Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Predictions: cynical and naive

I guess it's a bit late for a New Year crystal-ball-gazing post, but I've come up with a nice format so I'm going to use it. To whit: two jaded, cynical predictions about how nice things that everyone's looking forward to probably won't happen, and two naively credulous ones about different nice things that I'm hoping will.


Craft lager won't be massive. At least not in the way that some people seem to hope. As much as people like to go on about the wonders of a crisp, balanced Bavarian Helles, for the majority of drinkers, the added value of microbrewed lager over decent-ish import or domestic stuff isn't enough for them to be willing to pay a super-premium craft price on a regular basis. What we might see more of is traditional regional brewers and multinationals knocking out large quantities of poor-to-middling quality pilsners and calling them "craft lagers", because you can write craft on anything these days. The margins here are a lot bigger.

Farmhouse style sours - spontaneously fermented, barrel aged and blended - will be a tough sell, too. It's price, again, and consistency. An aged and blended sour like a gueuze is fundamentally quite expensive to produce. The consequently high prices are pretty offputting to British punters even when the producer has decades of history and makes reliably fantastic beer; for newer brewers who are basically learning on the job and trying to build a rep, it's going to be a very hard sell indeed. I'd expect to see a lot of "farmhouse brewers" leaning heavily on traditional pale ales to cover the rent.


On the optimistic side, I think we're going to see more Belgian-influenced session beers - things like Wylam's DH Table Beer, De La Senne's Taras Boulba, Lost and Grounded's Hop Hand Fallacy. We're talking light, fresh, fun beers with a balance of hops, yeast and malt character, and maybe some subtle spicing. This sort of beer is distinctive but drinkable and fun to brew, allowing the brewer to exercise both delicacy and creativity. They're also relatively economical to produce, and interesting enough for the geeks but not too extreme for the wider market, so provided someone can think of a way of labelling them as a variety of IPA, we could really be in business.

Secondly, I'm hoping that freshness will come to be more of a selling point in the land of Serious Craft. We're sort of seeing this already with the cult of just-off-the-canning-line NEIPA, but as the UK craft landscape gets increasingly competitive and everyone and his dog has twenty lines of trendy beers from exciting local craft brewers, would it be too much to hope that those that can will also start to sell on freshness? I don't think we're far from the point where a bar that guarantees that hoppy beers were all kegged in the last two months and have been kept in coldstore throughout distribution and cellaring is more of a draw than the one that has ten extra lines of stuff that might have been sat in a warm warehouse for six months. This would be a rather good thing for those of us that don't want to spend top dollar on a fancy IPA unless we're pretty sure that it'll taste of hops rather than wet grass.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Session #131 - Three Things In 2018

For an emergency session topic, Jay Brooks has asked us three questions for the coming year. Thus:

1) What one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink?

Erm, I can't help much on this one. I'd struggle to think of a single defining characteristic of beer that I'd like to drink beyond the fact that I'd like to drink it, so I'm not sure that there's anything that a word or phrase could helpfully encapsulate. Sorry!

2) What two breweries do you think are very underrated?

Underrated is always a tough one - do people have to actively dislike them? Or can they be a solidly respected brewery who just aren't currently at the absolute peak of hype?

In any case, I'm going to stop overthinking it and pick De Ranke and Buxton. Both at the "respected but not currently hyped" end of the spectrum, they're excellent breweries who are too easy to take for granted because "continuing to make great beers" isn't really news.

3) Name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of.

i) Classic US IPA. This seems like an odd one in the Age of IPA, but the real West Coast deal - strong (6% and up), clean, bitter and loaded with pine and citrus hop aroma - is a surprisingly rare beast in our neck of the woods, so more of those, please. Fresh, too, if you don't mind - let's see some kegged-on dates!

ii) Imperial Stout. Proper ones, not cloyingly sweet or barrel aged with a vanilla and cocoa nibs or laden with novelty flavorings, but serious and forbidding, with wave after wave of chocolate, coffee, dried fruits, liquorish and treacle flavors coming in like a Merzbow album for your tastebuds. Like US IPA, this is the kind of thing that I'd like to see become more entrenched in the UK beer scene, not an occasional thing, but a standard offer that you expect to find at least one really solid example of wherever beer geeks gather.

iii) Belgian session beer. Not a style as such, but every now and then I get a beer like Lost and Grounded's Hop Hand Fallacy or De La Senne's Taras Boulba - balanced, refreshing, drinkable beers with a bit of upfront yeast character - and wonder why this isn't more of a thing. Let's make it one!

Friday, 22 December 2017

Golden Pints 2017

So, 2017. Apart from anything else, it's been an interesting year from a personal point of view because my partner spent five months on a work placement in Brussels. Thanks to the magic of remote working, this meant that I was able to spend about one week in three charging around Brussels drinking everything that moved, a fact which is reflected in some of the picks below. In beer terms, the hype has been all about sweet, sticky "dessert stouts" and hazy, juicy NEIPAs, both of which are styles that I can normally take or leave. On the other hand, there's been a lot of other stuff going on, a lot of it very much to my tastes.

(For reasons of time, I've not proofread the following very carefully. Foreign names in particular are liable to be horribly misspelled. Apologies in adavance.)

Best UK Cask Beer

Moor So Hop. A classic example of how well fruity new-world hops can work in a cask pale ale. We had it in top form at the Mill in Cambridge.

Honorable mention: Magic Rock Dark Arts. Still good!

Best UK Keg Beer

Green Jack Baltic Trader (3 year aged). Despite drinking a fair amount of UK kegged, bottled and canned beer, I find these sections hard - I don't log my drinking so I can't go back through my tasting notes, but the nature of Cambridge bars means that interesting non-cask beers tend to pop up briefly and then disappear again, so I don't remember things because I've had them repeatedly, either. But I'm pretty sure I enjoyed the aged Baltic Trader at Cambridge Beer festival, and I also like the fact that it's a proper unadulterated Imperial Stout and that it was Imperial Stout being served aged, from a keykeg, at a CAMRA festival.

Best UK Bottled Beer

Burning Sky - Saison a la Provision. As above, I may have had individual British bottles that wowed me more at the time but they were generally one-offs and I've largely forgotten them, but this is great and I've drunk a lot of it.

Best UK Canned Beer

Magic Rock - Inhaler. Likewise!

Best Overseas Draught

No Science - Psycho. Genre-defying table beer from a new Brussels micro who might be going interesting places fairly soon. We spent a fun but expensive evening with some friendly beer geeks in Moeder Lambic after the Cantillon Open Brew Day, and out of everything on offer, this was the beer that no-one would shut up about.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer

Kees - Barrel Aged Caramel Fudge Stout. Yeah, so I can normally take or leave big sweet dessert-themed stouts, but this one has the depth to back up the initial impression and it's great.

Honorable mention: Oud Beersel Vandervelden 135. Just an exemplary youngish gueuze.

Best Overseas Canned Beer

De Molen - Rasputin. It's always been pretty great, and now it comes in a can. Another one for the Campaign for Real Imperial Stouts, too.

Best collaboration brew

Blaugies / Hill Farmstead - Vermontoise. This is just joyful stuff. Classy but just a bit rustic, there's a lot going on but you could happily drink it all night.

Best Overall Beer

It's still Orval, isn't it? As an aside, there seems to be some rule that all beer cafes in Belgium have to have Oude or Vieux Orval on the menu regardless of whether they currently (or ever) have the stuff in, which has resulted in me being on the wrong end of a lot of apologetic shrugs this year.

Best UK Brewery

For combining a solid, consistent core range with fun and exciting specials, this one's a toss-up between Northern Monk (the new Magic Rock) and Magic Rock (the old Magic Rock).

Best Overseas Brewery

Brouwerij De Ranke. Just a ludicrously consistent brewer. Nothing wacky, but pretty much everything they do - XX Bitter, Guldenberg, Noir de Dottignes, Saison de Dottignes, Cuvee de Ranke, Kriek de Ranke - knocks it out of the park.

Honorable mention to Cantillon. I mean derp, it's obvious, but they are just fantastic. They're also commendable for bloody-mindedly sticking to their guns in terms of ethics, style and quality while also doing their best to be affordable and inclusive and to welcome everyone who comes to the brewery.

Best New Brewery Opening 2017

Burnt Mill - I'm cautiously excited about what seems to be a new wave of East Anglian "farmhouse style" breweries, and Burnt Mill beat Duration to the punch here by actually having a physical brewery up and running with beer in pubs.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Amere a Boire, Brussels. Pretty much the local for Alison's flat in Ixelles, but I think it'd be one of my favourites anyway. It's convenient for the ULB architecture department, so it's always lively with immaculately dishevelled Rive Gauche types, the bottle list is generally excellent, with less bulking-up-numbers chaff than a lot of Brussels bars and you can normally get Tilquin Gueuze on tap at a reasonable price. The food offer is basically cheese with celery salt and mustard, but you can always get some of the best chips in town a short walk away on Flagey.

Honorable mention to The Castle, Cambridge, which is kind of our joint-local at home. A lovely settleable place that does a consistently immaculate pint of Ghost Ship.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2017

Small Bar, Cardiff. Didn't actually open this year, but it's opened since I was previously in Cardiff last year so I'm counting it.

Beer Festival of the Year

Probably the Tour de Gueuze, if only for the conga line that broke out in Boon at about 9pm. We wandered around the Lot / Beersel / Lembeek area on foot and by public transport rather than getting on an official bus, which I think was a good plan.

Honorable mention (as ever) to the Cambridge Beer Festival.

Independent Retailer of the Year

Bacchanalia, Cambridge. The shop that largely spoiled me for actually going to Belgium.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

About the only new beer book I've actually bought this year is Boak and Bailey's 20th Century Pub, which I haven't got around to reading yet. I'm sure it'll be great, though!

Blogs / Twitter

I've enjoyed a lot of beer folks on Twitter and on blogs this year, but singling one out as the best seems almost contrary to the spirit of the thing, to be honest. However, mentions should probably go to Boak and Bailey, Retired Martin, BRAPA, Ms Swiggy, the Beer Nut, Crema, Ed's Beer Blog, Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell among many others.

Best Brewery Website/Social media

Pierre van Klomp! Although Pilot run him close.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

It's not NEIPA, it's me

It feels like it's speak-your-branes time on NEIPA as a beer style, so here we go: I'm still basically unconvinced. I try them, when I'm in the mood and there's a reputable example on hand, and I can tell that they're well brewed and I sort of enjoy them, but I never really feel the need to rush back immediately for more.

I think that for me the issue is that I love all those big whooshy tropical fruit flavours in a beer but I love them as part of a package that's light, fresh and refreshing. Whereas most NEIPA isn't light, fresh and refreshing - for all the talk about drinkability, they're still big, sweet, mouth-filling beers. I get cognitive dissonance - do I sip at this, like a big sweet stout, or swig it, like a hoppy pale ale? Should this beer be challenging? Comforting? Refreshing? What? Maybe a lot of people don't get this and enjoy appreciatively sipping their way through a pale and fruity beer. Maybe people with sweeter teeth and stronger livers than me are knocking it back like juice. Either way, I personally don't really get enough out of the experience to justify the price tag that often, let alone the sort of planning and queuing that seems to be involved in getting hold of the most sought-after examples.

Something that I have enjoyed a lot is beers at the "Session NEIPA" end of the Juicy Banger spectrum - similar hop whoosh and marshmallowy softness but in a package that's light enough to happily knock back. Another thing that sounds right up my street, but which I've yet to see in the wild, is the "Tart NEIPA" - still big sweet and fruity, but with a light kettle souring to balance it without adding bitterness. Yes please!

For now, though, I'm just going to enjoy the amount of FOMO I'm saved by not being overexcited by the currently trendy beer style.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Importance of Crap Beer

There's an nice piece here inspired by people complaining about crap beer at office parties.

Leaving aside the utterly wankerish entitlement of anyone who'd be genuinely put out by the standard of beer that's provided at a wedding reception, one thing that I think is interesting is that the expectation of cheap, lowest-common-denominator beer at work events seems to be almost universal. You could put this down to penny-pinching, or the fact that corporate events firms may not always be particularly down with the kids, but I'm not convinced that's the whole story. I've been to some reasonably lavish work does (though I'm talking "reasonably successful and self-confident tech firms" here, not hedge funds or anything) and the beer still wasn't interesting - just more aspirational brands of basic lager. So maybe there's more to it than price?

I'm reminded a bit of an Andy Warhol quote:

"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking."

Your beer choice is, among many other things, a badge of social identity and hence a line of social division. A work social event, on the other hand, is meant to be all about reinforcing a sense of shared identity and shared direction - "one team one dream" and all that sort of crap. It's not about the hipster web developers drinking Gamma Ray while the middle-aged database administrators chug Black Sheep and the warehouse team neck Carling. Everyone, from the CEO to the Office Junior is on the same team, they'll all eat the same food, they'll all dance to the same old tunes, and they'll all drink the same bottles of Becks.


Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Festival of Old Favourites

For this month's beer blogging Session, Brian Yaeger has challenged us to describe our fantasy beer festivals.

I guess the straightforward answer for me would be something like "Carnivale Brettanomyces but within walking distance of my house." But if I'm going to suggest something that's fundamentally unrealistic then I might as well go wild, so let's try something more imaginative... what if we gave great established British breweries the "craft festival" treatment? Could we have a festival where London Pride is treated with the sort of fanatical attention that beer geeks usually lavish on barrel-aged sours?

Welcome to FOOF, the Festival of Old Favourites.

The venue is an attractive old building - one of those grand public edifices that the ascendant Victorian middle class built as monuments to their own wealth, taste and civic-spirit. Although FOOF is fairly big, there are plenty of tables and seating - people have plenty of space to settle comfortably and give their beer the attention it deserves. Punters have two choices of festival glassware - straight-sided lined pint glasses for people who like to keep it simple, or stemmed tulip two-third glasses for anyone who prefers to drink with a bit more ceremony.

The beers are, basically, things that you've heard of. There are flagship and core-range beers from respected British family and regional brewers. There are also beers from newer breweries - generally the more successful of the post-CAMRA startups - but they're all familiar names from successful and established breweries - Dark Star's Hophead, for instance, and Crouch Vale's Brewer's Gold - and serious tickers will find slim pickings. Most of the beers are in styles that would sit comfortably on the bar of any real-ale oriented pub - bitters, porters, milds, golden ales - but anyone after something a bit more "out there" can head to the Strong Ales bar, to find a range of oddities and survivors from the dustier corners of the traditional brewers ranges - JW Lees Harvest Ale, Adnam's Tally Ho, Harveys' Prince of Denmark. Some of these have been aged in the cask for a year or two, or are available in aged and unaged versions.

Importantly, beer is all in absolutely immaculate condition. It's becoming a cliche to say that a lot of these beers can be revelatory if they're in perfect nick and uninspiring in anything less, but FOOF serves revelatory pint after revelatory pint. The casks are kept in a temperature controlled store, and the beer served through handpumps, with sparklers being used or not at the brewery's preference. A few beers that you'd expect to be available are actually missing - they just didn't quite hit perfect condition in time. All this attention paid to storage and condition, combined with the expensive and not overcrowded venue mean that FOOF was never going to compete with Wetherspoons prices, but there's nothing outrageous.

With my rational head on, I can see why something like this is never going to happen. But on the other hand, I guess there's a little bit of FOOF going on in pubs all over the country - anywhere that has a perfect pint of Harveys' Sussex Best or draft Bass. And in between supporting "local micros" and "cutting edge craft", some of us could probably do more to appreciate and celebrate that.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Psychogeography of Fenland Mild

Our weekly session at the climbing wall in Cambridge is almost always followed by a visit to the Free Press.

The Free Press is a classic homely backstreet local, a Greene King house that makes you forget that you don't like Greene King. The beer is always well kept, and there's a leisurely rotation of occasionally-interesting guest ales that tend to the pale and moderately hoppy. As the weather gets colder, though, I'm increasingly turning back to one of their regular beers, Greene King's XX Mild, as a standard order.

The strange persistence of mild in the Fens and East Anglia has been commented on before, and although it's a style of beer more commonly associated with the industrial towns of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Black Country, this will make sense to anyone who's spent a few winters in the area. If you've cycled across the Fens on a bright, frost-bitten morning or walked on the beach at Dunwich in a cold Easterly wind, you'll know that this landscape in winter can be bleak or beautiful but without romance or drama. The sky is clear blue from horizontal horizon to horizontal horizon, the rich, black mud sticks to your boots, and the cold gets in your bones and makes your jaw ache. This landscape and this climate demand a beer that's soft, sweet and warming - a spritzy floral pale would feel entirely out of place. Incidentally, Ely was said to have one of the highest rates of laudanum use in Victorian Britain - this seems like a plausible consequence of the same conditions.

Terroir is a recurring hot topic in craft beer circles, and to me, the sort of terroir that's interesting isn't about locally foraged herbs, homegrown hops or wild yeast, it's about this sort of psychogeographical groundedness. My advice to a brewer wanting to make beer with a "sense of place" is that they should stop worrying about where their ingredients come from and look at where their end product goes to. They should sell locally, and drink locally themselves. They should see what people respond to - what makes sense for their local drinkers, in their surroundings, with their climate - and adapt and evolve to the place where they're based.

Wild yeast, foraged herbs and locally grown barley are all interesting things to experiment with in their own right and great beers can be made using them, but fundamentally they only reflect their origins on the level of microbiology and biochemistry. The pint of mild in the Free Press reflects its origins on the level of landscape, climate and culture, and to me, that's really where the interest lies.