Saturday, 31 March 2012

Guest Blog: Beertails by William Hamilton

Editors Note: After a discussion with a common drinking partner of mine we came to the decision that he should do a guest post on here. Below is the results, I would like to emphasize here that the views expressed here are not my own (and nor do I agree with them hugely either).

This entry was inspired by a very pleasant chat with the regular contributor to this blog with whom I frequently discuss topics ranging from beer to politics and invariably end up in a heated antagonism. Therefore, as we sat in the sun outside the White Horse in Fulham, I was not surprised to find myself involved in a lengthy debate about a subject on which I had never considered myself to be a proud and principled champion. The crux of the problem lay in the concept of additions to beer - fruit, chocolate, honey, twigs, leaves and mud.

'Ale drinker', as you will no doubt be aware, is a keen brewer as well as enjoying his beer and was outlining his plans for the next brew. His next project, following a Scotch style ale which I considered to be fairly unpleasant but which he claimed rave reviews for, is destined to be a trio of stouts. So far so good, I am a keen fan of the darker beers and feel that they are a brilliant area for brewers to capitalise upon a dearth in the market. As regular readers will be aware, it is also an area about which Ale drinker has been keen to contribute to and so I was encouraged by the prospect of some experimental brews and the opportunity to sample and hone a fine stout or porter from scratch. It is worth noting at this stage that Ale drinker has not brewed a drop of stout before and, though I have enjoyed and commended a number of his previous projects, I am very apprehensive about the way he is approaching the trio of stouts.

The trio will consist of a chocolate orange, a coffee and a chilli-chocolate stout. The vast majority of these delectable flavours are not created by the hops, malt, liquor or yeasts which make up beer and so are additives. This is not necessarily a problem, many fine brewers have added fruits, minerals and other items to their beer to add flavour. I had enjoyed a chilli-chocolate stout with Ale drinker a few weeks ago and so am not averse to the concept, the stout in particular is a style of beer which can be really enhanced by the intelligent and calculated addition of a rich fruit or other deep flavours.

My opposition lies in the philosophy here. Ale drinker's rationale was that these novelty additions to beer make it 'interesting' and while I am aware that I may appear to be a purist, I feel that the real work should be done on the beer. Good beer lies in the malt and hop combinations rather than throwing in a cheap novelty flavour, it would be a real philistine to throw cassis into a fine vintage champagne because it shouldn't need to be called a kir royale to be enjoyable - hence my opposition to these 'beertails'. I feel this lack of effort is reflected by some larger brewers; in the same way that a gimmicky name or a themed beer can bump up sales, throwing in a novelty item can disguise bad beer and enables it to be sold as 'interesting'. These fruit salads remove some of the impetus behind creative and exciting beer generation.

Heaving a plum into a brew disguises many of the flavours of the actual beer which means that it is hard to learn from, refine and perfect a beer. Because Ale drinker has not brewed a stout before he has not identified the need for a coffee bean in the beer and has no idea of how such a strong flavour would fit in with his malt or hops mix. It is, in essence, a cheap and lazy option to create a novelty beer. 

While these beers may tempt a few new drinkers to experiment with an ale they are, in fact, being sold a beertail in which the flavours of the beer are masked. Good quality, interesting and exciting beers can be created from malts and hops and this is an area with a wealth of opportunity for innovation and creativity. This is part of the value of ales and is where the real work should go in.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Have the words stout and porter become interchangeable?

As you may have read I've recently started a love affair with dark beers. Even the rising temperatures have not been able to tempt me towards light spring beers. One thing I have noticed however is the interchangeable use of the terms stout and porter.

First a little history lesson. Porter was originally named so because it was popular with river and street porters. Stronger variations of the style were known as Stout Porter, Double Porter or Imperial Stout Porters. Eventually the porter was dropped and these stronger beers began simply being known as stouts. 

After reading up on the style I decided to look back through the bottles I'd been drinking and see if there was actually any correlation between the use of the word stout and being of a higher strength. While I didn't find any  meaningful correlation, I found porters ranging from 4-11% and stouts from 5-10.5%, I did notice that the large majority of the "flavoured" beers (chocolate, cherry, raspberry, chilli etc) I'd had were stouts rather than porters. I have to point out here that I thought the Bristol Beer Factory Raspberry Stout was delicious. It was like a black forest gateau in a pint.

Maybe this doesn't mean anything, maybe I'm looking too deeply into something which really has no relevance but hey it kept me entertained for an hour or so.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Can craft lager save the Great British Pub?

Many of us, CAMRA members especially, are extremely worried about the large number of pub closures in the UK at the moment.  I have to admit that in my local area, Hammersmith and Fulham, it isn’t as noticeable as say where my parents live in Cheshire.  You’d be quite hard pushed to drive for very long in the suburbs of any UK city without seeing at least 1 boarded up or shut down pub. The closures can be devastating to the life and soul of small country villages where the pub is sometimes the sole communal meeting point. The reasons for these pub closures are varied and many and could probably constitute a post on their own (and in fact probably will at some point). What I’ll look at here is the solutions.
Most of the UK drinking population drink lager. That’s just a fact. However a large proportion of those lager drinkers drink “lowest common denominator” beer that’s industrially manufactured in factories rather than breweries. The companies who make these beers, while hugely successful businesses which should be applauded, care little about the quality of the final product. Their main concern is that they can sell more of it than their competitors. This is done by utilising huge advertising budgets and pricing competitors out through economies of scale. Many of these beers were initially advertised as exotic and European when initially introduced into the British market; like Stella Artois using the taglines “reassuringly expensive” and “We were brewing in Belgium before Belgium was Belgian”. However, over time they began to be weakened both in ABV and flavour. Very quickly the public’s opinion changed and phrases like “piss water” and “yellow water” became ubiquitous with them. The big 4 brewers quickly realised their strangle hold on the British lager market was slipping and so looked to Europe and the world for small new breweries to acquire. The likes of Tyskie, Hoegarden, Tiger and Asahi were all bought and brewed under license in the UK. Unfortunately they, like their ancestors before them, have now begun to slip into mediocrity and may well join their older cousins on the dump heap of foreign beers now no longer considered foreign. It is shocking the amount of beer advertised using suave Europeans or exotic beaches with the mandatory “brewed in the UK” slipped in at the end in some obscure corner of the screen.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel though; a new breed of lager drinkers has emerged. People are now demanding quality over quantity. This trend has run in comparison with the new educated middle classes demanding higher quality, more wholesome foods. Whether this is driven by a need to appear more sophisticated and cultured than the “plebs who drink Carling” or that there actually has been a taste revolution is irrelevant; the change has been made. When 20 something graduates start seeing the pay checks coming in and head for after work drinks they are now turning more and more to craft lagers. The word “craft” has had some debate about how it is defined. In my book I define craft as any beer which is made by people who care more about how it tastes than about watching the cash flood in. The trend was started by the importation in large scales of American craft beers such as Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Sam Adams Lager. It almost seems that no posh London bar worth its salt now doesn’t have at least one of these on draught nowadays. The success of these imports in the more well to do areas of the country led domestic brewers to follow suit and try to brew quality lagers which would challenge people’s perceptions about the British brewing scene. Some of the more well-known versions include Camden’s Hells lager, Harviestoun’s Schiehallion and West’s St Mungo. Many of these are now available country wide in both keg and bottle. The Hell’s lager seems to be very popular with a new USA Hells being released last week. This version is similar but uses American hops in the brew. While I am not a huge fan of most of these lagers, I just don’t really like lager. 2 that have caught my eye are Republika from Windsor and Eton and St Austell Cornish Bock. They are both great brews that I feel could sway even the most ardent ale fan to think that lager may have its merits.

This burst in domestic larger brewing has also increased the amount of quality lagers being imported from the continent and America. One particularly fine example of this is Brouwerij Roman’s Black Hole Lager from Belgium. I purchased a bottle of this from Cask Pub and Kitchen a few days ago and cracked it open last night. There was definitely a big lager flavour there from the malt but there was also a pleasant hop bitterness. I haven't had much of an oppurtunity to try many foreign craft lagers but I'm open to any suggestions of quality ones to try.
But how does this save the Great British Pub? If we are going to convince the arseholes at Whitehall that we can drink sensibly then binge drinking and its associated disorder needs to be dealt with. I’ve discussed before how I think the current policies are failing. What is needed is to try and convince people that a good night does not need to consist of 10 pints of Stella, a donner kebab and a fight with a stranger. If people can begin to think of alcohol as something to be enjoyed both as a social lubricant and as a drink to be enjoyed then maybe the Government will stop their relentless campaign against drinkers. Since the majority of drinkers in this country do prefer lager it is therefore important that they are presented with the same choice between quality and mediocrity that the rest of the drinking public are. The lager world in the UK has for too long stood for mediocrity and loutish behaviour, let’s take it back for the appreciation of one of Europe’s most famous beer styles.
In other news, I'm going to London Drinker this evening so there should be a little write up in the next fews days.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A night with HardKnott

After last months meet the brewer session at Cask Pub and Kitchen with Arbor Ales, I was eagerly awaiting this months instalment. Last night Dave from Hardknott Brewery was down and had brought with him a selection of casks and 1 keg beer. I'd heard of Hardknott before and regularly follow Dave's blog. Unfortunately I'd only had the chance to taste the Infra Red before, which was great,  and so I was pretty eager to get stuck in and try some more Hardknott beers.

Top of my tasting list was the Colonial Mayhem, an 8.1% mild using bags of American hops, which Dave had brought down as the only cask ever! Luckily, despite arriving a little late and missing Dave's talk, we still managed to snaffle the last half of the cask. It was truly inspiring; I fear I don't have the words to give it justice but it was smooth, silky and with hints of dark winter fruits. Other notable brews of the evening were the Dark Energy, a 4.9% silky stout, and Cool Fusion, a 4.4% pale beer with a nice ginger taste. It was also nice to try the PyroWeisz which was a smoked keg beer. It was very good and a heated discussion soon enveloped our table as to whether it tasted of smoky bacon crisps or beef jerky! Both delicious treats in my book!

Meet the brewer events really are a great way of encouraging people to go to the pub and try different beers. Its also great to be able to listen to the brewers talk about their beers with such passion and enthusiasm. Needless to say, next months evening with Fyne Ales has already been put in the diary.