Category Archives: Wheat & Wild

Summer, wheat and Senf

I’ve been meaning to write more about wheat beers for some time – probably over a year in fact.  It’s a beer style which I find the most intriguing and always seems to be throwing up surprises. Lambic, for example, is a wheat beer – in fact, probably the most wheaty wheat, with a soupy, gelatinous mashy concoction from unmodified wheat and barley. Then there’s the other Belgian wheats, the fire lit by the revival of Hoegaarden and now a style full of momentum and innovative flair. I have fond memories of the banana and spice packed Korenwolf of Gulpen (over the border in Dutch Limburg) which I’ve written about before, as well as US styles, a personal favourite from Cigar City Brewing, Florida Cracker, which we drank in the swimming pool overlooking the sand bars and Keys on the Gulf Coast; and even *dare I say* a zesty, orangey Blue Moon straight from the sampling valve of the maturation tank in the Sandlot brewery under Coors’ Field. If they could sell that version of Blue Moon in the UK, I’d die happy.

Anyway, I had been intending to write about wheat beers and I had intended to do it right.  I selected the ones I wanted, ordered them online, even cooled and stored them properly for once – not too cold – as is my wont. But then..but then… John came round and rather than making tasting notes, we just drank our way through them one by one, animatedly pouring them from a height into wine glasses for a profuse, billowy head – ripe like September peaches with aromas of cloves, grass, allspice – as intoxicating as the smell of warm rain on a sultry late afternoon walk. We mixed in a couple of Double IPAs too; put the World to rights and burnt pistachio shells on the chiminea simply to watch them flare like fireflies under a dark Summer sky.

In truth though, it is still worth putting pen to paper, for there is something eminently sociable about wheat beer – I don’t know; there’s something less macho than ‘pints’; something less blokey than ale or ‘lager’. Perhaps it’s this overhang I have, having drunk wheat beers in Bavaria so often. Vine and bine clad beer gardens spring to mind; wood smoke; the smell of lightly charred würst, crackling and spitting with hot fat, dense rye bread – the caraway always evoking the Middle East and bazaars for me – to soak it all up and that mustard, that vinegary, spicy, tangy yet lashingly wolfable Senf. That Senf, that doesn’t just show off the sausages but amplifies the beer too in a mutual and cyclical love-in. Forget beer and peanuts; forget beer and pizza even – this is the combination of Summer; this is the Last Supper meal request.

Because my first wheat beer love is definitely a Bavarian Mädchen, not a Belgian liefje. There is elegance in the simplicity of Bavarian wheats; no adjuncts; no concoctions of dried fruits and spicing. The complexity is in the simplicity: the yeast driving the tang; the wheat producing the dryness; the hops, what hops there are, that diaphanous veil of floral aroma. It’s a sublime blend. And a versatile one too; it’s a beer style I’ve always found equally appealing to men and women; to younger drinkers perhaps seeking voluminous refreshment, to older drinkers on a quest for taste reward. And it’s a beer style – pure of heart look away – that also takes to adding twists; a quick cut of lemon perhaps, or even poured over soft red fruit.  Yes, there’s more to the elegant simplicity of wheat beers; there’s a backbone of steel too.

SchneiderI do remember the first one John and I tucked into. It was from Schneider Weisse, their ‘Tap 7’, ‘Unser Original’. If all you’ve ever experienced is an Erdinger -pleasant enough but always rather thin, I feel, then this beer will create some Sturm und Drang. It is an assault of nature: full on spice (cinnamon? apple?) and cut hay and new baked bread. And it’s dark; not dark like chocolate, but dark like stained oak; the natural sediment and yeast the stippled bark, the deep, long lasting head the froth of its Spring and Summer leaf. It is a complex beer; resonant and multi-layered; it is beer that demands a second sip. It too, is a Last Supper meal request. And there was a Weihenstephaner in there too – again, the classic Hefe Weissbier – and possibly more like the style you’d picture – a zippy, luminous golden colour, a bright white head, a restrained intricacy; but again, there is the layered depth – the quenching initial bitterness; giving way to a rounded, clovey, coating mouthfeel and a slightly tart linger.

All of which got me wondering why there’s no dedicated British wheat beer brewery – something relatively common in Bavaria. Perhaps it’s just familiarity; do we still see haziness as an off character? Are these wheat beers too surprising, challenging perhaps?  But that was only a fleeting thought; I soon moved on to wondering why barbecue smoke always drifts towards you no matter where you sit, and why pistachio shells flare like fireflies under a dark Summer sky.

Wraiths and Zombies

In Tolkien’s ‘Ring’ trilogy there’s a scene in the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo, the hairy-toed hero challenged with destroying the Ring, is attacked by the Ring Wraiths, the Nazgul. Mixing our genres a moment, let’s just say that these former Kings have gone over to the Dark Side. The Ring is their Force; slaves to its power, it determines their destiny. Unsurprisingly, they’re pretty keen to get the ring back, and run old Frodo through attempting to do so. Frodo, being stabbed by a cursed blade, a Mordor blade, begins to transform. Mixing our film genres yet again, it’s rather like a Dementor, sucking not just the happiness out of him, but his will to live too. He’s becoming a shadow-human; living somewhere between the dark world of Mordor and the ‘real’ world of Middle Earth. His eyes glaze over as if he’s wearing those freaky Halloween contact lenses and he becomes all pallid and sweaty; but a couple of Paracetamol won’t sort him out, he needs Elvish medicine, and there’s no Co-op pharmacy anywhere to hand.

Frodo should be a warning to us about the real impact of these brewing mega-mergers. As I wrote in my last post, there’s a lot of debate about the potential implications of ABI buying SAB. Will it be an opportunity for the small guys? Will the middle-rankers be able to pick up some tasty titbits that fall from the table? We will see in due course of course, as a period of intense restructuring will be catalyzed across the industry by the deal, should it go through.

Despite the huge resources of these mega-brewers; people, time, money, the truth is all these businesses want to do is focus. Focus on simplifying hugely complex operations; focusing on managing families of brands; focusing on cutting back; focusing on maximising profit from doing scale activities. Fewer brew streams; fewer breweries; fewer priorities with fewer people throwing off more and more and more money. My concern is for the brands that don’t make the cut; neither one of the (very few) global focus brands; nor a big local leader. I have experienced first hand great brands – important brands – being virtually exterminated by mega-mergers. At the start of the noughties, the leading cask ale in the UK was Draught Bass, that lovely nutty pale ale that characterized great Burton brewing. But then Interbrew bought the brewing assets off Bass plc… and suddenly a treasured jewel becomes a bit-part portfolio player, its value not in the legacy and heritage it represents but the profitability it throws off in one market (the US). Immediately the brand tumbles; immediately daft marketing put in place by daft leadership fills a void that needn’t have existed in the first place. Where is Bass today? Probably on keg in a golf club selling a dozen pints a week, if you’re lucky.

IMG_5163And I was reminded of it again the other week on a trip to The Netherlands. Heineken, the dominant Dutch brewer have a range of riches to call upon there: Heineken itself; Amstel, Brand (originally from the south of the country), Affligem… and a wheat beer, Wieckse Witte. There’s a wraith brand if I ever I’ve drunk one. In the all-consuming push for growth; these marketing companies forget the product truth; forget what made the beers great. They push for the centre-ground and while they may win an election or two, they lose the distinctiveness. That’s Wieckse Witte for you: thin; bland; no bananary-ester character, no clovey yeastiness; no malt-accented body nor hoppy aroma. It’s a hazy pale lager poured from a bottle that’s had the character designed out of it. A brand that’s passed form the land of the living into a brand of virtual reality; of focus groups and social content; of believing that what people tell you on Twitter is actually true or that ‘Follows’ or ‘Likes’ amount to something. It’s a brand that’s barely concealed in its shallow grave; colour washed from its cheeks as it slowly turns into a zombie, all personality lost, just a tool, a puppet, for delivering profit. And that’s the thing with the centre-ground. You may win an election, but eventually you become unelectable. No one knows what you stand for. Everyone has forgotten what made you great. You’re just magnolia paint on unremarkable walls.

And that perversely, is the real benefit of the mega-mergers. Tread warily around the ‘profit-opportunity’ sirens that call. There may be pickings to be had, but they won’t be easily won. But, these mega-companies, with their ever-blander mega-brands, are a constant beacon to remind independent brewers and characterful brands why they exist, and why it’s a future worth scrapping for.

The Beer Guy

Within beer circles there are now public personalities in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Many brewers are celebrities, some like Sam Calagione become media figures. There are revered saviours, like Fritz Maytag or Michael Jackson. Sages too, like Ken Grossman. Or outspoken campaigners, like Roger Protz. Yet, my friend Dan Rosenbluth, who died recently after a short illness, was largely unknown in the broader beer world, despite being universally popular and loved amongst his considerable circle of peers and friends. Dan had an impact as significant as that of these names and many more – but, typical of him, it was perfectly understated. He was, to use his phrase (although he never applied it to himself), a beer guy through and through. More than this, he remained a beer guy in the increasingly un-beery world of multinational, corporate brewers. Some feat.

Dan was born in California, although he was raised in Florida and that’s where his heart was; a man of the South yet, set against the ill-informed stereotype of the ‘Confederate Redneck’, Dan was broad-minded, liberal and outward looking. These values, underpinned by his unblinking fairness and generosity made him a mentor to many and a role model to more.

In the world of multi-national brewers, the competitive focus isn’t just on their peers. It’s on consumer goods businesses: marketing-led companies, FMCG companies. Companies where the consumers is King and bottom line profit is the whispering Councillor behind the throne. The product happens to beer, but the focus, the driver, the end game is money. Just money. Oh, they’ll deny it. But it’s the truth: because the behaviour of these businesses reveals it. The brewer is no longer the hero. The accountant rules the roost. The beer itself may be carefully brewed, but uniform consistency is the only mantra; the reverence has gone. The rules of accounting say high gravity brewing; two day lagering (if any); ‘precision’ brewing, adjunct mashes, pasteurisation. Such tools are the name of the Accountant-brewer’s game, because without them, in such a cut-throat environment they believe, you won’t survive. And the Queen of these companies is the marketeer. I was a Marketing Queen and I’m proud of it. But I’m proud of it because I loved beer and for me, the science of marketing was there to support the art, the passion, the reverence of and for brewing.

Dan was the same, yet more so. He worked at Coors in Golden, Colorado, at a time when Anheuser Busch, still independent, were dictating the agenda of the market. If your beer wasn’t light, it wasn’t right. If your beer didn’t have IBUs below 10, you were doomed. Coors, particularly before the days of the joint venture with SAB (Miller Coors), did have a brewing heart. Pete Coors was a brewing meddler (in a good way) and even had – has still, in fact – a small-scale brewery where he would ‘try things’ (Barman Pilsner probably being the most successful). And much against modern multinational practise, he would also support initiatives from people like Keith Villa to try experiments, to have a go. One such experiment was a beer that ultimately became called Blue Moon.

Dan came into the marketing team at a time when craft was growing but not ripping up trees. Blue Moon had tickled along for a decade, largely going nowhere. He was asked to review its performance with a view to ‘rationalising’ it. The pressure on him was severe because, when he looked at the numbers, he could clearly see why he was being asked. The volumes were small. The beer was complex to brew. The profit delivery was modest. In Coors terms, it got lost in the rounding.

Yet Dan was a beer guy. He could feel the opportunity. He could see it was ahead of its time. He implicitly understood who might drink Blue Moon, why and when. The way he told the story involved some benevolent fudging of numbers and some heartfelt groveling. But he won the day. They tightened what the beer was about (‘artfully crafted’) and stuck with the programme (such as existed): the right serve; the right glass. Simple stuff, executed well. Today, Blue Moon Belgian White is the single largest craft brand in the U.S.

And there’s the rub isn’t it? How can a ‘craft’ brand be from a multinational giant like Molson Coors / Miller Coors? Without getting in to the argument which is a well-trod and frankly rather dull tale now, the point is, Blue Moon is a watershed brand in U.S. brewing. It is the brand that changed the paradigm both of the big brewers – they quickly came to see that flavourful beers could be business drivers for them – and smaller brewers too – because they got the benefit of a major player opening up ‘craft’ with retailers in a way that alone, would be more difficult to do.

The argument around brands like Blue Moon being / not being craft is perfectly legitimate. In due course, when the pain of Dan’s passing has subsided somewhat, I may even join in. But more than anything else, every time I see that distinctive blue label, that luminescent, cream coloured moon, I shall think of my good friend and the role he played in helping to change the attitudes of the big US brewers towards craft beer and ultimately, the benefits that had for all.

In Memoriam. William Daniel Rosenbluth. August 1969 – July 2015. A Beer Guy.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Kellerweiss

Although Beer Tinted Spectacles was not set up with the objective of reviewing beers, there are times when a singular beer warrants that attention; when a beer triggers memories or is so enriching that it creates new ones. And the beauty of this is how subjective, personal that experience is, how evocative of a moment in time.

This was a case in point. We’d arrived at the airport in Florida earlier evening, and after the bright, breezy coolness of the UK in April, the humid heat of the central Florida swamplands slapped me like a warm towel after a particularly energetic Thai massage. The sort of massage necessitated by limbs and bones crushed and twisted from economy seating, and the endless fanning by rank cabin air, recycled through 350 sets of hairy nostrils. It was the bliss of a cavorting into a sauna and throwing water on the coals or skimpily running through the snow, between the pines and jumping into a Turkish bath.

Acculturation isn’t such a major concern when you’re a Brit travelling to the U.S. – so much of our lives and lifestyle is shared, familiar. Yet, there’s still a huge difference actually being there, immersed in it, rather than watching on it on Dave. My orientation is built around two things: geography (“Where the hell am I? Which way is north?) and shopping (“What do the locals eat round here? Oooooo look, Peanut Butter and Honey Oreos!”).   Due to my line of work, I’m pretty familiar with US food retailing; nonetheless, wandering up and down the aisles still gets me excited – product ideas get swiped with careful abandon.

Then there’s the beer. It’s like youthful love: heart fluttering, shallow breathing. I approach the aisle: the options, the choices; unheard of brands, local brands, or rarities in the UK, readily available here. And there’s the way beer is sold: the main fixture was 100% chilled (anathema to some I know, not to Tinted); 6 packs, wide bore large cans, narrow bore small cans – and so much craft (50% of the space) and many, many more craft beers in cans than the last time I was Stateside. And Big Beer was interesting too – no point in being sniffy; nice to see the old school Coors Banquet ‘stubbies’ and gratuitous use of thermochromic ink*. Great too, to see interesting displays and on pack promotions; there’s always room for another koozie or bottle opener in the Tinted House.

One beer stood out for me though: both because it looked tremendous, but also because it’s a beer style I have a particular fondness for. I love Bavarian wheat beers, not just for the unadulterated refreshment they offer, but also for their hidden complexity and their presentation. When I drink a good one, I think of Münich beer gardens or shady terraces gently stepping down to the river. I think of warm Summer evenings; bratwurst cooking over wood; of raucously green fields, readying themselves for harvest. I think of an impromptu disco at The Turf Locks in ’91 where we danced to the Cult at one moment and a Steeleye Span reel the next (Hey! Blame the DJ) fueled by pints of Tanglefoot and Royal Oak. In my mind’s eye, I see the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the rolling fields and away, away in the distance the snow-capped rising spires ascending. Fuse that with the entrepreneurial passion of the New World and the dancing bars on the graphic equalizer go banzai.

IMG_3436This is everything that Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss meant to me: the best of the old world and the new, all swaddled together in a autumnal coat. I was going to buy a six pack but only got two bottles as I was in the market for breadth that day (alas, alas).

And what can I say? It was as well-structured and brewed as any Sierra Nevada beer: the esters like a home-baked banana bread, not full on ripe skins. The body, through its natural carbonation from a healthy slug of yeast was dancing and swirling (this is a Hefe weizen, ‘yeast wheat’ after all); the body was a translucently pale, frosty yellow. As wheat beers go, not as complex as Schneider Weisse, but as drinkable as the lighter styles, such as Erdinger – yet, all the time with a grainy hoppiness that marked it out as just a little different. A beautiful beer. I have spoken to someone at Fullers and with Victorian haughtiness, demanded that they import it. He didn’t say no.

*Given that I pioneered its first application on beer, it warrants a mention, don’tcha think?

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

Where the wild things are

The first time I went to New York everything was so familiar I managed to convince myself that I must have been here before. I hadn’t. Years of episodes of Taxi, Friends, big budget movies, low rent movies and the persistent ability to be at the centre of global news makes it so familiar. From the ridiculous to the sublime perhaps, but I feel the same way about Brussels and the Payottenland, the low, hedge lined, deep ditched farmlands out to the west of the Belgian capital. I’ve been only twice, both fleetingly.  The first time was a road trip, passing through whilst heading elsewhere and pausing only on the outskirts of the capital. The second was a business trip, where any memory was wiped clean by one too many devilish beers in La Mort Subite.  

Yet it all seemed so familiar. And again, this was the case when I received some Cantillon lambic beers from Beer Hawk last week: the Gueuze, the Kriek and the Rosé de Gambrinus framboise. I’ve not been to Cantillon yet, but ex-colleague, friend and Edinburgh brewer Bob Knops has – some of his photos appear below. The product shots are mine: strange how even the packaging can link you to a place. These are the bottles of gourmands. Of people who care for tradition and taste above function and form. Thick, heavy weight bottles, fortified bases to withstand the pressure of refermentation in the bottle; wide brimmed crowns, levered off to reveal a cork seal below. Unnecessary? Antiquated? Yes to both if you wanted to argue it that way, which underlines how important these beers are.

Cantillon brews in a very traditional way, even for lambic beers; making a gloopy, turbid mash of malted barley and unmalted wheat; a prolonged and vigourous boil with the addition of aged, cheesy hops, required not for their aroma but their antiseptic band-aid protection. And then inoculation of the wild yeasts begins, as the wort is put in a broad and shallow coolship, under the roof beams of the brewery, to let nature’s playthings have their saucy way with the wort’s sugars.  For the base lambic, the beer is moved into oak barrels, where it goes through a journey of staged fermentations, not just with brewing yeasts, but wild yeasts and bacterias that produce a wild array of different flavours & aromas. These fermentations are only complete two years later (and potentially longer).

The Gueuze is a blend of young (roughly two year old lambic) and older, 3+ years,  lambic. The older lambic is reinvigorated by the sugars remaining in its younger sibling and refermentation begins anew. The result is a sparkling beer (unlike lambic, which like traditional cider is all bit still).  Immediately on prising out the cork the wild aromas fly out: winey, ascetic, and vaguely pooey, a mucky straw smell like a remember from the floor around Reynolds farm when I was younger. Unattractive? The description sounds it I’m sure, but the words do not do justice to the aroma which is endearingly attractive – surprising, and complex.  To the eye, it was a hazy yet vivid gold, with a profuse head that quickly dissipated to a thin velvety sheet atop the beer.  Carbonation was visible and audible, and felt too, with a tingly sizzle in the mouth. The taste is led by a coating dryness, quite sour but appetising and finished with a surprising touch of lemon peel.

The Kriek lambic was a delight too: building on the flavours and aromas of the Gueuze but overlain of course with the marzipan nuttiness of cherry stones and the plump berry fruitiness of the cherry flesh. The beer was burgundy red in colour, with a pink, sustained, head that formed energetically. This was a refined beer: which in a ironic twist tasted fresh and young despite its ageing. The playfully named Rosé de Gambrinus is the real jewel.  Whole raspberries are steeped in two year old lambic only. Compared with the other two, at first I thought this beer was thinner, less complex – but on continued drink, so I realised what an elegant, refined beer it is – more a champagne than a Rosé. To smell, there’s plenty of delicate berry fruit, yet it’s not over sweet and has a clear, corky sourness too. The beer had taken the ruddy hue of the raspberries with a lighter, pink head than the Kriek and a strong, excitable, effervescent carbonation. To taste, the beer was neither as dry nor as punchily sour as the other two, but it was sour all the same – drinkably so. The raspberry sweetness – the little there is surprisingly – is superbly balanced, just sweet enough to pull you back for the next sip yet with a complementing, ascetic bite to complete the circle and quench. It’s nothing like sweetened beers that are increasingly popular where the sugar has been used in the fermentation. In fact it’s nothing other than an excellent framboise; an excellent beer.

I must go there, to this rural brewery in the the city. But when I do, it’ll feel like an old friend I’m sure.

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© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
First three photos,Bob Knops. http://www.knopsbeer.co.uk

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