Tripel-off, Semi-Final: Karmeliet vs. Lost & Grounded

It’s been on for weeks now, the gaps between games are getting longer, and your favourite was knocked out early so who cares? Yes, it’s another Tripel-Off semi-final.

The end is drawing near, though, and we’re certainly continuing to enjoy the experience.

In the past when we’ve entered into big multi-part tasting projects there have been moments when it’s felt like a chore — “We really ought to drink those three saisons we suspect are going to be rubbish, ugh…” — but not this time.

It’s tripel! We love tripel! And none of those we’ve tasted this time have been anything less than enjoyable.

We have to admit that we went into this particular match with the frank expectation that plucky Lost & Grounded would get hammered by the experienced veteran on home turf.

In the group matches Karmeliet knocked our socks off and we’ve drunk a couple more in the meantime, so impressed were we by its character. Seriously, how can a British-brewed upstart hope to challenge a Belgian original? Well…

This time, both Jess and Ray knew which beers were in play, but Ray poured and presented them without the bottles just in case there was any chance of keeping Jess guessing.

The contrast in appearance was pronounced: Karmeliet is lager-yellow with an absurdly vigorous foam, while L&G tends to a faintly hazy orange with a decent but less stable head. We wouldn’t normally use an out of focus picture but it’s good enough to give the idea:

Two tripels side by side.

(And happens to mimic the effect of drinking multiple tripels in a session.)

On tasting, though, it became apparent that Karmeliet was not going to walk this.

Jess: Well, to my surprise, I immediately prefer the Lost & Grounded. It’s rougher but just more enjoyable. It benefits from being really cold and I suspect will get rougher again as it warms up but, for now, yes, that’s my favourite. Karmeliet seems quite… insipid? It’s smoother but more bland. It’s not doing it for me.

Ray: That’s a good point about temperature. These are colder than some of the beers we’ve tasted in earlier rounds. I agree that it’s closer than I expected, but I do prefer Karmeliet. The L&G seems a bit homebrew-tripel-by-numbers, though I’d struggle to pin down any faults, as such. Maybe a bit of burnt sugar that shouldn’t be there? And, yes, Karmeliet does seem quite lager-like at this temperature, but I like that it’s less heavy going than L&G.

[A few rounds of knitting and several pages of Maigret later.]

Jess: OK, as these warm up, they’ve switched places. The L&G has definitely become a bit less fun, while the complexity we noticed in Karmeliet is re-emerging.

Ray: Agreed. So the winner is…?

Jess: Karmeliet, but Lost & Grounded stood up to it bloody well. It’s a very credible tripel. Tell you what, though — I reckon De Dolle would stamp all over both of these.

Ray: Oh, don’t say that! That means the last round was effectively the final.

Jess: I’m lobbying for a third-place play-off.

Ray: Hmm. Maybe.

So, that’s that: the final proper is Karmeliet vs. Westmalle, which we’ll try to schedule for the next week or so. In the meantime, if you’ve had chance to try any of these beers side by side, we’d be interested to hear your views.

The First British Attempt at German-style Wheat Beer

Vaux Brewery logo

In 1988 a new German-style wheat beer was launched on the British market — the first, its brewers claimed, brewed in the UK.

This post follows on from our contribution to the Session back at the start of July in which we were frustrated in our attempts to pin down when Samuel Smith started brewing Ayinger wheat beer under licence.

As it happens, the August 1988 edition of CAMRA’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing contains two articles useful for pinning this down:

  1. A double-page profile of Samuel Smith and its head brewer by Brian Glover.
  2. A back-page splash headlined FIRST BRITISH WHEAT BEER!

The former lists all of the Ayinger-branded beers then in production at Smith’s from D Pils to VSL (very strong lager, we think, at about 8% ABV) but does not mention a wheat beer.

The latter tells us that Britain’s first German-style wheat beer was brewed in… Sheffield. It was branded as Vaux Weizenbier but brewed at a Vaux subsidiary, Ward’s.

Vaux beermat.

The operations director at Sunderland, Stuart Wilson, explained the thinking behind this remarkable first:

We have noted the popularity of wheat beers in West Germany and in the USA. Wheat beers are 15% of the Bavarian beer market. So with the increasing interest in speciality beers, we have decided to brew this classic style.

The article tells us that the beer had an ABV of 5% and was served on draught from “ornate ceramic founts” in elaborate branded glasses, with slices of lemon available “for those who prefer to complete the Bavarian picture”. Oddly, perhaps, it was filtered and presented clear — cloudy beer being perhaps a step too far for British drinkers in 1988?

Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson blurbed the new product: “[It has] a clean, lightly fruity palate.”

In a follow-up piece for The Times on 11 May 1991 Mr Glover was still crediting Vaux with launching the first UK-brewed German wheat beer (meaning nobody came forward to prove otherwise) and stated that there had been no others since.

But by 1994 Roger Protz was reporting in the Observer (29 May) that Vaux had begun importing Spaten wheat beers, with no mention of their own-label product.

So, there you go: Sam Smith didn’t get into the wheat beer game until the 1990s, and anyone Googling ‘first British wheat beer’ now has a plausible answer. (Unless anyone out there knows otherwise.)

Timeline

  • 1988 Vaux brews the first British take on German-style wheat beer
  • 1988 Hoegaarden hits UK market
  • 1991 Taylor Walker begins selling Löwenbräu across its estate
  • 1993 Hoegaarden in Whitbread pubs
  • 1994 Alastair Hook begins importing German wheat beers to the UK
  • 1994 wheat beer festival at the White Horse organised by Hook and Mark Dorber
  • 1994 continental wheat beers in UK supermarkets

Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…

A graph showing beers clustered around the same bitterness and colour.

… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:

Style No. Brands Colour Min-Max Bitterness Min-Max
Light Mild 5 43
(44)
15-29
(39-47)
23
(21)
15-29
(21-23)
Dark Mild 12 117
(94)
64-223
(39-223)
22
(21)
13-28
(12-28)
Bitter 27 25
(27)
15-66
(16-38)
25
(25)
18-39
(9-48)
Best Bitter 19 28
(27)
13-71
(13-65)
28
(30)
22-43
(16-52)
Strong Bitter 16 33
(33)
16-49
(10-109)
33
(30)
21-37
(20-52)
Porter 6 150
(157)
69-305
(97-249)
30
(36)
21-37
(18-45)
Old Ale 4 64
(95)
48-75
(27-114)
28
(28)
25-31
(18-45)

These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.

They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…

[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006.  However, when considered overall some differences are evident.  Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average.  This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker.  More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness.  While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving.  The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.

It also comes with a useful infographic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of interesting stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the difference between porter and stout? Nothing, says history. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bitterness, say these real world observations.
  • Dark mild has got more bitter since 1995-96… or is it just that the more bitter, characterful examples have proven resilient during the ongoing extinction event?
  • What’s the difference between old ale and barley wine? Not much, says history. About 65 points in colour and six or seven points of bitterness, sez this.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from equality initiatives to the specifics of European beer styles.

We’ll start with a flurry of accidentally interconnected items about pubs and how welcoming they might or might not seem to different people and groups.

British political Twitter spent a good chunk of the week talking about pubs after actor Eddie Marsan said that he didn’t like them, associating them, based on his own childhood experiences in the East End of London, with domestic violence and macho posturing.

Meanwhile, two related schemes have launched with the intention of making pubs more inviting to a wider range of people. First, with Melissa Cole at the helm, there’s the Everyone Welcome Initiative:

The aim of this initiative is to provide beer venues and events with a strong statement that everyone who walks through the door is welcome regardless, of their gender, sexual orientation, race, health, religion, age or disability… Whilst these forms of discrimination are covered under the Equality Act 2010, none of us can say that they don’t happen and what this initiative is designed to do is give people the opportunity to nail their colours to the mast about the kind of venue or event they are running – to shout proudly that hate isn’t to be tolerated and ignorance is not an excuse.

The Equality in Pubs accreditation scheme, led by Jessica Mason, launched a few days later:

Publicans who would like to let visitors know that their pub has a zero tolerance policy on abuse in any of its forms can now sign up to TEPA and, from 2019, gain a window sticker and a plot on a map on TEPA website to let people know that their pub doesn’t support homophobia, sexism or racism in any of its guises from neither its staff or it’s drinkers. Joining TEPA means the publican has a civic duty to act should they recognise abuse in their venue.

We’ll finish with a link to something we wrote last year which appeared this week at All About Beer after a long delay, thus seeming accidentally topical:

[If you] find yourself in a pub where you oughtn’t be, it will usually be made clear to you, as long as you are reasonably fluent in the language of passive-aggression. It might, for example, take a long time to get served, if the person behind the bar acknowledges you at all. You might get asked point blank if you are a police officer, which happens to us not infrequently—something about our flat feet, perhaps. Or the regulars might start a loud, pointed conversation about strangers, or foreigners, or people wearing whatever colour hat you happen to be wearing. We once walked into a pub only to be greeted by five men in soccer shirts, one of whom simply pointed and said: “No, no—turn round and walk out. Now.” We did so.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline”

St Austell Cornish Saison for M&S

Marks & Spencer, the slightly upmarket English supermarket-stroke-department-store, has been doing interesting things with its beer range for a few years now but the idea of a Cornish-brewed Saison really grabbed our interest.

It’s produced for them by St Austell, a brewery very much on our trusted list, and has evolved from an original small-batch brew designed in collaboration with beer writer Melissa Cole. It has 5.9% ABV, comes in a cute purple 330ml can, and costs £2. (Or less as part of the current four-for-the-price-of-three promotion.)

But is it a bargain, or do we have a Hatherwood situation on our hands?

Saison in the glass with can nearby.

It is perfectly, almost astonishingly clear in the glass, with a decent head of foam that stops short of Belgian voluminousness. (Perhaps it’s harder to achieve the necessary pressure in cans.)

On tasting, the model is clear: it is an homage to Saison Dupont, which is fine by us. There’s the same familiar spiciness from the yeast and the same golden colour. It isn’t a slavish clone, though: this beer is cleaner, more bitter, and seemed to have a lot more orange peel and coriander character.

In fact by the end of the glass we were wondering if it might not almost be described as a kind of Kristall Wit — that is, an application of the filtering technique used to clarify certain wheat beers in Germany to the spicier, more citrusy Belgian equivalent.

It’s a fascinating, very enjoyable beer that could easily pass for something genuinely Belgian. (We know St Austell’s head brewer, Roger Ryman, is a Belgian beer fanatic.) So, yes, that means it’s good value, and we’ll certainly be buying some more next time we pass a branch of M&S.

In general, we do like how M&S packages its own-brand beers these days. Quite apart from the cool and colourful graphic design they’re (a) clearly identified as own-brand but (b) with clear information about who brews them. That means we can make an informed choice about which to take a chance on (Oakham, Adnams, St Austell) and which to avoid (sorry, Hogs Back).