Thursday, 20 April 2017

Brussels for the Easily Unimpressed

I don't often do beer tourism as such, but somehow my normal tourism ends up taking me to a lot of places with good beer. And normally when that happens, it's easy to know what to do to be impressed. Visiting New York and New England with my partner, we tried fresh local IPAs, and American classics that seldom make it across the Atlantic. In new bits of the UK, we go to classic pubs and seek out exciting local microbreweries. In Dusseldorf, we spent evenings in Uerige and Schumacher, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the company with their perfect, balanced session beers forming a backdrop rather than a focus.

Now she's spending a few months in Brussels for work, and thanks to the wonders of remote working I'm getting to spend a fair bit of time over there too. This is obviously pretty cool, but with the amount of Belgian beer that turns up in the UK these days, I found it surprisingly easy to be disappointed by the reality of a night out there. You go into a well thought-of bar, start leafing through a long list of bottled beers, and realize that most of them are actually pretty easy to get hold of back home. Swerving the wallet-busting bottles of vintage gueuze, you pick something sensibly priced that you've never heard of. When it arrives, it turns out to be a nondescript sugary blonde brewed to order for a beer marketer, or a slightly rough-edged take on a US pale from some local craft hopefuls.

After a few slightly unsatisfying experiences like this, I've come to suspect that over an evening drinking beer in Brussels, you normally have to pick two out of unusual, affordable, and consistently great. And once you accept that, you seem to end up with three basic approaches that you can take if you want a satisfying beery night out.

Splash out on vintage lambics

It'll cost you, but an evening picking from the vintage bottle list in a bar like Moeder Lambic is an experience the like of which you won't get in many places on earth. If it helps, try to remind yourself that wine buffs probably have it even worse. Going mob-handed and sharing bottles also softens the hit a bit.

If you're the sort of person who thinks that spending 50 Euros on a 75cl bottle of beer is a reasonable thing to do then you'll probably already know where to do it, but just for completeness, the obvious options are to head to either of the Moeders, visit Cantillon during the day, get dinner at Nuetnigenough, or take a trip out of town to De Heeren van Liedekercke, Grote Dorst or the Lambik-O-Droom.

Explore new micros

My experience of the newer small breweries in Belgium so far has been that they sometimes do great stuff, but don't have a particularly greater hit rate than similar breweries anywhere else. There do seem to be some gems, though.

I'm not so hot on this routine but again, either of the Moeders (but sticking to the draughts this time) or Nuetnigenough seem like good bets.

Immerse yourself in the classics

Possibly my favourite option. Sure, you probably can go to an adequately beer-geeky pub in the UK and find beers like Rochefort 10, Drei Fonteinen's Oude Gueuze, Dupont's Bonnes Voeux, De La Senne's Taras Boulba or De Dolle's Oerbier. But unless you're particularly well-off, any one of them is likely to feel like a treat - something that you splash out on after a few more sensible rounds. One joy of drinking in Belgium is that you can spend an evening wandering through these sorts of classic as the fancy takes you, knowing that at about four Euros each, none of them are going to break the bank.

If you're having dinner, Bier Circus and La Porteuse d'Eau have a lot of classic stuff. For drinking only, La Porte Noire, La Brocante (daytime only) and Pochenellekelder are obvious choices in the centre, while Amere a Boire is a hidden gem that's well worth a visit if you happen too be down South in Ixelles.

A few more ramblings...

Young Lambic

Okay, so there is one thing you can do that's affordable, unique and consistently pretty great, and that's drinking draught young lambic. On the other hand, I normally find that after a glass or two in Moeder I start wandering off into the rest of the draught list, or asking for the bottle menu...

Delerium

Delerium Cafe is one of the more famous beer bars in Brussels, and its subsidiary branches are turning into quite a chain. But although it's a well known beer-destination, it's conspicuous by it's absence from any of these lists. This is basically because I've only been in on a Friday night, at which point it was so overcrowded and understaffed that we rapidly got fed up and left after our first beer, so I don't really feel like I had a chance to figure out what it was about. I might try again on a Tuesday morning or something.

Why?

I think the difficulty of reliably picking good, new, cheap stuff in Belgium is partly down to the tendency of most established Belgian brewers to focus quite hard on a small core range of beers. This is part of what makes them so good, but it does also mean that you're relatively unlikely to come across a beer you haven't tried from a brewery that you know and trust, which in turn means that unless you spend the whole time flicking through a book or fiddling with your phone, trying a new beer is more likely to involve taking a punt on an unknown brewery.

Disclaimer

I'm not claiming to be an expert on the Belgian beer scene. These ramblings are based on a bit of background research and a few weeks spent living and drinking in Brussels. If I've missed anything out, please suggest it in the comments. If you think I'm spouting crap, please try to break it to me gently.

Further Reading

My starting point for exploring has been Tim Web and Joe Stange's superb Good Beer Guide Belgium, plus Ratebeer's top places for Brussels and the Brussels Beers and Bites blog.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Tourist Trap

Living in Cambridge, I like to go to the Elm Tree for their Belgian beers. For the UK, they have a seriously good range, albeit at Cambridgey prices. A travelling Belgian in search of British beer culture, however, might be better advised to try a pint of Banks & Taylors or Eagle IPA there, unless they were getting homesick.

I also go to the Carpenters Arms or the Haymakers for their pizza. They're both pretty good, but I wouldn't expect either to be high on the hit list of a visiting Neapoliton.

Another regular haunt is the Pint Shop, which has pretty much the only really solid lineup of new-wave keg in Cambridge. On the other hand, it's often London-craft-lite, and a Londoner planning a special trip might do better to save themself the train fare from Kings Cross and stop at the Craft Beer Co or the Euston Tap instead.

And it goes on. Curries, burgers, German beers, American beers - there are plenty of places that I go to in Cambridge that would hold very little interest for a visiting connoisseur, but which fill a niche as the best-of-breed locally, and which are great to have around when you want that sort of thing.

So when I see Brewdog in Brussels, or a trendy burger joint in Paris, or an outpost of Craftopia in Munich, I keep this in mind, and resist the temptation to sniff at it. Sure, I might pass it by myself, but I'm not the target market here.

Note: this post was inspired by a recent Zythophile post, although it's more going off on a tangent rather than having a pop at Martyn.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Very Important Beers

The story so far...

The Chicago Tribune recently published a piece on The 25 Most Important American Craft Beers Ever. This inspired Michael Lally to wonder what an equivalent British list would look like, which in turn prompted Boak and Bailey to pick out a few beers that they'd expect to see on such a list. And thinking that this looked like fun, I thought I'd have a stab myself.

I don't really know much about pre-Thornbridge innovations in pale-and-hoppy, let alone the earlier waves of microbrewing, so apart from a tentative proposal that Hophead was significant, I'm going to stick to the last ten years or so. To keep it simple, I've also ignored influential beers from outside what is normally considered to be the "craft scene" - the surviving barleywines and Imperial Stouts from traditional family brewers, for instance. But then, I'm well under 25 beers here, so someone else can fill in those bits.

The major development of this era was large numbers of British brewers starting to be directly influenced by their American counterparts, so genuinely influential British beers become harder to spot. A lot of "milestone" beers were just the first British instances of styles that many people were already well aware of, so they arguably didn't blown minds in the same way that earlier innovations might have done.

With that out of the way, here are seven suggestions.

Thornbridge - Jaipur (2005)

There's really not much to say here that hasn't already been said!

Marble - Lagonda (2005)

The West-of-the-Pennines counterweight to Jaipur. I haven't really drunk much of it, but this was presumably fairly important in the establishment of Manchester as a craft hub?

Brewdog - Tactical Nuclear Penguin (2009)

Punk may be the big seller, but TNP was the big, silly, headline grabbing beer that really let the world in general know how far apart Brewdog stood from traditional real ale culture.

The Kernel - various pales and IPAs (early 2010)

Pretty much the prototype for the London Murky style of IPA, which feels like an important and (at the time) distinctively British innovation. The Kernel were also significant for being one of the first brewers to feel like they were primarily aimed at craft beer geeks rather than going for a wider audience - something which in turn signals the fact that there were suddenly enough craft beer geeks for that to be a viable business plan.

The Kernel - Export Stout London 1890 (2010)

How many qualifications need sticking on the sentence "the first example of a revived historic recipe" is a free blog post idea if anyone wants it, but London 1890 certainly feels significant in terms of popular interest in the idea.

Burning Sky - Saison a la Provision (2013)

This feels like another new current emerging - the arrival of a major brewery that makes a feature of slow aging and seasonal ingredients and situates itself at arms length from the urban modernism that characterizes a lot of the scene. Their flagship oak-aged bretted saison seems to embody that particularly well.

Cloudwater - DIPA series (2015 onwards)

Finally, it seems daft to make claims of influence for a series of beers that have only been around for a couple of years, but the buzz around Cloudwater's Double IPA series means that they can't help feeling like a landmark in terms of collective self-confidence.

So that's my list. But as has been pointed out elsewhere, without fairly extensive research these things will be strongly dependent on one's personal perspective, so I'd welcome any alternative suggestions in the comments below.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

To Brew List

There's been a lot of talk recently about the price and reliability of cask ale and about the breweries getting out of that particular game, but all that's getting a bit boring by now so I thought I'd write up a slightly self-indulgent slice of homebrewing life instead.

I don't know how detailed other peoples' medium-term brewing plans are, but personally I tend to have a sort of semi-formalized mental list of things I'd like to get around to brewing at some point. The ideas can be based on wanting something similar to a commercial beer that I've drunk, or on ingredients, styles or techniques that I'd be interested to try out, while the actual list varies from day to day, and only occasionally actually gets written down.

For context, my most recent brews have been as follows:

An American Pale Ale. Mostly Golden Promise with 6% each of medium crystal and wheat. 1.048 OG, 46 IBU with a reasonable whack of Galaxy and Amarillo late in the boil and Citra dry hop. Successful brew, drinking very nicely.

A Foreign Extra Stout. Made from Golden Promise again, with about 5% each of Brown Malt, Carafa II, Medium Crystal and Special B. 1.064 OG, hopped to 37 IBU with Challenger, no late hops. Finished up at about 1.020. Drinkable but on the sweet side compared to what I was aiming for.

A strong Ruby Mild. Based on the Graham Wheeler version of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby - Golden Promise and various crystal malts to 1.059 OG, hopped to 32 IBU with a bit of Challenger chucked in at 10 mins. This was a challenging brew - the original yeast conked out too soon, some replacement yeast left it too dry, and there might have been a hint of something funky in a few of the bottles that I've tried so far. Plus the colour is more "mid amber" than "dark ruby"!

And in the fermenter at the moment is an American Amber Ale - A variation on the American Pale, but with Simpsons Lager Malt as a base, their Double Roast Crystal substituted for the medium crystal, dialed back IBUs, and citra and chinook hops for aroma.

Now, part of my reason for homebrewing is to have a steady supply of easy drinking light-to-medium coloured ales that I can break out at social occasions without losing too many friends. The possibly-shonky Dark Ruby Mild and the sweet and sticky Foreign Extra Stout have left me short stacked in that department, so I'm playing it fairly safe with the current brew, and will do the same with the next one - probably another bash at the Dark Ruby but with a few grams of Carafa added for colour and a more dependable yeast used from the start.

After that, I've got a number of ideas bouncing around:

  • A Euro-hopped American Blonde. Possibly with Vienna malt? This would be interesting to try, because I don't really know much about European hops. It'd also be an interesting test of how my process is coming on, since any flaws are likely to be glaringly obvious, but that also makes it a relatively high-risk option.
  • A Red Rye IPA. I generally like this style, haven't brewed it before, and have Chinook, Mosaic and Simcoe hops sitting around which should go well.
  • A Mirto Milk Stout. I'm not normally into sticking weird stuff into beer, but a milk stout with Kentish hops and Sardinian dried myrtle berries seems like it'd be a nice nod to my baby nephew's mixed heritage as he comes up to his first birthday.
  • A historic porter or from Ron's book.
  • More variations on the Dark Ruby Mild recipe. I think this might be a good basis for experimenting with sugars and with interesting speciality malts. I'm particulary tempted to try brewing it with a smidgeon of smoked malt, if only for the name The Ruby in the Smoke.
  • Whatever Al comes up with for the International Hombrew Project.

So that's my list - what do you think of it? And what's on yours?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Craft By Numbers

So, the "define craft" argument is back for the umpteenth time.

I've always thought that while it's probably impossible to produce a legally watertight definition of "craft", it's pretty easy to informally capture the spirit of what a lot of people mean by it: we're basically talking about breweries that are more influenced and inspired by US craft beer culture than by late 20th-century British real ale. I've also started using "new -wave craft" for this meaning, to make it clearer what I'm talking about.

Given this definition, we can be reasonably confident that Magic Rock and Brew By Numbers are new-wave craft breweries and that Fullers and Coniston are, for want of a better word, "trad". But it's also pretty obvious that this isn't a binary choice; there's an interesting middle-ground of breweries like Dark Star, Oakham, Allendale or Fyne who are clearly open to a broad range of influences, but who don't fit the standard template of a craft brewery. Meanwhile, breweries like Thornbridge and Tiny Rebel seem to me to fit comfortably under the craft banner, but still feel a bit more traditional than the uber-craft likes of Chorlton or Partizan.

So, for a bit of fun, can we try to quantify this, and come up with a numerical scale? I've come up with the following as a first stab. Tot up any plusses or minuses for your favourite British brewery and see where they fall on a scale of, erm, minus twelve to eleven.

1) Do they regularly produce:

  • an IPA (> 5.5% ABV) +1
  • an "IPA" (< 5% ABV) -1
  • a sour beer +1
  • an Imperial IPA +1
  • an Imperial Stout +1
  • a Belgian-style beer +1
  • a bitter -1
  • multiple sorts of bitter -1
  • a traditional mild (< 4% ABV)

Do they describe any of their beers as:

  • "session IPA" +1
  • "golden ale" -1

2) Do they have

  • a flagship beer -1
  • a well defined core range -1
  • few beers outside of your core range -1
  • new beers released every month +1

3) Do they regularly sell beer in

  • casks -1
  • unfiltered, unpasteurized keg +1
  • filtered, pasteurized keg -1
  • 330ml cans +1
  • 500ml cans -1
  • 330ml bottles +1
  • 500ml bottles -1
  • 660ml / 750ml bottles +1

I haven't defined "regularly" but, for instance, one-off festival and anniversary specials probably don't count, whereas recurring seasonal releases probably do. And if a brewery often has something in a given style in production then that counts as a +1 for that style, even if it's not always the same beer.

I tested this out for a few obvious candidates, and got roughly the following scores, from least to most crafty:

  • Timothy Taylor: -9
  • Oakham: -2
  • Thornbridge: +4
  • The Kernel: +6
  • Wild Beer Co: +8(ish)

It's worth saying again that I emphatically don't equate "craft" with "good" and hence plus or minus points shouldn't be considered to be inherently good or bad things. Similarly, something being a minus point doesn't mean that it's definitively "not craft" just that it makes a brewery seem less thoroughly "crafty".

I've deliberately left out any issues around scale, business structure and distribution networks etc. I've also omitted questions about branding and general "hipsterishness" as they'd get rather nebulous. However, I am tempted to add a gratuitous penalty to "craft sub-brands", like saying that they also get scores for stuff that their parent breweries produce but not vice-versa.

So, any thoughts, improvements, tweaks, suggestions? (If there's enough interest, I might see if I can tweak this into something bordering on useful...) And how do your favourite, or least favourite, breweries score?

Monday, 7 November 2016

Carry a Big Schtick

I've never got my act together with a Session post before, and I'm a few days late with this one, but this month's request for thoughts on things that we're going to see more of seemed like a good opportunity to wrap words around an idea that I've been mulling over for a while.

The number of breweries in Britain is increasing. From a punter's point of view, this results in an ever more bewildering array of pump-clips and bottles appearing ever more fleetingly on bars and shelves. It's getting increasingly hard for a brewery, however good they are, to worm their way into a punter's consciousness and become a brand that they trust and seek out rather than one that they vaguely remember having seen at some point.

However, the market is also becoming more competitive, so that sort of recognition is something that breweries are going to have to try to build. Aside from just brewing great beer, there are a number of obvious ways of doing this - consistent branding, smart marketing, a tightly focused core range - but one which I'd expect to become more common is developing an identifiable "schtick" - a deliberate restriction on the range of beers that they brew that gives them part of their identity.

There's actually an element of this to a number of existing breweries. The Wild Beer Co started with a definite focus on wild yeast, the Kernel are almost synonymous with their rotating-hop pale ales and IPAs. More recently, Chorlton have had the audacity to focus strictly on sour beers. There's a hint of this to the way Burning Sky operate, as well. What else could someone try? How about

  • Focusing on classic German beer styles - some played straight and some given a modern twist.
  • A small range of beers that's constantly tweaked and iterated the way that Cloudwater do with their IPAs.
  • Regular use of local and foraged ingredients.
  • Brewing what are essentially a series of variants on a single beer, like the Kernel do with their pales.

For my money, this sort of idea has two benefits: firstly, in a crowded and confusing market, it makes it easier for punters to come to recognize the brewery and to know what to expect from them. But secondly, a restricted range of beers give the brewers the chance to develop real mastery within that field. The ultimate "schtick" brewery is arguably the Alchemist, and their schtick is Heady Topper. And that doesn't seem like too poor an example to want to follow.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Looking the Part

I was interested by the offhand suggestion in a recent Session announcement that Black IPA is becoming a "largely irrelevant curiosity". To be honest, I'm sufficiently far out of the craft loop that I can't say whether that's true or not, but it's certainly a style that I see rarely and am often underwhelmed by when I do try it.

This isn't to say that there aren't some great examples - Buxton's Imperial Black particularly does it for me - but as a style it seems to be particularly easy to do badly. I suspect that the one important reason for that - and the reason that it'll probably be a while before I try brewing one myself - is probably that it's essentially a bit of a ventriloquist's act, making the big, bright, tropical hop flavours of an IPA unexpectedly appear in what looks like a glass of stout. This seems like magic if it's done well, but if the hops flavours don't speak loudly and clearly then we can miss them entirely, rendering the whole trick a bit pointless. For brewers, myself included, who can't reliably pull off big, bright hop flavour, the safest bet for now is probably to stick to hoppy beers that look like hoppy beers, where the flavours stay in line with what the drinker expects based on the appearance of the beer, and where we'll probably get the benefit of the doubt if we don't quite hit the perfect hop schedule.

All of this calls to mind the famous "white wine dyed red" experiment, which isn't quite the knockout blow to wine tasting that it's sometimes presented as, but which does serve as a useful reminder that our senses interact and influence each other rather than each operating in a vacuum.

Another area where this sort of interplay of flavour and appearance rears its head is the perennially vexed issue of murky IPA. There often seems to be a clear generational divide between people who love them and people who hate them, and while the vehemence with which this apparently trivial matter of taste is pursued makes it look suspiciously like a proxy for bigger issues, the existence of a division in the first place seems like an obvious example of a learned association. For a long time, a cloudy pint was the all-too-common sign of dodgy beer - something that'll taste crap and probably give you the shits. Given this background, I can see how someone might be put off by a murky beer regardless of how it tastes. But our expectations for cask ale have generally risen over the past decades and that sort of properly off pint is mercifully rare, so for many beer drinkers the only real association for hazy beer is the big, resinous, hoppy pale ales themselves. This means that if anything we're actually going to prefer a hoppy beer with a bit of haze over a similar tasting one that's pin bright, because it looks the part as well as tasting it.

What conclusion to draw from this? Maybe that as haze becomes an increasingly accepted and expected feature of hoppy IPA as a style, the only real hope that the murk-o-phobes have got is to bring back the truly off pint. That or start learning to live with it.