Tag Archives: Boon

The Fifth Element

It is best described as a dream? Perhaps it is, perhaps it’s just an idyll. But anyway, in this dream, I am the owner of a small, rural brewery. If it helps to picture it, it’s down a long country lane, one of those beautiful shire lanes in England with grass growing down the spine and the tarmac flaking and giving way at the sides. The vistas are long, across the water meadow (yes, they do still exist) and towards distant dark hills. There are some passing places on the road, but they’re informal: one in a field entrance where the gate hangs off its hinges; another where the gravel path to the ford scrunches down to the river, lazily. The building housing the brewery is round a sharp left hand bend. They’re farm outhouses, with ruddy-cheeked bricks, sharply mortared, with blue brick edges, smoothly curved. Roofs are clad in steep pitched Staffordshire grey tiles, bedecked in moss and chipped like a boxer’s teeth. The water for the beer bubbles up from a spring just where the hill line breaks and a copse of old mixed trees starts, some beech, some oak, hedge elm and the stickleback flashes of silver birches too.

Why a farmhouse brewery? Why artisan? I have no particular farming connection and I live in the country so there’s no pent up rural frustration, no unmet need to be ‘closer to nature’. But there is the connection of beer to its origins: being closer to the earth, the water, the fields where the crops are grown. Somehow, when the brewery is under a railway arch, or a steel clad industrial unit the connection is weakened, or worse, when it’s some industrial edifice on the outskirts of say, Manchester, that connection is lost. Here, it’s industry. Here, it’s 7 day a week brewing. Here, it’s ‘sales and operational planning’. Even the ingredients are tamed; modified malt; hops pounded and pelleted so there’s no goodness left; adjuncts for consistency and efficiency.

But the idyll is not some fantasy, not, well… idyllistic. It’s happening. As my writings have taken me further afield so my desire to reopen old, closed doors has intensified; and my willingness to experiment with wildness; with inconsistency; with tastes that make you squint has strengthened in turn.

A few years ago, I travelled through Payottenland, visited Boon, on my way in fact to Rodenbach. That was the extent of my primary research into spontaneously fermented, or oak-aged beers. I am the beginning of my new journey, of personal pioneering. Early discoveries this time round have startled me. That of Elgood’s of Wisbech, as old fashioned as they come, who have re-commissioned an old coolship so they can spontaneously ferment, installing wooden beams above it to capture microbes and build a circle of wild fermentation. This is surprising. That beers with a sour, wild, uncontained character are becoming the ‘in thing’ with urbanites is startling. And the closest thing I have found so far to my idyll, are the beers from Wild Beer Co in Somerset. They are on a farm, down a country lane. It may not be the centre of human population, but it’s Wild Yeast Central. Ironically though, I found their beers in Sourced Market at St Pancras, on a railway concourse at the heart of our most congested metropolis. Wild Beer Co talk about adding an extra element: the first water; the second, hops, the third, grains, the fourth, yeast. The fifth is wildness.

IMG_3936By this point, I was already lumping around a full satchel, so only bought a couple of their brews, but what brews they turned out to be. The first was a one of their everyday drinkers, their ‘everyday sours’, to use their language. Wild Goose Chase is a ‘farmhouse pale’, brewed with their wild yeast culture and gooseberries. Gooseberries: an utterly underrated fruit anyway and yet perfect for beer; the tartness complementing the malty sweetness, the aroma incisive, cutting. It promised much and delivered – a gently ‘sour acid’ aroma (if you can have such a thing… prickly somehow); to look at, a milky gold, lively with a gentle, natural carbonation. I expected no head and it poured with none, but was not the worse for it: it was delicious, fruit, tartly quenching beer. The other was a Saison – the boldly entitled Epic Saison. Unusual for a beer that is fermented partly with bacteria, this was generously hopped (the traditional role of hops was to impede bacteria – more a problem when you are designing the bacteria in) with a dry slice of melony, passionfruity U.S. grown Sorachi Ace hops but still with that loamy European earthiness more associated with a tart beer. It would be tempting and stereotypical to describe such a beer as a ‘fusion’ – in fact, it seems quite naturally ‘of here’, like a fruit pie baked on a tin plate, plump, sharp and sweet but with that doughy, buttery taste of the fields, of dairy, of the land. My note taken at the time simply said, “Well brewed, drinkable and edgy. An irresistible combination.”

These beers fuelled my desire to learn more, to taste more. To find the beers of New Belgium, Allagash or the Jolly Pumpkin; to try a ‘kettle soured’ beer, like those from The Commons. This sounds like a journey down a long, interesting country path, one with some grass growing down the middle, a farmhouse outbuilding holding a rustic brewery and wild yeasts floating through the breeze.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

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The world of ‘adjacent fruitiness’

There’s a phrase used by marketing types when they are contemplating innovations or new products: ‘adjacencies‘.  The idea is to look to related products or territories first, not just make seemingly irrational leaps into random or mad-cap territories.  It’s not necessarily the best way of thinking about this, but it’s one way, and increasingly it’s used by bigger, typically more risk averse businesses.  Big brewers in particular, and more specifically those in western Europe and North America who are feeling the economic pinch, have started to talk about ‘renovation’ not ‘innovation’. It’s much the same thing: look at what’s close to hand and can be delivered with our existing kit.  Evidence: Foster’s Gold in Foster’s bottles; Carling Chrome in plain bottles; packaging tweaks (speaking as the person who first brought temperature activated inks onto beer cans, I speak with some authority here.  And look, I got excited at the time so leave me alone).  But the point is it can deliver commercially for a business, but it’s all a bit….well….dull. 

Cider is a classic example of an ‘adjacency’.   Picture the scene. It’s 2006. A balmy, almost tropical summer.  I had a job at the time which saw me in central London most days, and often out in the the pubs and clubs of the capital.  The something happens. A new phenomenon no less…… cider! From Ireland. In one pint, brown bottles. And it’s orange.  But by golly, it’s selling like hot cakes.

I don’t think it would have done that well in research. But my hunch is they didn’t research it.  It was ripping up trees in Ireland, why it can’t it do the same over the water?  Which of course, is what Magner’s did.

Magner'sMagner’s. Has got a lot to answer for. Plus, it’s orange.

Reaction 1:  cider maker panic.  The immediate response: Strongbow gets relaunched; Bulmers gets relaunched and all the small, family or artisinal cider makers  get a little business fillip (hurrah for them).

Reaction 2: brewers panic.  Is it affecting our trade?  What should we do?  Why is this thing working? It’s Orange! (Outrage, outrage, chunter, chunter!)  This can’t be right!

Five years on, the affects of that launch are still being felt in beer and in cider. The cider makers are still creaming it in – just look at the amount of space dedicated to bottles in the supermarket, and next time you’re out, just count how many people are drinking bottles of cider, both from the British Isles and beyond.

In beer, the reaction has been to understand ‘adjacencies’.  And what’s the adjacency here?

Fruit.

As simple as that; if we put fruit in our beer then hey, ho away we go. Happy days…     But is it that simple?  I do think there’s some great news.  Many beers do go with fruit, and some fruits incredibly.  As I see it, there’s no reason why fruit can’t either form part of the mash, or be added for taste (or dare I say it, be put in the neck of the bottle – if it builds love for beer then why not?).  Beer buyers (supermarket buyers and pub chain buyers) now have these sorts of products on their radar. That’s a good thing.

And I think it would also be too crass to leap to the assumption that traditional beers brewed with fruit are great and newer ones brewed with essences are bad, particularly if they stem from some faceless, multi-national brewing concern.  That doesn’t wash, but there clearly is an axis.  At one end, there are the older fruit beers – the Belgian ones are the obvious example. At the other, there are the big brand extensions – the Bud Light Limes, Carling Zest’s of this world.  And a vast array between.

Fruit beers are back on the radar, and there are some highlights and lowlights to date.

Highlights?

I was reminded how good the authentic Krieks and Framboise beer of Belgium can be when I managed to get hold of some bottles of Boon Oude Kriek & Boon Framboise.  A few years ago I had these in a great bar in Brussels but I hadn’t seen them since (www.beermerchant.com sell them direct).  These are some of the most traditionally brewed of their types, Frank Boon saving the brewing from extinction at a time when the beers of Lambeek looked like they were going to the wall, and now as part of the Palm Brouwerij family, with a financially stronger parent who cares about the heritage of traditional Belgian beers.  They’re not for the faint hearted; they are based on Boon Geuze so have the characteristic wild yeast ‘farmyard’ flavours and these flavours still tell through even after the addition of the fruit & a secondary fermentation with the macerated whole fruit. But they are refined; the Framboise in particular is devine – it has a punchy fruit flavour yet isn’t cloyingly sweet or overbearing.  In Belgium it’s sold in champagne sized bottles with a cork and wire stopper – just perfect for celebrations of any sort (and indeed, it is served in flutes).  The Kriek, made with cherries is assertive, and has a beautiful dry, earthy cherry stone aroma and a just-so sweet flavour to counteract the beers complexity.

BoonYeah baby.

But of course Boon beers are difficult to get, so I like Liefmans, recently smartened up, and based on an aged brown ale rather than a Lambic.

Lowlights?

I haven’t worked my way through the Floris range yet, but they are quite widely available in city bars and some offies.  The popular ones are the strawberry – clearly having a crack at the Fruli market and also the cherry white.  These, like Fruli, are based on a wit beer based, which I think makes a great carrier for fruit. But I’m not convinced with these beers – the packaging is unattractive which starts you off on the wrong foot and the beers tend to be too ‘spiky’ to enjoy more than a few mouthfuls. The strawberry for example has an almost pear drop sweetness and the cherry has that touch of cherry coke that suggests it has come from a bottle not a piece of fruit.

And Melville’s. From the Innes & Gunn stable, the hand of the marketeer is at play.    Clear flint bottles (uh-oh), see through plastic labels and nice design; they look the part.  But then the nit picking commences: brewed to be an antidote to “sickly continental style fruit beers” and “one dimensional ciders”; or “bursting with delicious flavours of real fruit’ from “cold pressed Scottish fruit”, followed by the coup de grace:  “Finally” they assert, “…a fruit beer for people who like great beer”.  Well chaps, these are bold claims; and you know what, if it hadn’t been for all the abrasive anti-beer language the beer tinted specs of mine might be a little less steamed up, but if you are going to shoot at your competitors Melvilleyou need to damn sure of your position.  These beers don’t have the balance; the punch and the real fruit fruitiness to have a crack at Krieks and Frambozen.  They are, I’m sure, aimed at totally different people on different occasions. But that’s not the point – embrace the world of beers my friends, don’t piss in the same pond.  We can all do without that. And frankly, whilst these are undoubtedly lighter than a ‘continental style fruit beer’ it doesn’t equate to drinkability.

That’s not the note to finish on though. For me, the great thing about the marriage of fruit and grain is that there are so many delicious potential combinations. So not everyone’s getting it right. But these beers are adding a new dimension and appeal to drinkers – and to important people in the world of beer too, the buyers who decide what goes on the shelves. For fruit beers (and ciders too) to be given more space is a great thing and will help support new starters who want to have a crack at beer in the future or new drinkers who want to give beer a go but haven’t so far.

I’ll drink a fruity beer to that and ponder other ‘adjacencies’….

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK (beermerchants.com) – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012