1776 and all that

Very soon, it will be a year since I finished working for a large, multi-national American brewer.  As with any job change, it’s been a year of excitement and nervousness, peaks and troughs, many surprises and most of all of new friendships and old friendships reborn.  Of course,  I still have many friends in the old country  and I meet and talk with them at regular intervals – what’s good, what’s bad, what can be learned.  And the curious thing of course is how re-energised I feel about beer again. It’s my passion once more, not just my job.

The most striking thing I have noticed as a ‘drinker’ is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ world.  At University, I was developing my interest in beer (both consuming it, and being interested in it).  And the focus was ale – critical of what I saw as mundane lager, this was a world of real ale. Of cask beers; of bottled conditioned ales where I could find them; of experimentation.   I was extremely lucky to be living in the West Country which had, and mostly still has, a vibrant and energised population of free trade pubs.  And of course, the off trade was not what it was today – there was still a reasonable range of beers without the stack-it-high mentality (24 pack slabs didn’t exist for example).  These were days spent at The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres; over pints of Directors at The Jolly Porter, or Bass at The Great Western.  The Turf Locks, jutting out into the Exe estuary, was a promised land that, back then, could only be reached on foot or by private boat, yet put on a wonderful selection of local beers (as it does today – if anything, nowadays it’s better).  The Double Locks, higher up the river towards Exeter was and remains a superb cask beer shrine, where tasty pints from an ever changing range are served direct from the cask in an elbows tucked-in-tight bar amongst ruddy-cheeked locals and braying Sloans.

Yet the world I emerge into today is different. Ironically, the world of cask and bottled beer is more vibrant than I can ever recall. The positive unintended consequence of the Beer Orders now sees a cask and micro brewery movement that is building a new beer culture and growing respect for beer again. New breweries, new beers, limited editions are coming to market at a rate where it’s virtually impossible to keep up. Age old ‘problems’, like the young men drinking cask, and women drinking beer (at all) are being slowly eroded by a groundswell of new news that seeps into our consciousness on a weekly basis.  One factor is where I now live.  Despite its Grail-like reputation in the brewing world, Burton and the Midlands don’t have a pub scene like the West Country.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some terrific individual pubs. The Yew Tree at Cauldon Low, The Burton Bridge, The Brunswick in Derby is an insultingly short list to all the great pubs I’ve missed. No, the issue is a structural one.  Whereas in my Exeter days you just didn’t know what choice of beers you would get if you chose a free house, in the Midlands, you have to go looking hard to break free of the yoke of a Marston’s, or a Punch, or an Enterprise.  Great beer is frequently served, but the range means I’m often peering into the fridge to eke out something new.

But actually, despite this, the irony is that the context has changed.  When I was last a free man in beer, I hadn’t seen the world.  Aye lad, I ‘adn’t travelled much beyond me own shores.  Serendipitously, while I have broadened my horizons, so the brewing world has broadened its horizons.   My love affair – for ‘tis that – with craft US beers really picked up Steam in 1998.  My wife (who in a commitment to the cause, I met in a pub whilst drinking, if I recall correctly, a pint of Marston’s Oatmeal Stout) and I travelled to California the year after we were married.  We had picked up the bug a bit for the ‘States with a first trip to New England, and now wanted to see the land of the American dream.  It was a pilgrimage too – I had places I wanted to tick off the list. Anchor was one of course – the mythical place it all began. An inspiring place – one day, I will have an office that overlooks a copper.  Yet it was the vibrancy of the beer scene that struck me all over – and this when it was still juvenile. In San Francisco on our first night, we wandered down to Pier 39. Mostly this is tourist tat shops, but in a great setting overlooking Alcatraz Island and the spectacle of the seals underneath the pier barking like infants with Croup.  We went for a drink in a bar called the Cannery – an oak clad wall with beer taps peeking through confronted us; locals and tourists alike animatedly chatting and discussing hot topics.  I drank an Anchor Porter which was biscuity and baked yet refreshingly moreish too.  Later, we drove to Napa and Sonoma  – beautiful valleys, filled with lime green vines stretching up into the hills, weaving roads enticing the eye up to a distant col. The wineries (we went to Mondavi and Mumm) had fantastically run tours, free samples a go-go and were just great places to kick back enjoying the sun and the scenery.  Yet my fondest memory was a little brewpub in Napa itself.  I can’t remember its name, but I can remember the experience.  The building was an old fire station with tall, arched windows stretching floor to eaves in beautiful Amsterdam-style brick.  We ate straightforward food: wood fired pizza before it was the rage; a rocket salad; home made sausages with garlic mash and gravy.  Pub grub, done well.  And of course a fantastic range of beers – I had a Hefeweizen, a Pale Ale and an IPA, my wife had a citrusy Summer wheat and a glass of Zin.

The drive down the Big Sur coast was as legendary as the reputation would suggest, sweeping through the precipice-hugging bends – dream like open-top cruising in our 1 litre Yugo.  We stopped overnight in Santa Barbara and ate a fantastic meal in The Brewhouse, a recently opened brewpub.  It was my first experience of properly hoppy ales – a taste of things to come if you follow the scene today.  We bypassed LA and headed to San Diego – where the brewing scene was only just kicking off. We drank beers from Stone Brewing and popped into a couple of Brewpubs which sowed the seed of yet another dream back home.  We went to the Zoo and Seaworld, in case you’re asking. Mrs P didn’t suffer too much.

And the love affair spread – Denver, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Tampa, Seattle…great brews are popping up all over.  Yet it was only the other day, when I finally got round to drinking a beer from the Big Apple. For whatever reason, Brooklyn Brewery had passed me by.  The label didn’t catch my eye; the story on their Lager (a Pre Prohibition beer) seemed to be an afterthought.  ‘They don’t care that much’, I thought, ‘I won’t bother’.  So I didn’t.

Until last week. I bought three bottles of Brooklyn Lager in Mr Tesco’s corner shop.  3 for £2, if you’re asking, which I reckoned was a good deal, and good enough to try something new.

Silly, silly, me.  A blast of leafy, green, hop aroma swelled out from the bottle top as soon as I levered off the crown. The colour, a deep copper brown, with red hues just glinting in the corner of your eye. The head, a deep lemon meringue of headiness, topping off a bigger, fatter, mouthful of lager loveliness with a balanced sweet malt, and hop linger. Silly, silly, me.

And so the love affair grows. Pick the stereotype you wish – America: the young upstart. Brash, big American beers.  No class, just in your face. Yep – all of those.  And the dynamism they bring to beer – the respect for the past with the excitement of the legacy being left for the future is palpable.  I love British beers; I’m basking in the warm glow of what some of our brewers are doing at the moment, but love them or hate them, there’s another American Revolution going on at the moment. It’s entirely peaceful and changing the world all over again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012

The Session #63: The Beer Moment

 

The Session ImageA long walk in the Lakeland Fells; crisp air, plashy ground, working up a sweat but gently so.  Long views to distant tops and then the knee-aching descent down, down.  That pint. The first.  I spend as long looking at it; gently wiping the condensation away before…. one sip. Just the one. But a big one.

That’s a beer moment.

Old school friends. Uni friends.  People you met when you started work. Friends you met just last week.  The years in between compress somehow; there’s no filling-in-the-gaps required, just laughter, knowingness, shared bonds that time doesn’t erode.  Over a pint, or two, or five.

That’s a beer moment.

A long week. No jogging over the line; but sprinting, full on, bleary eyes, baggy for want of sleep. But there’s always time, to stop, pause, reflect, before the train home. And that bar, that one I’ve been meaning to stop at but always made an excuse. Turns out, it serves a fantastic pint.  Doesn’t hit the sides.  Ah….

That’s a beer moment.

Lager, Part 4. Decoction Concoction.

I was lucky enough a while back to see a Bohemian lager being brewed the original way. By original, I mean the way the pioneers of the 1840s to 1870s did it in breweries throughout Bohemia, and later across Europe and beyond.

The story of how Josef Grol, a Bavarian brewmaster, took the lagering process of his native land and fused it with paler malts, which had in turn been inspired by English brewers, is well known. Less well known, but just as important a catalyst was the burgeoning Bohemian glass and crystal industry. This was pivotal for the brewers… it meant there was no place to hide when it came to the clarity, brightness and transparency of the finished beer. Suddenly, not only was taste important, so was presentation. And presentation was about a combination of factors of which the brilliance of the beer was just one. So too was the head which, as legend would have it, should be strong enough to support a coin of the Austro-Hungarian Realm.

The question that Grol and his contemporaries wrestled with of course was not just one of lagering, or the right grist bill. The question of mashing was central. How best to coax the brewing sugars from the malt, particularly at a time of imprecise science.  Most brewing nations used a version of an infusion mash – that most associated with British ales today.  Think tea – pour the hot brewing liquor over the malt, stir and pour.   Add sugar to taste. I don’t think it’s quite as simple or as blunt as this but you get the idea.

What the Bohemian brewers experimented with was perfecting a different way, what we today call a decoction mashing regime. I love the word decoction, it has that slightly naughty yet unctuous overtone to it that only brewing could throw up. But what is a decoction mash and where did it come from? And more importantly what are the benefits?

Without truly understanding the complex science behind it (something I can sympathise with), the Bohemians knew that the thicker, more viscous wort from the first runnings produced the ‘best’ beer – by that they knew it led to a vigourous initial fermentation.  But the delicate Moravian barley gave a malt capable of beers of greater complexity – the question was how to obtain them, whilst not getting more undesirable flavour compounds too?   Decoction came about through a process of trial and error, but essentially – involved removing a portion of the wort (normally from a specific part of the mash) to a separate copper, raising it’s temperature to get at the brewing sugars, and then introducing it back into the main body of the mash.  Then repeating at different temperatures, sometimes up to three times (a ‘triple decoction’ mash).  It was (and is) as you can imagine a time and cost intensive process requiring considerable skill too – all good reasons to find a quicker, cheaper and less labour intensive process to replace it with.

This is all very interesting of course if you are into the romance of beer, yet commercially it is another part of the classic Bohemian brewing method that many brewers (unsurprisingly perhaps) and sadly including Czechs amongst their number, have abandoned for more ‘economic’ – and efficient – methods (normally some version of a temperature controlled mash). It’s also claimed, with modern breeding of barley that today’s strains of malts do not need the subtle, time intensive and somewhat alchemical machinations of a decoction process.

I am not convinced.  My criteria is not a lens of nostalgia, nor science, but one of mouthfeel, of taste, of having experienced the beguiling complexity of beers decocted and lagered properly and in some cases witnessing how particular beers have changed over time.

Alas, sadly, it is all rather academic. Perhaps for most drinkers or licensees, the real common denominator between beers is the price paid. As I write, I’ve just heard that a major brewer has purchased Staropramen for $3.5billion. To be clear, this isn’t just the price for that brand but 8 or 9 breweries and some market share, but even so, $3.5billion is a significant sum for a beer that is a shadow of its former self.

My Staropramen story in brief weaves it’s way into one of the proudest periods in my career and most enjoyable. 12 years ago, I took over the management of Staropramen at Bass Brewers. I had been involved when Bass first acquired Prague Breweries in launching the brand in to the off trade. In those days our first concern was helping people pronounce it – something of course not needed as drinkers were keen to discover and experiment and play. Later though, when I started running the whole show it was a different set of problems. Essentially, we needed to build a strong pub base for the beer and stop all discounting of the brand in the off trade. Sounds easy but the plan would see the brand haemorrhaging volume initially.   As part of the project, I made a number of trips to the Staropramen brewery in Smichov, Prague. My! Here was a cathedral to brewing lagered beer. The ‘new’ set of lagering tanks dated from just after WW2, and stretched in a vast array for a third of a mile under the city. The damp air, with the slight vinous smell of alcohol, was a joy.  The 12˚ ležak beer (the one exported to many markets including the UK) was a joy too, it enjoyed a double decoction and lengthy lagering.  3 years later we had re-established the base business of the brand, orientated it back to an pub based brand again and were enjoying healthy growth. Rightly too we were getting a lot of praise for the beer itself.

Fast forward through 12 years. Staropramen was bought by Interbrew in 2002 who soon lost focus (amongst other hair-brained schemes they had in buying Prague Breweries was introducing Stella Artois to Prague for the tourists…my observation was that the tourists were coming for the awesome Czech beer that was cheaper than water).  The purchase sadly coincided with the Vltava river flooding, inundating the lagering cellars at the Smichov brewery and giving them an excuse to move production to the Branik brewery on the edge of the city.  Whilst this happened, production for the UK was moved to Salmesbury. Yep, that’s Salmesbury in Lancashire.  Not known for its decoction coppers that brewery, and strangely enough the beer took a huge decline in character.  I know this because in a bar one evening, six of us did a blind taste test between Staropramen and Castlemaine XXXX …..I don’t need to tell you which one won do I? (Much to our shame)*.

Let’s sincerely hope that Staropramen’s new owners don’t see lagering the beer and using decoction mashing as a strange, alchemical process but return it to its rightful place as a great Bohemian beer again. For decoction isn’t a fanciful, wasteful brewing concoction. The discoveries of the Bohemian brewers of the late nineteenth century are just as relevant in the twenty first. Clarity, depth, rounded multi-dimensional mouthfeel and a rich, compact head that laces like the best cask ales…they’re something worth preserving as our legacy for future beer drinkers.

*The beer is brewed back in Prague today and has regained some of its character.  For completeness, I tasted a bottle recently and noted good head formation and retention, a mild malty / sweetcorn foretaste but an over dominance of alcoholic esters and little aftertaste.  Not a bad beer by any means, just not a real Bohemian pilsner any more.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012

At Sam and Benny’s

The Frankie and Benny’s experience was not one to write home about. It was wrong on three subtle, but I feel important points: service, quality and price. Dirty glassware and incorrect brand first off, then the wrong brand for the glass second time around. The meal – well, it was average (I wasn’t expecting much so don’t give me that ‘Well I never‘ look) and in fact at £9.85 was a lump of purest rip off. This for a plate a penne al’ arabiatta which can best be described as ‘part-scratch’ (pasta out of a packet, sauce out of a tub, fresh herbs thrown on top and no hint of the brilliant Eddie Izzard ‘Death Star Canteen’ on YouTube sketch). Served by staff who clearly would rather be sitting in front of the Lottery Results waiting for life to deal them a better hand.

Forget that though. The beer. I ordered a Sam Adams Boston Lager.  Have in mind that this had travelled a couple of thousand miles to my table.  It was enough to almost forgive Frankie and Benny’s for the rest of their culinary sins.

Let’s start with the aroma…noble hops? I know they use Hallertau Mittelfrüh, but is that the only contributor to the magnificence of the aroma – surely not?  This is a restrained hop aroma for many American new wave beers which marks this out as even more special. Judicious is the word – leading to an aroma that is an experience in itself.   Sipping it…mouthfeel. I’m guessing that there must be some weeks of lagering as the beer has a rounded quality in mouthfeel and a delicacy of linger of the aftertaste with again, the herbal and leafy hop throughout.   Colour: coppery bronze like the sun kissed thigh of an olive-skinned beach lovely. But most remarkable to me was the head. I pour a small quantity with two fingers (a legacy of working for Grolsch and experiencing that beer ‘the Dutch way’) and like a thick head*. It’s a good test both of the beer’s inherent structure and clean glassware. Fortunately this time round I had both. And what an experience…a dense just-off-white head, thick but not imperviously compact like a nitrobeer. And northern ale like lacing and rings were left down the glass as I drank, which as a former student of dendrochronology makes me happy inside.

I was particularly pleased about this as I hold a torch for Sam.  Not only were they in the early wave of US craft brewers, not only were they entrepreneurial in brewing a great beer when they didn’t have a brewery, but they are brewers of principle. All malt beers, adjuncts only for flavour, whole hops, many noble varieties but above all a real commitment to taste.  And for Boston Beer there’s a clear link. Take shortcuts with the process, take shortcuts with the ingredients and taste suffers. If taste suffers eventually you can’t charge what you want and the spiral down commences.

I had the privilege of meeting Jim Koch, Boston Beer’s founder in 2006. It was an incredible trip, an in-and-out, but Jim and Martin Roper his English born CEO, gave of their time and of their lunch and we talked beer and business.  They gently chastised my company for the use of adjuncts yet praised it for their support to Boston Beer in tougher times. They showed off Utopias to me and gave me a real hand baggage challenge (the bottle is a mini Copper and not so much lighter than the real thing). Thoroughly nice chaps brewing thoroughly good beer… making good money now, but not being ruled by it. There’s probably a lesson there for us all, and certainly for Frankie and Benny’s.

Boston Lager logo

*That’s on my beer not my head per se.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted in Posterous, April 2012

The Shamen of the Namin’

At different points in my career I have had responsibility for naming new beers.  This is one of the jobs that should be joyous: right brained, creative, all bean bags and Swizzells-Matlow ‘Refreshers’.  Alas, the truth, my truth, is far from this.  In a big business this task, this bitter task, is one of nightmarish proportions.  For the job of naming isn’t a simple blue blob on a Gantt chart; it isn’t just something to do between weeks 27 and 31, oh no.  This one is emotional.  And everyone wants in. Everyone wants to lay claim to delivering the nomenclatorial coup de grace. Because whether the beer turns out to be the Golden Goose or the Turkey of Despair does not matter:  The prize of naming the brand is the medal. It’s the bit that the consumer sees – hang on, scratch that, it’s the bit that your Mum sees. She might not understand the intricacies of your job, but by Jingo, she’ll understand this, and as the coffee morning circuit word of mouth builds, so the chances of your heroic ‘local-boy-made-good’ reputation become increasingly assured.

Beyond the physical sensations of a racing heart beat and stress-induced palpitations though, naming things is big business.  There are Companies dedicated to this one act alone and they have many stripes on their arm, in the alcohol world, the most famous of which is Diageo. The ‘geo’ bit was rationalised as demonstrating the global potential and reach of the business, and the ‘Dia’ is from the Uzbekistani for ‘Nonsense’.  Oh, hang on, that might not be right. Honestly, poor old Arthur Guinness.  Do you think he would have authorised half a mill being spent on that?

It’s no use levelling the cannons at others though. I too have form, albeit fortunately rather tangentially.  Many moons ago I was working on Carling Black Label as a general oik and hod carrier, and Bass (as was) were very keen to ‘stretch the equity of the brand to reach new consumers, on new occasions representing the way we drink today’ – or something like that.  We actually had a cracking new lagered beer, full flavoured but very smooth as we triple filtered it through diatomous filters (essentially ‘diatoms’ are fossilised insect thingies, who, unbeknown to them during their timeon Earth were destined to find a second life as fine particulate industrial drink filters. Thanks chaps. German reader* – this is kieselgur). The project codename:  Rock.  I recollect that the project team, which included me, invested an eye watering three figure sum with a naming agency.  We considered everything. We did research (uh-oooooh).  We did, in short, the works.  We scoured the literary world; we did word association exercises; ancient languages were mined for potential links.  Specialist naming Consultants & Social Anthropologists delved into the black bag of their respective arts.  Mystic Meg even had a hand in it. In the end, our launch name was…….Carling Rock.  Yay.

Anyhoo, this particular topic dawned on me as I have been re-acquainting myself recently with cask beers after a number of years in self-imposed exile (well, not exile exactly, I’ve just been experimenting more with craft beers, some of which are served from (sharp intake of breath)…kegs). On pushing the boundaries to find new beers of any sort in the UK that might light up my taste buds, I was surprised by just how many beers have odd names. My ‘comprehensive’ study notes have determined a number of distinct, distinctive and daft naming categories:

Let’s start with the grandiose… ‘the provenance school’.  This could be creative laziness or perhaps jaw dropping scenery that the brewer wants to celebrate – or more likely, neither, but this category is pretty popular, and one of the first.  Whether it is Burton Bridge Bitter just up the road from me, or London Pride just up the road from everyone, St Austell (who go the whole hog and double up, like in St Austell Dartmoor Ale (and I thought you couldn’t be in two places at once – that’s beer for you), or even outside cask of course, Pilsner Urquell, Dortmunder Actien Brauerei, Boston Lager, Hoegaarden, Quilmes … you get the picture, ad nauseam.  When I make my millions, I shall buy an industrial unit on Anglesey and start the ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch Brewery’. Now THAT’S a bar call.  And I’ve got the advertising sorted:  “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch….. ask for it by name’. (Naming brands was my plan to make the millions. On this evidence, I might just have to re-think. And anyway, perhaps it would be better to open a distillery – everyone would order a long short. Geddit?  No? Whatever.)

Then there’s the ‘Stuff where the brewery is from, it’s all about me, Me, ME!’ approach.  A despicable and highly uncreative naming method which is designed to massage the ego of the owner.  Countless examples here, and one or two of my favourites as well, but I refuse to give any of these scallywags publicity when they refuse to advertise on my blog site.  Whilst I’m here though, if you are in the Burton area, look out for ‘Pilsner Prestonski’. It’s a Burton top fermented beer, that’s then lagered for 49 days, maaarvellous¹.

National Institutions, Regional Peculiarities & Local Yarns’ come next.  It’s amazing what people choose to talk about here from the grand and nationally important, to the innocuous.   In the UK we have beers featuring castles (Windsor), landscapes (Exmoor, Dartmoor – it’s a west country thing clearly),  whilst at other end of the spectrum you have one of my personal favourites (and a darn fine beer too), Jenning’s ‘Snecklifter’ referring to the north country name for a thumb latch on an old fashioned door handle.

Finally, there’s the “Sh**ts and Giggles” bucket. A profuse and remarkably (subjectively) amusing category of names, over which I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.  On the one hand, I think “A pint of The Dogs Bollocks” gives our beloved beer an air of self deprecation & wry amusement which signals: “Get us. We’re beer and we’re not up ourselves like wine”. I like that.  On the other, when you pause ever so briefly, and rationalise what you’re actually ordering, it’s a “…pint of sweaty, hairy, dangly, sexual reproductive organs from Man’s Best Friend” please.  I’m not sure about the appetite appeal of that one².

Big brands from multinational brewers deserve a section for themselves.  I’m particularly intrigued by colours. A selection to the witness box if you please:  Beck’s Blue (low / no alcohol); Foster’s Gold; Stella Black; Guinness Red; Bud Silver.  I don’t necessarily dislike these names, hell I know how difficult it is naming brand extensions (you don’t want to fight with the ‘mother brand’ name, but equally you need to be distinctive), but really. Is this the best they can do?  And it goes for mock production processes too. I have already mentioned Carling Rock; but there’s Carlsberg (et al) Ice, Dry beers (Asahi et al – where are they now?), Strong, Dark, Filtered, Fast, Slow.  Funny that the real creative energy lies with smaller guys, the ones for whom risk seems less of an issue – it could lead to fame, it could lead to failure, it may lead to notoriety, or even the vets, but they’re having a go.  Half term report for the big boys: must try harder.

Yet the real common denominator in all of this seems the lack of science. Naming brands is, I feel, where the art comes in; where you have to get off the pot and put your idea front and centre to your customer.  That’s brave and exciting.  But I think I could still make my millions here after all – despite past shames, at least I’m confident that the mystical approach to naming could allow me to be the shamen of the namin’  after all.

*Hopefully this will move into the plural if you would care to pass on the link or retweet me? Danke schőn.

¹Actually this was made up, but you wouldn’t guess would you? Seamless, just seamless.

²For completeness let me share a small selection of other names: Arrogant Bastard, ButtFace, Top Totty, Granny Wouldn’t Like It, Dirty Tackle (it’s a rugby allusion, OK), Village Idiot, Haggis Hunter.  All quite amusing, yet all trumped by a beer for those considering a holiday in the Balkans. Look out for Macedonia’s ‘Vergina’ beer.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012