Category Archives: Lagered beer

The future’s bright…

For every trend, there’s a counter trend. For every artisan baker firing the ovens at 3am to conjure up beautiful rough cobbles of sourdough, there’s a new ‘Chorleywood’ enzyme innovation; textureless white sponge with seeds, or bits of fibre you can’t see, or just a new whiter-than white White. For every back street coffee bean roaster, filling the air with their smokey perfume, there’s a new micro-grind instant from some multinational hiding their true colours.

And so it is in beer. At one end, the focus is on old styles dusted down, or new styles drawing inspirations from as far back as Mesopotamia; from fermentation with wild yeast, or bacteria grown on mouldy fruit, or kettle souring or barrel-ageing. Of Quintuple IPAs or session beers hopped to the Copper top to make up for lack of alcoholic body: and this is good; no, this is awesome – it’s the producer-powered, purpose-fuelled revolution against the brewing as Economics not as Art. It’s the rivulet of reactionaries that’s become a flood – a flood that even the Big Brewers can’t resist; entering through mimicry, partnering or acquisition. Yet, oddly, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong place.  Perhaps, in the quest for solving the problem of the decline in mainstream, mass-produced lager they’re looking to  craft, and artisan, and hand-produced and small-scale and then looking to scale these up. And undoubtedly, much of this will be successful, despite the claims that a backlash will defeat it.

IMG_0457But there’s something going on in their core.  Drinkers are turning back to lagered beer.  And yes, they’re undoubtedly turning to the real deals: like Budvar, brewed with Moravian Malt and Saaz hops and matured for 102 days; or like Brooklyn Lager, brewed to a recipe from before Prohibition, with it’s deep conker-red colour, and off-white head and thick, coating body or they’re discovering little gems like Windsor & Eton’s Republika, which may not be true to a particular style, but is as damn fine a lager beer as you’ll find.

It’s more though. It’s drinkers not rejecting the likes of Camden Hells or Meantime’s London Lager, just because they’ve been acquired by someone bigger – but continuing to be pulled towards them. And it’s also the rise of a new wave of Big Beer brands: Nastro Azzurro, Estrella Damm, Amstel. Sniff all you like, but these brands are growing – maybe not drunk by you, or me, but growing… because people want to drink them.

We’ve got to look beyond the sensibilities of ownership, the emotions of scale, to see what’s going on. There’s a return to lager amongst drinkers, and it’s accelerating.  It’s a return that will soon spur the current losers in this battle – the likes of Carling, Carlsberg and Foster’s to react in the only way they can, by properly listening to what drinkers want and innovating.  This is a good thing too. It’s signalling a return to a beer style that stands the test of time. The span of flavour profiles within lager may not be as broad as top-fermenting or wild-fermented beers (well, certainly if you exclude smoked lagers anyway), but it’s robust. There’s something for everyone: tastier beers like Pilsner Urquell at one end, to simply sessional everyday quaffers at the other. There are lagered specialities like dunkel beers in the mix, as well as *faints* light beers. This is a beer style that didn’t conquer the world through force of arms, but through drinker preference. In the UK it may have started as a beer for women but it didn’t take longer to become the beer for louts. That’s some shift. And it’s a shift that’s behind us now: lager is legitimised; lager’s time is coming again.

Advertisements

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.

Rice, Clogs and Fettuccini

For the third largest global economy, the fourth largest exporter and a population of almost 130 million people, the influence of Japan on global brewing has been slight. It’s been, in broad terms, a follower rather than a leader, perhaps reflecting the influence of other nations on Japanese identity and culture since the nineteenth century.   And as with many beer cultures, which Japan surely is, its brewing scene was (and is) dominated by large national players; and in a similar parallel, only comparatively recently has a new wave of start ups and craft brewers started to make an impact. Despite this the craft scene is slower to emerge and in quantity at least (overall volume, share of market and number of craft breweries) behind other ‘beer nations’.

Part of this is cultural and behavioural: the Japanese are very proud of the achievements of their companies and traditionally the mutual bonds of paternalistic management with the honour and pride of working for these companies strengthens this. When it comes to beer therefore, Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi have been the mainstays on the islands of Japan for many years. And their interests stretch more broadly across drinks, particularly into distilling (whiskey), sake brewing and soft drinks.

Asahi have always intrigued me: for many years they languished behind Kirin as the leading brewer, with beers dating back to the late 1800s (Asahi Gold is one still brewed today). Traditionally, Japanese beers were heavily German inspired and were frequently malt-accented, leaning towards the Bavarian helles style (only maltier) as well as other German styles too, including black lagers and dunkels. But what propelled Asahi forward was their launch of ‘Super Dry’ in 1987. Pernicious whispers suggest that it was actually based on the recipe of an American light beer that they had been partnering with, but in body it is more like a north German pils: not as hop forward as Jever, but extremely well attenuated, flinty and crisp. I’ve never found it a beer that forms and keeps a good head, but in Japan this is not seen as a particular signifier of quality and for Super Dry less so, often drunk from the bottle as it is, or served in a small glass – it’s high carbonation cleansing the palate well when drunk with food – as beer in Japan so often is. So, a fairly typical, mass produced lager then? Well, yes, but also much more – the beer that saved Asahi in fact. Their performance and share had been falling relative to their peers, but Super Dry was an instant hit – so much so that it changed the character of the Japanese beer market,  and Asahi’s competitors struggled to copy it and catch up.

Asahi 1 DickieFor a brief period, I marketed Asahi Super Dry in the UK. Success with the brand was reasonable over here, albeit, it was always more ‘push’ than ‘pull’ and the relationship with the team from Asahi themselves was always an interesting one – a ‘quick dip’ into some of the differences of business conducted Anglo-Saxon style from that conducted Japanese style. The contract, for example, was always used as a guide by the UK team (de facto) – whereas for the Asahi team it was always ‘de jure’. One year, slightly behind the contractual volumes, the Japanese team decided to deliver the remainder to the UK depot anyway, even though it hadn’t been ordered. Twenty trucks rolled into Burton on Trent carrying enough Super Dry to keep shelves stocked for – well – let’s just say, you could over-winter pretty easily on it. But as far as the Asahi team was concerned, we had committed to a given volume in a contract and we had to find a way to sell it (no B&M Bargains in those days).

Overall though, the Japanese have played it close to home with their expansions beyond the shores of Japan. Kirin invested in Australia and New Zealand; Sapporo, in possibly the most ambitious move, bought Sleeman in Canada whilst Asahi opportunistically snaffled up a stake in Tsingtao from Inbev when it sold that company to oil the wheels of the Anheuser-Busch mega deal.

It’s now a mega-mega-deal that sees the first real expansion of Asahi out of Asia. Should it go ahead, one of the wheel greasers for the SAB acquisition by ABI is European crown-jewel selling. To overcome anti trust rules in the US and to free up cash to reduce the borrowing required, ABI put Grolsch, Peroni and Meantime up for sale. There were many suitors apparently, but Asahi were successful. It’s an interesting move: there are no real synergies (efficiencies or cost savings) as Asahi have no European operations. Shepherd Neame will probably have to find another brand to replace the volume they brew for Asahi in time, but other than that Asahi will be operating three stand alone businesses: the second largest in Holland, second largest in Italy and a significant London craft brewer.   And you can forget the Japanese and Anglo-Saxon business culture differences – they’re going to be nothing compared to Dutch vs. Italian approaches. It’ll be a Bitterballen vs Bolognese bun fight.

But this isn’t a synergy play. This feels quite different and is possibly one of three moves. The first is desperation. It could be that Asahi see the global brewing world consolidating at such a rate of knots that they felt they had to move. An option, but unlikely – these are, after all, wonderful brands and whilst they have paid a premium, they’ve not over paid (about £2bn – chicken feed compared with the £70bn ABI are forking out for SAB). Second, and most likely is that this is an export move. Suddenly, Asahi have a premium portfolio of brands that they can take to most markets: Italian style, Dutch substance and the trendiness of one of the world’s largest brands. Add in, over time, Tsingtao, Meantime and anything else that they can bring to the party, and here is an interesting and powerful range for potential customers. A range that could perhaps nip away at Heineken, or Molson Coors, or even ABI here and there. Thirdly, and the most difficult to gauge is whether this a more strategic growth play. Are we now seeing Asahi build a platform for further consolidation? Will they now use their European base to target mid tier independent brewers (or unloved brands)? Will they use their base to buy into craft brewers (as they have in Australia)?

Whatever transpires, the move will be interesting for the European beer landscape as new morning rays from the rising sun shine down upon it.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

Sell out

Crikey – talk about the hissy fit in UK craft beer. Camden Town sell out to ABI, particularly following Meantime falling to SAB and Brewdog, most publically, have a meltdown, kick out Camden products and declare Perpetual Independence.

Let me tell you up front though. I put some money into Camden Town Brewery. This doesn’t make me anti-Brewdog nor pro Camden. In this case, it was an investment, nothing more. I believe now, as I believed when assessing whether to make an investment in them, that they were a sound place to put some hard-earned brass. Here is (was) my rationale:

Firstly, the owners were not the types to be in it for the long term; amongst them Sir John Hegarty. He’s an Advertising Man – he has helped companies build their brands to increase the value of their companies all his working life; he’s also built businesses himself and become a ‘Sir’ as a result. We’re not talking about fighting for a ‘cause’ here like Keith Grossman or Jack McAuliffe or Fritz Maytag were in the 1960s and 1970s USA. Back then, beer was on its knees; behemoth brewers with gargantuan breweries churning out identikit pale ‘lager’. There was something to fight for. London, 2010 – the year Camden Town Brewery was founded? Frankly the craft beer craze was maturing, or accelerating at least. You could well ask 5 years ago, just as much as you could now: do we really need another craft brewery?

IMG_3036

Camden: pops form the bar; instantly recognisable; consistent ‘hellish’ attitude = brand

Well yes, in a way – and here’s my second point. Camden Town was pushing for difference. It built itself around lagered beers, as well as some well brewed specialities – their Wit stands out in particular for me. Most other craft brewers – as much for practical and cost reasons than anything else – stick to ale and top fermentation. So do we really need another craft brewery? No, unless, like Wild Beer Company say, you do something that stands out. You can argue that Camden beers aren’t that different – but in a sea of craft brewed ale, there was little craft brewed lager in 2010; and even accounting for Meantime, still plenty of capacity to push into that space in London alone.

Thirdly, brand. Oh, I know what the purist will argue: the whole point that craft fights against is mass produced brands of non-descript lager: Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters, Stella, Peroni. But that’s an assumption based on a generalisation: that we all want something different. We don’t. Most of us, most of the time, want choices that are reliable and safe. That doesn’t – and I must stress this – doesn’t mean bland, everyday choices – but choices that we feel confident in; that we discovered, found ourselves, trust and that make us feel different. And it doesn’t mean niche. What the team at Camden did brilliantly is screw together an incredible brand: an amazing brand design and identity across the whole range that sings from the bar. A hellishly beautiful tone of voice that unites all their communication. Events, that bring you in to the Camden community and locality, yet which speak to us more widely. These guys didn’t set out to build a brewery, they set out to build a brand and they have done it incredibly.

And whilst I was in it for the long term – looking forward to my ‘Hells Raiser’ annual beer and trips to the AGM – equally, I fully expected Camden to sell; I just wasn’t expecting it to be in the first six months.

Throughout this, Brewdog’s behaviour has been fascinating – and two-faced. Immediately stopping-selling Camden products in their bars, because ‘they don’t sell anything by ABI’ (the small matter that the deal hasn’t gone through yet is a mere trifle) is one thing; but changing their origin story is another. Read their guff; it’s moving; it’s from the heart. But it’s a story. It’s economical with the truth. When Brewdog launched they were quite happy to trade with the mega-breweries they now despise to get their product to market. With Carlsberg. With Molson Coors. With Tesco. With Punch Taverns. I imagine that they still do. They were perfectly happy to buy into the hard work of these companies in building distribution channels and quite happy to grow their brands off the back of them. But that’s been deleted out of their official history now. But the real irony? Brewdog is a lesson in branding. Their beers are fine – nothing more. They’re no better or worse than other craft beers of their styles. The real difference is in the clothes that they wear; their attitude and use of the f-word like a teenager trying to impress his mates. If we truly drunk with our mouths and tastebuds and not our eyes we would all see Brewdog beers for what they are: great brand, average beer.

And there’s an interesting footnote here too: Camden went for about £85m; Meantime about £115m. Molson Coors back in 2010 bought Sharps for £20m… £20m for a larger brewery; in a beautiful location that gives the brand romance, with a leading brand in Doom Bar. Molson Coors must be having a little chortle to themselves now. But it also shows that the money is to be made in great brands – and more interestingly it seems, in lager.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

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

Bier und pretzeln

Our U.S. beer trip – well, I say that, but actually it was a holiday to Disney and the Gulf Coast with the kids – but you know what I mean – the beer trip, started with a wind up.

We were going to tell the kids at Christmas, but frankly their behaviour on the day didn’t warrant it, so we held the news back. And somehow, with the deft touch of time, the idea metamorphosised into a trip to Germany. Handy, that indirect flight via Frankfurt. But Germany? For two weeks? At Easter? “But dad, why do we need swimming trunks and beach towels?” asked my eldest. “Errr… there’s the largest indoor water park in Europe” I lied, unconvincingly. And damn, if she didn’t look it up on the internet too, but we brushed it aside and stealthily had a new Center Parcs built to accommodate my Pork Pies. “But what is there to actually do in Germany, Dad?” probed my youngest, incredulously, a weak seam obviously evident. “It doesn’t sound very exciting.”

But somehow the answer was much easier, and excitement veritably bubbled up from me. “Bier and pretzels”, I confidently replied. “Yes, bier and pretzels – or pretzelN,” – I stressed, always eager to fit in some extra curricular essential learning. And I meant it. Well the baked goods part in particular, them being below the legal drinking age and all that.

Pretzel signAnd they could see I really was excited. I told them of Mr. Jeffers, my first German teacher, who changed from the standard first language lesson from numbers 1 to 10 and ‘hello’s’ to how to order a beer. What would the number crunchers at Ofsted think today? But I remember it to this day and that’s surely the most important thing. I told them of a trip to the Rhine valley when I was a teenager and seeing the bäckerei with their gold leaf pretzel signs outside and glass shelves overflowing with wonderful rye breads, pumpernickel and amazing cream cakes. I told them about my first visit to Germany, also on the Rhine valley, and going to a würst and senf festival in the town we were staying in. A country where the festival is the sausages and mustard, not the accompaniment to something else. And these were not those briney, skinny, industrially squeezed sausages you buy in tins and plopped in a fluffed up white roll. There were sausages of all colours, shapes (well, not all shapes; they were mostly sausage-like) and manner of meaty flavours, cooked over wood barbecues. I can still smell the tingle of the appley charred smoke in my nostrils and picture it drifting down the bunting clad street. And then, to top it off, the creamy, vinegary soft, spiciness of the mustard. This wasn’t street food: this was beyond that; this was deeper, more heartfelt; this was passion, German food culture and love served up on a plate.   And I told them about the vine shaded beer gardens sloping down to the Danube in Regensburg with yeasty, clovey wheat beers and the accompanying oven bottom, bready sweet, dampfnudeln to fill up holes in the stomach, all presided over by a clucking Herr Ober who ruled the roost like his own front room, all clucking and full of pride. I told them too about the Cannstatter Volksfest and the Oktoberfest, but omitted many essential details.

Well, that served me right. My contagious enthusiasm was passed on, and suddenly the kids are researching things to see and do in Germany (distance no object). The Black Forest; the Eifel mountains; Cologne cathedral; a boat trip on the Rhine or Mosel. Oh, and the biggest indoor swimming centre in Europe, naturally.

IMG_3394In the end, the secret remained safe right through to the transfer desk at Frankfurt airport, where we had to check the Gate number for Orlando. My youngest was both delighted and upset. “Does this mean I won’t get to try a proper German pretzel?”. Tears were welling up and everything. So there we were, in the transfer terminal. Me with a glass of local Licher Pils, beautifully served of course, in a simple, stemmed glass and pretzeln all round: crisp, dark outers with the slash of double cream coloured dough poking through; lightly pebble dashed with rock salt for that crunchy bite.

No more wind-ups now: time to get back to Germany proper. 

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, May 2015

Copper Bottomed

Sometime ago, I wrote a piece about recent efforts by some Czech lager brewers to bring ‘tanked beer’ to these shores. It’s a worthwhile aim: to attempt to deliver absolute authenticity and the ‘brewery fresh’ taste that rocks you on your heels if you drink beer straight from a lagering tank, ideally in a cave or cellar under a Bohemian brewery.

Recap #1: the players. Miller Brands, the UK arm of South African Breweries (SAB) were installing permanent tanks in a number of prime bar locations, and bringing over smaller barrels too, for a ‘from the wood serve’ with which they were ‘going on tour’ – essentially a PR exercise. Budweiser Budvar, without the financial clout of SAB, were cracking on with a slightly different riff, their ‘Krausen’ or yeast beer. Like the tanked PU it was unpasteurised and carefully imported from České Budějovice.

Recap #2: the results. The half-termly report was ‘not a bad start but with much room for improvement’. I tried the Pilsner Urquell from the permanent tanks at The White Horse on Parson’s Green. It looked glorious: served in chunky tankards to a variety of serving specifications. The beer’s famed bitter note were highly pronounced versus the packaged version – but strangely whilst it pleased the eye it did less for the taste buds; I didn’t get the rounded complexity of the unpasteurized PU that I had enjoyed in the Czech Republic. The Budvar on the other hand, here from the The Draft House on Charlotte Street, was the opposite. Looking nothing out of the ordinary, served in unbranded glassware and not forming or retaining its head, it was lively, fresh-tasting and spicy nevertheless – the only issue was that it was still quite close to the bottled beer (which I drank alongside).

Now there’s new news, to use the business parlance, from Budvar UK. The brand has been a bit quiet in recent times; still a fine, fine beer of course, with that lovely creaminess and a palate at the sweeter end for a Bohemian lager, but left a little breathless as wave after wave of new entrants, promising something ever funkier, have entered the market. But here’s the thing, brewing great lager – seemingly, so simple – is fiendishly complex, time-consuming and expensive. UK craft brewers who have set off down this road have realised the considerably higher level of investment needed, and the cash it sucks out of your business – assuming of course that the brewer is lagering their beer for a few weeks. The precious tank space which could be used for something well, quicker, is needed while the lager dozes. On top of this, there’s the unscrupulous cleanliness required, decisions about whether to use modified malt or decoct, a separate yeast bank, it’s never ending.

At the moment, Budvar Tankové Pivo is a trial, at the delightfully bonkers Zigfrid von Underbelly on Hoxton Square. The tanks, rightly, are pride of place; there are two stacked one on top of the other in the main bar area and another one in the cellar-proper. Each holds 10 hectolitres (about 6.5 proper barrels) and like the Crown Jewels, they are displayed behind glass. A nearby sign proudly announces when the next delivery is coming: this is, after all, fresh beer, unpasteurised. It can’t hang about, and initial sales show that it isn’t (currently about a tank a week and rising).

Let’s pause for a moment on what the tanks do to the experience of drinking. They’re copper and as such, have something of a Jules Verne, ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ quality about them. With hand shaped, baffled ends, they’re only lacking a perescope. Copper piping too abounds, torpedo tubes no doubt. The font is copper too; and the beer, rather than being served in a standard tulip or nonic glass is a glass tankard. Everything marks this out as something different, something unusual. The expectation of specialness is copper bottomed, even before you even open your wallet.

Ultimately though, it needs to deliver: and no stone has been left unturned to ensure that the beer is as fresh as a daisy. The logistical complexity alone of getting beer from the lagering tank in České Budějovice, to the serving tank in London is eye watering: bespoke containers, refrigerated transportation; beer filled hoses (the beer goes to waste but ensures sterility): in all, four days of nail biting stress for those involved. It pays off: the beer sparkles with its crisp, gentle and all-natural carbonation – and here’s the clincher – it has that rounded softness, the biscuity base, the light fruity esters, the alcohol warmth – that only an unpasteurised and lagered beer has. The maturation adds the richness, serving it unpasteurised allows you to enjoy it in full.

The plans are for Budvar UK to extend the trial and hopefully roll this out more widely. It won’t (can’t) be something you’ll experience everywhere, it’s just too expensive, too labour intensive. But if you can, it is definitely something worth jumping in your tank to go and experience.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

IMG_2998_fotor