No and low alcohol beer? Really?

There’s an elephant in the room in alcohol right now. Everyone seemingly is jumping on the no and low alcohol bandwagon. As well as new beers, BrewDog have launched an AlcoholFree only pub. Alcohol Free only breweries have opened. Craft breweries have launched multiple low and no alcohol beers in multiple styles: lagers, pale ales, hazy pale ales, sours. And commentators are fanning the fire too – ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 20’ articles in the mainstream press; beer writers such as Pete Brown posting on his social feed on the topic.

But a few things bother me, and here’s why I remain unconvinced by the whole category.

  1. It’s been tried before. I know. I know. Long in the tooth. “We’ve tried it before” being the killer of new ideas and all that. Sure. But it has been tried before and frankly, with much greater scale than today (if less breadth). 30 years ago, in the days of the ‘Big 6’ vertically integrated nationals, no and low alcohol beer was the big thing. Not just in the UK, but abroad too. Back then, the predictions showed that by today alcoholic beer would effectively be a niche beverage for frankly, people with problems. Time and money was invested on creating brands; big brands that were were well distributed – bottles, cans, and draught – and were supported by huge advertising and marketing campaigns. Not a few social posts, but big, scale TV ads. Here’s one for Barbican (Bass). But there was Bass L.A. and Tennent’s L.A (also Bass, clearly). And Swan Light (Allied Breweries). And Kaliber (Guinness). And undoubtedly others. There were low alcohol wine brands too – Eisberg, anyone? Yep, this is when that delight dates from too.What’s different this time? Well, there are certainly more breweries giving it a go and there are certainly more beer styles being attempted. Oh, and of course, we’re all so much healthier and mindful of what we’re consuming today…. aren’t we?  Obesity crisis? Type 2 Diabetes rates anyone?
  2. There’s a difference between a trend and normal behaviour.  Here’s a stat for you to consider, what with all the coverage around plant-based eating, vegetarianism and specifically, veganism. The Vegan Society report that in 2019, there are 600,000 vegans in the UK (quadrupled since 2014 according to their statistics). That’s 1.16% of the UK population (this is presumably the whole population including non-decision makers such as children, but nevertheless). Yet, according to Mintel, 23% of food launches in 2019 were labelled as vegan. So it’s not vegans driving the growth, it’s those people who are choosing to cut down their meat consumption, but not cut it out – the so-called ‘flexitarians’ – people who are still consuming meat, fish, dairy as part of their everyday lives. And if that’s the case, why bother going to all the trouble of considerably more complex processes, complex sourcing and increased costs to make it vegan?Is this the future for no and low alcohol products? Part of the ‘smart’ repertoire for those moments when we either can’t drink alcohol, or want to cut down? Life hacks? Perhaps. But this was pretty much the same rationale 30 years ago too: drink drive laws were tightening. Fewer people drinking in regular ‘sessions’. Fewer ‘men only’ and more mixed gender social occasions with the bars and clubs that catered for them. And we were making healthier choices as our tastes expanded. What’s different? Really?
  3. Companies have to show willing. Brewers and alcoholic drink manufacturers are under more pressure today. There are voluntary codes. There are mandatory rules and regulations too, designed to prevent alcohol misuse and encourage moderation. There’s ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. There are frankly, good reasons to be doing this both for company purpose and good reasons to be doing it for the responsibility to wider society. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a genuine, long-lasting commercial opportunity. One that’s rooted in real insight about how we run our lives.
  4. What is the insight here? People choose to drink alcohol for a whole range of reasons. Because they’re partying and want to let go a bit, or because they’re unwinding and want to either re-energise or de-energise. They may want to mark a moment, either a celebration or just celebrating getting to Wednesday. They may want to connect, to bond. Or even to show off. But what’s at the heart is the effect of alcohol. There’s no point denying it or pretending that everything would be the same if it weren’t there. And let’s be clear too, humans want ‘drugs’. I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if just as we get rid of the alcohol we started ramming everything full of CBD?
  5. A matter of taste. I’m cutting down on meat, for all sorts of reasons and  the one thing I’m not missing is the taste of meat. Why would I? Food is all about taste, and the days of healthy foods being a compromise are over. Look at the lunch time meal deal aisles today. It’s not just triangles of brown with a coloured centre any more, there’s bread alternatives that are purple and green; there are salad pots that are as vivid as a double rainbow, vegan and vegetarian products – whether they feature meat substitutes or not  -now inspire not depress.But the low and no alcohol products I’ve tasted still taste like compromises. And I’m not prepared to compromise with beer, because life is too short for bad beer, and if I’m driving and not drinking, frankly I’ll have something that is, at least, itself, not a pale imitation of something else.

    And so begins a little quest to find a low or no alcohol beer that really tastes like a beer. No compromises. No tricks or hood-winks. Any recommendations are welcome. Reviews will be short and to the point. Whilst I hope I find this holy grail, my reservations still persist. And even if I do: is there ever a beer occasion where I don’t want the very thing that defines ‘beer’ over water, coffee, juice or a soft drink? Let’s see.

Ice to the Inuit

I had looked forward to trying one of this brewer’s beers – Little Creatures – for a long time; but frankly, hadn’t tried that hard to hunt one down, and none of those wretched PR companies who seem to fling out samples to all and sundry were flinging any out to me. So anyhoo, I find myself in a gastro pub – a contemporary free house if you will –  eating a wood fired pizza with a side-order of clichés and some stereotypes on a stick, drinking a Little Creatures Pale Ale.  It was very nice. ‘Earthy’ would be the word I’d use. Not vibrant with hoppy overload, but muted, balanced, the malt part of the choir, not just the hops – more in the Pommy style, dare I say it. More Burton than Portland. Drinkable and even exciting for not being a herbal, spicy assault on your bitterness receptors.

But there was also the slightly sour taste of guilt – not towards the beer, or indeed this brewery – and not, I am assured from the Antipasti Skewer Board – rather from the power of free trade and a society that has normalised shipping modified water around the globe for our pleasure. Am I being a spoil sport? Yes? But should it matter? Yes, too.

IMG_4111

Sizzle, sausage or both?

IMG_2966Be in no doubt that this beer – Beavertown Lupuloid IPA – is a fearsomely good one. Rip open the tab and there’s already an aroma of juicy hop oil spilling out… tinged with pine resin. You pour it, and it’s a hazy, wheat yellow – that dusty, golden colour you can get when some yeast is lingering; the head was billowing large and tight, rippling up the glass side as it was decanted and settling only slightly – and there in that head was the scent of a tropical lemon grove where the workers have been feasting on lunchtime chunks of juicy, sweet mango and pineapple (with no cheese or cocktail sticks anywhere to be seen). Yes, it’s fearsomely good.  It has all the attributes of a proper sausage. Sustaining. Meaty. Rewarding. Enticing. A beer with real substance.

Yet this sausage also has sizzle. Look at the can. It would be rude, demeaning even, to call it a ‘can design’. This is a company who know what they’re about and see the packaging as a canvas to tell us, to sell us and to beguile us. You can’t see it here, but the can top is also a deep pink to match that iridescent pink sky on the can itself. The tab is green to enhance the hop-beast artwork / mural. It’s folksy; it’s threatening and it’s deeply, pugnaciously attractive. This is the bar to which all others aspire. This is proof that whilst sausage is vital, when it sizzles too, the result adds up to much, much more than the sum of its meaty, chunky parts.

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

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.