News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 April 2018: Beer Duty, Beavertown, Baudelaire

Here’s all the writing about beer from the past week that most engaged, informed or entertained us, from the Fall of the Craft Beer Empire to Gamma Ray in Waitrose.

Well, most of the past week — we wrote this post at breakfast time on Friday and scheduled it to post, so if anything exciting happened on Friday afternoon, we probably missed it. We are now on holiday for a week and a bit which means no round-up next weekend. If you want a fix of links in the meantime check out Stan Hieronymus’s Monday post and Alan McLeod’s on Thursday.


Adapted from ‘The End is Nigh’ by Jason Cartwright on FLICKR, CC BY 2.0

We’ll start with a piece by Pete Brown which prods at the kind of would-be sensational news story based on a piece of research you have to pay to read in full:

“Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the question, cognitive dissonance making me feel momentarily floaty…. The reason I was confused is that it hasn’t happened – not yet. When I got these questions, I’d just delivered the keynote speech to the SIBA conference. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of digging. I’d discovered that craft beer volume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that analysts are predicting continued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that business leaders in the food and beverage industry had named craft beer the most important trend across the whole of food and drink – comfortably ahead of low alcohol drinks, artisan coffee and craft spirits – for the fifth year running.

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Two Jacksonian Scholars Debate NEIPA

In the imposing Inner Temple of Beer Writers’ Hall in the City of London two scholars sit beneath a vast portrait of the Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson, who died in 2007. They wear Guild robes and are surrounded by leather-bound volumes. A small group of acolytes sits nearby, waiting for the debate to begin. On her throne the Grand Imbiber, who everybody had thought asleep, clears her throat: “What might the Master–” She salutes the portrait of MBHJ, dipping her eyes respectfully. “–have made of this ‘NEIPA’, one wonders?” The scholars reflect for a moment and then open their books, scanning the pages with their fingers.

SCHOLAR #1
The NEIPA, or New England India Pale Ale, is defined by its haziness, is it not? And Jackson wrote, “The possibility of hazy beer is only one of the difficulties encountered when working with newly harvested barley and hops.” [1] If haze is characterised as a difficulty, we can conclude with certainty that NEIPA would displease him.

SCHOLAR #2
No. It is clear that his suggestion here was that haze would be a difficulty for those particular brewers, brewing that particular beer. Did he not also write of Cooper’s, the bottle-conditioned Australian pale ale, “Sparklilng or opaque, It would enliven the most Boycottian innings”? And did he not also call it “a ‘wholefood’ of the beer world”? [2]

SCHOLAR #1
When reading the sacred texts we must always remember the Master’s love of irony. The passage you quote quietly mocks faddish young drinkers and their “more clumsy” pouring technique; it by no means marks approval of their preference. “Generally speaking, sedimented beers…. should be poured without the sediment”, he wrote on another occasion, when asked directly whether yeast should be mixed with beer. [3]

SCHOLAR #2
Again, you treat His words as a blunt tool. Who was more aware of the variations between beer styles, and beer cultures, than Jackson? He did not use the word “generally” carelessly — this was no commandment! He had no objection to cloudy or hazy beer in the right context — approving comments of German and Belgian wheat beers appears abound — but I will concede that a concern is evident in His words when describing the mingling of distinct beer cultures.

SCHOLAR #1
You refer, of course, to his comments on English cask wheat beers? [4]

SCHOLAR #2
Quite so. But he does not condemn or deny, only observes: “Doubt about the willingness of British drinkers to accept cloudy beer remains the biggest worry of brewers making this style.” He does not say that British-style beers ought to be clear, only that they generally are. This might be interpreted as a criticism, especially of older people, set in their ways — “the young, prefer the hazy versions of wheat beer”.

Illustration: Micheal Jackson peers from behind his glasses.

SCHOLAR #1
Or not. He was himself old when this was written and, as I have already pointed out, viewed the crazes of the young with scepticism. I detect nothing in his writing on Young’s Wheat Beer to suggest wholehearted delight and, indeed, detect between-the-lines a lack of faith in the very idea.

SCHOLAR #2
Ah, as so often he presents us with a mirror reflecting our own prejudices. We know, at least, that he believed it was possible for “yeast… to add a little texture, but no bite”. [5]

SCHOLAR #1
Though we are told the haze of an NEIPA is not generally the product of suspended yeast, but hop matter, aren’t we? Appearance aside, what of the flavour? He insisted, always, that India Pale Ale should be “above average in… hop bitterness”, but NEIPAs are characterised by low bitterness. This would have been a black mark against them in his eyes.

SCHOLAR #2
But NEIPA is not IPA. Perhaps he might have questioned the terminology, but that does not mean he would have disputed the right of the style to exist, or disliked the beers that fall within it. He preferred mango lassi to beer with curry, I mention as an aside [6], and once lauded a beer with elderflower essence. [7]

SCHOLAR #1
I contend that he was essentially conservative, nonetheless. When asked to choose his top ten American beers he picked pilsner, dortmunder, imperial stout, Belgian-style beers, steam beer… [8] He pleaded for authenticity in IPA and porter, not reinvention. When what might have been seen as new styles emerged, such as golden ale, he was able to embrace them only by connecting them to the traditions of the past. [9]

SCHOLAR #2
And yet he was among the first to notice and laud the extreme beers of Sam Calagione! [10]

SCHOLAR #1
Laud? Again I detect more interest then admiration in his words — the attitude of an observer at a circus freakshow.

The Grand Imbiber rises from the throne, staff aloft, and the scholars fall silent.

GRAND IMBIBER
I believe we have heard enough. Here is my judgement: there is nothing in his teachings to suggest that NEIPA would displease the Master, and much to suggest that it would have intrigued him. Whether it, or any individual example therein, would have delighted him, we cannot presume to say. Certainly the Master would never have publicly denounced NEIPA, even had he felt it in his heart, for first among his teachings was this: “If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do… If I despise a beer, why find room for it?” [11]

Checking in On Wylam and Northern Monk

Last year we hatched a grand plan to try beers that other bloggers named in their Christmas 2016 Golden Pints posts. That didn’t quite come off but did prompt us, eventually, to revisit Wylam and Northern Monk.

We bought the following beers from Beer Ritz with the support of Patreon subscribers like Alec Latham and Will Jordan — thanks, folks!

  • Northern Monk Heathen, 440ml can, £4.16
  • Northern Monk Mango Lassi Heathen, 440ml can, £4.87
  • Wylam Table Beer, 330ml bottle, £2.51
  • Wylam Sweetleaf IPA, 440ml can, £4.50
  • Wylam Slack Jaw IPA, 330ml bottle, £3.12

Heathen IPA was one of the specific beers on the Golden Pints master list, described by Simon Girt (@LeedsBeerWolf) as having ‘consistent, dank, juicy appeal’. In its big, colourful can it certainly looked exciting and enticing. Pale and hazy, our first reaction was, oof, onion soup! The body is velvety and milky, even creamy, with a chewable calcium tablet quality. Beyond the onion we got weed, armpits, and the stink of overripe fruit sitting in the sun. It’s not our kind of thing, especially at 7.2% ABV, but is one of the better examples of this kind of beer we’ve encountered — as clean and precise as the style permits.

Mango Lassi IPA.
It’s near-relation, Mango Lassi Heathen, smelled much more appealing — sweet and summery, all pop art and shower gel. It contains real mango but doesn’t taste ‘flavoured’. It too is milky with a delicate yogurt acidity of such subtlety that we might even have completely imagined it based on the beer’s name. There is a lime-peel kick, too, which brings to mind beach-side cocktails. It is full of fizz and prickle and, for us, easier drinking than straight Heathen, albeit not quite as exciting or outlandish as the name promises. And, ouch, that price tag. (This one was a 2016 Golden Pints pick from the Beernomicon podcast AKA @Beernomicon.)

We should say that, overall, we feel quite warm towards Northern Monk, whose core beers are among the most reliable and best value around. If you like this type of beer, you’ll probably like these particular beers. If you don’t, they won’t convert you.

Wylam DH.

These next three weren’t on any specific Golden Pints lists but Wylam generally did well and throughout 2017 seemed to buzz away in the background, quietly impressing people, so we reckon it’s a brewery that warrants frequent check-ins.

DH Table Beer, which offered a pleasing inversion of a familiar narrative. At only 3.5% ABV and with a mere three months to run on the best before countdown we expected it to be knackered and thus earn us some ‘drink fresh’ reprimands; but, in reality, it could hardly have tasted fresher — as if they’d somehow captured and packaged a spring breeze as it passed over a field of young grass. It’s an interesting beer, too — lemony, coconutty and very dry, with a quirky Belgian yeast character that brings to mind the weakest of the Chimay’s or Elusive’s wonderful Plan-B. Perhaps the long shelf-life is explained by the high bitterness, which in turn seems to be pleasingly softened by the light haze. It is perhaps a touch too raw and rustic but what it is not is boring, or stale, or dull, or dirty. We’d drink this again.

Slackjaw IPA was, by contrast, rather a disappointment. Is it supposed to taste a touch salty, and have that faint sourness? Beyond that, even at a mere 6%, it tastes like a dark double IPA of the 2007 school in which caramel malts and hops combine to suggest strawberry jam. It was passable, certainly drinkable, and red fruit plus acidity did add up to a certain freshly-squeezed quality. We suspect age and packaging problems might have dulled its edge and will certainly give it another chance, especially if we encounter it on tap.

Finally there came Sweet Leaf, a big, modern IPA (7.4%) in a big, modern can. Yellow and cloudy it certainly looked the part and threw up a wonderful ornamental garden aroma of fleshy flowers and strange fruit. The flavour combination — green onion and sweet pineapple — didn’t quite work for us but was certainly distinctive. A bit of dirtiness in the aftertaste was also distracting. Overall, though, it would seem to be another solid example of the style of the day, and might be just the thing for palates fatigued by excesses of citrus.

Wylam, then, stay in about the same place on our mental rankings: capable of great things, but lacking the polish and reliability of, say, Thornbridge.

Patreon’s Choice #4: Boundary Brewing

This is the fourth in a series of posts with notes on beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers. (If you want bonus posts and to steer what we write about sign up for the price of half-a-pint per month.)

The Beer Nut (Twitter, must-read blog) suggested that we try some beers from Boundary, a brewing company based in Belfast, Northern Ireland:

They’ve been on my “Hmm, not sure” list for a while, even as their recipes get more and more ambitious. I don’t see many of their beers where I live and am curious as to how they’re getting on.

Here’s how Boundary describes itself on its website:

We are a Cooperative Brewery in Belfast owned and run by our members. Opening our doors in 2014, we are the first brewery in NI to bring together modern US styles with the more traditional Belgian/French style beers.

What this seems to mean in practice is some variation on crowdfunding whereby investors of various sizes invest in and co-own the company, in exchange for beer and parties, with the promise of interest and dividends “when it is appropriate”.

We bought our selection of their beer via Beer Ritz online and tackled them in ascending order of alcoholic strength (up the ladder) as is our usual approach.

Four beers from Boundary in their glasses.

First came the American Pale Ale at 3.5% ABV and £2.53 per 330ml bottle. Unfortunately, this was what we’d call an outright dud. There was a dab of acid, the spectre of some malt flavour, and then a long trudge through papery, saliva-like, watery nothingness. At the end we thought we detected a faint chilli-like burn that we’re fairly certain wasn’t supposed to be there. We wished for it to be more bitter, more fruity, boozier, or even sweeter — just more something.

Next came G.O.A.T. which is billed as a New England IPA at 4.8% and £2.77 per 330ml. This one, at least, had a pleasing aroma — that have-an-Outspan, electric air-freshener zap you get from Cloudwater or BrewDog takes on this style. It looked like a textbook NEIPA, too, which is to say distinctly overcast, and lurking somewhere between grey and green. The flavour was a let down, though, reminding us distinctly of the time we tried to make a German-style wheat beer with dried ale yeast. The word we kept using was dirty. We struggled to finish this one and, indeed, didn’t.

The bigger NEIPA in the set, Forever Ago, has an ABV of 6% and cost £3.13 for 330ml. This had less aroma than G.O.A.T. and was also less hazy. It had a really rough foretaste — it actually made us say, “Ugh!” — with some off-putting sourness, too. There was some apricot or mango in there but, again, not enough to drown out the bum notes or sell the beer. Perhaps this might have been better if we’d drunk it the week it was bottled but it had a best before date of August 2018 so surely shouldn’t have tasted so completely exhausted.

Finally, Export Stout at 7% cost £3.43 per 330ml and — thank goodness as we are beginning to feel mean — was very decent. A hint of acidity here works to underline a sour cherry character, which in turn harmonises with a dusty, musty dark chocolate truffle character. We might have preferred more body and sweetness but, without them, it pulls of the trick of seeming vaguely Belgian. Was there even, perhaps, a hint of Brettanomyces in action? We would generally expect a bit more from a beer at this strength and price but we enjoyed it and would certainly try other dark beers from Boundary.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 30 December 2017: Helensburgh, Hammers, Home-brewing

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in this final week of 2017.

It’s been slim pickings with the Christmas break and the ubiquity of Golden Pints (check out the hashtag on Twitter) but we found a few things to chew on. First, there’s this stream of recollection by Peter McKerry at Brew Geekery which amounts to a tour of pubs that have meant the most to him over the years:

Then it was the Clyde Bar in Helensburgh, a well-healed town on the Clyde coast, during a prolonged period of unemployment in my early 20s. I’d drop in for a few Tennent’s on ‘Giro Day’, and it was here that I witnessed taxi driver and regular, Dermot, rescue eight pence from the trough WHILE I WAS URINATING IN IT. While that event is imprinted onto my mind (it was a 5p, 2p and a 1p), it gives a false impression of the pub. It was a great live music venue, and featured in a video from purveyors of beige jock rock, Travis, if such trivia interests you.

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