Net Zero?

There’s a Facebook group I’m a member of that’s dedicated to Czech beer and as always with these things, it seems, there are interesting debates, informative sharing of unfamiliar beers and a bunch of irrational bugbears that become on-going motifs of the digital conversation.

One particularly beef is Staropramen; a beer that, since being sold to Bass Brewers after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the mid ’90s has had a more hand-offs than a game of rugby: sold to Interbrew as was, then into venture capital ownership as table stakes to make another big ABI deal happen and then back like a nomadic cat to Bass’ successor in kind, Molson Coors. Throughout this time, the beer has, as is the wont of multinational brewers, been hardly cherished – and through expert ‘flavour matching’ been brewed in the outer Prague suburbs, including Preston and Burton-upon-Trent, the latter where UK and much export Staro is brewed today.

For many of the Czechs on the Facebook Group, Staropramen is ditch water wherever it’s brewed, but there’s barely a dissenting voice that the UK brewed version is worse even than that. Few challenge this perception (maybe they don’t dare). And maybe it’s true. But it could also be utter tripe. Think what you like about Big Beer, but their brewers are always superbly well trained, with on-going continuous professional development and frankly, are sought after by small brewers the world over. They know how to flavour match. And the chances are that their flavour match is much more accurate than a hazy, half-cut customer memory of what Staropramen once tasted like in some Prague bar in 2013 where, you know, it was ‘authentic’.

It underlines what we already know but often don’t want to admit to. We drink with our eyes and our memories as much as with our taste buds and sense of smell. We’re happy to drink from belief not fact. And if you don’t believe me, some of the same people who are happy to slag off Staropramen, compare it with the terrific taste of Velkopopovický Kozel, a beer brewed under license in many markets and which is a weak shadow of its former self (just take the significant reduction in ABV over time as one dimension of this).

I choose to drink authentic beers, brewed in their homes. I believe that small breweries, sourcing from their local area, supporting their local economy and community is better. I am not arguing that we should all just accept brewing under license and get on with it, because that would be hypocritical. But caving into irrationality around how something tastes based on where the brewery is? I don’t buy it. This isn’t wine. This isn’t terroir.

Take Peroni. I like the fact it’s brewed in Rome or Bari and even though I prefer the taste of Moretti, I don’t like that it’s brewed in Edinburgh or Tadcaster. McMoretti, by gum. But, this is just my subjective preference – in fact, only recently did Heineken stop importing 6 pack small cans of Moretti from Rome, switching to UK brewed… and I only realised the difference afterwards because the outer wrap had changed from plastic to card, so I read the blurb. It tasted the same. My head realises this, even though my heart hates it. I don’t drink Staropramen any more. But the fact that somehow it’s fundamentally different to that brewed in Prague…. come on.

And then there’s the necessity for us all to move to low carbon lifestyles. It’s going to require sacrifices. And we all know that shipping containers of mildly inebriating, coloured fizzy water around the planet in diesel powered mega-ships when it could be made up the road is bonkers. It just doesn’t make sense on any level. For a UK drinker, this might not be an issue for a beer brewed in Leuven, Poznan or Umbria. But California? China? New Zealand? Surely that can’t be right.

And in the scale of sacrifices to come, Burton brewed Staropramen – Staffopramen perhaps – might just turn out to be loose change.

Lager, Part VI: Bring In The Tanks

There is no more powerful, evocative and sought after beer idyll as “drinking lager fresh from the lagering tank”.  It is beer perfection exemplified. It is a notion so laden with positive association that it has reached almost mythic proportions. Here we have it: beer as beer should be; beer in the state that the brewer themselves would want you to enjoy it.  Beer that is fresh; is still conditioning; is so lively with natural carbonation; so ever-so-slightly hazy:  is alive. Beer with a gushing, foaming head so unctuously thick, so heavenly white, so unfailingly deep, so velvety creamy that you will think all your Movembers have arrived at once. This is state of grace filled with nostalgia, pining and distant hope, for it is a dying art.

I consider myself lucky enough to have drunk beer from the lagering tank three times: twice in the Czech Republic, once in the U.S. The first time was in the cavernous lagering mines under the streets of Prague, the tanks of Pražské Pivovary, the tanks of Staropramen. It is no overstatement to say that few times in my life have I been speechless with awe, wonder and reverence.  It was truly a near religious experience;  to step down the slippery steps, becoming ever damper, ever cooler, ever gloomier. The Cold War flicker of a lone fluorescent tube our only company. Footsteps bouncing, echoing from the stone floor and low-vaulted ceiling.  And then, turning the corner;  row upon row of enormous white lagering tanks stretching off into successive vaults. Countless tanks, endless caverns, dedicated to beer worship; floating, seemingly like innumerable whales, gently swimming below the surface.  Each tank delicately coated in a thin, glittering layer of condensation. Each tank slashed with the rough chalk marks showing when it was filled, tested, and when it will be ready to broach.

The second time years later was a similar, but further to the north west in the hop growing area of Žatec; again, rank upon rank of lagering tanks, slightly worse for wear, revealing the more straitened financial situation of this brewery compared with those in Prague where the streets are paved with Stag-Do Gold. But it was equally charming, equally moving – knowing that a brewer was dedicated to the considerable investment in time and expense of lagering their beer properly. Knowing that a brewer was still determined to sell proper lagered beer with the roundness and softness of palate that no short cuts can match.

The final time was modestly different, sampling different beers from the Sandlot micro-brewery under the Colorado Rockies baseball stadium at Coors Field. A few were sampled that evening, from a well known wheat ale, to a caramelly amber ale, but the Barman Pilsner was the highlight.  It sprinted through the pig tail into the glass, seething and swirling as it went, displaying that rounded, full character that I had tasted before. From a cellar in Colorado echoes of Bohemia could be heard.

No surprise then that lager brewers are trying to find ways to export – figuratively and literally – this state of lager grace to build their brand and reputation. It’s a drum a few of us have been beating for some time and now the reverberations are being heard.  Perhaps it is a case of necessity being the mother of invention as two very famous lager brewers are at the vanguard: Budweiser Budvar and Pilsner Urquell (PU).  Both have been struggling for traction in the UK in recent years – Budvar to grow their franchise, PU to gain a sustainable market foothold here.

I tracked down PU first, eventually making it to a long overdue visit to the White Horse on Parson’s Green. Unsurprisingly, given the justified reputation of this pub as a leading voice in the beer revolution,  SAB Miller, the owners of PU, have chosen the White Horse to invest in; a tank has been fitted in the pub cellar purely for unfiltered PU.

Beer tanks are old school. When I joined Bass, in my first few weeks I did a trade visit up to a working men’s club in Sheffield. It was a Stones’ club. At the time, Stones was Sheffield. And Sheffield steel meant huge pubs, huge men drinking huge quantities. So out back was a beer tank; the capacity I can’t recall, but it was a big as a farmer’s grain silo, pitched on its side. There was a glass gauge that allowed you to see the beer level: I watched  in naive excitement and not a little terror seeing the level of the beer gauge drop as I stared at it. The beer was the freshest you will taste on these shores: cellar cold, with a crisp, hop bite and thick Yorkshire head sitting on top.  It never hit the sides. Yet, not long after, the tanks were gone; the cost to maintain being the argument, financial as always.

IMG_0627And as so often is the way, the circle comes around.  For now, in an act of post industrial irony, the beer tank has been gentrified – and the Sloany Pony is Exhibit A.  The PU was popular too, served from a Czech twin valve font, where you open the first valve fully first, then adjust the second valve as it flows to perfect the head. The glassware was the Czech equivalent of a dimple: another circle coming back round.  The most notable feature was the aroma. It was grassy and fresh before the head was broken. The pour was a delight and I didn’t complain when it the beer was slightly below the line because the proportions were right. The first sip was another delight, drinking through that head; breathing in the beer before it touched my taste buds. To taste: there was still the assertive hop forward character you expect from PU – if anything more assertively bitter than pasteurised stock. But the aftertaste was markedly more bitter yet, in fact a touch astringent – the opposite of what I had expected.  I struggled through it however…

Budweiser Budvar are taking a different approach. Their ‘Yeast Beer’ heads over in kegs filled from the lagering tanks. It means distribution has to be strictly controlled and the beer IMG_0669needs to be consumed within a week.  I found it in the Draft House on Charlotte Street, London: in fact, I only just found it. There was nothing on the font plaque to indicate it was different from the normal Budvar; no distinct glassware to justify the premium being paid. There was nothing in short, to support the beer idyll of “lager fresh from the lagering tank”.  Shame that.   Unlike the PU, the Budvar Yeast beer was markedly cloudy; as if it had received a little shot of yeast at the pour. And it too, wasn’t hugely different from bottled Budvar, but in this instance was softer, more gentle on the tongue and without the pronounced ethanol note you find in the bottle version.   Other clues were there too: a series of lacey white tide marks left as you drank it; a fuller, yet still delicate aroma.

The experiment for me is achieving mixed results: the reason fresh, lager tank beer is so evocative is because of its rarity.  You’ve got to want to try it; you’ve got to want to make that trip; you’ve got to want to hunt it down. But it’s hard yards – of course it is, otherwise everyone would do it. And the links in the chain are fragile. A fancy pour awry here; an overly foamy pint there; the wrong tap marker here; an unbranded glass there…  and the whole house of cards falls.  The tanks may be back, but the big guns haven’t nailed it just yet.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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

Lager, Part 3. Lager is as lager does.

If you take any interest in beer literature it won’t take you long to read that today, the majority of the beer drunk in the world is lager, in fact, typically a figure around 85 – 90% is cited as broadly accurate.

This is staggering. In fact, it is revolutionary given that this year, 2012, marks the 170th anniversary of the first clear, golden lagered beer from Plžen in Bohemia. If you consider that beer is known to have been consumed in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago this is equivalent to one of those Geological timelines that shows that if the age of the Earth is equated to just 12 hours, Humans have only existed in the last seconds before midnight.

It is though, wholly erroneous.

In reality, most of the beer consumed in the world today is pale.  Not pale ale, just pale in colour.  To call it lager is stretching it.

This generally assumed and unchallenged orthodoxy arises because two factors intermingle.  Firstly, these modern pale beers are brewed with strains of yeast that ferment at a cooler temperature than yeasts used for other beers (typically between 6˚C and 12˚C compared with ale yeasts at 15˚C and 24˚C). Secondly, these conditions were discovered when winter or spring brewed beer was stored in ice-filled caves to drink during Summer days when temperatures were too high to brew beer that didn’t spoil (due, as we now know, from the presence of wild yeasts in the air which would land on the beer and create spontaneous fermentation).  Given that this took place in Bavaria, these beers became known in the wider world as lager beers as they were ‘stored’ (German = lagern) and here a gentler fermentation continued to take place.

What I find intriguing is the assumption that beers fermented with bottom settling yeast and lager go hand in hand. This is where the error arises.

Actually most pale beer today is brewed with a bottom fermenting yeast strain (and in fact most beers are now brewed with hybrid yeasts that can be trained to fall to the bottom of the fermenter – even ales), but today few beers are lagered in a way, not only that was intended by the original lager beer pioneers, but also that does justice to the flavour potential of beers brewed in this way.

You see, for ale purists or for those who do not challenge the accepted wisdom, lager is ‘bland’. Either bland in absolute terms, or bland compared with the vast array of flavours in top fermenting beers. So it’s easy to level with sweeping strokes, ‘mass produced, tasteless, lager’ and justify the ale vs lager case that so damages the world of beer today.

But lager is bland if it isn’t lagered.  And here is the crux of the problem: lager is as lager does.

Most bottom fermented beer today doesn’t get the benefit of genuine lagering. And what a benefit it is.  It is a complex process where, in essence, flavours that brewers don’t want in beer are absorbed back into the yeast. Then eventually, the yeast flocculates* and settles to the bottom of the fermenting vessel.  I have debated with ‘progressive’ brewers who will claim, and probably back up with sound science, that today’s yeast hybrids and brewery conditions mean that long lagering times aren’t required.  And of course, lagering equals space and time – you need space for the tanks and you need time for the lagering, and that is capital investment needed and revenue lost.  But whatever the science says, the richness is lost – brands like Staropramen or Kozel are sad reflections of this – once great, rich, lagered beers, now brewed with cost in mind.

Of course, it’s not just the lagering. The choice of grist, of mashing regime, the yeast itself all impact flavour.  If you brew with enzymes to break down long chains of carbohydrates, this will impact flavour, as of course will the nature and type of hopping.

Yet, whilst most modern lagers are undoubtedly distant cousins of the first golden pilsner beers, they are merely that. Feral beers brewed more for the benefit of company bottom lines with the best technology at our disposal today.  These are undoubtedly pale beers exceptionelle. But they’re not lagered beers in a way that 19th Century Bavarian or Bohemian brewers would recognise.

Try a lagered beer, and really try it. Don’t just drink it; breathe it in.  Try the obvious ones – Budweiser Budvar is probably one of the few large Bohemian beers still lagering, in this case for a long time – 90 days – for the 5% export beer. Or in the German style, Warsteiner still lager, yet hop with German noble hops too for a clean yet spicy flavour.  But look out for the less well known beers. Windsor & Eton’s (yes, a British lagered beer) recently introduced Republika -they have installed lagering tanks especially for the purpose. Or Meantime’s London Lager (I know– two of them) – again, another beer with an extended maturation. Try Žatec, which is brewed with a double decoction mash and lagered for over 50 days in caves.  Breathe them in.  These beers aren’t in any way bland.  They are rich in texture, complex yet restrained in flavours, flavours which are multi-dimensional. They are refreshing yet rewarding too.  They are generally bitter, but bitter matched with a residual sweetness that leads to moreish drinkability.  They are naturally carbonated so the mouth feel is gentle and rounded.

Let’s hope that enlightened breweries such as these continue to brew genuine lager – one of the world’s more revolutionary niche beers.

* ‘scuse me.

David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles © March, 2012