Just 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…
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 still 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 Managing 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)
It’s been a year of fermentation’s growing influence in my life. Not just beer, that’s been there throughout my adult years, but much wider, much deeper, more frequent. It’s the old ‘Law of Selective Attention’ I think, which says that once something has been pointed out to you, you notice it all the time, whereas prior to that, you didn’t notice at all (even though it was there all the same). And at the moment it’s fermentation.
First it was pickles. I’ve always loved them as tracklements; that particular blend of vinegar and mustard; the acid spiciness; that ability to cut through anything with a sharp tang, an oniony bite, yet not overwhelm. To coax flavours and enhance. To be a wingman perhaps, not over-shadowing the main event. It’s like piccalilli, named after the station in Manchester*, a beautiful yet under-rated condiment. After trying it for the first time, an old Dutch friend of mine once said, “Why is it the English love these strong flavours?”. It blew him away, yet, a few years later he told me that he was secretly taking home pots of Branston and Haywards piccalilli and, “eating them with everything”. It is, we deduced, that partial fermentation, that cold meat umami-ness that just works as a chaperone and proves to be irresistible.
Then it was horseradish. Here’s a root that we Brits have just plopped into a box marked, ‘Ready Made Sauce. Only Serve With Beef.’ which is missing the point entirely. Not so long ago, I was eating it with everything. Pork pie? Natch. Cheese sandwich. Why not? As a spread instead of mayo. Definitely. As a marinade on oily fish. Oh yes. Not convinced? Try it: in-cred-i-ble. Which reminded me that the Germans have got horseradish right. Travelling once across central Germany, my brother and I stayed in Würzburg and in the evening ate in the town’s main restaurant, below the Räthaus. We ate eel, in a creamy, sharp, tangy horseradish sauce and drank first a spicy, yeasty wheat beer and then a gently smoked lager. Both went well with the dish, but not as well as the horseradish went with the eel. Sublime. (My horseradish overdosing only stopped because I moved onto piccalilli)
And so it went on. Chutneys, (we are about to enter the chutney making season here in the Tinted house: the dog lives in fear after smelling of vinegar and vegetables for a week last year), spicy relishes, savoury jams. Mustards aplenty.
The re-emergence of fermentation spreads its wings further however. First was sourdough. There’s a tangy sharp starter in our fridge right now, provoked into creation from a godisgood story that a client told me about – how, like a Tamagotchi, your responsibility is to nurse and tend the starter, to pass it one and expect the recipient to do the same. Some starters are generations old, particularly in countries where baking is still revered – Germany again, Belgium to a degree and some Eastern European countries. That’s my aim – to pass on my starter to friends and family. To have Tinted bread being kneaded and baked 50 years from now. Maybe with a dash of brown ale in there for good measure.
Then there’s pickled veg. Chefs are serving them with everything, and you know it’s mainstreaming when you get them offered as an option in a lunchtime sandwich bar and you can buy different sorts of pickling vinegars (Mirin, balsamic based, red & white wine pickling vinegars) in your local Tesco. But why not? They bring the extra dimension: the lift, the breadth, the wafting of the flavours into new realms. They may be trendy but they’re not new. Foolishly we let our tastes and skills drift; now we’re learning them again.
And of course, there’s beer, where fermentation is assumed and the status of ‘natural bedfellow’ is assured. But what’s glorious about fermentation now is how we’re rolling back the boundaries again. Why ferment with saccharomyces cerevisae alone when you can ferment with brettanomyces for it’s earthy, musty qualities? And why ferment with brett when we can use bacteria from wood or air? Why do we need to use crazy amounts of hop when fermentation can push the boundaries wider (particularly as hop shortages threaten)?
What’s important as brewers and beer lovers is that we don’t lose sight of the scope of fermentation. It’s not just used in making alcohol and vinegar. Chefs and food companies are waking up to where fermentation can take flavour, where the experience of eating can be enhanced still more. If we keep our eyes open, the possibilities are endless.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016
It is best described as a dream? Perhaps it is, perhaps it’s just an idyll. But anyway, in this dream, I am the owner of a small, rural brewery. If it helps to picture it, it’s down a long country lane, one of those beautiful shire lanes in England with grass growing down the spine and the tarmac flaking and giving way at the sides. The vistas are long, across the water meadow (yes, they do still exist) and towards distant dark hills. There are some passing places on the road, but they’re informal: one in a field entrance where the gate hangs off its hinges; another where the gravel path to the ford scrunches down to the river, lazily. The building housing the brewery is round a sharp left hand bend. They’re farm outhouses, with ruddy-cheeked bricks, sharply mortared, with blue brick edges, smoothly curved. Roofs are clad in steep pitched Staffordshire grey tiles, bedecked in moss and chipped like a boxer’s teeth. The water for the beer bubbles up from a spring just where the hill line breaks and a copse of old mixed trees starts, some beech, some oak, hedge elm and the stickleback flashes of silver birches too.
Why a farmhouse brewery? Why artisan? I have no particular farming connection and I live in the country so there’s no pent up rural frustration, no unmet need to be ‘closer to nature’. But there is the connection of beer to its origins: being closer to the earth, the water, the fields where the crops are grown. Somehow, when the brewery is under a railway arch, or a steel clad industrial unit the connection is weakened, or worse, when it’s some industrial edifice on the outskirts of say, Manchester, that connection is lost. Here, it’s industry. Here, it’s 7 day a week brewing. Here, it’s ‘sales and operational planning’. Even the ingredients are tamed; modified malt; hops pounded and pelleted so there’s no goodness left; adjuncts for consistency and efficiency.
But the idyll is not some fantasy, not, well… idyllistic. It’s happening. As my writings have taken me further afield so my desire to reopen old, closed doors has intensified; and my willingness to experiment with wildness; with inconsistency; with tastes that make you squint has strengthened in turn.
A few years ago, I travelled through Payottenland, visited Boon, on my way in fact to Rodenbach. That was the extent of my primary research into spontaneously fermented, or oak-aged beers. I am the beginning of my new journey, of personal pioneering. Early discoveries this time round have startled me. That of Elgood’s of Wisbech, as old fashioned as they come, who have re-commissioned an old coolship so they can spontaneously ferment, installing wooden beams above it to capture microbes and build a circle of wild fermentation. This is surprising. That beers with a sour, wild, uncontained character are becoming the ‘in thing’ with urbanites is startling. And the closest thing I have found so far to my idyll, are the beers from Wild Beer Co in Somerset. They are on a farm, down a country lane. It may not be the centre of human population, but it’s Wild Yeast Central. Ironically though, I found their beers in Sourced Market at St Pancras, on a railway concourse at the heart of our most congested metropolis. Wild Beer Co talk about adding an extra element: the first water; the second, hops, the third, grains, the fourth, yeast. The fifth is wildness.
By this point, I was already lumping around a full satchel, so only bought a couple of their brews, but what brews they turned out to be. The first was a one of their everyday drinkers, their ‘everyday sours’, to use their language. Wild Goose Chase is a ‘farmhouse pale’, brewed with their wild yeast culture and gooseberries. Gooseberries: an utterly underrated fruit anyway and yet perfect for beer; the tartness complementing the malty sweetness, the aroma incisive, cutting. It promised much and delivered – a gently ‘sour acid’ aroma (if you can have such a thing… prickly somehow); to look at, a milky gold, lively with a gentle, natural carbonation. I expected no head and it poured with none, but was not the worse for it: it was delicious, fruit, tartly quenching beer. The other was a Saison – the boldly entitled Epic Saison. Unusual for a beer that is fermented partly with bacteria, this was generously hopped (the traditional role of hops was to impede bacteria – more a problem when you are designing the bacteria in) with a dry slice of melony, passionfruity U.S. grown Sorachi Ace hops but still with that loamy European earthiness more associated with a tart beer. It would be tempting and stereotypical to describe such a beer as a ‘fusion’ – in fact, it seems quite naturally ‘of here’, like a fruit pie baked on a tin plate, plump, sharp and sweet but with that doughy, buttery taste of the fields, of dairy, of the land. My note taken at the time simply said, “Well brewed, drinkable and edgy. An irresistible combination.”
These beers fuelled my desire to learn more, to taste more. To find the beers of New Belgium, Allagash or the Jolly Pumpkin; to try a ‘kettle soured’ beer, like those from The Commons. This sounds like a journey down a long, interesting country path, one with some grass growing down the middle, a farmhouse outbuilding holding a rustic brewery and wild yeasts floating through the breeze.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015
The back streets of Smethwick are Cash and Carry land. Long horizontals of white mortar shine out from glossy deep red brick terraces, whilst large shop signs of every hue and a hotchpotch of shapes scream out onto the streets. Behind though is the beating heart of Birmingham past and present: small industrial units on streets that hark back to smoky, metal-beating times: Suffrage Street; James Watt Industrial Park, Kelvin Way. Today the heart of another industry beats, that of independent retail, of Asian and African trade and neighbourhoods. True enough, Cash & Carrys’ may not be that inspiring an association with an area, but let’s face it, depending on your interpretation of the reality of those parts, it could be much worse.
In my early years in beer, I worked in the off license sector (or off trade) – the independent retail of alcohol sales. Last week, CGA Strategy, who measure this sort of thing, reported that off trade sales overtook on trade sales for the first time. Still someway off the global norm of 70-80% of the beer market being consumed at home, but getting there slowly. Only twenty years ago though, off trade sales were much smaller, the market immature. The supermarkets sold very little and their range was poor; in fact supply wasn’t brilliant – mostly keg brands canned. It seems incredible today to think that most sales went through the off licenses – either the big ‘specialists’, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Augustus Barnett (all of whom had been the off trade arms of big brewers at some point) – or through independent corner stores. These were supplied by the Cash & Carrys – again, either the big chains like Booker or Nurdin & Peacock, Makro, to independent, more local, operators at the other. The West Midlands had a thriving Cash and Carry trade and the west side of Birmingham: Cape Hill, Winson Green, Smethwick had a profusion of the independents.
They were notorious: scale operators, run like fiefdoms, focused on volume, big deals, trunker* loads of beer coming in and out. And they performed the necessary evil of ‘clearing’ – taking the close to best before stock and shipping it through their network of retailers in double quick time at half the profit.
Given the sheer volume of beery traffic passing in and out of the loading doors, damages were inevitable. Typically, the offending cans or bottles would be removed and the remaining stock repackaged out back to be sold on, sometimes at a discount, often not. Damages – or to give it its butterily correct name – ullage – was a ludicrously lucrative business. The hope was that the brewer would credit them for the whole case, when in reality only one or two cans were damaged; they would then repack and resell the whole lot and effectively, double their money**. Usually, the Cash and Carrys gave the ullage a dedicated area; close to an unused loading bay or tucked out of the way of the key sales area. As you approached, there was the lactic smell of super strength lager turning to vinegar, oil-like spills on the floor, gel like in their viscosity, and beer flies (drosophila melanogaster, or the more common name bugus cerevesiae), who would drift and plummet in acrobatic displays then diving to feast on the sugars which the yeast were planning to consume in turn. It’s the same smell you get in a cellar where less than meticulous handling & cleaning practices are maintained.
The back street Cash & Carry images came flashing back to me in an instant the other week, like rapid slide transitions in Powerpoint. We live in an old place, which has a small vault-like brick cellar below the room the dog sleeps in. You may justifiably ask what a bottle of Lindemans Framboise was doing in a fridge at all then, but let’s not get hung up here on the political correctness of beer storage. The point is that, made worse by a cold snap, the fridge temperature dropped and the beer made an escape for freedom. With surreptitious impact: what I found was a bottle essentially in tact: the cork still in; the crown in place, the foil seemingly undisturbed, but a huge plug of ice in the bottle and a spray of pinky-brown aging beery gloop covering the contents and inner sanctum of the fridge.
And my! The smell. Here was a characterful, already complex, heady beer, but given the chance to mature rapidly in contact with a room full of oxygen all for itself and probably some wild cellar yeasts snaffled up for good measure too. Vinegar, champagne, paint thinners or new emulsion perhaps, and fermenting raspberries – lots of fermenting raspberries in an advanced stage, über fruity yet sour and winey too. The memory, in short, of a potential great beer with a dash of Smethwick Cash & Carry.
*The term for a full 38 ton lorry of beer
** On one occasion, being full of youthful integrity, I refused to play ball and had to transport 20 cases of damaged Tennent’s Super cans, some of which were still spraying like a territorial cat through pinhead cracks, back to our depot. My Scirocco may have become The Zone Of The Piss Smelling Fly, but the Principle was worth upholding.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015