Monthly Archives: August 2015

Lost Blogs #5: Abbey Days

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

There’s a strange conundrum sitting at the heart of beer. For the most part, it’s a drink best served fresh; many drinkers believe it, many brewers market to it (millions of ‘marketing dollars’ were thrown at the empty vessel of “Born On” dates for example); even smaller scale brewers refer in hushed tones to ‘lager fresh from the conditioning tank’, or cask beer only lasting for days after broaching. Wine on the other hand is, for the most part, a drink best served old, or at least middle aged, with a bit of age, ripening, maturity reflecting the refinement, patience and sophistication of the drinker.

There’s much to it. I have been lucky enough to drink Czech beer straight from the aforementioned lagering tanks. And there really is little to match the softness, smoothness, rich creaminess of it. The same is true of great cask ale – conditioned properly, served fresh from the cask, it is one of the great world beer experiences.

Ironically, what connects these experiences is aging…and a little care. It’s simply that the timeframe is months not years, as it is for wines, but the impact of the time invested is the same. Rounding out rough edges, softening the palate, completing the natural carbonation. And you get to drink the fruit of the brewer’s – and your – labours a lot sooner. Of course, there are plenty of beers that can stand a few years of age. I’ve written before about some English ales (‘Extra Mature’ http://www.beertintedspectacles.com/?p=181), but it’s interesting to see a beer brand actively marketing itself around the impact of age on the taste of the beer.

The beer in question is a Belgian Abbey beer from South African Brewers (SAB), which goes to show that you can’t be too snooty about what you drink or what you write about just because it’s ‘Big Beer’. Funnily enough, SAB have transformed themselves from a company with no brands to speak of ten years ago, to a company with a remarkably deft touch around brands and an interesting, developing portfolio. It’s mostly local ones, but topped off with the likes of Pilsner Urquell, Peroni Nastro Azzurro and now this abbey beer – St Stefanus- as their consistent global offer.

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I approached SAB to get some sample bottles and was delighted to receive a trade pack – boxed and ready to go so to speak, with background information on the brand, a beautiful high stemmed, bowled chalice glass and two bottles of the ‘Blonde’ version, one from January 2012, the other from July 2013. The Blonde is a feisty 7%, a higher strength (9%), ‘Grand Cru’ is available too. Trappist¹ and Abbey share a common, religious root. Brewed originally by monks within the specific guiderails of their Orders, like the Cistercian order itself the beers have undergone ups and downs over time. 100 years ago, the beers were rarely seen outside the cloisters of their Abbey, until the travails of two wars and economic destitution were behind them. The common root then branched: those beers still brewed within the Abbey grounds, by the Monks directly became known as ‘Trappist’ after the order of monks who took their name from La Trappe Abbey in Normandy, a breakaway wing from the Cistercian Order. The second branch were those beers that were brewed in commercial breweries under the supervision of Monks and in the style of Trappist beers. These are termed the Abbey Beers. There are more of them – there are only 7 Trappist monasteries in the Low Countries brewing beer – and the styles and quality are more diverse and variable.

To my palate, St Stefanus is a great example. The beer is a complex beast – the malt bill sees pilsner and pale malts, plus some candi sugar, typical of the Trappist tradition, to give a richly sweet wort capable of punchy beers of substantial alcohol content. The hops feature less in the end result but are significant in the recipe: Hallertau and Saaz / Zatec aroma hops receive top billing. An initial fermentation is followed by a settling period of conditioning, before another strain of yeast with its own saintly sounding name – Jerumanus – is added. It is this strain that matures and develops over time; it is this strain that gives the beer its distinctive Abbey Habit.

The literature says, ‘Brewed to mature in the bottle… so you can choose how you want your beer to taste’. I also had a copy of the tasting notes, but I put them to one side, unread, to ensure my personal judgement wasn’t clouded. Rather than specific taste characteristics in fact, I was more interested in whether there really was a difference with 18 months separating them². There was: the younger of the two released a new baked bready aroma on opening, and I poured two thirds clear before mixing in the yeast and completing the pour. A billowing, tight bubbly head with a layered creamy stratification was the result – it was like the ice cream man topping off a Mr Whippy with a final wristy flourish. In the glass, the beer was a ripe lemon rind shade with an aroma that’s part grassy, part fruity, part herby. The flavours were consistent with this, plus a touch of that pear drop like, warming alcohol ‘taste’ (sensation? I’m never quite sure).

The older brother had the confident swagger you’d expect of an elder sibling. He’s been through the hoops, got a bit street, knows the score. And it came through in the colour – I was genuinely staggered by the amount of difference. Here was a brazen, bold, walnutty brown beer, still with an angelic afterglow. The head was creamier still but a little less sparky, less whippy – bored of earlier feistiness, he’s moved on. The aroma was peachy and malt accented, any tang of hops was now a mere shadow; and the taste had more caramel Quality Streets and plump toffee, if you know what I mean – more homemade than Werther’s Originals. I got a taste of pear skin too, like the aroma you get from the skin left on the plate if you’ve ever peeled pears for poaching. As I drank, the lacing was fancy and elaborate; a spider spinning its web on E.

Yet it’s the presentation that tops it all off. The glass is a delight – I hope retailers have got the sense to let the brand use it rather than complaining that they don’t stack or fit in the dishwasher. St Stefanus may not be a Trappist beer, but it’s a damn fine one. It’s a damn fine example too a great beer brand done well: a terrific liquid, a beautiful look and a legend to make you want to talk about it. Perhaps, like the Trappists after all, this Abbey Beer with its strict observance and simplicity will win the day.

¹ The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, an order of monks and nuns. The 48th Chapter of the Rule of St Benedict says, “for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands” – beer is brewed to raise money for the monastery.

² The beer is given ‘Cellar Release’ after 3 months, so the beers were closer to six months and two years old in absolute terms.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #4: A Vote for Debeerlution

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

For fear of painting the world with broad Impressionist brush strokes, my regard for Scottish beer a few years back wasn’t high. It all started with my first business trip north of the border, working for the then leading brewer in Scotland and the heady excitement of sampling some of the country’s leading beers. A pint of Tennent’s is what you would expect of a 4% session pale beer to be, only with better than average marketing and an inharmonic aroma somewhere between corn on the cob and a malodorous whiff of Marigold gloves. A pint of Tennent’s Special (a 70/- ale) was an unpleasant, soapy experience, which I pledged never to repeat. There was a more malty but equally bland 80/- too, and then there were the competitor beers, like McEwan’s Export which, let’s just say, won’t be featuring in any good beer guide. Hence my first evening saw me swing from naïve excitement to disillusionment, a mood not enhanced by lodgings in a rather ‘tired’ Toby Inn on Corstorphine Road. Not that much different from England and Wales at the time then, except for the blocking tactics of a powerful duopoly stymieing choice to a greater degree than down south.

In future months and years it was interesting to learn more about the Scottish market and despite that first experience, good times were had, including being part of launching beers like Tennent’s Gold Bier – in fact, generally there was a more pro-lager, pro-American leaning (brands like Bud, Miller had higher shares north of the border and North American brewers saw Scotland as prime real estate for their brands – Coors Extra Gold, Molson Dry and even Schlitz all had a crack). There was also virtually no infrastructure for cask beer.

Hop, skip and jump twenty years on and look at the transformation. What started as a trickle of dissatisfaction with the restrictive duopoly led to interesting start ups – Traquair House, Caledonian and William Bros (with their excellent Heather Ale, Fraoch) exemplified the emergent undercurrent. Brew Dog or Innes & Gunn followed as brands not just cutting through in the Scottish brewing scene but across the UK and beyond….and there are many, many others besides (see http://thebeercast.com – for a good round up of Scottish brewing with an Edinburgh orientation).

Which leads to the Archerfield estate, just outside Edinburgh, on the beautiful southern Firth of Forth shore – the ‘Golf Coast’ as it’s colloquially known for the number of international links courses with pot bunkers that swallow small children whole. It is also the home of Knops’ Beer Company. Bob Knops was, not so long ago, an operations manager for a big brewer north of the border. Always professional, reliable, committed… but his heart was never in it. He was a trained brewer, and he wasn’t brewing. Now he is and after initially contract brewing, he now is running a gleaming new-build brewery in the Walled Garden at the Archerfield estate. Like the Lost Gardens of Heligan but with more spas and fewer ‘losts.’   There’s a broad spectrum amongst craft brewers – at one end, those inspired by past styles, or past companies – bringing them up to date, or just plain bringing them back. At the other, there are those actively shaking off the legacies of the past and trying something new.   Knops’ beers lean towards the former but with a generous smack of contemporary rule-breaking. The beers themselves have a story at their heart; in some, the plot is Scottish – like ‘Musselburgh Broke’, ‘Black Cork’ or the IPA with its roots firmly in the Edinburgh tradition of IPA. Others feature international characters like ‘Californian Common’ – a Knops’ take on west coast U.S. steam beer. The twist is the presentation – LNER or GWR railway posters from the 1920s and 1930s spring out, with bright, striking labels and engaging pack copy.

And picking up on a recent Tinted theme, Knops’ beer show the diversity that exists within ale. Of course there is an IPA – and this one is well structured with a punchy, cleansing bitterness and an appealing brightness & presentation. But the California Common is less common on these shores. Even in San Francisco, they’re not sure how the name arose, but it seems to be to do with the ‘steam’ that arose off the shallow fermentation vessels as they cooled the beer in the colder air blowing in from the Pacific. I’m not sure Bob has mounted fermenters on the greenhouse roof, but the beer has that Anchor Steam quality – something that you can’t quite put your finger on. A bitterness, yes, but also a Czech lager-like cleanness on the palate and then back to a pale ale maltiness. Black Cork is even less clear – a beer whose origins and taste are now shrouded by time. Using as much historical information as they can, Bob and his team have recreated a 6.5% ABV whopper – you sense ingredients measured in ‘good handfuls’ feature on the recipe, with a full malt backbone, but an intriguing cut of citrus that must come from generous hopping. And then finally, Musselburgh Broke, which reminds me of classic Scottish 80/- beers, executed well. There’s lots of malt in here and it shines through: it’s full and coating as you roll it around your mouth but the brewing is adept enough to ensure the hopping regime encourages drinkability.

The disillusionment from that dreek October evening in Edinburgh is finally beginning to lift.

For further info and stockists on Bob’s brews, check out the website: www.knopsbeer.co.uk

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #3: Alehouse Rocks

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

Events can sometimes seem like ribbons of consciousness that weave and wend their way through time, like the pennants of rhythmic gymnasts as they lithely dance across a mat. The ribbons tend to diverge, in the quest for new ideas and the latest thing, or less occasionally, converge, and ideas that once were dominant have their time again. So it has been in the Tinted House of late: a number of related themes coming together in a series of fortunate co-incidences.

It started with Pete Brown, unaware though he will be. I first met Pete before he became a writer (or at least, before he published his first book). He was the advertising planner at an agency we had chosen to be in a pitch for a beer launch we were doing. A thoroughly down to earth bloke (Barnsley, like), both he and the whole agency did a great job and only lost the work on the toss to another agency. We next met again over a curry¹ when he was researching for his book ‘Hops & Glory’, as a colleague of mine had responsibility for the White Shield Brewery, along with the acclaimed brewer, Steve Wellington, who were going to be brewing his circumnavigational ale. Anyway, this passage was not supposed to be glorified name-dropping but rather an introduction to the fact that I have just read his latest work, ‘Shakespeare’s Local’. And in it was one of these ribbons of convergence.

Next, introducing James, now an Operations Manager at a large brewing business, who I’ve known for a decade or so. James has a talent that he is loathe to admit – a very curious & observant person… he works in the pub trade, but he doesn’t just go out and ‘do his job’. He questions things; he investigates; he makes links; he asks why. That’ll be the top class training he received from yours truly, then, **cough, cough**. James spotted the rise of Pale Ales and IPAs three, four, maybe five years before they exploded. And this isn’t just as simple as spotting that ‘craft brewers seem to be doing OK’ – it was more specific. This was about Pale Ales. The logic was simple – lagered beer, he reasoned, has been tarred by the same brush; there’s a generational effect of people wanting something different to the previous ‘generation’ (well, from people a few years’ older than them) and the simple fact that functionally, many pale ales offer taste, refreshment and sessionability. To James it was a bit of a ‘no-brainer’ – and he was right.

So when James makes an observation, normally gently put, I listen… “Have you been to The Cock, in Hackney?” was the question. And no, I hadn’t, indeed haven’t, yet. James told me about it: it’s an alehouse. Not an inn; not a gastro pub; not a chain or managed pub; an alehouse – somewhere that primarily concentrates on, and sells, ale (and drink) and isn’t distracted by the haughty charms. Like the Rake in Borough, or The Cooper’s in Burton , or the Yew Tree at Cauldon Low. And here was the point of convergence then: Pete’s book, and the alehouse. The George, that he was writing about, was definitely an Inn. Of course, it sold beer, sack (sherry) and wine…even coffee before Costa Coffee Express franchises were invented, but more than that, it housed lodgings for travellers, hop merchants, assorted hawkers and traders. In Coalition Government parlance, it was its very own Industrial Enterprise Zone. It had respectability; definitely an Inn. Alehouses were something else – retailing intoxication and therefore definitely something that you wouldn’t want to be seen in (hence the ‘Snug’, with its high frosted glass or wood partitions, to shield inquisitive eyes from your supping habits). Funny that, over time, the pressure has been unrelentingly against them – either because of the comparison with ‘gin houses’ or simply because, at different times, different Governments wanted to cut down on excessive drinking. And funny that, only now perhaps, is the trend working its way back towards them.

But to me it makes sense. When British brewers are buying coffee shop estates; when major pub retailers declare themselves, ‘Agnostic to drink because we’re restaurants’, you know that at some point, something has to change. For ‘tis written: ‘For every trend, there’s a counter trend’. For every pub, masquerading as a gastro pub but buying its vacuum sealed food parcels from Brakes’ Brothers, for every lamentable style bar or ill conceived sports bar², showing Sky Sports, there’s a pressure to resist. Sure, our homes today have comforts that our forebears couldn’t have even dreamt of – warmth, water, cold food storage, on tap entertainment (that’s TVs with quadraphonic sound, not kids singing ‘Glee’ songs into fake microphones) – sure. You’ve even got food retailers like M&S doing ‘Gastro Pub’ meals to peel the lids off and stick in the oven at home. But it’s not same.

No, the time of the alehouse is overdue. The informal, friendly bar, where you can enjoy interesting ales; where you can sit in comfort and put the world to rights; where you can hatch plots for global domination or just slag off your boss; where you don’t have to worry about whether you are going to have starters, or worse, whether any part of the wretched place is set aside for people not eating. No, the circle is coming around, and for the enlightened, behind the ‘pub closure’ and ‘Binge Britain’ nonsense headlines, it will be an exciting times for Britain’s pubs and a more exciting time for British drinkers. You heard it here first.

¹The Manzil, Burton on Trent, 01283 _________. Nice new premises, opposite the National Brewery Centre, and unlike the old place, it doesn’t have concrete cancer (or a wrecking ball coming through the wall).

² Why is it that in the US, showing sport is just accepted? It almost doesn’t matter what sort of bar it is, there will be TVs on the back bar, they will be showing ‘Monday Night Football’ and everyone just gets on with it. Here we seem to try so hard and get is so wrong.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #2: Life at the Sharp End

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

1998, and an American road trip to remember. From San Francisco across to Napa; through the winelands to Calistoga; then up and over, via the Petrified Forest Road to Petaluma and down, down by way of Big Sur to SoCal and San Diego. It was like ‘Sideways’ only with more of the bine not the vine, and markedly less shagging of dusky skinned Harley-riding waitresses.  Oh, and all in a Chrysler Neon. It was my first experience of liberal California – and what struck me was the scale, the brown-ness (we Brits forget how lush and green our island is) and how, to me surprisingly, how unselfishly self-centred and self-sufficient it felt – kind of cut-off from the rest of the US, even though this clearly isn’t the case. It was the Californian flag that flew; it was pride in Californian ingredients and products that was displayed foremost. The brewpubs we went to were impressive and inspiring, even back then, but it was the independent shops, from food stores, to bespoke T shirt stands, from boutique coffee to thriving independent book shops – and often these things combined – that really landed what a vibrant, innovative economy California was. Viewing through my beer tinted gaze it was obvious back then that something big and beery was going on. Simple pizza restaurants had brewing out back; San Diego had some amazing breweries, bars and brews; San Fran too, even Napa at the entrance to the winelands.

And strangely, the memories came back to me in ripples of déjà vu during a stay in west Cornwall, of all places, recently. And just as in late ‘90s California, in early 2013, it’s clear that our national craft beer revolution is in full swing down at the sharp end. Perhaps – and I have no numbers to back me up here, just a gut feel – perhaps, more so than anywhere else.

When I lived out west, twenty years ago, the beer wasn’t anything to write home about. The big brewers had a presence, Bass in particular was typically served well, so too Courage Director’s and some regional-ish brews from Gibbs Mew, or Eldridge Pope, with Royal Oak being a particular favourite. The south west’s regionals by comparison didn’t put up a good fight – St Austell beers were flaccid and average… and there wasn’t much else outside of The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres. Yet something was stirring in the world of food and drink – I remember a little cheese shop in Chagford, where I first encountered Cornish Yarg – the same cheese that just 20 years later featured on the national TV break bumpers for Morrisons during Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway! And there were artisan ice cream makers, fruit & cider presses, local bread and crisp makers beginning to crop up all the way down the peninsula.

Within the region, Cornwall always seemed to lag behind – it was almost as is the economy had become so beholden to the tourist Pound that local shopkeepers and producers felt that they should provide the big, well-known brands that the Emmits would recognise and trust. How wrong they were. In fact, the opposite is true – Cornish brands are effecting a reverse brain grab, following the memories of languid Summer days rock pooling, yachting or drinking in a Quayside pub back with them, and building their business success from there. Sharps’ Doom Bar and St Austell’s Tribute being the obvious examples – sprouting up on bars from Tonbridge Wells to Todmorden.   What I hadn’t grasped though was the fecundity of the microbrewers loins in Cornwall – there are breweries popping up all over the Duchy.

I’ve heard Skinners brands described as ‘crass’ – but to a marketeer ‘distinctive’ and ‘consistent’ describe them better and are powerful, desirable epithets. In design terms, Skinners beers do stand out – from Betty Stogs herself, the landlady of the range, to Heligan Honey or the slightly stronger (4.5%) Cornish Knocker. In truth, they do all have a Viz quality about them. Were Skinners to launch a Fat Slags beer, it wouldn’t seem out of character.  But the beers stand muster. Stops is widely available down here and is a good session beer, well balanced with a malt orientation; Heligan Honey is a lovely beer (it’s probably Stogs with some honey added) – too often honey beers are either overly sweet and cloying or underplayed. Here the honey is at the delicate end but noticeable and appealing. Knocker is Stogs on steroids; beefier, maltier, a little more hop aroma too; in the Midlands this would be the session beer and go down well it would too.

In a similar vein, I picked up a bottle of St Ives’ Brewery ‘Boilers’. Again, this is the mainstay in their range at an unsurprising 4%, yet it is a modestly striking beer, almost pulling off a difficult trick – to deliver balance and drinkability but also some character. There’s a rich malty loaf sweetness, a handful of dusty hop biting through and a herbal hoppiness on the nose. I’d push a bit more personally, but its drinkable and beautiful too – a lovely bottle label, inspired by the art scene thereabouts.

And the Pale Ale Counter Reformation continues. Rebel Brewing Company from Penryn do a cracking one – ‘Penryn Pale Ale’, which, despite its modest ABV of 4.3% has a grapefruitiness reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with a few twangy, tangy citrus notes thrown in – lovely.  ‘Proper Job’ from the St Austell stable is another and consequently widely available in their pubs – which is where I drank one with a platter of fish and chips. I had a bottle as it had sold out on draught: the bottle is stronger (5.5%) and is a cracker: a head, thick with glistening creaminess like a dew covered spiderweb under a microscope; a McVitie’s digestive and elderflower aroma and a vividly golden colour, all bright and backlit. US hops are used – Willamette, Chinook and Cascade – and skilfully so – it’s a delight of a beer. If you want something punchier try ‘Nugget’ from Harbour Brewing, who given close on 300 miles of coastline to choose from, you think would have had the sense to brew by a harbour. But no, they’re in landlocked Bodmin (apparently the owners decided to start their brewery whilst sitting in a harbourside bar). Forgive them this though: Nugget is beautiful presented, with textured matt labels, almost hand-typed in feel demanding molestation. And the beer I drank had a real punch (Refound note: since this blog was written in 2013, Harbour are now more widely available nationally (in Sainsburys for one). They brew a couple of cracking IPAs)

Another landlocked brewery is Wooden Hand, located just off the A30 in Grampound Road an area known for smuggling hideaways. It’s difficult to judge whether Poldark would be happy with their ‘Cornish Gribben’ or not though. On the one hand, both the label and the beer really do sparkle like pirates’ gold; the flavour, all caramel toffee apple notes and a hint of melon, speaks of exotic tastes washed ashore in barrels from distance lands.   But on the other, the Gribben lighthouse featured on the label wards off ships, so no wreckers’ treasure for decorating Demelza’s boudoir this time round and my bottle had a slightly stale aroma.

A postscript: in Falmouth, there’s a run of new shops down near the hugely impressive National Maritime Museum. At the far end there’s a bottle shop that deserves a call out – not just for stocking a beer range as diverse and exciting, as intriguing and as rewarding to browse as a bookshop, but also for having a crack being a specialist licensed retailer when they are distinctly off trend. The guy at The Bottle Bank wrapped the bottles I bought in paper as if they were fine wines of five times the price. But it also brought home the scale of the revolution going on in Cornwall – there were beers from Falmouth on the south coast to Rock on the north; from mine-scarred St Austell to idyllic Scilly, from ghostly Lostwithiel to haunting Lizard. It’s a revolution all the more remarkable given that it’s happening right across food and drink and in chastening economic times. If a roadtrip round the sharp end isn’t enough to keep you away from the Costa Brava this summer, I’m not sure what can.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #1: Under Brownwood

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

For whatever reason, I’ve never really got on with Newcastle Brown Ale but I wanted to. There was a bit of a boom for the brand again in the mid ‘90s, fuelled by a failed attempt by an Australian brewer to buy the brand. For a while front labels were inverted (I hadn’t noticed until someone pointed it out) and there was a general fuss made across the north east. So I gave it a crack again back then, but no, it just didn’t flick any switches for me… at least not on taste anyway. I’ve always liked the bottle; I’ve always liked the schooner glass and I’ve always bought into those hard working Geordie values. Taste though – didn’t get it and still don’t.

Yet, like with mild, there’s a bit of a general brown resurgence going on. This was triggered this last weekend gone by a pint of ‘Milkwood’ in a local Vintage Inn. Brewed by Brain’s in commemoration of Dylan Thomas, it’s a 4.3% brown ale. And it is brown, which is a start. Don’t mock – one of my issues with Newkie Brown is that’s it’s not – it’s more of a deep, chestnut red. No it is –buy one and have a look. It’s not unattractive, just not that brown. So anyway, Milkwood – a brown ale. And putting to one side the less than scrupulously clean glassware, it was a decent enough pint. A tightly loose head with a thick creaminess that somehow managed to support some big bubbles, mid brown colour and a clean, malty taste with just a touch of granary crust nuttiness. Nice lacing too which I like to see.  And selling well up against Pedigree and Everard’s Tiger.

The interest in the style is good to see, for it could have gone the way of the Dodo. Original styles, dating back 300 years or so were likely brewed with brown malt that a higher level of roast from direct fired malting. Pale malt revolutionised beer both in the UK and on the continent – but with every revolution there is a loser, and brown ale was one. Whilst brewers continued to be brewed, now they were sourced from pale malt, or crystals malts that add a more coating sweetness or brewing sugars were added. Strengths fell over time too, a trend exacerbated by two wars, until eventually only really Mann’s Brown Ale existed a connection with the original brews from the past (Newcastle Brown Ale was a twentieth century invention, ironically by a brewer from Burton).

I wonder though how much of the recent resurgence in the style comes down to what’s going on across the pond. Newcastle Brown itself has become the 15 year overnight success story – selling about 450,000 barrels of beer to the USA each year. It’s now the number one British brand. The once positively ubiquitous Bass has been soundly mismanaged by Anheuser and Newkie Brown has doffed its grateful hat and Dyson’ed up their business. The American craft brewers too have copied and reinvented the style. As you would imagine, many US versions have a more distinct hop character, but are none the worse for it. Sierra Nevada do a very drinkable Autumn Brown Ale, and the wonderfully named Dogfish Head also do an ‘Indian Brown Ale’ which I snuck into my repertoire whilst out in Denver on beer business one night. Something similar happened in Hawaii* too – where I had a brown ale from the Kona Brewing Company (which I only bought at the time because I was thinking of buying a Kona Mountain Bike and wondered if the two were linked. They weren’t – and remember folks, don’t drink and ride.) This one in particular was a smoothly drinkable version, reasonably hopped. It reminded me of the Geordie nick name for Newcastle Brown, ‘Dog’ so called because it bites your legs apparently. Well the Kona Indian Brown Ale certainly did, as it was secretly hiding it’s mid 5s alcohol.

I’m pleased the style is doing the revival, particular in the UK. Whilst I like the hoppier versions from the US, I find that there are enough IPAs and double IPAs doing the hop full frontal. A beer style that swings the other way, with a lingering sweet character is needed in the lexicon of beers.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Beer Guy

Within beer circles there are now public personalities in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Many brewers are celebrities, some like Sam Calagione become media figures. There are revered saviours, like Fritz Maytag or Michael Jackson. Sages too, like Ken Grossman. Or outspoken campaigners, like Roger Protz. Yet, my friend Dan Rosenbluth, who died recently after a short illness, was largely unknown in the broader beer world, despite being universally popular and loved amongst his considerable circle of peers and friends. Dan had an impact as significant as that of these names and many more – but, typical of him, it was perfectly understated. He was, to use his phrase (although he never applied it to himself), a beer guy through and through. More than this, he remained a beer guy in the increasingly un-beery world of multinational, corporate brewers. Some feat.

Dan was born in California, although he was raised in Florida and that’s where his heart was; a man of the South yet, set against the ill-informed stereotype of the ‘Confederate Redneck’, Dan was broad-minded, liberal and outward looking. These values, underpinned by his unblinking fairness and generosity made him a mentor to many and a role model to more.

In the world of multi-national brewers, the competitive focus isn’t just on their peers. It’s on consumer goods businesses: marketing-led companies, FMCG companies. Companies where the consumers is King and bottom line profit is the whispering Councillor behind the throne. The product happens to beer, but the focus, the driver, the end game is money. Just money. Oh, they’ll deny it. But it’s the truth: because the behaviour of these businesses reveals it. The brewer is no longer the hero. The accountant rules the roost. The beer itself may be carefully brewed, but uniform consistency is the only mantra; the reverence has gone. The rules of accounting say high gravity brewing; two day lagering (if any); ‘precision’ brewing, adjunct mashes, pasteurisation. Such tools are the name of the Accountant-brewer’s game, because without them, in such a cut-throat environment they believe, you won’t survive. And the Queen of these companies is the marketeer. I was a Marketing Queen and I’m proud of it. But I’m proud of it because I loved beer and for me, the science of marketing was there to support the art, the passion, the reverence of and for brewing.

Dan was the same, yet more so. He worked at Coors in Golden, Colorado, at a time when Anheuser Busch, still independent, were dictating the agenda of the market. If your beer wasn’t light, it wasn’t right. If your beer didn’t have IBUs below 10, you were doomed. Coors, particularly before the days of the joint venture with SAB (Miller Coors), did have a brewing heart. Pete Coors was a brewing meddler (in a good way) and even had – has still, in fact – a small-scale brewery where he would ‘try things’ (Barman Pilsner probably being the most successful). And much against modern multinational practise, he would also support initiatives from people like Keith Villa to try experiments, to have a go. One such experiment was a beer that ultimately became called Blue Moon.

Dan came into the marketing team at a time when craft was growing but not ripping up trees. Blue Moon had tickled along for a decade, largely going nowhere. He was asked to review its performance with a view to ‘rationalising’ it. The pressure on him was severe because, when he looked at the numbers, he could clearly see why he was being asked. The volumes were small. The beer was complex to brew. The profit delivery was modest. In Coors terms, it got lost in the rounding.

Yet Dan was a beer guy. He could feel the opportunity. He could see it was ahead of its time. He implicitly understood who might drink Blue Moon, why and when. The way he told the story involved some benevolent fudging of numbers and some heartfelt groveling. But he won the day. They tightened what the beer was about (‘artfully crafted’) and stuck with the programme (such as existed): the right serve; the right glass. Simple stuff, executed well. Today, Blue Moon Belgian White is the single largest craft brand in the U.S.

And there’s the rub isn’t it? How can a ‘craft’ brand be from a multinational giant like Molson Coors / Miller Coors? Without getting in to the argument which is a well-trod and frankly rather dull tale now, the point is, Blue Moon is a watershed brand in U.S. brewing. It is the brand that changed the paradigm both of the big brewers – they quickly came to see that flavourful beers could be business drivers for them – and smaller brewers too – because they got the benefit of a major player opening up ‘craft’ with retailers in a way that alone, would be more difficult to do.

The argument around brands like Blue Moon being / not being craft is perfectly legitimate. In due course, when the pain of Dan’s passing has subsided somewhat, I may even join in. But more than anything else, every time I see that distinctive blue label, that luminescent, cream coloured moon, I shall think of my good friend and the role he played in helping to change the attitudes of the big US brewers towards craft beer and ultimately, the benefits that had for all.

In Memoriam. William Daniel Rosenbluth. August 1969 – July 2015. A Beer Guy.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015