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

A Belgian Tart

The question I pondered on while walking between the vast, oak maturation vats of Rodenbach was, ‘why here?’. The sour beers of west Flanders are another of the golden strands of uniqueness in the richly weft tapestry of Belgian brewing. But how? How did these insanely complex beers to brew, confrontationally surprising beers to drink, develop and thrive in this rather forlorn, horizonless town in the western reaches of Belgium?

This particular journey was something of an odyssey. In two days I had experienced breweries and brewers of Belgian special ale, lambic, white beers and now the sour beers. The connection was Palm, who had purchased the shares from the remaining members of the Rodenbach family in 1998 and were giving their time in order to strike a potential distribution deal. Rodenbach wasn’t on that agenda, but you could tell they were itching to show me the brewery when they learnt that beyond commercial considerations, I was also interested in their brewing heritage. We galloped across Flanders from north of Brussels to the east, past Oudenaarde, Bruges to Roselaere. I hadn’t quite appreciated what I was about to see.

Roselaere itself is industrial, located on a major canal that opened up the industry in the area, and played its part in later years in cementing Flemish identity. The landscape was lumpily flat; an occasional berg standing out afar; raised pavements curving sinuously over canal bridges, small copses of trees, the lower branches removed to give them an almost abstract, perfectly round-back Mister Men form. The buildings typically sported Dutch gables and the characteristic thumb high brown bricks that add extra emphasis to their mortar and horizontal plane. The influences on the beers of Roselaere were from all sides; from Flanders to the east, from the Netherlands to the north, France to the south and from England a short paddle over the water westwards, where at the time ageing beers in wood was most advanced and widely practised.

Portugal and others 2006 031_fotorIn comparison to the earthy plainness of the town and surrounding countryside, the brewery is arresting. I have visited brewing sites in the Czech Republic and Bavaria and stood in awe at cathedrals to brewing. The lager tanks below the Smíchov brewery in Prague; the billowing beer tents of Munich’s Oktoberfest or the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart; the medieval fairytale dreamland of Bamberg’s breweries; or the intimacy of drinking fresh Kölsch next to their maturation tanks in a bar in Cologne. This was something else though; a brewery of complexity and astounding, industrial design it left me dumbstruck.  I padded round, head straining back and forth, I struggling to compute the intricate details of ingredients, fermentation regimes and processes, the effects of aging, the alchemies of blending. Yet the impact of the brewery hit home immediately; the idiosyncratically beautiful malt drying house and in particular, the halls of foeders, their huge oak maturation barrels. Thick vertical staves reach 15 feet up, more for some; with a burnished nutty complexion and stand-out grain more like chestnut or pitch pine and a sheen as if massaged with the natural oil from workers’ hands over countless years. Multiple bands of iron hold the pressured tanks together, picked out in letter-box red, whilst resting on small stone feet, picked out in whitewash, which allow air to circulate and tapping or moving the beer. Each was numbered with a wrought iron plaque like those on the side of a steam engine.

Portugal and others 2006 032_fotorLater I attempted to decipher my mental notes: it is a mixed fermentation; the young beer is first fermented in stainless steel tanks with a mixed culture: a magical soupy catalyst developed from when Rodenbach cooled their beers in the large, shallow, open top coolships once used widely in Belgian breweries, less so today. The mix is a typically hungry strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae and bacteria which produce lactic acid. They ferment in that order too, the first producing the fruitiness, the second the more complex tangy, tart characters. But as if this wasn’t enough, most of the beer is then transferred to the foeders, where it matures for a further three years picking up the oaky tannins and retro confectionery tastes (Pear drops, Sherbet Lemons, and I even got a whiff of ‘Toxic Waste’ in there too (that’s sourness… if not that retro)).

The heart of the poet in me celebrated this wonderful beer shrine with its wonderful, distinctive beers; the hard commercial head fretted over how long it would last in the cut throat world of globalising brewing, where enzymes and ‘essences’ are used to mimic the complex flavours of genuine craft.

IMG_2028_fotorPerhaps though, the trenches of defence lie in the beers themselves. These are not easily attainable beers, not instant crowd pleasers. They all need a rite of passage; multiple attempts; repeated sipping through quizzical looks, gurning faces and sharp intakes of breath on encountering the sourness. They display layers of complexity which anyone with a normal food vocabulary would be unable to compute – ‘what was that?’. Biscuity malty notes; fruity spiciness; oaky tannins; cidery appley bite; the sour aromas of wine vinegars with the sharp tanginess of wild bacteria. Rodenbach is a reasonably sizeable brewery but their products are niche. Many brewers, trained in industrial scale lager and ale brewing dismiss them as undrinkable (undrinkable classics, perhaps). The beer writer Michael Jackson felt somewhat exploited when he was quoted ad nauseum by the brewery after describing Rodenbach’s beer (the Grand Cru) as ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’. Yet you can see where he was coming from; the complex fruitiness on first sip gives a layers of flavour reward whilst the tartness gives a pleasing sour pinch in the aftertaste. A virtuous circle of quenching drinkability and savouring reflection? In recent times, I read that the blend of Rodenbach original had been amended to make it slightly sweeter, less sour – a larger proportion of young to old beer and on drinking a bottle recently I would concur. The lines of defensibility though lie in remaining highly different, a difference which Rodenbach should both emphasise and treasure.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

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 ( – 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