Here’s all the news and commentary on pubs and beer that grabbed us in the past week, from takeaway beer to brewery-side blending.
First, sigh, some news: pubs, along with other hospitality businesses, have been commanded to close by the Government. The situation will be reviewed every month but even the most optimistic pundits seem to think we can expect them to be shut for three months.
In our view, this is sad, but necessary.
If you’re someone who relies on pubs for your social life, we’d recommend investigating the various virtual meet-up options, from Twitter drinkalongs to video conferencing.
And if you make your livelihood through the pub trade, we hope the various business support measures the Government has introduced will go some way to cushioning the blow.
Nik [Antona] and Tom [Stainer] are quick to point out that a proposal to allow CAMRA beer festivals to include key kegs was supported by the necessary majority and many festivals are now supporting this change.
“A number of festivals have key kegs with explanations that are not dogmatic about the different ways beer can be served. I accept that we’ve poor about explaining this in the past,” Tom says. “We need to represent all pubgoers.”
“We may revisit Revitalisation in a few years,” Nik adds, “but in reality we’re doing it now. Younger people are drinking cask but they want to try different things – they want to drink good beer but not necessarily from casks.”
In all honesty, I have never been tempted to try any beer which strays past the golden and into the brown. I feel that a beer in one of the more masculine shades, for example a coal black stout or a cigarillo coloured bitter, would really be a step too far for a lady. I find that many hostelries now supply a tiny mason jar in front of the pump which displays the colour of the beer, which has been a tremendous help to me. I carry with me in my handbag a Dulux paint chart, which I hold against these tiny jars to make my selection. Once a beer passes Lemon Punch and heads towards Hazelnut Truffle, it’s off the menu!
Pasteur’s work was of tremendous theoretical importance, but had limited practical use. It showed the importance of hygiene, of course, but brewers were already aware of that. Using acid to clean the yeast of bacteria was useful, but often when the yeast turned bad the problem was not bacteria, and Pasteur had no solution to this problem… The main thing Pasteur did for breweries was to show them how they could use the tools and methods of microbiologists to get better control over and understanding of their own brewing. In the years after the publication of ‘Studies on beer’ a number of breweries invested in laboratories with microscopes, swan-neck bottles, and all the other equipment Pasteur used.
We find ourselves using ‘Belgian’ as a shortcut flavour descriptor sometimes and have been thinking about what this means, for various reasons.
First, because we just finished writing an article about Liverpool’s Passageway Brewery. If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll have the gist of the story: it emerged in the mid-1990s, run in their spare time by two friends who worked together, and knocked people’s socks off by fermenting British-style cask ales with a then highly exotic Belgian yeast strain.
Secondly, because we’ve also been writing an article about British beer geeks obsessed with Belgian beer, which means we’ve been hanging out with a few of the same. One gently admonished us on this point, suggesting that ‘Belgian’ as used to describe flavour by non-Belgians usually just means ‘spicy yeast’, when of course Belgian beers might be tart, sherry-like, fruity (from actual fruit), literally spicy (as opposed to yeast spicy), hoppy (in various offbeat ways), and so on.
And, finally, there have just been some beers that got us excited — beers that aren’t Belgian, or even fundamentally Belgian in style, but which use Belgian-derived yeast to add a twist. Stone Cali-Belgique, which we found confusing and underwhelming when we paid a fortune for it at The Rake in London years ago, is fast becoming a go-to in its canned Berlin-brewed bargain-price incarnation. Elusive Brewing’s Plan-B — a 3.7% pale ale brewed with UK malt, New World hops and Belgian yeast, was a contender for our Golden Pints bottled beer of 2016. And that Lervig/Magic Rock Farmhouse IPA from a few years back still haunts our palates. In general these days, we’ll pick up any kind of pale ale or IPA made this way — it just floats our boat.
So, yes, when we say something tastes ‘Belgian’, we do mostly mean that it has that faintly funky, abandoned-fruit-bowl, distantly gingery quality. The same character that, in our home-brewing, we’ve managed to get from various supposedly highly divergent Belgian-style yeasts, from dried stuff intended for producing Witbier, to saison and Trappist strains cloned from famous breweries and dispatched in vials.
But maybe sometimes we’re referring to something even broader — a very vague sense of faintly rustic, barely tamed oddness.
If this was flipped and a bunch of Belgian beer geeks were telling us about a beer produced in, say, Ghent that tasted ‘really British’, we think we’d know what they were trying to get across. And noting that a beer tastes ‘quite German’ certainly conveys something, too.
Shortcuts, like ‘proper pub’ or ‘malty’, are fine when used with caution, and don’t always need pinning down at every corner, especially if it stalls the conversation.
Before we get into the links a quick heads-up: Gambrinus Waltz, our short e-book about how lager came to London in the 19th Century, is free this weekend for Amazon Kindle (UK | US | Germany | Canada). At this stage, we just really want people to read it. We’ll be removing it from sale very shortly, too, because we have some other plans for it, so grab it and get stuck in if you haven’t already!
Rob Sands, CEO of alcoholic beverage giant Constellation Brands, came to New York City on Wednesday to talk about Corona beer and Robert Mondavi wine. And before he even took the stage, the company’s stock took an 8% nosedive… That’s because investors are worried about what Donald Trump’s victory could mean for… [the] owner of a Mexican brewer that targets an American customer base that could potentially face deportation.
(Via @agoodbeerblog who also has some additional historical commentary here.)
You wouldn’t think that a small piece of plastic could completely divide opinion between a nation’s beer lovers. You’d be wrong. A sparkler is a small plastic nozzle that attaches to the end of the swan-neck spout on the hand-operated pump that pulls beer from a cask. It nebulizes the naturally occurring CO2 in the beer, aerating the liquid as it’s squeezed through the holes in the nozzle. This produces smaller bubbles and, when poured correctly with the swan neck in the very bottom of the glass as the beer is pulled, will produce a frothy head of tight, creamy foam.
(Matt has received a fair bit of often mean-spirited criticism over the last couple of years but here’s why we like this piece: he heard complaints that UK beer writing is London-centric and got on a train; he has made an effort to explore both trad and trendy; he has included a range of voices and perspectives; and, in a killer last paragraph, has addressed the question of price/value. Not bloody bad for a little over 2,000 words.)
At most, Weaver writes 500 words reviewing a single beer for Rare Beer Club, but most often will write about 50, giving five to 10 minutes for each of the two or three different beers he’ll try each day of work. The catch? He drinks three or four ounces of most bottles or cans that come his way, a blasphemous treason to beer nerds who might decry the lost remnants of Russian River, Funky Buddha, Omnipollo or Other Half beers.
“Our sink is the biggest drinker in the household,” Weaver joked.
Armed with his findings about the inner workings of beer yeast, [Dr Kevin] Verstrepen wondered if he could push the envelope a bit further. For example, Trappist brewers trying to make the traditional, malty toffee taste of a dubbel beer are saddled with the yeast they’ve been using for centuries: Because yeast helps impart flavors that beer drinkers expect, brewers have no choice but to keep using the same strains. They can’t swap in a faster, more efficiently fermenting yeast without sacrificing characteristic, beloved flavors. Verstrepen thinks he might be able to swap the genes instead, and achieve the desired compromise. Enter Frankenbrew.
“As far as the practical brewer is concerned, complete knowledge of the correct use of the microscope is as necessary as his life blood, for it will save him a host of troubles. Indeed, it passes my comprehension how some prefer to take their chance when you hear them say: ‘I never look at my yeast under the microscope. If it is of a certain solidity and smells all right, and is of a good colour, I never worry further about it!’ This kind of thing may not have led to disaster in former days, when the alcoholic content of beers was such that it was an efficient protection, but to trust to such rough and ready methods in these days must surely court disaster.”
‘The Training of an Operative Brewer’, B.G.C. Wetherall, Journal of the Operative Brewers’ Guild, October 1924
We also found something extremely appealing about the idea of an off-the-shelf educational tasting session. Like a chemistry set for grown-ups, it encourages the setting aside of a couple of hours, the clearing of a tabletop, and the taking of notes. This is not drinking, but thinking. With drink.
Beer #1: fermented with Pilsen lager yeast
This is a yeast we know reasonably well from our own home brewing experiments but we struggled, at first, to discern its influence in this case. That might be because we have been conditioned to expect that yeast character in weaker, paler beers, and needed to overcome our programming.
Eventually, we did begin to pick out the familiar sulphurous note; something lemony; and then a faint reminder of Parma Violets.
Though they didn’t deliver a huge aroma, we did find that the use of decent amounts of American hops clashed with the yeast, knocking it out of focus.
What we learned: Pilsner Yeast does not seem, as they say, to allow citrusy hops ‘to sing’.
Beer #2: Bavarian weizen yeast
On the odd occasion we have run tasting sessions, German wheat beer has been our go-to to demonstrate the impact of yeast. Its famous banana-clove-bubblegum character is easy to spot and striking. And that is what we expected here.
In fact, we found a grainy, slightly smoky character, with a whack of harsh hoochy alcohol. It wasn’t very pleasant, frankly, and probably wouldn’t help a would-be beer geek to spot this yeast in action in another beer.
What we learned: wheat beer yeast is not much at home in a strong pale ale; and it needs handling properly to make with the bananas.
Beer #3: American ale yeast
This is where we expected Brewdog to shine, and for a brief break from the educational misery. It smelled fantastic, a big leafy fug of Stoned Love rising above the glass.
It tasted, unfortunately, less exciting — plasticky and gritty, like their big Hardcore IPA let down with water.
Three beers in, we were starting to notice a common off-flavour, and wondered if there was a fundamental problem with the base beer.
What we learned: were there actually more hops in this beer than in the others? If not, then it’s easy to see why yeasts like this one are popular with hophead brewers seeking to maximise their impact.
Beer #4: Belgian Trappist yeast
Cor! Though the common dodgy flavour is still just about evident, this was by far the best beer as beer. The yeast is so strident that it stamps all over the hops, pumping out spicy esters and turning the base beer into baked-apples-with-raisins delight.
Well, delight might be a bit strong: it’s not the best Belgian-style beer we’ve had by a long chalk, but really was both a demonstration of what Belgian yeasts do as well as being tasty.
What we learned: ‘Belgian’ is definitely a flavour.
We hope Brewdog do this again but, next time, the base beer needs to be better and, more importantly, plainer. Legendary British brewer Sean ‘Rooster’s’ Franklin has often spoken of pale’n’hoppy beers brewed without dark malts as providing a ‘blank canvas’ for other ingredients, and that’s what was probably needed here.
We also think there’s something jarring about the application of the Brewdog branding to this product. The beers are not exciting or awesome, even though one is very nice, and the Rock Horns rhetoric is misplaced. We’d suggest that, next year, they call the pack Understanding Yeast: practical exercises for the classroom (J. Watt & M. Dickie) and package it in textbook white.
We bought our four-pack as part of an online order from Brewdog’s own store. It cost £9.50 + delivery (around £2.35 per bottle).
We haven’t drawn any firm conclusions on this subject yet, but see what you make of these quotations. (Our emphasis throughout.)
“For this reason ‘whole’ corn meal, which contains the germ, will have a greater life-containing, life-giving quality than the ‘degermed’ cornmeal found in supermarkets. Whole cornmeal is a “live” food — it spoils when the oil in the germ becomes rancid. Degermed cornmeal is a ‘dead’ food, as it lacks the germ (of life). Hence, it can be kept on grocery shelves for months without spoiling, though like all milled grains it does become stale.” Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Bread Book, 1970.
“…’natural foods’ now threaten to replace ‘gourmet cooking’ as the main topic of food conversations… More than just a revival of old familiar food fads, this is part of the general concern now felt about the deterioration of our environment. Boredom with too much smooth, bland, overprocessed and sweet food has helped to attract not only the expected faddists, hypochondriacs and axe-grinders, but at least a proportion of scientists, especially nutritionists and conservationists.” ‘From Cranks to Nuts’, The Times, 7 August 1971.
“We opted at first for a high strength bitter brewed just from malt, hops, yeast and water. As well as being more wholesome this would also be simpler to produce.” Martin Sykes recalling the founding of the Selby Brewery in 1972, Called to the Bar, 1991.
“…the adulterated sludge that is glorified under the name of keg.” Michael Hardman, CAMRA’s What’s Brewing?, June 1972.
“The first distinction that must be made by the discerning drinker of draught beer is between keg, top-pressure, and traditional (the Real Thing)… traditional beer is alive while keg ber, like most bottled beer, is dead.” Richard Boston, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, The Guardian, 25 August 1973.
“British brewers are practically free to tamper with their beer as much as they want, unlike their colleagues in West Germany, who are forbidden by law to use any ingredient other than malt, hops and water… Fortunately, many brewers in Britain have kept faithful to nature, and beer brewed and served naturally can be found in nearly every corner of the country.” Michael Hardman, Beer Naturally, 1978.
“‘Real ale’ is the popular name for traditional beer brewed for centuries in Britain from malted barley and hops, with hundreds of regional variations in recipe and taste… Many brewers, big and small, use adjuncts in the brewing process. Flaked maize, potato starch, pasta flour, rice grits, malt and hop extracts will probably do you no harm but they are detrimental to the flavour of the beer.” CAMRA Good Beer Guide, 1978.
This got us thinking. After all, though hop aroma is not something we especially associate with Belgian beer, it is certainly not the case that Belgian beer is bland or homogenous.
Hops are great — we love them — but their amount and variety are far from being the only variables a brewer has to play with.
In fact, two beers made with simple pale malt and ‘boring’ Fuggles could end up tasting and looking completely different, and equally mindblowing, if the following variables were carefully manipulated by a skilled brewer. (Or screwed up by a lazy one.)
Dark or clear? Unrefined? Caramelised?
Long boils to darken/caramelise sugars in the wort.
Blending of multiple strains.
Refinement/customisation in the lab.
Creative ‘misuse’ of specialty malts.
Belgian/German/British/US version of standard types, e.g. Pilsner malt.
Mash temperature and timing.
Heather (as in Williams Bros. Fraoch).
Salt (as in gose).
Spices (e.g. coriander).
Lactose and other unfermentable sugars.
M&Ms, otter spittle, Mr Kipling apple pies, and so on.
We’d like to put together a yeast family tree showing the relationships between the varieties of yeast used by British breweries. We know, for example, of a couple of breweries using yeast originally derived from the Shepherd Neame house strain.
We picked up a few tips in the comments to this post, and will be rooting around for information ourselves, but any information you can give us (especially if supported by links to evidence) would be gratefully received.
Where you know this is commercially sensitive information (i.e. the brewery doesn’t want people to know!) then it’s probably best to respect that.
Alternatively, if someone’s already put such a family tree together, let us know where we can find it.