Friday, 17 May 2019

Local Craft Beer at Eat Cambridge

If there's one thing that Cambridge food-scene boosters are really good at, it's getting breathlessly excited about a Hot New Thing happening here, even though in a national context it's so old hat that your granny is kind of over it. Hence I rolled my eyes a bit when, a full decade after Punk IPA started appearing in supermarkets, the publicity for the Eat Cambridge food festival announced a panel discussion on "the hot trend of 2019": craft beer.

I swallowed my cynicism and went along, though, because the people talking seemed likely to have some interesting stuff to say. This turned out to be a good decision.

On the panel, we had a representative from Brewboard, who took over Black Bar's kit and premises in Harston in 2017, and rapidly brought out a solid range of well-executed US-style craft standards - the sort of stuff that might get lost in the noise in a town like Manchester or Leeds, but which Cambridge had been missing for a while.

We also had Tom and Sam, founders of Calverleys, who have been operating around Cambridge since 2014, brewing an eclectic range of stuff. I used to find their beers a bit hit and miss, but the last few that I've tried have impressed me a lot more - maybe they're tightening things up a bit, or maybe it's just me.

Milton Brewery, the veterans of the Cambridge scene, were represented by their founder Richard Naisby. He's also involved with SIBA and is a fairly canny industry-watcher. If you don't already know Milton, they're probably best described as being part of the proto-craft / Weird Real Ale generation; founded in 1999, fitting comfortably within real ale culture in many ways, but pushing the style envelope rather more than most of their traditionalist predecessors.

Wylde Sky were the newest brewery featured, and the beers I've had from them so far have mostly been very good. Their brewer, Paulo, was representing them. He's half Scottish, half Brazillian, and previously worked in a brewery in Brazil. He didn't mention which one - this seemed almost pointed, and I wondered whether it was secretly some InBev thing, but a bit of internet research suggests that it was probably just too obscure to be worth naming. There's an echo of a well known Sussex craft brewery in the name, and it's maybe there in the beer too - one of their launch beers was an extremely well done clean saison.

The whole thing was kept moving by food journalist Andrew Webb. I wasn't taking notes or anything, but there were a few things from the conversation that stuck in memory.

The host apologized for the lack of diversity on the panel (six blokes, including the himself). It's a bit of shame that the organisers didn't spot this and actually do something about it, to be honest.

The session tried to include more-or-less every topic relating to craft beer in an hour, from the rise of canning to beer and food. This was presumably to cover the bases for people who don't know much about beer or what's been going on in the last decade, but having a more focused topic might have made for more interesting chat. Particularly with five people on the panel, it felt like a lot of topics were skipped over very quickly.

One recurring theme was the importance of tap rooms. Three of the four brewers represented have tap rooms at their breweries and those three all saw them as being core to their operation. As well as being a revenue stream, it's an opportunity to see the response to a new beer immediately and set up a very tight feedback loop from punters to the brewer. It wasn't discussed at the time, but this idea resonates with a sense of localism that I find more natural than the current efforts to artificially force "terroir" on beer. It seems far more interesting to me that beer should be tightly coupled to the brewery's local drinking culture rather than it's local ingredients.

All the brewers agreed that the next big growth areas for beer were likely likely to be low-alcohol, vegan and gluten-free. I got the impression that this annoyed the host a bit, who'd asked the question hoping for the inside gen on the latest wild and wacky IPA substyle or something.

I can't remember how the topic came up, but Richard had an interesting story about working in steelworks in South Yorkshire in the nineties, where the workers used to finish the day by drinking massive volumes of weak, salted beer, provided on the foundry floor by their employers as a way to replace the water and salts that they sweat out doing hard physical work in a hot environment.

During the questions at the end, I asked (as non passive-aggressively as I could) how the assembled brewers thought Cambridge compared with other UK cities in beer terms. The host tried to turn this into an Oxford vs Cambridge thing, but fortunately the panel were having none of it. Paulo said we were making progress but we've got a long way to go, which I'd say is fair. Sam was optimistic based on the response that he sees in the taproom every weekend.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Underneath the Arches

One of the staples of online beer forums is international visitors asking for local recommendations, and I normally try to help where I can. Something that always seems jarring to me, though, is the question a lot of American beer geeks ask: "which breweries should I visit"?

As a British punter, it's never really occurred to me that on visiting a new town in the UK or on the continent, my first goal should be to go and visit some breweries. Maybe if there's somewhere famous with an interesting tour then it might be worth it? Maybe if there's a tap room that's got a reputation in itself? But as a default first port of call for a regular punter, I'd assume that I'd be spending most of my drinking time in regular pubs and bars. That's where I can get a cross-section of the local craft scene under one roof, it's where I can find the local trad breweries' stuff sold in the best possible condition, it's generally where I'll find local life and local culture. Fermenting vessels look the same almost everywhere - pubs don't.

So I don't know. Is this an American thing? Or a general beer geek thing that I'm missing out on? And why? Does it work out for them? Do they find what they're looking for? Are they greeted by chatty brewers, eager to crack out a bottle from their personal stash and shoot the breeze for an hour with a bunch of bros in a Three Floyds caps? Or do they find themselves parked on a bench in a cold railway arch being served flights of thirds by disinterested hipsters, wondering what the hell's going on with the beer culture in this crazy country?

Friday, 7 December 2018

One Last Beer

So, The Session is coming to an end, and for the final installment, we've been asked to think about "a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship."

Now, there are some obvious truisms about the last beer of the night. It's got to be big. It's probably dark. It's likely to be expensive, too. However much we like to praise beers for their subtlety, elegance and drinkability, the last beer is the time to reach for imperial stouts and barleywines.

This makes sense purely in terms of tasting, of course: it's relatively unappealing to go from a very big beer to a lighter and subtler one. The temptation is always to make each beer one-louder than the last, so naturally you're going to want the biggest, baddest beer available to be the one you finish with. But there's also a another component to it. Time stands still while you're drinking a big, rich beer. Last orders has come and gone, you know that the time is coming where you're going to be turfed out into the dark and the rain, but until then you're living every moment in a boozy kaleidescope of rich flavours and high spirits.

What goes for the last drink of the night goes a thousandfold for your last drink on the planet. You've heard the bell, and you know that you haven't got much longer in this bright, cheery place, but you've got one more glassful to get what joy you can. But for this most final of final beers, there's another element in play, too. It feels somehow wrong to ask for your last beer to be something rare, exotic, seldom tasted - to me it feels like it should be something comfortingly familiar, a connection back to many happy nights before.

Big and rich, yet comfortingly familiar? For me, the beer that covers that, with a slight hint of something beyond the temporal is St Bernardus 12. See you on the other side!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Within You Without You

The small but intense world of traditional lambic is often good for microdrama, and the latest storm in a tasting glass is the news that Drie Fonteinen and Girardin are leaving HORAL, the association of traditional lambic producers. There's no official statement from either brewery that I'm aware of, but it's tempting to speculate that their reasons might be similar to the reason that Cantillon never joined in the first place - the belief that HORAL's position as the protectors of traditional lambic is undermined by its inclusion of breweries like Belle Vue and De Troch the bulk of whose output is exactly the sort of sweetened industrial lambic that many people would argue the traditional drink needs saving from.

Meanwhile in the UK, SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, has had some back and forth over the last few years over its membership criteria. A motion to apply a stricter upper limit on capacity was nearly passed last year, while this year a motion in the opposite direction to significantly increase the upper limit was rejected after vigorous campaigning from smaller breweries. There are some reasonable arguments on both sides - on the one hand, more involvement of larger independent brewers would have added clout to some of SIBA's operations, on the other hand, larger brewers with sizable estates of tied houses are very different businesses from the small breweries who make up most of SIBA's membership, and have interests that would often be at odds with them.

In the US, the Brewers Association has long been the butt of jokes for its habit of increasing the upper capacity limit for what it considers to be a craft brewery to match the capacity of Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Company. This year, it's further proposing to remove one of the three basic components of its definition of a craft brewery - essentially, that the majority of a craft brewery's output must actually be beer - in a move which it admits is prompted by, if not solely for the benefit of, Boston Beer Company, which is getting an increasing amount of its income from sales of non-beer products.

At its AGM this April, CAMRA members voted to change their articles of association. While still keeping the promotion of real ale as an objective, they added an updated one, "to play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type." A motion to also including acting "as the voice [...] of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers" to also campaign on behalf of all drinkers of "quality beer" achieved a clear majority, but failed to reach the 75% majority necessary for a constitutional change.

It feels like there's a common thread to all of these stories. As long as no two people or businesses are the same, any mutual interest group is going to involve a union of disparate elements. And the question of where you draw the line - how broad a base is too broad, and when do you decide that it's actually better to have at least some people outside the tent pissing in - is almost always vexed. There's seldom an easy answer to this and I doubt that people, either within or without the strange little world of beer, are going to stop arguing over it any time soon.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Restaurants, beer and comfort zones

Matt Curtis has raised the subject of beer in restaurants again. It's always a popular topic; most beer people would love to have a choice of interesting beers to drink before, during or after a meal, but the fancier restaurants get, the more obstinately they seem to stick to extremely un-fancy beer.

One bit of writing where a smart restaurant does sell beer is in Dorothy L Sayers' 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise. A middle-class advertising clerk doing some rather incompetent detective work has clumsily tailed his quarry to Simpson's in the Strand, a restaurant well above his pay-grade. There he sits, tense and irritable, struggling with the business of ordering his lunch and an accompanying drink.

“What will you drink, sir?”
“Lager,” said Willis, at random.
“Pilsener, sir, or Barclay's London Lager?”
“Oh, Pilsener.”
“Light or dark, sir?”
“Light—dark—no, I mean light.”
“Large light Pilsener, sir?”
“Yes, yes.”
“Tankard, sir?”
“Yes, no—damn it! Bring it in anything that's got a hole in the top.” There seemed no end to the questions that could be asked about beer

I think that maybe this hints at one reason - beyond tight margins, beyond lack of knowledge, beyond, in a narrow sense, snobbery - that restaurants might chose not to serve better beer and coffee.

When we go out, we tend to want to go to places where we feel at home, places that give us constant little reassurances that we belong there and should feel at ease. Offering people stuff that they don't understand - even if they don't have to order it, even if your friendly staff are eager to help them to navigate their way through it - undermines that. It says, this is a place for people who understand about this stuff - people who know and care about the difference between wit and weizen, or between a long black and a batch brew. Look at the way that people say "I just want a black coffee" or "I just want a pint of beer" - it isn't just a request for a drink, it's a prickly, defensive statement of identity from someone who feels challenged and excluded by a list of options that they don't understand.

People with the money and inclination to eat in a fancy restaurant are paying, at least in part, to feel like they're epitome of good taste. But in practice, while they can probably be expected to know enough about food to navigate the menu, and at least enough about wine to know that asking the sommelier for a recommendation isn't an admission of defeat, they are currently relatively unlikely to know or care much about craft beer of third-wave coffee. And when a traditional fine-dining restaurant restricts its beer list to a macro lager and a well-known bottled bitter or offers catering-grade dark roast coffee rather than single-estate Arabica, it isn't just cutting costs, it's reassuring the majority of their customers that there's nothing wrong with their lack of interest in either.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Session 136 - Roundup!

For this months instalment of the Session, I asked the world's beer bloggers to think a bit about Farmhouse Beer - what does it mean, and why do people care? Now the time is up, I've got some great responses, and a fascinating range of perspectives.

To Gary Gillman, "farmhouse beer" really just means saison or saison-inflected beers, and it's actually not something he's particularly into.

Other contributions talked about farmhouse breweries in a more literal sense. Al at Fuggled talked about a change in the law that's sparked a new wave of farm-based brewing in Virginia. Stan Hieronymous at Appellation Beer posted an excerpt from his book, Brewing Local - an in depth profile of Piney River brewing in the Ozark mountains of Missouri. Meanwhile Jon Abernathy discussed the historic farmhouse brewing traditions of Oregon, and pondered how a modern homebrewer might draw inspiration from older them.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boak and Bailey considered English farmhouse brewing traditions, and how, if at all, they could relate to modern commercial brewing. Ed Wray snuck in a post that I suspect he was going to write anyway, but it's good stuff so we'll have it. It's a summary of a talk by Lars covering long-established farmhouse brewing traditions in Norway, Latvia and (briefly) Suffolk. Finally, for my own piece I wrote about a much newer brewery from Suffolk, and why a 21st Century style like New England IPA seems to me to be a plausible thing for a "farm brewery" to produce.

So that wraps it up for this session. Thanks to everyone who took part - it's been a pleasure and a privilege to have so many good beer writers acting on my whim. The next few hosting spots still seem to be open, and I'd encourage any blogger who wants to get involved to pick a topic and grab one as soon as possible!

Friday, 1 June 2018

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing - Not Looking For A New England

Before I opened the can of Green Path, the flagship IPA from Suffolk-based brewery Burnt Mill, I had a good idea of what I was going to get, and I had a good idea of how this post was going to go. It's a New England IPA, of course. Burnt Mill describe themselves as a "farm brewery", and the design of the can - field, windmill and sky, all in impressionistic green and blue watercolour - anchors them solidly in the Suffolk countryside. While the phrase "farmhouse beer" and the associated rural imagery have traditionally conjured up images of saisons, spontaneous fermentation and complex, subtle beers aged in dusty wooden barrels, to me it increasingly feels plausible when applied to soft, hazy, juicy New England IPA, too.

This is, on the face of it, strange. There's no obvious lineage linking Trillium or Cloudwater to historic farmhouse brewing traditions, or even, beyond a shared appeal to beer geeks, to new-wave farmhouse breweries like Jester King. Maybe, then, it's something to do with the the hazy appearance of NEIPA as visible evidence of the presence of oats or wheat in the grist, cereal crops making themselves visible in a class of beers where they've traditionally been kept firmly out of the way of the hops. You can also read the haze as a signifying the work of a simple rustic artisan rather than a scientifically precise industrial technician. The particular importance of freshness to the style maybe suggests a sort of pre-modern utopia, before industrialised distribution, with beer going from field to fermenter to glass. The connection might also be influenced by the association of New England IPA with rural Vermont, and hence Hill Farmstead, even though that brewery isn't actually one of the drivers of the style.

This clearly a loose and rather fanciful association - style defining NEIPAs are currently being brewed with scientific precision and meticulous attention to detail in Boston, Manchester and New York, among other places. But it goes some way toward explaining why I knew without opening the can that this beer was going to be a soft, hazy, juicy IPA.

But it wasn't, of course.

As I'd have known if I'd bothered to read the can rather than just admiring the pastel-shaded artwork, Green Paths is brewed in the classic West Coast style. And it's really quite fantastic. It pours clear-ish, at least by modern standards. Big juicy hop aromas follow through with a prickly citrus-toffee body, creamy mouthfeel and a long bittersweet finish. It's bold but it's balanced. Green Paths tastes like the IPA that first got you into this whole craft thing, updated to make an impression on your DIPA-fatigued 2018 palette.

Subsequent beers I've had from Burnt Mill - their lighter pale ales, Pintle and Steel Cut, and their full-blooded DIPA, Solar Light - have all brought the haze, though. Maybe there is something in all this after all?