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.

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

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.

Sparking clogs

We used to drive into Manchester past Maine Road (Manchester City’s old ground), through Moss Side and the always-steaming Royal Brewery of Scottish & Newcastle; then skirt past Whalley Range to the top of Deansgate just as the arced roof of GMEX came into view, or swerve a tighter left to Old Trafford, like Ryan Giggs cutting in from the wing. Moss Side remains my first impression of Manchester, a city which, despite years living in the Midlands now, still feels ‘mine’. But boy, what an impression: the street fronts then, as most are today, were Victorian terraces – strong, red, Ruabon brick, glossy but tarnished, clothed by plastic shop facades of a range of implausible businesses, 48 sheet poster hoardings and spray-paint tags. Behind was the urban ‘improvement’: low rise local authority dwellings where once were the back-to-backs; low-rise, red or blue flags fluttering depending on your allegiance, set off on battleship grey and cream concrete. Not far north of here is the city centre; back in the ’80s the blooming was only just beginning and this area was tough, rough and uneasy on the eye.

And Manchester’s beer weren’t that easy on the throat back then either.  I’ll be honest, whenever I drive home, I see my first Robinson’s pub (The Lawton Arms usually) and there’s a pang of ‘I’m home‘. But I never got on with their beer.  There was Boddington’s of course, Boddies, which had mythical status growing up – pale, strong, smooth, hardy somehow, brewed up next to the prison, it somehow erred on the boundaries of good and evil.  Then Whitbread got hold of it and turned it into a confection, a very successful one for a few years I grant you, what with all the ‘Cream of‘ and Blue Tits and Wafer Cones and that, but a confection nonetheless; a confection that today it is reaping the rewards from. It’s largely gone (unless you’re in a Whitbread owned Premier Inn, well known for their beer range) and it’s mythical presence is lost forever.  And there was Hydes, but they were confined to their own pubs so were off my radar. And that was it; my mental landscape: Manchester, rich, industrious, ambitious in all but beer.

It would be trite to say it’s changing – there are so many craft breweries now that even many villages have one – what am I saying? There’s one on top of a Moor – but there are Manchester beers that now have that ‘edge’ just as the city has in industry, in architecture, in music, in media, in sport.  So many in fact, that I worry – a worry that I know many don’t share – but I worry about how these breweries can survive in an environment where we are drinking less in general, drinking less beer in turn and where the big boys are waking up to the threat and the opportunity posed by craft.  The key of course, even if your exit strategy is to sell up, is to create a brand, and a brand built off beer that is superbly brewed and truly different.

That’s what Cloudwater are doing.  A tongue-in-cheek riff on Manchester’s rep for precipitation, the rainy season is at the heart of the brand – although every time I’ve been up recently it’s been unseasonably warm and bright.  Cloudwater are up round the back of Piccalilli Station and they’re brewing seasonal beers – seasonality in fact, is at the heart of what makes them different. Perhaps it’s the stories of queues round the block for Russian River’s ‘Pliny the Elder‘ that drew them to it; or perhaps it’s just a philosophy of ‘we’ll sell what we brew’ – a philosophy that takes you away from having to worry about the economies of brewing to a tight ‘product specification’ band, worrying more about brewing efficiently and consistently rather than the taste, a skill in itself (and a skill the big boys are better at than many craft players). That neck of the woods, Ancoats, is Lowry territory of course, and there are more than hints of it today. Victorian factories lying dormant or repurposed; narrow streets, still lain to setts or tarmaced over, the setts peeping through down the edges or where wear and tear has scuffed off the surface. From improbable nooks and crannies, buddleia springs out with its attendant insect life as if to warn that if we don’t reclaim the buildings, they will.

Cloudwater DIPA v3 2It’s this ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ word of mouth that seems to be fuelling Cloudwater’s burgeoning reputation.  Their Double IPA v3 (DIPA v3) has a menacing, grasping hand jumping out as a greeting: it sports bittering hop in abundance and then four aroma hops Citra, Chinook, Comet and  Mosaic, a blend of east coast, west coast and the Pacific all raining down in Manchester. With the addition of brewing sugar, this beer is a whopper and it seems to cover every dimension of IPAdom: piney and tangy, like you’re shoes scuffing up pine needles in a forest; grassy and dry, with the aromas of newly mown lawns in Spring and that spiciness, both I think, from the prodigious hopping and the yeast strain. I drank it whilst reading the paper (at 9% ABV, I should say whilst I could read the paper – it got a little blurry after a while, but that could be age) and the ever-so off white head lasted and lasted as only the real cream of Manchester could.

Cloudwater Dark LagerI was actually more impressed though with their Dark Lager from their winter range. A more modest 5.5% ABV, but actually a ‘dark’ ‘lager’, i.e. it was dark from the more roasted proportion of the malt, but it’s many stratifications of flavours, its layers attested to good lagering. This wasn’t a mild ale that’s been laid-low for a week more and masquerades as ‘lager’. This had that rounded smoothness, that matured and assured depth of character where no single element overwhelms – and – and this is important, it is drinkable, sessionable, call it what you will.  A lager in name, with the character of a refined ale. And there is something of the Lowry about these beers; seemingly simple – from the labels, to the styles – but underneath it is beguilingly complex and fulfilling. A fitting revitalisation to a part of Manchester that has been under a raincloud for many years.

Drown the bureaucrats in beer

I’m a firm believer that we all have our own peculiar ticks, our own OCD tendencies over one thing or another. Mine? Well, I have a few; some perhaps, are just rituals. I start the day with a cafetière of coffee. Instant coffee is like Watney’s Red Barrel, firmly, if you will excuse the word-play, beyond the pale. Tea? Milk in first, no question. Cream tea: jam on first, clotted cream after, no question. More strangely, I find myself particularly irked by the 1974 Local Government Act. Essentially, for bureaucratic neatness, the English Shires, or Counties were reorganized. Some counties, in effect, disappeared: Rutland, Westmorland, Cumberland, Middlesex. ‘City-states’ were created: Tyne and Wear; Greater Manchester, West Midlands. New administrative areas were cooked up too: Humberside, Merseyside, Avon, Cumbria. But the Government of the time, in their own version of administrative OCD had a revulsion against ‘exclaves’. Parts of counties that weren’t attached to the ‘main body’. Dudley, in the Black Country (actually in Worcestershire), was totally surrounded by the Staffordshire Black Country ‘proper’. The Furness peninsulas in Lancashire, were separated from the rest of the county by Morecambe Bay. Parts of Flintshire in North Wales. To the modernising eye of 1972 (when the Act was designed and the Bill passed through Parliament), the New World Order was manifested by sharply tailored bell bottoms; neatly brushed moustaches and floridly smart Prince of Wales Check suit lapels. Exclaves were distinctly untidy and, more to the point, were a real hassle for the bin lorry drivers who might have to stray across the ‘border’ to empty the rubbish. So my home county, Cheshire, had its arms removed. The left arm, the Wirral went to Merseyside, and the right arm, the spur of Longdendale and the Woodhead valley ‘given’ to Derbyshire simply because had they not done so, it would have become an ‘exclave’ due to the new mass of Greater Manchester being created and annexing the towns of Stockport, Staybridge, Mottram and Sale. And remember, exclaves are bad.

In some places there was uproar: Rutland has been restored after a long campaign; Humberside has ceased to exist. Elsewhere, quiet protest continues. The Westmorland Gazette is still published in the old county town of Kendal. In Delph and Diggle, on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, the county street signs still get vandalized and white rose flags are occasionally hoisted up the flag poles rather than red.   Frustratingly, in other areas the changes seem of little consequence to the residents, Cheshire for one. Maybe I feel it more as I’ve lived away for so long now.

Moor beerBut brewers are tuning in. Robinsons in Stockport now describe themselves as ‘Cheshire Brewers’ even though they’ve been in Greater Manchester for 41 years. And Moor beers are ‘Brewed and bottled in Somerset’ even though, strictly speaking I guess, they’re in one of four new ‘Unitary Authorities’ in that part of the world. What a load of tosh. I know, let’s play cricket for ‘The Unitary Authority of Bath and North Somerset’.  No thanks. The craft brewers, yet again, see sense and speak it.   And that’s certainly the case with Moor. Here are simple beers in concept, carefully brewed and elegantly delivered. I bought a couple of cans of So’hop and Nor’hop when I was down at Darts Farm in (the ancient county of) Devon. Not only do they look lovely and feel great in the hand (due to textured ink) but they’re terrific beers the pair. Nor’hop is a pale ale (described as a ‘golden ale’ if that helps you – not me) brewed with a generous slug of northern hemisphere hop varieties, it has an unsurprising but in this case superbly balanced floral character – a hint of elderflower as well as the more dominant citrusy notes. So’hop, on the other hand, has that distinctive Australasian character; still a well balanced and sessionable 4.1% yet so much hop aroma, character and body jam-packed in. There was a distinct tinned pineapple note – and that’s meant in a good way – as well as a sweet honey character, not overpowering, and psychosomatically it would be easy to believe there is a little drop of Manuka in there – there isn’t as far as I’m aware, but that’s perception for you.

IMG_5491What can we conclude from all of this? Politicians are happy to throw away a thousand years of our connection to the land, to our regions and counties and think we won’t care or notice. But brewers are at the vanguard of the rebellion: because nothing connects someone to their sense of place than their local ale; and the brewers at least can see sense.

Craft and consolidation

I’ve thought long and hard about a Tinted perspective on the ‘craft’ debate. Industry insiders and writers of all denominations here in the UK, in the ‘States and elsewhere have chipped in to make this a rich vein of beer column inches. Should I join in?

The answer I reached is no. And not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s already too late. “Craft” as a word is already baseless, devalued. It’s become so over-used, so stretched that not only has it lost any useful meaning but it’s crossed the line and become unhelpful and confusing. At its bluntest it is a false amplifier, used to cast a positive halo on something questionable; at it’s most sophisticated, it adds no value to the more knowledgeable drinker who’ll work out for themselves what’s good and what’s not.

If we truly think that ‘craft beers’ are motivating for many drinkers then what do we think craft means? Or more to the point, what should it mean? Surely, you would imagine, it should involve some craft, some learned skill, human artistry, or personal flair. I like ironwork when hammered and hewn by a smith; or glass art, igneously brought to life by the likes of Jo Downs. To me that is a ‘craft’. One piece, similar on face value, is totally different from the next. Each with its own unique fingerprint.

For me ‘craft beer’ should mean this too. A while ago, I visited the Žatec Brewery in the Czech Republic. It was fairly tumbledown, apart from where investment had been made in key places: in the copper room; in fermentation, in yeast propagation and in new lines throughout. In the main, Žatec brew familiar Czech, lagered beers, not the mega hop profile of a West Coast pale ale, or the counter-intuitive thinking of a black IPA. But their beers are craft: the ingredients are picked, selected and loaded by hand. Fermentation is judged to be completed by the brewmaster not the stopwatch, maturation also. There is some slight variation in the end result, precisely part of its charm. They’re now half owned by Carlsberg, but are they any less craft?

Likewise, I recently visited Westons cider mill in Much Marcle. The vat shed there is one of the wonders of British cider making; there must be over 50 oak vats, all old, all named, unique in height and girth, strapped together with iron belts and carrying titles as varied as ‘Gloucester’, ‘Worcester’ and “Aston Villa’. But every drop of Westons cider spends time in those old oak vats. There’s just no way on earth that each batch can be 100% consistent, yet alone the fact that much of their product is ‘vintage’ so will vary enormously from one season to the next dependent on the fecundity of the harvest. Surely, this is craft? Yet within cider circles, merely because of their ‘scale’ (medium-large in cider terms, modest compared with many breweries, minuscule compared with brewing multi-nationals) many commentators claim that they can’t be described as such. They remain wholly family owned and independent.

Yet equally, I have been round a number of craft breweries who use spankingly new, gleaming stainless steel equipment and whose brewing process features automation (grist loading, hop addition for example) and is run from an iPad. Is this craft?

Our perspective has become cock-eyed. What we have to nurture is something entirely different. What we have to nurture is the human desire for variety, to be curious, to discover and try new things. A desire that in the late 60s and 70s was almost suppressed. The role of ‘innovation’ in proper beer remains as important today as it has ever been. On the one hand, we have the major international brewers putting much of their focus into mass-produced hybrid products (part lager, part spirit, often mixed not brewed) that do little for the brand other than confuse and are, in essence, a way of supplying easy drinking, relatively low cost alcohol to young adults. Conversely we have a push for discovery and rediscovery in genuine beer from national brewers to micros (and even, more patchily, with some multi-nationals) that matches this human trait and is breathing new life, new vigour back into beer. This is what we must protect, through our inventiveness and as drinkers, through out wallets.

Because have no doubt. The threat of mega-consolidation is a looming large now, dwarfing any petty questions of how to define ‘craft’. The economics of acquisition demand cost and efficiency savings. Savings mean cuts, closures and simplification. Brands will die; brew streams will be reduced, provenance will count for little. And as in turn, growth slows, so the eye of the multinational looks out into the world of burgeoning smaller brewers and eyes them lasciviously. Once they’re ‘synergized’ into their networks, the clock on them being able to carry on brewing in the way that the Founders intended, the way that built the brand and brought them success, is ticking. Tick follows tock follows tick.

So call it craft if you want to. Call it ‘interesting’. Call it ‘flavoursome’. Call it what you will. To me, it doesn’t matter. But whatever you do, support independent brewers who continue to innovate and brew with principle. A dark shadow is growing.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

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