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beer reviews bottled beer

Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Century Pub and with middle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop nearest our house and marvel at the ever-changing selection of obscure beers from Eastern Europe. It’s fun to see unfamiliar names on unfamiliar labels – a kind of alternate reality, a world where Carling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were startled to see three very nicely packaged beers in unusual styles from Vilkmerges of Lithuania – a stout, a dark lager and a witbier. Vilkmerges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Royal Unibrew of Denmark.

They sat alongside products from a craft beer sub-brand of Russian brewery Baltika, ‘The Brewer’s Collection’, one of which, with a striking orange label, all in English, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The latter looked gorgeous in the glass – that very pale yellow that seems almost green and somehow signals refinement, perhaps hinting at Champagne. It tasted drier and paler than standard Baltika with maybe a touch of floweriness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Perhaps the lorry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the better end of bog standard and a fascinating thing – the beginning of the Camdenisation of Russian lager?

The Vilkmerges witbier is called Kveitinis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fading head and not quite enough body. It reminded us of a witbier we homebrewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sickly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would probably be nicer with a slice of lemon floating on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Serbentų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace yourself – like blackcurrants. It was ruddy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reaching for the obvious; like the medicine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more originally. It’s 5.5% but tasted basically non-alcoholic. We poured this one.

Tamsusis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a classic Bavarian Dunkel. And, in fact, is considerably better than most bottled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hinting at the lusciousness of double stout, in fact, so perhaps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imagine getting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuckles.

One odd thing, though: beers from Eastern Europe often come in larger than usual packages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilkmerges products were in 410 millilitre bottles and the Baltika came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hardly bank-breaking but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

Categories
beer reviews Generalisations about beer culture

Scotland #3: Tennent’s Lager

Tennent’s has been producing lager since the 1880s and Scotland became a lager drinking nation long before England.

We knew we wanted to drink at least one pint of Tennent’s on our trip to Scotland but didn’t expect to like it quite as much as we did.

Despite the ubiquity of Tennent’s branding around Glasgow – big red Ts jut out from pub fascias all over the place –it actually took us a little while to find the opportunity: either the pubs we found ourselves in had something else we wanted to try, or they had no Tennent’s tap at all, replacing it with something more upmarket from breweries such as Innis & Gunn or Williams Bros.

We had our first taste at The Pot Still in central Glasgow, served in tall, branded glassware with a whip of shaving-cream foam, and bubbling furiously.

What were our expectations? Low, if we’re honest. We’d noticed a couple of other fussy buggers expressing affection for it but wondered how much that might be down to contrariness or sentimentality.

But we liked it.

Now, we choose our words carefully: liked, not loved. It’s good, not great. We enjoyed it but it didn’t make our toes curl with delight.

Isn’t that enough, though? To be able to go into almost any pub and order a pint of 4% lager for a reasonable price and enjoy drinking it?

We asked our Twitter followers what they thought and their collective judgement, though it falls on the wrong side of the middle line to ours, feels fair:

Especially compared to Foster’s:

Tasting notes feel redundant as it’s hardly a deep or complex beer, but we’ll try: it’s more sweet than bitter but in a wholesome way that suggests grain, not sugar; the high carbonation stops it feeling sticky; and there’s sometimes a wisp of lemon zest about it.

After our initial encounter, we found ourselves ordering it even when there were other options. After a long day walking in the sun, it was perfect – gets to your thirst, fast. In a questionable pub which looked like it needed hosing down, it was a safe option, and tasted just as good. It certainly suited watching Scotland v. England on a big screen in a pub in Fort William. In Spoons, it beat Carlsberg’s relaunched ‘Danish Pilsner’ hands down, though the latter was just fine.

Of course this positive reaction is partly down to us taking pleasure in drinking a local product on holiday but, look, you know us by now – these days, we don’t force ourselves to drink things that aren’t actually giving us pleasure.

And Tennent’s Lager did.

Categories
Beer history london opinion

The post-Camden world

A recent in-depth listicle from Pellicle made us reflect on how Camden Hells was a turning point, though we didn’t recognise the turn while it was taking place.

Back in around 2012, it was easy to overlook: sharp branding aside, it was just another ‘craft lager’, following in the footsteps of Zero Degrees, Meantime and Freedom.

We didn’t think it tasted especially exciting – perhaps a touch more appealing than some mainstream draught lagers.

The company had its fans, but also its detractors, not least those in the industry irritated by a sense that it was outright buying coverage, or was over-hyped, or was failing to be transparent with consumers.

What we should have paid more attention to was that our friends who weren’t especially interested in beer – who would turn pale if you accused them of being beer geeks – seemed to like Hells a lot. They were switching from Foster’s, Stella, Peroni, and (perhaps crucially) drinking Hells just as they’d drunk those other beers: by the pint, pint after pint.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see why they’d make the switch. Hells was light-tasting, reasonably strong, clean and clear; usually came in smart but chunky glassware; and the branding was nice – bold, contemporary, declaring itself a Londoner.

To reiterate, Hells certainly wasn’t the first British craft lager, but it might yet turn out to be the most influential.

It probably prompted Fuller’s Frontier (2013), Adnams Dry Hopped (2013), and Guinness Hop House 13 (2015), to name but three examples.

And we’re certain it’s why breweries like Moor have been unable to resist giving lager a go in recent years, even though that’s not something that seemed on the agenda for them a decade ago.

The recent launch of Carlsberg Danish Pilsner must also surely be a reaction to Hells, or at least indirectly, via Hop House 13 and the others.

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Uncategorized

News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings

Here’s everything that struck as particularly interesting in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Carlsberg to Cambridge.

First, some news: those Redchurch rumblings from the other week are now confirmed – the brewery went into administration and is now under new ownership. This has prompted an interesting discussion about crowdfunding:


More news: it’s intriguing to hear that Curious is expanding. It’s a brewery you don’t hear talked about much by geeks like us – in fact, we’re not sure we’ve ever tried the beer – but it does turn up in a surprising number of pubs and restaurants.

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News

News, nuggets and longreads 27 April 2019: numbers, mild, cult beer frenzy

Here’s everything that struck as as noteworthy in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from brewery numbers to the possible decline of lager.

Like many other commentators, we’ve taken the total number of UK breweries, and the amount by which it increases each year, as an at least partially useful indicator of the vigour of the craft beer boom. According to a new report from accountancy firm UHY, that growth might finally have begun to slow:

The craft beer boom in the UK has slowed sharply in the last year with the total number of breweries increasing by just 8 versus the 390 added in prior twelve months, our research shows… The total number of UK breweries reached to 2,274 at the end of 2018, up from 1,352 five years ago… The craft beer market has become difficult for new entrants as multinational brewers continue to buy and invest the more successful “craft” breweries. The huge levels of investment that the multinationals then deploy through their “craft” subsidiaries throw up barriers of entry against other entrants. The multinationals have been attracted by the high growth rates in the craft beer market and the premium pricing they can achieve.

(This story got a bit mangled in the retelling by some news outlets which, tending to prefer stories of either total triumph or dreadful doom, reported that only eight new breweries had opened in the past year.)


Related news: the total number of pubs continues to decline at a rate equivalent to 76 closures per month, but the rate of closures is quite clearly slowing.


Another nugget of news, unfortunately from behind a paywall: financial news service MergerMarket reports that both Truman’s and Five Points are actively courting investors or partners. There’s nothing we can link to at this stage but, well, keep your eyes peeled for further news.


Weyerbacher logo.

For BrewBound Justin Kendall offers comment on the struggles of yet another early-wave American craft brewery, Weyerbacher:

Most of Weyerbacher’s financial issues stem from a 2014 expansion project that cost $2 million and included the addition of a 40-barrel brewhouse. Over the years, however, the company dealt with increased competition — particularly in the pumpkin beer category — as it struggled to grow sales and pay down debt.

“We were expecting to see double-digit growth for a number of years … and with the market saturation that happened in pumpkin and all of those other things, that just didn’t pan out,” [Josh Lampe] said.

The market saturation that happened in pumpkin! What a time to be alive.


Illustration: beer bottles.

For Drinks Retailing News Anthony Gladman has produced a fascinating piece on the struggle of independent bottle shops to attain supplies of the most sought after beers:

“Anything DIPA or hazy goes really fast,” says Dan Sandy, manager of east London craft beer store Kill The Cat. Beers from Cloudwater, Verdant and Deya are subject to fierce competition because they will draw in customers and drive sales of other beers once people are through the shop door.

“Everyone wants Deya cans but it’s not making very many,” says Jen Ferguson, co-owner of Hop Burns & Black, a craft beer retailer in south east London. “The number of Deya cans making it through to the distributors is very small.”

Another example is Nottingham brewery Neon Raptor. Alex Fitzpatrick, co-owner of Brixton bottle shop Ghost Whale, found its beers became hard to get hold of seemingly overnight. “What happened? Who pressed the button that gave it this magic rainbow aura around everything it does?”


Beer being poured, from an old advertisement.

With CAMRA’s declaration of May as the month of mild in mind, Ron Pattinson has taken a look at how beer style come in and out of favour:

When styles start to decline, it can happen surprisingly quickly. It always kicks off the same way: young drinkers don’t adopt it. Then a style begins to be associated with old men. And no-one wants to drink what granddad’s drinking… Lager sales really took off in the late 1970s. The young drinkers who adopted it back then are now around 60. How long before Lager becomes associated with old blokes?


Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

One of the upsides to putting this round-up together slightly later than usual is that it meant we caught a post from this very morning by the Pub Curmudgeon in which the details of various regional quirks of dispense from the 1970s-90s are recalled:

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the average pub across much of the Midlands and North, you would be likely to be served your beer in an oversize glass with a thick head reaching almost to the top, whereas in the South you would get beer from a handpump with a head no more than a quarter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coating of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with little or no head as well. Getting a pint a totally flat-looking beer with plenty of CO2 still dissolved in it was a touch disconcerting.


And finally, from Twitter, one of those too-neat explanations that nonetheless sort of, maybe, kind of, checks out:

For more links and commentary check out Stan Hieronymus on Monday and Alan McLeod on Thursday.