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beer reviews Beer styles

Smokey and the Bandit: Rauchbier in the UK

“Good morning. Rauchbier is not a style.” wrote the Beer Nut on Twitter the other day and he might be right, at least in terms of the UK beer scene.

For one thing, there are really only two prominent German brewers of Rauchbier, Schlenkerla and Spezial, both in Bamberg.

What’s more, Schlenkerla’s efforts are the only ones widely and regularly available in the UK, so it’s only natural that they would end up being the reference points for British brewers’ attempts to make them, and the standard against which British drinkers judge them.

Before Christmas, one of our Patreon supporters, Paul Grace, invoked his right to ask us to try beers from particular brewery and pointed us in the direction of Round Corner of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire:

A fully-fledged brewery with T-shirts and glasses printed before they’d made any beer, they’re now getting national exposure with a Rauchbier as part of Brewdog’s Collabfest. The beers I’ve had have been very well made, competent [and] carefully aimed at the target demographic.

We got in touch with Round Corner and arranged to buy cans of Succumb to Smoke at £2.50 each along with a west coast IPA, Hopping Spree, at £3.

We also asked Combie Cryan, co-founder of Round Corner, a few questions by email. He told us that its first beer was brewed in December 2018, the co-founders having met in 2005.

Colin Paige, the brewer, is from Belfast and studied at Heriot Watt in the 1990s. He worked at Hop Back and Fuller’s before going on to work for Lion Nathan at Mac’s in New Zealand. Combie is a businessman and a major investor in Melton Mowbray farmer’s market.

In other words, this is a serious operation with some money and experience behind it, not a bathtub-in-the-shed setup.

Mr Cryan also gave some notes on the brewery’s influences:

We take inspiration from underappreciated classics that we believe deserve wider attention such as the Rauchbiers of Spezial and Schlenkerla in Bamberg. Colin has won awards for his Rauchbier recipe in the past and it remains one of his favourites to make so, after an initial run out at the recent Brewdog Collabfest, do look for Succumb to Smoke in discerning pubs and fridges across the country in the coming months.

Succumb to smoke – can and glass.

To our delight (and let’s be honest, surprise) the beer really was very decent. Billed as a ‘Bamberg style Helles’, it’s clearly an attempt to clone Schlenkerla Helles specifically, and gets about 80% of the way there.

The smoke character is right – an open fire in a forest hut – and the beer beneath the wisps is clean and crisp. Perhaps not crisp enough – more golden ale than lager, with more fruit than feels quite right – and short on carbonation, but a beer we’ll gladly buy on draught if the opportunity ever arises.

If British breweries are going to make Rauchbier, winter is when it will happen, we suppose, which must explain why a second example fell into our laps on the line-up at The Drapers Arms just before Christmas, with an encore last week.

Stroud Fall in a pint glass at the Drapers.

Stroud Brewery’s Fall is billed as a ‘smoked bitter’ which doesn’t sound all that inviting – Doom Bar with a hint of kipper? But we generally find Stroud’s beer to be accomplished and satisfying, and we’re fans of smoked beer in general, so had no reason not to give it a go.

In short, this is a fantastic beer which easily passed the ‘same again’ test.

Stroud’s characteristic balance towards body and sweetness, which sometimes means we feel inclined to dock a pint or two for bitters and pale ales, works really well here, giving a 4.2% ale the feel of something much richer and more boozy.

The smoke is of exactly the same character as Schlenkerla, all bacon and barbecue, but with an underlying cask ale complexity that the bottled version of the Bamberg Mӓrzen tends to lack by the time it’s schlepped across continental Europe and sat on a shelf for a few months. And although not bitter by the standards of the best examples of bitter, the additional hop bite really lifts and balances the smoke.

All of that is why we felt emboldened, on the second encounter last week, to say this:

Of course we’re being provocative but, honestly, we don’t make a habit of making hyperbolic statements and, indeed, have been known to hack people off by sticking up for classic beers that cooler folk than us reckon to be passé. Yes, if we could be magically transported to the brewery tap in Bamberg and taste it there – oh, the fruitiness! – we might not make the comparison, but we’d rather drink this beer from a nearby brewery than a bottle of Schlenkerla Mӓrzen if given the option.

Unfortunately, Rauchbier is Rauchbier – the very definition of an acquired taste. Drinkers at The Drapers didn’t seem keen and the fact that the latest cask has been on sale for several days tells a story.

We suspect it might do better in craft beer bars where people tend to be actively in search of unusual flavours, but who knows.

A final thought: is there room in the market for a specialist bar or two focused on lager and German styles? This isn’t a complaint about how ‘it’s all IPA these days’ so much as a plea for someone to seize a wide-open gap in the market.

We’d be quite happy to see a line-up of Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, Stroud Rauchbier, Otter Tarka (a Jever clone), Bath Ales Sulis, Zero Degrees Vienna lager and so on.

Which are your favourite UK takes on Rauchbier? We’ve heard Torrside are good at this though we’ve not had chance to try their beers ourselves.

Categories
Beer styles

Mild is dead, long live the new mild

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

A couple of weeks ago, Roger Protz quoted a Black Country brewer foretelling the eventual death of mild along with the passing of those who regularly drink it. But what if it’s just mutated?

We once wrote about a resurgence in the popularity of mild not as a mainstream beer style but as a niche oddity, like milk stout or Berliner Weisse.

We still think that’s about right – that what is dead, or dying, is the standard three-point-something ABV dark mild that too often tastes like watered down stout or, worse, watered down mild.

What hadn’t quite occurred to us, though, until we listened to our own middle-aged grumbling, was that mild might have faked its own death before sneaking back into the room with a different hat on.

Forget beer styles, forget beer history, and think about utility: what do English drinkers seem to want?

A beer they can drink four pints of without too much damage.

A beer that doesn’t demand lots of attention while being drunk – that goes down easily and addresses thirst.

That isn’t bitter, or dry and, indeed, might even be called sweet.

For much of the 20th century, that was mild.

Then, for about 40 years, it was so-called cooking lager – the kind of stuff that apalled Rheinheitsgebotists but which British drinkers took to overwhelmingly from the 1970s onward.

But now… Could it be soft, hazy session IPA?

Circa 4%. Not bitter, perhaps even sugary. And undemanding, unless you’re hung up on haze, with fruit juice and soft drink citrus flavours rather than the brittle hop spikiness.

One data point does not prove the case but it’s certainly fascinating to see the degree to which Ray’s dad, previously a keen mild drinker, has taken to beers like Moor Nor’Hop.

Categories
Beer styles real ale

The BADRAG effect – a choice of milds

Do you know how nice it is to be able to go into your local two nights in a row and order a decent ordinary dark mild?

Bristol and District Rare Ales Group, or BADRAG, campaigns for wider availability of stout, porter, old ale and mild. This year, hacked off with the madness of May as CAMRA’s official month of mild, it decided to launch its own bonus mild event in November, when dark beer has much more appeal.

As that happened to coincide with a beer festival at The Drapers Arms, we were treated to something remarkable on Saturday: a choice of three milds.

Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild is a classic, of course, but at 6%, not one you can settle on. No, the beer that caught our eye (and Ray’s especially) was Future Proof, a 3.3% traditional dark mild from Bristol Beer Factory.

We’ve got a soft spot for this well-established Bristol brewery even though, as one of our fellow drinkers put it, “They’re having some sort of midlife crisis at the moment”, no longer being hip or new.

With that in mind, dark mild is an interesting choice. We’d like to think it suggests confidence – so we’re middle-aged, deal with it – but it might just be the BADRAG effect.

Tasting notes on mild, like tasting notes on ordinary lager, can be a struggle, like trying to write poetry about council grit bins. Good mild is enjoyable and functional but, by its nature, unassuming, muted and mellow.

Still, let’s have a go: dark sugars and prune juice, the body of bedtime cocoa, hints of Welsh-cake spice, and with just enough bite and dryness to make one pint follow naturally into the next.

It’s a really great example of this endangered style, in line with the best of the output from the old family breweries.

Is mild ‘back’? Is a great revival underway? Well, probably not – you win some, you lose some – but it feels like good news that we’ve been able to manage two sessions on mild in the past month without making a special effort.

Categories
Beer styles

Lager and the ABC1s, 1989

Super strong lager was for louts and layabouts; but strong lager, one category across, was the stuff for snobs.

At least that was the conclusion suggested by research from Public Attitude Surveys Ltd in 1989, as reported in the Economist for September that year.

You might remember our notes on a similar piece of research undertaken by PAS for Guinness all the way back in 1963.

We came across this particular article while researching the question of when ABV labelling was introduced and were excited – yes, excited; look, we’ve never claimed to be cool – to find hard statistics on lager consumption by (a) age and (b) social grouping.

Graph: lager consumption by social class.

Graph: lager consumption by age.

In each case, super strong lagers are those with an original gravity of c.1080 and premium refers to those with an OG of 1040 or higher.

The problem is that the stats don’t quite show what they might seem to at first glance – that is, how much lager was being sold in each subcategory.

What they actually tell us is how much of the total sold was being consumed by people in each bracket.

And that isn’t even the same thing as how popular each type of beer was with people in each category.

You could have, say, 15 people in one category each drinking a pint per week and 15 heavy drinkers in another each drinking ten pints per week. Thus their category would drink more of the total, even if both groups like the beer equally. The preference people in category B are demonstrating is for getting drunk.

The information is still interesting, though, in its own vague way.

We can see, for example, that a much larger proportion of non- and low-alcohol beers were consumed by ABC1s – that is, middle class drinkers – than by any other social group.

A higher percentage of super-strength lagers, meanwhile, were consumed by people over 50 and also by those in the DE social grouping, i.e. non-skilled working class people and the unemployed.

And more of the premium lager sold was consumed by C2s, skilled working class people, than by those in any other category.

All of which, quibbling aside, might be said to reflect stereotypes fairly well on the nose.

Categories
Beer styles bottled beer

BOX SET: Twenty-four beers to teach a newbie about styles

If you were putting together a box of beer for a newbie who wanted to get their heads around the key styles, what would be in it?

Despite quibbles, beer styles remain a handy framework for learning about beer, offering beginners obvious broad differences to latch onto before digging down into the subtleties.

When we were first getting to know about beer in the mid-00s we had our Bible, Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers, and a taste for the hunt.

We planned journeys via Leipzig and Goslar so we could taste Gose.

We explored the sub-types of lager at the Greenwich Union and Belgian beer in Brussels.

We haunted Samuel Smith pubs in central London in pursuit of porter and imperial stout.

These days, though, we reckon we could get a pretty good sample of all the key styles within an hour’s walk of our house in Bristol.

Between Bottles & Books, The Brewer’s Droop (ugh) and, of course, supermarkets, we reckon we could put together a hell of a selection box.

Wondering about this gave us the idea of ‘reference beers’ – single examples of each style that could instantly give a newborn beer geek a handle on, say, saison or German wheat beer.

Of course styles are complicated – “You can’t really understand stout until you’ve tasted the following seven beers…” – but we’re talking about quickly getting it.

This doesn’t necessarily mean

  • the best example of a style
  • or the most famous.

But it probably makes sense for each beer to be reasonably widely available, in bottles or cans, and to taste decent as well as characteristic.

Altogether, we don’t think the reference beer thing quite works for every style, but it helped sharpen our thinking in a couple of areas.

So, here it is – another of our beer ‘playlists’: let’s imagine a pal who has just now decided they’re into beer; here’s what we’d put in a 24-bottle mixed box to help them understand styles.

1. Belgian Wit | Hoegaarden
It’s not the beer it used to be etc., except as far as we can tell it tastes the same now as it did when we first encountered it. Available everywhere – we think our local petrol station sells it – and great value, it embodies this style well.

2. German wheat | Franzkiskaner
Like we said, not the best (everyone seems to agree that is Schneider) but bang in the centre of the style parameters – banana, bubblegum, yeast-defined – and dead easy to find.

3. Czech Pilsner | Urquell
NTBIUTB, apparently, but still distinctive and satisfying. A good, fresh bottle will smell excitingly sulphurous and weedy, in our experience. Probably best drunk side-by-side with…

4. German lager | Bitburger
This might be a controversial one – sorry, Germany. The point here is not so much about the style as the very broad national tendency towards drier, lighter-bodied beers. Yes, we know there are way more characterful beers out there – but we started here c.2005 and it certainly helped us make sense of things.

5. English bitter | Butcombe Original
Clearly best enjoyed by the pint in a pub, only a purist would deny that you can get a pretty decent idea of what distinguishes bitter from other types of beer with a bottled example. It’s generally brownish, usually balanced and… beery. This one has all of that, and we think tastes decent from a bottle, but of course you could sub in almost any similar mainstream example.

6. Pale n’ hoppy | Oakham Citra
Again, pub, ideally, but in bottles this stands up well and gets the point of what exotic hops do to session-strength English beer. It’s also no hardship to drink. Not at all.

7. Stout | Guinness
Sorry. Not sorry. It kinda has to be. Yes, it has steadily been made more palatable to a mass market, and thus less distinctive, but it’s still the beer we refer to when trying virtually any other stout. And for all the talk of its blandness, when people tell us they can’t stand stout because it’s just too dark, heavy and roasty, this is usually the beer to which they’re referring, so it can’t be all that dull.

8. Saison | Dupont
Saison is mysterious, elusive, complicated… But nobody is attempting to imitate Lefebvre Saison 1900, are they? No, Dupont is the reference for most of the new generation saisons. Tastes good, too, and still excellent value.

9. Belgian strong golden ale | Duvel
Invented the style – hell, it is the style. Always a joy to drink, of course, and available everywhere including Tesco.

10. Dubbel | Chimay Rouge
If you don’t like this beer, you maybe won’t like this style. Consistent, characterful, but without any deviation from expectation.

11. Tripel | Westmalle
Happily, the best beer in the world is also the perfect reference example of the style. Again, we know this because it’s literally the beer we measure every other take against.

12. American pale ale | Sierra Nevada
Sierra Nevada, the gateway beer that launched a thousand breweries and blogs. Again, put yourselves in the shoes of a newbie, not a grizzled, hopped-out cynic: you’ve been drinking Doom Bar, then you try this… We saw it happen recently and know this beer can still cause eyes to pop with its hit of pine and citrus.

13. American-style IPA | Thornbridge Jaipur
There are lots of beers we could suggest here but Jaipur is widely available in the UK, will usually be fresher than imports, and has a good backstory: it’s the child of Goose Island IPA, the parent of BrewDog Punk, and arguably patient zero in the craft beer boom of the past decade.

14. Silly dessert beer | Tiny Rebel Stay Puft
Your hypothetical newbie needs to know how weird things can get and this marshmallow porter does the job, pointing down the rainbow road while keeping one foot in reality.

15. Imperial stout | Samuel Smith
The first imperial stout we ever tasted, the one that kept the flame when Courage disappeared, and one that is available in normal pubs without fanfare. Not the best, nor the most interesting, nor the most pleasant of companies, but… Reference!

16. Porter | Fuller’s London
More or less brewed as a reference for this hard-to-pin-down style which might accurately be described as a side view on stout.

17. Kriek | Boon
This accessible take on Belgian cherry beer gets the point across without being too scary – no need to keep Rennies on hand, but also not excessively sickly.

18. Rauchbier | Schlenkerla Märzen
Any other choice would be clever-clever. It’s pleasingly unsubtle which is what you want when you’re trying to understand styles.

19. Hazy-juicy IPA | Choose your own adventure
We’re copping out on this one. Is there a reference? As the dominant style among British craft breweries (def. 2) right now it would seem daft to suggest a specific beer here – go to your shop of choice and choose something fresh and ideally local with ‘hazy’ in the name or product description, with an ABV north of 6%.

20. Mild | Banks’s
Mild is another style you can only really understand in the pub, and even then the few remaining examples are so varied that the idea of a reference doesn’t quite make sense. Still, focus on that imaginary newbie: a dark, sweet, straightforward example is the way to go. Some are lighter, some are stronger, but this gets the point across well.

21. Brown ale | Mann’s
The point to be made here, and why this is a good reference, is that ‘brown ale’ sounds really exciting but for most of England, for most of the 20th century, it was a low-key, low-intensity bottled beer designed to give sweetness and an extra dimension to those with which it was mixed.

22. Barley wine | Fuller’s Golden Pride
Similar to but better than what ought to be the reference, the classic that is Gold Label; not wacky, not but subtle either; relatively easy to get hold of, too.

23. Doppelbock | Ayinger Celebrator
Does a newbie need to know about this style? Well, we reckon it’s good to be aware of the sheer range of German beer and bottom-fermenting beer more generally. We’ve always loved this one and it seems easy to find. Also, it comes with a plastic goat.

24. Brettanomyces | Orval
Finally, not a style but a distinctive characteristic that once you know, you know. Orval is the style, the style is Orval.

We’ve had to leave a few styles out. There doesn’t really seem to be a decent reference for Gose, for example, at least not that anyone in the UK can actually buy without a huge amount of effort.

And Kӧlsch really does seem to be too subtle to ‘get’ with a bottled example, which will inevitably just taste like standard lager, even to someone with a fair bit of experience tasting beer.

Still, we’d be happy to give this box to someone on Christmas Day with a decent reference book to accompany it – something like Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, for example.