The mediocre £15 burger

We didn’t particularly mind eating a mediocre burger when it’s less than a tenner. When it’s more than £15, we expect it to have a bit of something about it.

We completely understand that when everything is going up, you need to charge more to stay in the same place. As we explored in a post a few months ago there are thresholds at which you will lose customers, particularly when they’re also grappling with the increasing cost of living.

Based on our observations, this is already happening. We don’t think we’re seeing as many people eating in pubs that offer food. And the other week, we wandered into a pub that’s usually full with diners at lunchtime on the weekend and found it mostly empty.

Obviously, we don’t think pubs should stop serving food, but it might make sense for many of them to rethink the offer.

For example, we’ve noticed that the trend of having food trucks in taprooms has extended to pubs. Our local pizzeria (it’s in someone’s backyard) has been resident at a pub recently.

Elsewhere in Bristol, Wing’s Diner is a permanent fixture at Small Bar, and Kansai Kitchen operates out of The Hillgrove Porter Stores. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of symbiotic relationship.

The other week we ate at an old school gastropub in central London (Patreon subscribers can read about that here) and were struck by how hearty and absolutely unpretentious the menu was compared to most pubs.

The dishes tended to have two components – protein + carbs. Roast beef was served with bread and horseradish. There was nothing a single person couldn’t prep, mostly in advance, in a kitchen the size of a cupboard.

What we really hope for, of course, is the return of bread rolls on the bar – a great mark-up for the publican; a tasty bargain for the consumer.


News, nuggets and longreads 24 September 2022: The drift

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that leapt out at us in the past seven days, from fresh beer to energy bills.

First, some news: SIBA a cross-industry group including SIBA and CAMRA has launched a new campaign with the aim of improving the image of cask ale, especially among younger drinkers. The angle this time? Rebranding it as “fresh beer”. At his website Protz on Beer Roger Protz has the press release:

Drink Fresh Beer has presented a series of eye-catching visuals to help cask compete on the bar including new cylindrical handpulls, tulip glassware, table talkers, posters, beer mats and staff T-shirts. Crucially, social and cross-media promotions will aim to capture the attention of consumers before they step through the pub door. Once they reach the bar, an AR-scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about their favourite drink, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped.

We can see the logic in this. We’ve written in the past about how ‘real ale’ was a term created to imply heritage and authenticity; and ‘cask ale’ does something similar.

At the same time we’re also wary of the tendency to think that coming up with the right form of words can solve an underlying problem. It will only take someone to drink a pint of ‘fresh beer’ that tastes like vinegary mud to sour them (heh) on the whole idea.

A jumble of pubs.

Also in the news this week was the Government’s long-awaited announcement of support for business in dealing with the energy price crisis. As usual with this lot, the announcement came late, with little detail, and the reaction can probably be summed up as “Better than nothing, still not enough”. There’s a good summary at Politics Home:

Leading figures in the UK’s hospitality industry say the government’s energy bills package for businesses won’t last long enough to save thousands of pubs from going to the wall this winter… Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her “Energy Price Guarantee” would cap the price suppliers can charge domestic customers for two years, but support with spiralling costs for those on commercial contracts would only last for six months… A number of hospitality groups have told PoliticsHome they want not only more “clarity” from government, but to be granted support for longer than six months and some acknowledgement that companies have already been paying increased bills for the past few months which has led to many closures or staff layoffs.

At Beer is for Everyone Ruvani de Silva has been grappling with some big issues as the world focuses on the British royal family and its imperial baggage:

English IPA should, by all logic, stick in my throat, yet I continue to devour and praise them. I know full well the excessive damage the British East India Company, purveyors of said IPA did to the Subcontinent, how rich they became from plundering our resources and labor, and how that wealth still circulates among the British elite… How can I, armed with full awareness of the damaging nature of its marketing, enjoy a bottle of Bengal Lancer? And yet not only was it one of the first English IPAs I really rated, I still regard it as an excellent example of the style. Can we separate the beer from its history, its heritage? Can I disconnect my love for it from my own history and heritage?

Cask ale

Phil Mellows has written about the magic and minefield of cask ale for British Beer Breaks with Cask Ale Week in mind:

We know how to get cask beer right. But there’s so much to go wrong. And every little wrinkle can be tasted in a mouthful of beer that may not be all it should… Ordering a pint in an unfamiliar pub becomes a risk. A risk hedged by reputation or an accreditation by Cask Ale Week organiser Cask Marque or a listing in the Good Beer Guide, perhaps, but always a risk. It’s even a risk in a pub that you do know. There’s only one thing more embarrassing than sending back a pint in a strange pub, and that’s sending back a pint where everybody knows your name.


At Beer (History) Food Travel Liam has pulled together, expanded and updated a series of posts from a few years ago on the history of hops in Ireland. The new piece is a bit of an epic:

“Historically, hops were not grown in Ireland …”

Or so says an online encyclopaedia entry on hops, and although some people know this not to be true, the sentence is so often repeated in similar wording that I thought it would be best to do some myth-busting to highlight that hops were grown in this country in various quantities and were even used in commercial brewing… This is a record of the history, mentions and other snippets of information pertaining to hop growing in this country, where I will show and prove that we have been growing hops in this country for the last 400 years…

Ron Pattinson provides a nugget on the subject of British and Irish beer styles. It suggests that by 1905 the link between places and styles had begun to weaken with only the broadest generalisations possible:

Burton was famous for Strong Ales long before the first Pale Ale was brewed there… London and Mild may have long lost their association, but it was once very strong. It was the capital’s favourite for getting on for a century… Edinburgh was, by this point, as well, if not better known, for its Pale Ales. Their Scotch Ale was still quite a thing in some markets… A bit more obvious is Cork and Dublin brewing Stout. Both still are.

Finally, from Twitter, un objet d’art…

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