Craft Snugs

Everyone, surely, has a soft spot for a pub snug. Those cosy corners, the fugg of cigar smoke from years ‘BTB’ (Before The Ban) still greasily staining walls and furniture, in what can only be described as ‘Farrow & Ball shades’. The Bridge in Topsham, with its wood-lined snugs, one with a small direct serving hatch through to the bar; the Pianola room at The Yew Tree in Cauldon Low; the back room of The Cooper’s Tavern in Burton on Trent with its tall-backed pews lining the walls, undoubtedly hiding misericords venerating Burton brewers Great and Good beneath.  Yet snugs seem a feature of the past – no place in the huge drinking establishments built by the likes of Marstons or Mitchell’s and Butler today. Snugs make way for ‘covers’ and easy access for the table service and the Hunters’ Chicken.

There’s hope though. A new generation of micro bars, or craft snugs is opening up. Freed from the capital needed for cellars, kitchens and cooling, these bars tend to focus on bottles, spirits and nibbles. And because they’re small, they don’t need to be on the High Street or City Centre circuit, with their requisite ‘high footfall’. They don’t need to think about being chameleons, serving early breakfasts, frothy lattes or renting out to the local Slimming World group. They can just be a bar, with low rent, lower overheads and hours to suit.

Saying that, one’s opened in our village that goes in the other direction. It started as a cafe, working with the exposed beams and quarry tiles laid to earth; making the most of the sagging lintels and trip-hazard floor levels, all in the aid of ‘character’. And now it’s become an after hours drinking snug. What was once someone’s front room, what was once a scullery is now a series of inter-connected shadowy snugs, serving cocktails, cake, crisps and craft beers from wherever takes their fancy. So it was I enjoyed a Nelson Sauvin Pale Ale from The Kernel (Bermondsey), a Snakecharmer IPA from One Mile End (Whitechapel), and a Queen of Diamonds from Wild Card Brewery (Walthamstow). Oh, and there were beers from local brewers too, like Slater’s (Stafford) and Freedom (Abbot’s Bromley), but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to ‘go exotic’ now, was I?  And only one bottle of lager – a rather lonesome Nastro Azzurro peeped out from behind the fridge door. Which seems right – somehow, lager seem less well suited to these snugs of warmth, intimacy and close friends.

 

 

(https://skinnykitten.cafe (site still under construction at time of writing))

Velcro hype

These bloody hazy beers – these ‘New England IPAs’ – how they’ve divided. On the one hand, there’s a camp that has been veritably worshiping at their gluey, gloopy alter; on the other, a vocal bunch who see these thick, sticky, opaque creations as a product of our instagram times – more about the hype, share-ability and visual pub currency than any real substance.

Me, well, I’m relaxed…and I certainly wasn’t going to pass judgement on a whole style, when I hadn’t yet tried one; and there’s that occasionally drony voice in my head that mumbles, ‘Well, where do new styles come from then?‘ whenever I get a bit ‘Grumpy Old Man’.  Someone has to go out on a limb. Someone has to try new things. Why not these?

Thing is, many purists – often brewers – often, if I may be so bold and admittedly sweeping to suggest, see any haze as an off characteristic. That is, there’s something up with the brewing process if there’s yeast left in the beer, and, or, there’s something up with the cleanliness and sanitation in the pub. Any road, I happened upon a can of Hazy Jane, BrewDog’s entry into this space. So this is a big brewery; with good kit, skilled brewers, brewing in quantity and putting it in cans. Not a line cleaning issue in sight.

And oh my giddy aunt, if this isn’t the best beer I’ve drunk in a long while. The first thing you notice is the pour: it didn’t flow but glugged; this wasn’t like an old bottle of Bass Blue which had a thin leafy layer of yeast at the bottom, this was like a turbid stream, flowing out from under a glacier – bright, inviting, yet thick with milky sediment. Next there’s the settle; this isn’t like a nitro beer (or a widget) with a slow, bubbly separation; it rocked and rolled but also soon parted; thick head above; orange juice with bits below. And then the fruit: imagine a bald-headed Frenchman who has a special pair of boots he’s worn all his life for just one job. The boots are a bit battered and somewhat stained, but they are special. These are the boots he puts on when he clambers into an enormous oak barrel once a year. These are his stomping boots and they are for stomping fruit. Forcefully, he jumps up and down; his jelly stomach wobbling; his moustache flailing up and down as he does, his Gauloises jauntily angled. This is a barrel full of citrus fruits of many kinds: melons, grapefruits, yuzu (that sort of mandarin / lemon thing), maybe something tropical (the can says pineapple, but I didn’t get that). Unyieldingly he stomps with his stomping boots; he stomps and squeezes, pulps and pounds, minces and macerates and manfully mashes the hell out of all this fruit before reverentially pouring the juice into this damn beer.

It must be the yeast: a billion little velcro hooks, grabbing the hop particles and clinging on to them. Dance with me they say. Hold me close darling, don’t let go they whisper, seductively

And that’s it. The yeast is a distraction; it’s a blummin’ fruity hop explosion. And it must be the yeast – the mouthfeel is as you’d expect: thick and unctuous, and our crazy single-cell has found it’s calling here, a billion little velcro hooks, grabbing the hop particles and clinging on to them. Dance with me they say. Hold me close darling, don’t let go they whisper, seductively. Kiss me like we die tonight, a final swansong before being swallowed, whole. If that’s the effect the haze has, then never mind the hypecocks: they’re a yeasty revelation and damn the naysayers.
Hazy Jane

Crazy sh*t

IMG_2844.jpgJust occasionally, brewers have really crazy ideas.  I remember once, when working in Big Beer, someone presenting this idea for beer slushies. It didn’t make the cut. Then there was the ultra-caffeinated beer that boosted your mojo. Or the one infused with tequila (oops – bit late to the party on that). Then this crazy sh*t springs up in my instagram feed, courtesy of @maltjerry.  Beer purists may object, but not me. If you don’t push at the edges everything gets boring. And besides, this beer, a Passionfruit Cheesecake Extra Sour from Omnipollo in Sweden has a rakish air of 1950s beehive hairdo, crossed with Mr Whippy, crossed with bleached-out squirty dog turd. What’s not to like?  Now, where did I put my slushy machine…

Pouring it down the sink

Do you? Should you? Is it ever permissible?

I can think of only a few times when I’ve poured beer down the drain – and there’s been no common denominator. I mean, I don’t buy beer ever with the intent of disposing of it anywhere other than down my throat. And sure, it would be easy to chortle and say that’s what Bud Light’s for, but they brew that lack of flavour with real care and attention to detail. And the beechwood chips really do exist. I’ve disposed of beer in punctured cans or when it’s been heinously out of date – not a regular occurrence in truth.

But a sink evacuation is what I was faced with. An experiment that went wrong.

I’d saved two bottles of Worthington’s White Shield. It’s not like the White Shield from the ’90s – the first I remember drinking, which had a good finger-thickness of yeast gloopily sticking to the bottom. The late 2005 vintage I’d kept (guessing from the best before at least) had a tickle of yeast below a deep, almost mahogany brown liquid. I had deliberately saved it – in fact, I have two cases of 2010 vintage tucked away elsewhere. These three had been lounging in an old Grolsch case (more commonly used by  painters and decorators these days). Stored in my cellar (don’t read into this visions of Downton Abbey, we got the servants’ quarters) it had been well looked after. Crowns checked regularly. Any signs of dampness scrupulously sought – but nothing. Our cellar may be small. It may be full of old crates of kids toys, books and our stash of loo rolls, but it’s also the perfect home for good wine and good beer. Cool, consistent, dry.

Whiteshield

So there was a no reason to have anything other than high hopes. I prized off the cap of the first and poured – as steadily as I could to ensure the yeast stayed at the bottom – but even after that first slight crimp in the cap, even with the first whispy release of gas (very little it must be said, this is naturally carbonated but old beer) – even then, I knew.

Just the faintest whiff. Just the touch of acid glancing across my nostrils. Just the organoleptic receptors hitting the nuclear alert button. Spoilage; bacteria; vinegar.

I poured it out all the same. Poured and held my nose. And gazed. Gazed longingly at the colour; deep and rich, dark conker brown; imbued with just a faint red after-light where the meniscus clawed up the glass rim.

And yet, dispassionately, poured it away. Swirled out the bottle and poured that away. This is experimenting with ageing beer. The 2005 is gone. Long live the 2010! It will wait no more.

New look, new Tinted

Today sees a new look and feel for Beer Tinted Spectacles.

Last year, I found my passion for writing about beer waning – something I couldn’t easily explain or reconcile. One factor was time; my own business is almost five years old and growing, placing an inevitable constraint on other things. But it was more than that.  For some reason, I was finding the world of beer and the narrative around it frustrating and… boring.

That’s a difficult thing to admit, and on the surface utterly counter-intuitive. The world of beer is as healthy as it’s been – arguably for 50 years. The number of new breweries; the plethora of choice; old styles being rediscovered, re-worked or bastardised. Who cares in the pursuit of great taste?

Yet, one debate – that of New England IPAs got my goat. Tit-for-tat arguments about whether such yeasty, sediment-rich, cloudy, turbid brews are genuine brewer-led innovation or the products of today’s ‘Instagram culture’. At the time from what I could see, the debate was getting personal and pretty nasty. And this is amongst so-called beer lovers.

Beer lovers who are losing the plot.

Let’s go back just 30 years. U.S. beer was dominated by one brewer, who focused on two brands: Bud and Bud Light. Everyone else was a runner-up. Marketing spend was aggressive and enormous. U.K. beer was dominated by half a dozen vertically integrated leisure conglomerates, who owned the ‘route to market’ pretty much from the point that the newly harvested barley crossed the gates in the Maltings to the point where the liquid touched the drinkers’ lips. Depending where you lived, this meant a limited range from pub to pub. Innovation was quashed, possibly inadvertently, but quashed all the same. Regional brewers struggled to co-exist. Micros weren’t even a fertilised egg. Love or loathe CAMRA, they were genuinely fighting big, hairy corporate beasts who wilfully or not, were shaping consumers’ tastes and controlling the market.

To bicker about whether a cloudy IPA is good or not is missing the point.  The threat of drink consolidation is looming again. In the short term, changes will seem imperceptible.  New owners will commit to keeping the breweries (or cider presses) of the acquired companies open; their brands will be lauded; their people extolled. But soon, all too soon, small changes will occur. Recipes will subtly change. Efficiencies will be found. Economies of scale will be sought. The heady drug of profit and the churn of staff will see promises reneged and old favourties become milking machines for bottom line growth.

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So, Beer Tinted is back. Stripped back, simplified, more picture-led, its core purpose nonetheless remains. To tell beer stories that celebrate great beers. To champion the people who have had the courage to risk everything in pursuit of a dream or a passion. To narrate a perspective on issues of the day from the point of view of someone who was once on the other side – the consolidator, the acquirer, the ‘big beer’ executive. To remind anyone who passes through these pages what we have, what we should cherish and what we will need to fight for.

Thanks for reading.

Beer and friends

2017 was a year of the rise of fermentations; it’s been a ‘food trend’ for a while now, in products such as kombucha tea or kimchi pickle, or just the general renaissance in pickles and chutneys (presumably because those with a passion can become artisan producers relatively easily) or the growth in cuisines such as Japanese, Malay or Vietnamese. Whatever, there is an alchemical magic to these microscopic transformations: with yeast, with bacteria, with oxygen – and time, always time.

Vinegar is the golden thread for me: the sweet but sharp tang of apple cider vinegar; the bold, cleansing aromatic hit of a good malt vinegar; the sharp astringency of distilled vinegar, or the rounded crispness of a vinegar from wine. And I am drawn to any product with vinegar at its heart: a relish; pickled veg, a spice-infused chutney, dark, sweet, pungent – and in particular mustard.

Yesterday, the news came out that Colman’s, the famous British mustard brand, is leaving its long time home, Norwich, where it’s been made for over 170 years. Behind the move of course, is money and whilst new jobs in new locations are touted and some preserved in the city, more will be lost. One of those beneficiaries will be Burton-upon-Trent where the Marmite production line will have to budge up to make space for Colman’s production. Burton’s local MP is already trumpeting his catalysing powers: he’s as “keen as mustard to meet with Unilever” (Colman’s owner) and presumably even keener to make it look like he was behind the move all along (and claim the credit for the jobs created). Politicians are as Politicians do I suppose – what’s interesting though is how in a small way, Colman’s coming to Burton is more of a return. Time was when the holy trinity of fermentation: beer, vinegar, mustard, would be located on the same road. And Sarsonsstill today the processes are clearly related – look at Sarson’s latest press advertising for instance. Substitute ‘Sarson’s’ for ‘Marston’s’ and the ad would still make sense – you could even try a nip of Pedigree on your chips if you’re game (Sarson’s described themselves as ‘Vinegar Brewers’ for many years).

It was equally common across Europe – a few years ago I visited the small but vibrant Gulpener brewery in the Limburg region of The Netherlands. The brewery, set in cottage-like buildings either side of the main east-west road connecting Germany to Belgium, today houses just a brewery. But previously that brewery had been on one side, a vinegar maker on the other (the width of the road perhaps just enough to guard against the souring acetobacter invading the beer brewhouse) and a hop skip and jump down the road was the mustard production. Chatting to the then gulpener_12448_limburgseManaging Director, Paul Rutten, he was interested in starting collaborating on mustards again, whilst round the corner, in a local bar, the brewery had installed a wild fermentation brew kit to renew brewing a lost beer style local to that area ‘Mestreechs aajt’ – closely related to the wild, sour beers of Belgium today – and if you’re not too careful – to vinegar too.

(I found this image on t’internet. Maybe Paul managed it)

The future’s bright…

For every trend, there’s a counter trend. For every artisan baker firing the ovens at 3am to conjure up beautiful rough cobbles of sourdough, there’s a new ‘Chorleywood’ enzyme innovation; textureless white sponge with seeds, or bits of fibre you can’t see, or just a new whiter-than white White. For every back street coffee bean roaster, filling the air with their smokey perfume, there’s a new micro-grind instant from some multinational hiding their true colours.

And so it is in beer. At one end, the focus is on old styles dusted down, or new styles drawing inspirations from as far back as Mesopotamia; from fermentation with wild yeast, or bacteria grown on mouldy fruit, or kettle souring or barrel-ageing. Of Quintuple IPAs or session beers hopped to the Copper top to make up for lack of alcoholic body: and this is good; no, this is awesome – it’s the producer-powered, purpose-fuelled revolution against the brewing as Economics not as Art. It’s the rivulet of reactionaries that’s become a flood – a flood that even the Big Brewers can’t resist; entering through mimicry, partnering or acquisition. Yet, oddly, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong place.  Perhaps, in the quest for solving the problem of the decline in mainstream, mass-produced lager they’re looking to  craft, and artisan, and hand-produced and small-scale and then looking to scale these up. And undoubtedly, much of this will be successful, despite the claims that a backlash will defeat it.

IMG_0457But there’s something going on in their core.  Drinkers are turning back to lagered beer.  And yes, they’re undoubtedly turning to the real deals: like Budvar, brewed with Moravian Malt and Saaz hops and matured for 102 days; or like Brooklyn Lager, brewed to a recipe from before Prohibition, with it’s deep conker-red colour, and off-white head and thick, coating body or they’re discovering little gems like Windsor & Eton’s Republika, which may not be true to a particular style, but is as damn fine a lager beer as you’ll find.

It’s more though. It’s drinkers not rejecting the likes of Camden Hells or Meantime’s London Lager, just because they’ve been acquired by someone bigger – but continuing to be pulled towards them. And it’s also the rise of a new wave of Big Beer brands: Nastro Azzurro, Estrella Damm, Amstel. Sniff all you like, but these brands are growing – maybe not drunk by you, or me, but growing… because people want to drink them.

We’ve got to look beyond the sensibilities of ownership, the emotions of scale, to see what’s going on. There’s a return to lager amongst drinkers, and it’s accelerating.  It’s a return that will soon spur the current losers in this battle – the likes of Carling, Carlsberg and Foster’s to react in the only way they can, by properly listening to what drinkers want and innovating.  This is a good thing too. It’s signalling a return to a beer style that stands the test of time. The span of flavour profiles within lager may not be as broad as top-fermenting or wild-fermented beers (well, certainly if you exclude smoked lagers anyway), but it’s robust. There’s something for everyone: tastier beers like Pilsner Urquell at one end, to simply sessional everyday quaffers at the other. There are lagered specialities like dunkel beers in the mix, as well as *faints* light beers. This is a beer style that didn’t conquer the world through force of arms, but through drinker preference. In the UK it may have started as a beer for women but it didn’t take longer to become the beer for louts. That’s some shift. And it’s a shift that’s behind us now: lager is legitimised; lager’s time is coming again.