Tinted Shorts: Mort Subite, original Gueuze, 4.5%

"there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present."
“there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present.”

Lowlander Grande Café, London, June 2014

I’m fascinated by spontaneous fermentation. Can there be a stronger link in any food or drink we consume today with the beginnings of civilization; the beginnings of domestication and agriculture? I also find it fascinating that as a brewing method it has only survived in Payottenland in Belgium (at least until recently). Is it because allowing the wort to cool in the attic space, open to the elements is a mucky and time consuming way of doing things? Is it the simple hit-and-miss nature of it all?   Is it the end result – uncarbonated lambics – that are too limited in appeal and there variants, Gueuze, Kriek, Frambozen, Faro too time consuming, too tricky to master?

I thought about these questions as I sipped my Mort Subite Original Gueuze in Lowlander this week. It came in a natty little 25cl bottle which, at 4.5% ABV, was just right for the time. On pouring it was a burnished Chesterfield brown with visible strings of carbonation firing up form around the base of the glass. The head was open and fine, leaving lacing diaphanous and sheer, not the clumpy lines of mixed gas draught beer. There’s a marked (appley?) fruitiness in this gueuze and to sip, a gentle sweet wineyness too (hints of orange muscat dessert wine?); there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics – perhaps not enough in fact – but sufficient farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts have been working their magic. It’s not a classic Gueuze by any means; but for the time and place it was smooth, approachable and sufficiently interesting.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Lager, Part 8: Frankenbier

In Western Europe and North America breweries are opening again at a tremendous rate.  There are more breweries now in the U.S. than there were before Prohibition in 1919; there are more breweries in the U.K now since about the same.  Countries traditionally more focused on the vine than the bine are now tooling up and building breweries, with craft beer in healthy growth in countries such as France, Spain and Italy.

Yet until recently, over half of the World’s breweries – the World’s breweries – were in one country. You don’t need me to tell you which, I’m sure.  Not only was Germany easily the most breweried nation, over 50% of those breweries were in just one State, Bavaria.  And whilst we tend to associate Bavaria with Munich, the most heavily breweried part is further north, a band of rolling, rich agricultural land called Franconia. Indeed, it is said (although not officially measure or recorded) that it isn’t the Czechs who drink the most beer per head, but the Franks. It’s probably true. The region is peppered with breweries, from Nurenburg in the east to the traditional wine lands of Wurzburg in the west. From large, industrial breweries now part of national or multinational chains, to farmhouse breweries operated as co-operatives by village residents.  It is a beer dreamland; the royal palace of beer. And the crown jewel is Bamberg.

I have written of Bamberg before. Go there. Even long suffering partners will not complain when they see this medieval peach of a town. If needs must, passing off visiting the numerous beer halls as essential cultural, tourist-trail immersions should be a relatively straightforward strategy.  But for wine lovers, one brewery in particular may be a step too far. For Bamberg is known in particular for brewing one speciality, one style of beer utterly uncompromising in flavour. Like Lambics in Belgium, it is a style of beer that will transport you back to a distant past; of primitive brewing technologies, an age of agriculture and beer as subsistence not savouring.

The beer is rauchbier. Smoke beer. Open a bottle of rauchbier and you don’t get the aromas of malt or hops – well, not initially at least. Rather, these are the aromas of smoked meat or smoked salmon. A campfire, with damp kindling is brought to mind, woodsmoke drifting lazily through the sluggish early Autumn air.  The aromas come from smoked malt, kilned most typically over beechwood, the benefit, it is generally believed, was to enhance the keeping qualities of the beer but more likely, it was a taste acquired when many foods were preserved with smoke. A natural partner: spicy, smoked German sausage, or deliciously oily smoked eel perhaps, washed down with a rauchbier.

These are not beers for the faint-hearted. Once, in a bar in Leith – the Pond – I spotted a bottle of Bamberg’s most famous rauchbier from the Heller brewery in the fridge. I ordered a bottle and let an inquisitive colleague stick his nose in. He recoiled, aghast: “Peperami!” he spat. “You can’t drink that!”.

IMG_1316IMG_1317That was the beer I first encountered in Bamberg many years ago. It wasn’t a chance encounter – we, my brother and I, went in search of it. The Heller Brewery is tiny in global terms, but big in the town. It’s the bar against which other rauchbiers are measured and their bar serves rauchbier in large measures.  The brewery itself has a wonderful tap & restaurant, with dishes paired to go with their beer. And that beer is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Genuine Schlenkerla smoke beer. It is baroque. No, medieval is better – even the bottle label seems smoked stained. The typography is illegibly Germanic. The bottle shape, chunky, straightforward, utilitarian.  Everything about it says ‘what is inside is important’. Yet there are surprises. For such a full-on flavour fest, this is a lagered beer. Not, obviously in the Bavarian helles style, this is a dunkel lager – a stronger Märzen in fact. And as it proclaims on the label: “Dem Bayerische Reinheitsgebot entsprechend gebrautes” This is a beer authentically brewed according to the Bavarian Purity Law – no funny business to deliver that smoky flavour; just malt, hops and water.  And all this makes sense. Because Schlenkerla drinks counter-intuitively. Everything about the bottle says heavy, intense, challenging. The aroma on opening the bottle and pouring the beer strengthens this views; the first sip taking it further.

Yet wait. Go beyond what your mind is telling you and drink. Breathe. For a powerful beer, this isn’t overpowering. The smoke is mainly in the head, captured in the cells between the bubbles. The liquid is softer; a digestive-like maltiness is there, some gentle warming alcohol esters and most surprisingly, little bitterness. The flavour in fact fades quite quickly. It is a remarkably drinkable beer.  More than that, it is an evocative beer. A beer that takes you back to a place. Even if you haven’t been to Bamberg, Schlenkerla takes you back in time. To steep gabled, half timbered, medieval streets maybe. And certainly, to a taste of how beer once was that we have now almost forgotten.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014



65° 41’ North

It was Slati Bartfast, the planetary designer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy who was particularly proud of his handiwork in penning Norway’s fjord coastline (“the fiddly bits”). Rightly so, he did a cracking job, what with their soaring cliffs, spouting waterfalls and magnificent base jumps, if that’s your thing.  In fact, I find the map of the whole North Atlantic fascinating, from the mouth shaped bite of Scapa Flow on Orkney, to the fine filigree fingers of the blustery Shetlands and the Faeroes with their whale-backed mountain ridges, arching as if ready to dive. Then beyond, to Svalbard and across, to the land of ice and fire itself: Iceland, precariously perched just below the Arctic Circle on one of the world’s most active volcanic boundaries.

Iceland has always fascinated me: when I was younger, it was the Norse mythology, the Cod War and the Sagas, many of which are set on the island and spelt out the lives of the brave wanderers who had upped sticks and island hopped until they settled on what we now know as Iceland.  It shows how tough these characters were when you consider that they thought the island verdant and warm compared with where they had left. In fact, it’s said that those original Norse settlers called it ‘Iceland’, despite its greenness to discourage further immigration and leave more of the land and resources to them. In an ironic twist, Erik the Red, later banished from Iceland for sundry pillage, brawling and fornication related misdemeanours, settled on the icy landmass he found further west and called it ‘Greenland’ to attract more settlers (before buggering off yet again and investigating the coast of today’s Labrador and Newfoundland).

I went to Iceland in 1991 after leaving University, to dig pits, study soil and ice sediments, measure glacier melt and do various climate-change related activities in the days before anyone seemed to be bothered about that sort of thing.  What I did not do was drink beer: firstly due to a lack of geographical proximity to any licensed premises and secondly, because I was poor and beer was – is – tear-inducingly expensive.   For the first four weeks, I stayed on a farm in the far north, Dalvík.  Our party, split into two: one half, my research tutor, his wife and young child stayed with a farmer who they had known for many years.  The other half, me and a small party of German researchers, stayed on a deserted farm a few miles further on.  Beer was so prized that it was the way we paid for our hospitality, along with a case of good single malt. The reason was Prohibition – at the time, Iceland had only legalised beer two years prior; its strength was strictly controlled, as was who could sell it. Like many Scandinavian markets you could only buy alcohol from a Government licensed shop.  And because the ban on beer had only just been lifted there were no Icelandic brewers and so everything was imported, everything expensive.

22 years on and the situation has changed.  I can’t tell you this from primary research (I plan to go back soon but haven’t made it yet) but through other means, chief of which is the small but growing number of Icelandic breweries I’ve been keeping an eye on.  Back in 1991, when I met my brother in the final week in Reykjavik, we pushed the boat out one night, wandering down to the sea front area and treated ourselves to a pizza and a Pripps Blå: a nondescript margherita and a nondescript Swedish euro beer but *ouch*, it dented my wallet when I could least afford it.

IMG_0652IMG_0658Today though I am drinking a beer from one of the nascent craft breweries. This one in fact is close to my affections as it’s from Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest settlement and situated just below the Arctic Circle. It was the place I flew into all those years ago before heading even further round the northern coast to the farm. It was here we did our shopping; buying delicacies such as caviar in metal tubes or vac-packed puffins. It was here too that our Jeep broke down and we ended up making an impromptu meal on a camping stove from air-dried cod, turnips and a can of tomatoes, just off the forecourt of the most incongruously placed Esso filling station imaginable, before eventually fixing the engine problem with a pair of old tights.  There was no brewery back then. Today there are a few, including Iceland’s largest, Villifel (Viking) and a smaller, craft ale brewer, Einstök Ölgerđ. It was beers from the latter that I found in the Harvey Nics pop up shop in The Trafford Centre of all places.

I bought a couple of bottles of the Pale Ale, a 5.6% affair, presented in a dark blue Scandinavian minimalist label-set, featuring some bearded bloke with a horned helmet and crossed axe detailing. All very dark ages chic.  It’s a good beer: very much in the style of an American pale ale, with a melted caramel colour and a grassy, lemony, wheaty aroma and a soft, gently carbonated body with a sharp hop tang. It’s a beer perfect for these high latitude dark nights and short days, when the sun hardly seems to rise above the horizon.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Fake tales of Copen hagen

My eldest daughter and I are currently into the Arctic Monkeys.  To use the innovation curve so often misquoted in the press, you can hardly call us ‘innovators’ – well, to be fair, you can hardly call me an innovator. It’s ‘Laggards’ all the way in the Tinted House*. ‘Bardus et prout’ (‘Backwards and Proud‘) is our humble yet forward-thinking family motto.  In my defence though, I bought the album at the time of the initial hype but was also aware that she was 5 and there was one of those pearlescent ‘Parental Advisory Lyrics’ stickers on the front.  I still have to turn the volume down at the right moment on ‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’, otherwise I will find myself in a tight corner where I need to explain both fornication and self pleasure to her on the way to Stagecoach.  Mum’s job I reckon.

But anyway – the rather tenuous link here is about the bandwagon – ‘Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook’ Alex wails nasally in his Sheffield twang in the aforementioned ditty – and a link to last week’s ‘Radler’ piece.   It’s nice to watch a bandwagon being jumped on in the moment – let’s call it Bandwagon Live!

Last Summer, in the fresh and shiny New Shandy category, Carling Zest was born; last week, I reported on the Heineken following suit with Bruce, Sheila und Gunter’s ‘Foster’s IMG_2578Radler’, whilst framing the opportunity positively as the ‘mid strength moderation’ segment.  And just like the proverbial buses, here comes Carlsberg Citrus, a 2.8% citrus beer.  Whilst Paddy Power are taking money on the next Pope, just round the corner Betfred are offering good odds on Stella Limon (‘that’s Li-mon not Le-mon’) and even Greene King are odds on for Greene King IPA Light with Lemongrass.

You can’t criticise the Danes here – Anheuser Busch were first to market in the US with Bud Light Lime four or so years ago to amazing success, and many others in many markets have followed suit.  It’s all a sobering (possibly, literally) reminder of the importance of really understanding what drinkers want.  Us beery bloggers have a tendency to self-pleasure ourselves on all the interesting craft, cask, funky bottle stuff and often typecast the world in our own image; typically only noticing what we want to see***.  Yet over there in the other real world, people are interested in lower strength, flavoured beers and don’t seem too bothered if it comes out of a mega factory.

It’s all fine by me, if beer is the winner, that’s a good thing. But I’m left scratching my head, wondering if genuine innovation is finally dead.

* Everitt Rogers, brother of Buck, was a sociology Professor who has helped marketeers and business people for over 50 years with his book, Diffusion of Innovations. In it, he postulated** five stages, with innovators who are all feisty, cool and leading the way, early adopters who pretend to be and then at the far end, the Laggards who couldn’t give a Monkeys but just couldn’t refuse that bargain at Comet when it went into administration.

** Titter ye not.

*** Something called Inattentional Blindness. Look who swallowed a textbook.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Under the radlar

A statistical question for you courtesy of The Groper* magazine – stats that on first reading shocked me, but made sense after I engaged my brain:

Which part of the UK beer market has enjoyed growth of almost 40% in the last 12 months?

Regular readers** will know that this isn’t cask beer, which shock! horror! is not in growth at the present time.

Any ideas?

Well let me tell you, it is the mid strength moderation category***, a name coined by the Hiberno-Dutch axis that is Heineken UK.

Surprised?  Perhaps – but by which element?  Stepping back from this, it makes sense that lower alcohol beers are in growth.  The Government has incentivised brewers to focus on them.   Despite there being traditionally only limited demand for low alcohol beers (and I’m not talking about the low gravity quaffing beers that were consumed by the daily gallon in the halcyon era of heavy industry), brewers have got innovative. Right across the spectrum there are beers popping up from micro sized breweries, to regionals like Marstons and multi-nationals doing lagery stuff.  Many are tasty, others less so; many are ‘straight’ beers, others are flavoured.

I was more surprised by the name coined – ‘mid strength moderation’.  Yes it’s a nonsense, made up, industry term.  Yet it’s interesting – most ‘categories’ of beer as mentioned by Nielsen are purely descriptive:  ‘Standard Lager’, ‘Premium Lager’, ‘Superstrength lager’ and so on.  But here is a description that is suggesting to you its usage: moderation.  It begs a question I suppose, about what is ‘moderation’ – is it drinking pints of a low ABV beer or is it the way you consume?  I consider myself a moderate drinker, but at home the typical ABV of beers I consume is 5%.

No, this is a very deliberate attempt by Heineken to legitimise and give drinkers a reason and a motivation to consume low alcohol beer – it will be interesting to see if it sticks, particularly as they are deploying it for the first time on a new launch: Foster’s Radler – a 2% ABV lager, ‘cut with cloudy lemon’.    In itself, this is interesting. Foster’s = Australian swilling beer; Radler = style of German shandy / panaché. I  don’t suppose many Foster’s drinkers will be aware of, or particularly care about the heritage of ‘Radler’ beers so I don’t want to read too much into it, suffice it to say, with Molson launching Carling Zest, and now Heineken jumping on the bike**** these are beers that are pretty certain to stick around. The question is whether they will achieve significant scale, or end up achieving only moderately so.

*In the current climate this could be seen as a cheap and undoubtedly inappropriate joke, but its roots date much further back than that – it’s just been bubbling along waiting for a stand up script writer to ignore it.

** Hello, Sid.

***Sorry, last use of Asterisk the Gaul before I have to move to Roman Numerals.  Actually, the figures are A C Nielsen, but used by Heineken in this context. And for accuracy, the figure quoted was 39% growth for beers 3.3% ABV and under in the 52 weeks to w/e 5.1.2013. And breathe.

****Dang, apologies.  Radler comes from the German rad or bike.  See what I did there?

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, February 2013

Honey, honey

Some flavours just seem to have that magic fairy-dust effect. Elderflower for one.  If you want to make a drink a bit more adult, a bit tricksy, a bit special, just add ‘a touch of’ elderflower. Bottle Green, Belvoir cordials and their ilk all seem to be enjoying the benefits from the wave of the proverbial Elder Wand.  Lemongrass and ‘Sweet’ Chilli (whatever that is) are enjoying the same transformational effect on food. Take Walkers Ready Salted. Pack in matt finish bag. Add ‘Sweet’ Chilli. Boom!   Other flavours though just polarise. Ginger is one.  There’s a world of difference it seems between a fiery Tam O’Shanter of Idris or Old Jamaica and the subtle hint of Canada Dry or Fever Tree.  And honey.  Other than the texture, there seem few similarities between honey and marmite, but their ability to put people into a ‘Lovers’ camp and a ‘Haters’ camp is most definitely one.

I was mulling on this on Tuesday just gone as I drank – and more to the point – enjoyed, a bottle of Skinner’s ‘Heligan Honey.’  It’s amazing where drinks concocters find their raw ingredients in the quest for ingredient one-upmanship. New Zealand, Chile (not ‘sweet Chile’ note) and Kentucky have all been put to good use in beer in recent years. Organic is assumed and Manuka, well, frankly, yesterday’s news my friend.  And so it is the case with this beer: ‘the subtle addition of real Cornish honey will give your palate a buzzzzz!’ – the honey being from the working gardens / farm / Victoriana themepark of the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall (Skinners being from Truro, even further down towards the pointy bit of our islands).

The way I see it is brewing with honey is a natural thing to do, not just because it’s natural but because presumably, it’s a great, easily fermentable source of brewing sugar. And those memories: sweet hot toddies when you are under the weather, or bronze-red runny honey drizzled oozingly onto steaming porridge (or triggered by my mate Neil’s ice cream toppings at Uni, honey, golden treacle and clotted cream, scooped, slid and generally coaxed onto a ’99 Flake).  Good memories all, and deep anchors in the mind.  Yet honey as a brewing ingredient flatters to deceive.  Somehow it doesn’t pull it off. There’s either the lack of balance with insufficient hop ‘cut’ to even out the beer, or strangely, too little honey character and disappointment all round.  I was drawing the conclusion that honey beers are like learning to ride a unicycle: a great skill and all that, but largely useless in getting you about, which is rather the point after all.  But Heligan Honey may just keep them on the agenda – although described as a ‘pale amber’ light refreshing bitter’ on the label – I would describe it more as a hazlenut colour and the honey is treated well. Enough that you know it’s there with deft touches of background sweetness, but not enough to give any cloy. And enough in fact to continue to perservere with beers containing the original amber nectar.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

Reassuringly bollocks free.

There’s a general murmuring in marketing communities that the latest Stella work from ABI for it’s ‘Cidre’ brand is the dogs bollocks. Taking the basics of a drinks experience and adding a premium feel to every touchpoint., hence ‘Cidre’ not ‘cider’; ‘From the continent’ not ‘…the country’; and of course, served, not in a pint glass, but in a ‘chalice’ (“Chalisssse”). Perhaps it is the DBs, or perhaps Newcastle Brown, ever-so cheekily, have really read it right?