Tag Archives: Sam Adams

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

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The Session #79: U.S. vs Old World Beer Culture

The Session, a.k.a. ‘Beer Blogging Friday’, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This month’s topic is hosted by Dingsbeerblog (http://www.dingsbeerblog.com)

The Session ImageIn the late 1980’s, three strands interwove at a crucial time for me which triggered my interest and enthusiasm for beer. The first was family – my older brother, in his first radical phase was an unwitting early proponent of slow food, and as he was building his knowledge of food, wine and to a lesser extent beer whilst at University his influence rubbed off on his younger brother when he came home.  The second was friends: Dave Wilkes and his home brew to be exact. I’m not sure where Dave’s passion for home brew emerged, but what I do know is that it was a consistently deep brown, nutty concoction, served straight from the cask (something I hadn’t seen at that point in my hitherto sheltered life) and weighing in at what I’m guessing to be about 15% ABV¹.  The third strand was the emergence in America of a beer tea party: new, interesting brews, attempting to throw overboard the homogeneity of typical US offerings.  To a late teen in provincial UK, this was not learnt first hand.  Rather, the source was Michael Jackson of course, both through a much thumbed copy of ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ and also through the particular episode of ‘The Beer Hunter’² where Michael travels to west coast USA and vividly brings to life this new narrative of US craft beer. As he takes the trip to the tip of northern California to celebrate the barley harvest with all the Anchor Steam workers, my beer idyll is born.

IMG_0444Over 20 years on, as I read Tim Acitelli’s excellent ‘The Audacity of Hops’ – an almost 50 year history of American craft beer, I realise how much each ‘culture’ is indebted to the other.  If you can call it that of course:  I’m not sure anyone in the ‘Old World’ would see much a shared tradition between say English beer culture and Bavarian beer culture – an important point when you see how the different European nations individually influenced the US scene.  The first wave was largely inspired by English pale ale:  could the early craft brewers like Jack McAuliffe create domestically brewed pale ale as flavoursome, as full on those he had drunk on his British travels? The name above the door giving away his influences: New Albion. Could Pete Slosberg devise a recipe as enticing as the brown ales he had drunk on his travels in Europe (I didn’t realise that the resultant, massively successful beer, ‘Pete’s Wicked Ale’ is no longer available)? Then later, wider European influence took hold, kick-started by Jim Koch reliably recreating his grandfather’s recipe for a Bavarian lagered beer in the form of Sam Adams Boston Lager but quickly and rapidly spreading into replicating, and attempting to better, beers from Belgium, Germany, France and beyond.

IMG_0442I’m conscious of my own biases around beer and particularly my orientation toward well brewed and properly lagered Czech and Bavarian lagers and feisty and flavoursome US pale ales and IPAs in particular; but actually portraying a picture of the ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ as a battle: us versus them isn’t overly helpful.  The reality, as is so often the case, is defined more by the similarities than the differences.  Riddled through both cultures are defining traits: a trigger event – a burning platform that great, idiosyncratic, varied beer was close to dying out. In the US’s case, Fritz Maytag heard about the brewery days before it was due to close down. In the UK, the dawning realisation that cask beer (and the infrastructure that supports it) was facing the same fate. Struggle – it’s easy to forget the perseverance, grit, setbacks and failures along the way. Many of the original wave of US craft brewers simply didn’t make it through the first wave of growth, starved of cash, resources, time or capital, they had to either close or stay niche. Most went under. It’s why I fear the same for many of the UK’s current crop of micro brewers. Time – it’s almost 50 years now since Fritz Maytag bought Anchor. It’s over ten years now since Gordon Brown introduced the progressive beer duty, the so called ‘Small Brewers Duty Relief’ and yet, you could argue that for most drinkers here, cask beer still hasn’t entered the mainstream.  But more than anything else, what’s clear is how the Old and New World cultures are self perpetuating, each fuelling the other – the growth of craft brewing in Italy, inspired by the US, being a great example. I saw this for myself on a recent business trip to Milan, managing to fit in a short beer break after work one evening, and finding a craft beer bar that you wouldn’t expect to see this side of the pond – the most ‘mainstream’ beer available was Menabrea which enjoys, what? 2% of the Italian beer market?  Or the spread of US hop varieties to the point where a number of UK beer aficionados are actively complaining about their over-use versus traditional British hop varieties.  And finally, there’s the experimentation. The emerging narrative is that it’s a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, and the European brewers are only experimenting because of the boundary pushing of the US brewers.  True to a degree of course – but not solely so.  There’s been an experimental tradition in surprising and not-so-surprising European countries for many years – Belgium of course, but also in countries like Scotland, where brewing with traditional ingredients, or barrel aging is not a new phenomenon.

No, this is all a case of ‘and’. The real vibrancy between the craft brewers is the mutual support, the ready sharing of ideas and experience, the healthy competition that exists.  It’s a culture that’s worth celebrating and enjoying across the whole world.

 

¹The fashion in beer books is to tell how home brew ‘transformed my expectations of how amazing beer could be’.  With respect to Dave, this wasn’t the case, I think his home brew was a malt extract kit brew and it was pretty hard going. I seem to remember swirling my mouth out with a Heineken.

² Two links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtmxXgKU1o0, the beer idyll is at the start of part 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36BUK7lv-iU

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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

The thorny issue of ‘craft’

Over a quiet beer or two, I have been wrestling with a dilemma.  Actually, no, that’s not right, as a dilemma is something you can’t satisfactorily resolve.  Rather, a thorny issue:  when is craft craft or not craft?  To stretch it further, are big brewers who sell ‘craft’ beer simply responding well to the drinker trends in the market, or are they being just plain crafty?

The Motley Fool (www.fool.co.uk) – a network of bloggers offering advice and gossip on companies and share performance – recently penned an article on US craft beer sales. It made for interesting reading:  although craft beer is only 6% of the market place, they are growing strongly, up 14% in the last year according the American Brewers’ Association – in an overall market where per capita consumption is declining.  Interestingly, the big brewers’ performance within this was marked. Miller Coors’ Blue Moon brand grew by 50% between 2009 and 2011, and Leinenkugel’s grew by 20%.  Anheuser Busch is also a player. They have bought Goose Island and also launched their own craft brand, Shock Top, the latter growing 70% year to date*. In comparison, more established players – the genuine craft brewers it is argued – are growing much more slowly.

Raspberry WheatWe drank Shock Top Raspberry Wheat in the Salty Dog in Sarasota – with no idea it was an ABI beer. Inspired marketing or a confidence trick?

There are two really interesting dynamics going on here.

First, that there is a debate going on about ‘craft’ at all.  Big companies get big for a whole host of reasons – luck, daring acquisitions, market expansion, exploitation… and brand building skill.  If they spot an opportunity to sell brands to drinkers, they’ll do it, and endeavour to do it with scale.  As far as I’m concerned, if a drinker is happy that a beer is a craft beer, then whether we agree on principle or not becomes purely academic: it is. Get over it, and start competing.

Second is the debate about what constitutes craft?  The answers are invariably couched in a hotchpotch of measures: volume brewed; use of adjuncts purely for taste, independence.     This is missing the point – a point bigger than beer. What manifests itself in beer as ‘craft’, is a slew of market trends impacting right across food and drink products: national, regional, local, provenance, authenticity, passionate producers, natural ingredients, interesting tastes & textures, original recipes – I could go on.  It’s popping up in tea, coffee, wines & spirits, across all foods from fresh meat and veg to ready meals and snack foods.

So what’s the connection?  These trends are tapping into our desire to emotionally connect in some way to our roots – however we define them as individuals.  This could show itself as national pride or local knowledge; it can show itself as truly authentic or re-interpreting the past, but importantly it doesn’t define itself by scale.  Look at Rachel’s Organic or Yeo Valley – organic, touchy-feely, yes. Niche – no. Or Tyrell’s Crisps, Red Sky or Kettle Chips.  Made from potatoes (not substitutes), interesting natural flavours, lovingly fried in kettles, yes. Niche – no. Or Sam Adams, Blue Moon, London Pride, Doom Bar – interesting, unusual, brewed with care? Of course.  Niche – no.

It’s good news all round for brewers, but as it’s about more than just the beer – it’s great news for brewers great and small.

*Clearly, that’s in the year to the date of their earnings release, not the year to date this year.  Mind you, January sales up 70% would be no mean feat.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, February 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