Tag Archives: Boston Lager

The rise of the Nitro’ns

This morning I got an e-mail through from Beer Hawk, offering me a discount on a case of interesting U.S. beers in advance of the Superbowl. And were it not for a coincidence, that would have been that. But there it was, as plain as day, a bottle of Left Hand Brewing Co’s ‘Nitro’ – the stout in fact, one of a number available in their nitro series. The coincidence? Well, at a workshop I was running the other week, the same beer was brought along as an example of something new, an innovation. *draws breath*

Nitro beers. Well, clearly not an innovation: the first one I had was a ‘nitrogen flushed’ can of Draught Bass, and that was definitely in the late ‘80s. Actually, it only had a small proportion of nitrogen in it, the idea was to pour it moderately quickly and let it settle into a creamy head. The settle was quick too but it was a smooth drink and enjoyable too, although quite different to cask Bass. Then of course was the Widget Decade. Nitrogen flushed beer simply has mixed gas – CO2 and nitrogen. The widget beers have a canister, containing the nitrogen which is released upon opening. Guinness Bitter, Boddington’s, Worthington’s Geysir Flow™, Caffrey’s and then all manner of beers launched in a sort of nitrogen-fuelled technology arms race. We had fixed metal widgets, floating plastic widgets, balls, barrels and cylinders – you name it. There was even a Boston Beer Co beer (an ale-lager hybrid Boston Beer), distributed by Whitbread.   Some of these beers are still around: Boddington’s is in cans and of course, Guinness still has a widget variant.

Left-Hand-Brewing-Co-Nitro-IconsBut there is a problem. For everything the widget (and the nitrogen) gives in smooth texture and a bit of rippling theatre, it takes away in taste. I recently read a Sam Adams blog on the subject which, to paraphrase, said that ‘some beers work and others don’t’. I’d be surprised by this: at one point I ran an innovation project for a brewery and we put every beer the company brewed into widget and nitrogen flush cans – every single one either had suppressed flavour overall, or the nitrogen had an unbalancing effect, effectively emphasising one particular flavour component of the brew. Never positively.

Although there seem to be some differences this time – nitro products in glass for one, and a fully inverted pour, it feels like a circle coming round to the start again. I watch the (re)rise of the Nitro’ns with interest. And with scepticism.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016

The rollercoaster

My first memory is very clear.  I was on holiday in south Devon, Kingsbridge in fact, where there used to be a miniature railway on the quay.  It was a Heath-Robinson affair, probably 8” gauge, with track laid by enthusiastic amateurs so had that pleasing rocking and yawing sensation as you rode on it.  The owner built it all himself and for a period was so successful that he had two trains running. One, the workhorse, he called ‘Heidi’ but there was no alpine, goat-milk drinking charm about her, just a serious, functional, work-all-day temperament. The other was a Gordon the Big Engine affair, 8 wheels, a turbo-Electric in GWR glossy green where driver and passengers could sit atop, and built more for inter-city work (to scale obviously. I mean, Derby to Nottingham would be like the Trans-Siberian here).  Like Gordon, if he could talk, if he could express his emotion (and unlike Heidi, this was definitely a ‘he’) he would be haughty, arrogant, aloof, superior.  He would sniff at his lot and look with disdain on the rails he was forced to run upon. As it turned out, he was crap at his job.  The tight turn as the railway swung around the top of the quay to avoid the landing stage, was for him too tight and the bogies would constantly derail.  Out of this trauma was born my first memory.  Holding my Dad’s hand as I was forced to clamber off the train and watch as the driver and some passengers strained to lever the engine back on to the rails.  Tears featured and a career at Network Fail stymied forever.

But the memory lives deep.  If Kingsbridge is mentioned, the memory comes back, and with it a slew of associations – colours, feelings, temperatures, a clear image of the scene and others that followed.  It’s a neural pathway that is deep set, powerful and emotive.  Yet, it’s not just our first memories that are powerful, in fact, our first experiences of everything that is new, surprising, challenging, frightening, pleasurable leaves us with a network of anchors that are the reference points for the rest of our days.  My first car: a red polo (dodgy driver side windscreen wiper, gearbox like stirring stew, exhaust that broke on the top of Exmoor (best Spitfire I ever flew after that); my first meal I cooked myself: chile con carne (hold the kidneys a touch next time); my first kiss…. you get the drift.

And the first beer I drank the first time I went to the US was Sam Adams Boston Lager.

Sam Adams.  Even drinking it as a Brit felt a little treacherous. At the time, mid 1990s, US beer was still reviled; those who drank it generally bought into the attendant brand values rather than the beer (and pre frogs, and ‘Wassssup?’ Bud had some great, iconic ‘Genuine Article’ advertising).   For the few however, word was out.  Something was going on Stateside, on the West Coast in San Francisco, in the East Coast from Boston to Delaware.  In this case, I drank my beer in Quincy Market, like Covent Garden and Canary Wharf placed adjacently, with a hellishly tasty sub, and where I was asked for proof of age for the first time in my life.  And the beer was great. Not just good, but really great.  One of those occasions where you have to stop yourself, put the glass down and look at it, head slightly askance to make sure you’re not dreaming.  Beautifully structured maltiness, a slight tobacco-stained white head colour and a floral yet spicy hoppiness both in aroma and taste.  Today perhaps, not great shakes, but back then, and particularly given that this was an American lager, it was two hoofing great milkshakes, potentially verging on a Knickerbocker Glory.  So there it was: my future wife, a terrific only-in-America sub, a beer to die for in an entrancing setting.  Quite literally, the stuff memories are made of.

So what do you do then when memories are shattered?  How do you reconcile yourself to the rollercoaster of emotions, the feeling that you have been living a lie, tricked, kidded on?  To this day, in my other passion, cycling, I have to face this with disturbing regularity.  One by one, your heroes are dethroned – Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton… it’s painful and needs a period of adjustment.  And this is where I am today as I write, over such a silly little thing really.  But Sam Adams Boston Lager in the UK is now brewed under license by Shepard Neame.  Previously they were the agents, importing and distributing it.  Now the line has been crossed – the line of irrationality.  Because everyone knows, when they stop and think about it, that shipping large quantities of liquid around the globe makes neither economic nor environmental sense.  Rational minded individuals know that brewers today are so skilled, that within the bounds of what humans can detect, it is possible to ‘match’ beers.  And whether we deny it or not, we accept that it goes on. If you have ever drunk a pint of say what? 7 or 8 pints out of 10 in the UK, then you know that this practise goes on.  And high gravity brewing; and adjuncts, and tricks with bottle size.

But it’s OK.  The rules are in place.  The context is transparent – the big brewers make war on their own terms, and make decisions to keep them competitive and alive. It’s mass-manufacture behaviour.  I understand it commercially and choose to accept it because I can vote with my wallet and drink elsewhere if I have a problem.  But somehow Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co) have crossed that line now. Somehow their principles as a craft brewer have been shown to be suspect and they need to ‘fess up and play by the new rules.   For me, and I suspect for many though, it’s too late – my memory has been sullied and the damage done.

Boston Lager logo

Faversham Lager, brewed near the original site of the Faversham Tea Party. (The new logo shape is the giveaway)

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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