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Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…

… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:

Style No. Brands Colour Min-Max Bitterness Min-Max
Light Mild 5 43
(44)
15-29
(39-47)
23
(21)
15-29
(21-23)
Dark Mild 12 117
(94)
64-223
(39-223)
22
(21)
13-28
(12-28)
Bitter 27 25
(27)
15-66
(16-38)
25
(25)
18-39
(9-48)
Best Bitter 19 28
(27)
13-71
(13-65)
28
(30)
22-43
(16-52)
Strong Bitter 16 33
(33)
16-49
(10-109)
33
(30)
21-37
(20-52)
Porter 6 150
(157)
69-305
(97-249)
30
(36)
21-37
(18-45)
Old Ale 4 64
(95)
48-75
(27-114)
28
(28)
25-31
(18-45)

These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.

They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…

[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006.  However, when considered overall some differences are evident.  Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average.  This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker.  More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness.  While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving.  The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.

It also comes with a useful infographic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of interesting stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the difference between porter and stout? Nothing, says history. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bitterness, say these real world observations.
  • Dark mild has got more bitter since 1995-96… or is it just that the more bitter, characterful examples have proven resilient during the ongoing extinction event?
  • What’s the difference between old ale and barley wine? Not much, says history. About 65 points in colour and six or seven points of bitterness, sez this.

Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that inspired us to hit the BOOKMARK button in the past week, from pubs to hazy IPAs.

But let’s start with some items of news.

For Original Gravity Emma Inch has written about the feeling of being on edge in pubs, even if nothing concrete happens, because of a sense that people are just a little too aware of “what makes you different”:

Throughout my drinking life I’ve been asked to leave a pub on the grounds that it’s a ‘family friendly venue’; I’ve witnessed a friend being ejected for giving his male partner a dry peck on the cheek; I’ve had a fellow customer shout homophobic abuse in my ear whilst the bartender calmly continued to ask me to pay for my pint… Once, I had to shield my face from flying glass as the pub windows were kicked in by bigots outside, and I still remember the sharp, breathless fear in the days following the Admiral Duncan pub bombing, not knowing if it was all over, or who and where would be targeted next.

Lars Marius Garshol is back with another wonderful post about farmhouse brewing, this time focusing on the specifics of how the Jančys family in north east Lithuania goes about brewing keptinis, a dark beer made with loaves of malt baked in the oven:

Now it was time for the mash to come out of the oven. The top of the mash was covered in a hard, dark brown crust. Some of the liquid had boiled over the side of the box, run down the side, and congealed in a hard mass at the bottom. I broke some bits off the top crust and tasted them: massively sweet and toffeeish, with notes almost like honey. They actually tasted like really sweet and good cookies… And now I realized what was going on and why Vytautas’s beer had tasted so different… Schwarzbier, porter, dunkel, stout, and all the other blackish beers are made from toasted starch, but keptinis is made from toasted sugar. It’s a different kind of dark beer.

We watched with interest via Twitter as beer writer Robin LeBlanc took part in a recent experiment by Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws, undertaking several shifts as an in-house beer aisle advisor, which experience she has now written up in a reflective blog post:

So hey, honesty time, macro beers did sell really well there and often sold out. But that didn’t mean that no one who picked up their weekly sixer of Coors were uninterested in the idea of a craft beer. In fact, the big thing that seemed to get in most people’s way was that they couldn’t navigate the number of styles to find something that matched what they liked about the macros they bought, often resulting in buying a beer that was wrong for them and creating a bad impression of craft.

There’s some useful insight for retailers and brewers in there.

Paste  has published notes on its now regular epic taste-off of American IPAs which this time took in 324 examples of the style. (Link to mobile version; wonky formatting, but all on one page.) There is also a companion piece by Jim Vorel reflecting on IPA’s place in American beer culture in 2018, called ‘Hazy, Sludgy, Juicy and Confused’:

It may feel like hazy IPA has completely taken over the segment, but any beer store with a wide selection is still going to be carrying crystal clear, bitter, West Coast IPAs as well. Look harder, and you’ll even find some malt-forward IPAs in the mix, along with a smattering of niche selections. You’ll find some wild IPAs with brettanomyces. You’ll find some fruited examples, and some spiced examples. You might find some bleeding edge stuff, like the aforementioned brut IPA. And of course, you’ll find IPAs that blur the lines between distinct substyles—clear IPAs with modern, ‘juicy’ flavor profiles, and vice versa. To act as if the entire IPA segment has been taken over by a single fad at any given time is a gross overgeneralization.

Jeff Alworth has been reading books that aren’t about beer, which is something we strongly recommend. In a blog post this week he took Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands as the jumping off point for reflection on ‘craft’ — not in the superficial Define Craft Beer sense, but in terms of how people relate to the products of their labour:

For Langlands, cræft is the knowledge that resides in the body. As we do a thing repeatedly, we begin to develop mastery; our bodies, after a thousand repetitions, know how to do a thing. This is the central point of Cræft: the wisdom and skill come from the body and mind of the craftsperson, not a machine… The distinction between a tool, which allows the craftsperson to wield power and “kinaesthetic sensibility,” and a machine, which removes them, isn’t incidental–it’s the essence of cræft.

We really have all but run out of interest in reading about Beavertown-Heineken but Mark Johnson managed to prod us from our ennui with an interesting observation about that and the Fourpure acquisition. Why on earth, he asks, with typical vigour, do people keep insisting that Big Beer getting involved increases choice, when it doesn’t?

I keep hearing people say things such as “Oh imagine being able to get Black Betty (a 7.4% Black IPA) at a music festival.” I am imagining because fantasies are fun. Your big business has no interest in such a beer. You will see one or two of the most basic styles begin to appear a little in supermarkets with the name they want to peddle the most prominent word on the can…. It is three years since Camden Brewery sold to AB Inbev… Three years since big business apologists told us we would have access to better beer in more places… but I have seen Camden beer on tap – outside of beer focused bars – once in a pub where I was attending a family meal, and I’m not even sure that wasn’t before 2015.

And finally, something grimly inevitable: surely people wouldn’t name beers after the Novichok nerve agent so much in the news lately, would they?

pic.twitter.com/9y3a0yiURU

— The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) July 10, 2018

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 July 2018: Cain’s, Keptinis, Craeft originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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In the autumn of 1996 Britain sent a delegation of beer experts to judge at the Great American Beer Festival: Roger Protz, veteran beer writer; Alastair Hook, pioneering UK lager brewer; and Sean Franklin, generally reckoned to be the first British brewer to make a feature of American Cascade hops.

All three contributed to an article in technical trade magazine The Grist for November/December that year. Protz complained that the cold American beer gave him gut-ache while Hook reflected on the logistics and culture surrounding the event. But Franklin’s comments, which focus on the difference between British and American beers in those days before ‘craft beer’ was the phrase on everyone’s lips, are the most interesting.

He judged the Märzen, robust porter, English bitter and barley wine categories, not India Pale Ale as you might assume from reading this:

In retrospect I saw four common denominators. First because the American small brewers are much more into bottling than we are, the beers, in the main, looked very good. Secondly, as you’d expect, there was a lot of American hop character in the beers, plenty of grapefruit, flowery citrusy aromas — Chinook, Cascade and Centennial. Lots of very characterful, drinkable beers. Thirdly, some of the American beers have more ‘weight’ to them than UK beers. Certainly to give a balanced beer at the US serving temperature the beers need to be bigger in ‘weight’ and character than our own. Fourth, and most important, most US microbreweries now see beer as a ‘quality’ product. They have projected  fashionable edge onto their products. The quality matches the marketing.

Cold, weighty, characterful, perfumed… It’s easy to understand how that turned the heads of British beer drinkers, and brewers. And even if the details have changed and new styles have emerged it still feels like a fair summary of the differences between American beer in general and the more traditional British approach.

American vs. British Beer in 1996 originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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Martyn Cornell is wrong: there is a craft beer community.

We see evidence all the time of people meeting up in strange parts of the world; swapping bottles, stories and information; crashing in each other’s spare bedrooms; organising events and competitions; collaborating on blogs and podcasts; going to weddings and birthday parties, often at great inconvenience; and supporting each other during difficult times.

There are people whose social lives are defined by it, whose careers have been determined by connections so made, and who met their partners at beer festivals.

That doesn’t mean everybody who is interested in beer is necessarily part of the Community. We’re not, really, through choice. (Sorry, stranger-who-also-likes-beer, but, no, you cannot sleep on our sofa.) But the Community doesn’t cease to be just because standoffish sorts decide not to join in.

Within the community, there are cliques, too — concentrated expressions of community which, by definition, are also exclusive. Oh, yes, the Community can certainly be fractious, petty and mean-spirited. But actually, all that soap opera — all the emotional explosions, break-ups and schisms — seem to us like evidence of the Community’s reality, and its complexity. (See also: the communities that grow up around anything, from churches to football teams.)

The Community has no single point of view, no leader, no chief spokesperson. There is no membership card or secret handshake.

From outside, the Community can sometimes look exploitative, too. How do you tell the difference between (a) businesses whose owners feel a real sense of belonging to, and duty towards, a craft beer community, and (b) cynical pretence? Or, somewhere in between, businesses that start out as the former and drift towards the latter as outside investment approaches.

Martyn is right, though, when he says that businesses don’t owe the Community anything. If a brewery decides to sell, in part or in whole, it is not obliged to consult the Community, or apologise.

But if they expect to benefit from the Community during the startup phase, in terms of PR, labour, and even financial investment, then it only seems fair to allow those who perceive themselves to be part of that Community a moment of dismay when the brewery withdraws from the informal contract. (Dismay not including abuse, of course, especially when directed at staff manning social media.)

Or, to put all that another way, the Community is real, but it isn’t universal, isn’t Utopia, and shouldn’t be a cult. It is certainly more than a single Facebook group.

The Community Is Real, Even if You Don’t Go to the Meetings originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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This group in our taste-off of Belgian and Belgian-style tripels represents the stars of the second division — beers lacking the name recognition of Westmalle or Chimay but with similar character and quality.

We had initially intended to include only Straffe Hendrik and Achel but when we asked our Patreon subscribers to review the contenders there was a strong lobby for Karmeliet to be included. Rather than bump anything, though, we decided to try a three-way match.

Thought this is only a bit of fun we did think it was worthwhile doing a bit of unscientific blind-ish tasting: Jess had a vague idea of the longlist of beers but Ray poured and served them so she wouldn’t know which was which.

  • Straffe Hendrik, glass X, £3.10, Beer Merchants online
  • Tripel Karmeliet, glass Y, £3.29, Corks of Cotham, Bristol
  • Achel Blonde, glass Z, £2.60, Beer Merchants online

They looked remarkably different, ranging from dark orange (SH) to lager pale (TK) to a sort of golden yellow (AB). Karmeliet had a much higher level of carbonation than the others and was hard to pour without it blooming up and spilling.

As before, here’s a read-out of Jess’s raw responses:

Glass X: It’s nice, I like that one a lot. Really bang on spec for the style. A very classically tripel-y tripel.
Glass Y: Oh, I also like this one. Is it a bit… milky, maybe? Very different, lots going on. Plenty of spiciness.
Glass Z: This seems pretty watery. It’s quite grassy. Lacking depth by comparison. My least favourite.

I’d rank them X, Y, Z, just how they came, but I do like them all. They’re all essentially flawless.

Ray, who knew the beers, noted:

X: Great! A bit savoury, though? A slight bum note.
Y: Heavy, heavy body, lots of interesting flavours — layer upon layer. German white wine? Peaches?
Z: Yeah, what Jess said. Seems very thin alongside those other two, and one-dimensional.

We were both surprised to prefer Karmeliet to Achel but concluded that this Karmeliet seemed quite different to the beer we remembered from previous encounters, being less sweet and more subtle. And Achel, billed as Blonde but usually classified as a tripel, really did seem to have more in common with Leffe than Westmalle on this occasion.

Then came the vote.

Ray: Karmeliet. Complex and fascinating, and I love the huge foam.
Jess: Straffe Hendrik. A more balanced beer, rich without being over the top.

So we gave the Patreon crew the deciding vote and the beer they chose, which goes through to the next round, was, by a very narrow margin…

Tripel Karmeliet!

Next time: The New Wave.

Tripel Off, Round 1, Game 2 — Straffe Hendrik vs Karmeliet vs Achel originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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In the week that Thornbridge announced it would begin canning beer after years of resistance we happened across an amusing article on the same subject in a 1935 edition of the New Yorker magazine.

It appeared without byline in the ‘Talk of the Town’ section in the issue for 30 November and begins like this:

We resigned from the Foreign Legion last week and joined the war between the beer-bottle people and the beer-can people. It is a lot more fun. We spent the entire week teasing bottle men about cans, and can men about bottles. “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Hopper, of the Continental Can Company, “that glass is a better insulator than tin?” “Is it a fact,” we asked Mr. Norrington, of the Glass Container Association of American, “that beer in Continental Cans is how beer ought to taste?” “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Odquist, of the American Can Company, “that the use of the can is complicated by the uncertain vicissitudes of international trade and amity?” We even called up Ruppert’s and asked them if it was a fact they were still put beer in funny old-fashioned bottles, instead of in “keg-lined cans” that have that “fresh from the brewery” flavor. They got so excited they made us come up to the brewery and take a blindfold test to see if we could tell draught beer from bottled beer. We failed, time and time again, time and time again. Gol darn, we’ve had fun lately!

SOURCE: Pinterest, unfortunately; probably from a magazine like Colliers which we know ran ads with this copy in 1935.

The article goes on to describe attempts by the various different can manufacturers to talk down each others products as resembling tomato tins or oil canisters respectively.

Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn joined on the side of the can, and presented us with twenty-three reasons it is better than the bottle, including Reason No. 13: “The housewife is used to the can.”

It was during this period of intense competition, the article suggests, that the ‘stubby bottle’ was invented as the glass answer to the can’s compact form, but there were dirty tricks, too:

The can people, hearing that glass men were openly branding a can-opener as a “deadly weapon,” developed the “cap-sealed can,” which opens just like a bottle. The bottle people, a little bit sick of some of the extravagant claims of the tin folk, quietly placed chemists at work, with a view to showing that the can group is a bunch of liars…. It’s hard to know whom to believe. Champions of the can say that light hurts beer. The glass people say that’s nonsense — heat, not light, hurts beer.

1935 advertisement for Keglined cans. SOURCE: Archive.org.

There’s some surprisingly detailed technical talk about lining for cans, too, designed to prevent the beer tasting metallic, with one manufacturer implying that their lining was similar to the resin pitch used in beer kegs, which, as the New Yorker gleefully points out, it really wasn’t.

It’s fascinating to read something from a moment when the can had yet to prove itself:

At present, most canned beer is sold in the South; but Continental now has a contract with Schlitz, and American with Pabst, so Milwaukee is now beginning to can its brew. So far, no New York brewery has gone over. Piel’s and Rubsam & Horrmann are blossoming out with “stubbies,” the new-day bottle. The steel industry is counting on 1,500,000,000 beer cans in 1936.

As we know, the can certainly did take off, and after decades of association with the most commodified of commodity beer, has had a strange resurgence in popularity and credibility in just the past decade. And yet more or less the same criticisms are voiced and the same claims are made — “cools faster” says the 1935 ad above, and that’s still a major selling point today. It’s a sign of the times, though, that disposability, a key benefit in 1935, has been replaced on the checklist with recyclability in 2018.

For more information the development of beer canning in the US check out Keglined, an entire website dedicated to that very subject. Main image adapted from this scan by ‘Billy’ at Flickr.

Birth of the Beer Can, 1935 originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from equality initiatives to the specifics of European beer styles.

We’ll start with a flurry of accidentally interconnected items about pubs and how welcoming they might or might not seem to different people and groups.

British political Twitter spent a good chunk of the week talking about pubs after actor Eddie Marsan said that he didn’t like them, associating them, based on his own childhood experiences in the East End of London, with domestic violence and macho posturing.

Meanwhile, two related schemes have launched with the intention of making pubs more inviting to a wider range of people. First, with Melissa Cole at the helm, there’s the Everyone Welcome Initiative:

The aim of this initiative is to provide beer venues and events with a strong statement that everyone who walks through the door is welcome regardless, of their gender, sexual orientation, race, health, religion, age or disability… Whilst these forms of discrimination are covered under the Equality Act 2010, none of us can say that they don’t happen and what this initiative is designed to do is give people the opportunity to nail their colours to the mast about the kind of venue or event they are running – to shout proudly that hate isn’t to be tolerated and ignorance is not an excuse.

The Equality in Pubs accreditation scheme, led by Jessica Mason, launched a few days later:

Publicans who would like to let visitors know that their pub has a zero tolerance policy on abuse in any of its forms can now sign up to TEPA and, from 2019, gain a window sticker and a plot on a map on TEPA website to let people know that their pub doesn’t support homophobia, sexism or racism in any of its guises from neither its staff or it’s drinkers. Joining TEPA means the publican has a civic duty to act should they recognise abuse in their venue.

We’ll finish with a link to something we wrote last year which appeared this week at All About Beer after a long delay, thus seeming accidentally topical:

[If you] find yourself in a pub where you oughtn’t be, it will usually be made clear to you, as long as you are reasonably fluent in the language of passive-aggression. It might, for example, take a long time to get served, if the person behind the bar acknowledges you at all. You might get asked point blank if you are a police officer, which happens to us not infrequently—something about our flat feet, perhaps. Or the regulars might start a loud, pointed conversation about strangers, or foreigners, or people wearing whatever colour hat you happen to be wearing. We once walked into a pub only to be greeted by five men in soccer shirts, one of whom simply pointed and said: “No, no—turn round and walk out. Now.” We did so.

Roel Mulder continues to question the accepted history of Belgian beer at Lost Beers, this time questioning just exactly how sure we can be that saison was really “a typically rural beer or specifically aimed at farm workers”:

[The] oldest mention of saison that I found dates from 1823, where it is described as ‘Advent or March beer, excellent beer that is brewed in Liège and that can be kept.’ Liège, for those who do not know it, is a typical industrial city with coal mines and metal industry, and this was already the case in the early 19th century. Hardly a rural environment, you would say. Also, it is not in the province of Hainaut.

(But the long, gently resistant comment at the bottom from Lars Marius Garshol is also worth reading.)

We’re vocal fans of Stan Hieronymus’s book Brew Like a Monk and yet for some reason never got round to reading his book about brewing with wheat, perhaps because wheat beer seemed less interesting to us than Trappist brewing. Well, if the extract he has shared for Session 137 is anything to go by, then we’ve been missing out:

Listening to Josef Schneider talk about brewing wheat beers could make you start to think it is simple.

Does he worry about haze stability?

“You brew the beer right, you serve it fresh, it is not a problem.”

Would he consider making a beer without using a decoction mash? (The look on his face indicated just how crazy he thought this question was, but he answered anyway.)

“Bavarian beer must have more malt flavor. You must cook it long to make it that way. Otherwise you have Warsteiner . . . or American beer.”

One of our favourite sub-genres of beer writing is the deep reflection on a well-known beer, such as this by Alec Latham on Guinness. The fun is in finding something new to say about beers that have already been well worked over, which effort sometimes squeezes out startling insight, or poetry:

There’s something else about this beer I don’t like and it takes me a little while to put my finger on it. It’s in the viscosity itself. The mouthfeel is malty but it clings afterwards and makes me think of Vaseline. Perhaps that’s too strong – more like the texture of the neon-pink spoonfuls of antibiotics I was forced to swallow as a child.

(When did we last have Guinness? A week ago. We drink it quite frequently as a side-effect of our #EveryPubInBristol mission and it’s no hardship every now and then.)

Is it safe yet to reflect once more on what we call that category of beers that isn’t the other category of beers? You know — that type of beer some people are into, rather than the type they’re not. Katie at The Snap & the Hiss asked people on Twitter whether they use the term ‘craft beer’ and used the responses as the starting point for thinking about how to talk about those beers without it:

It’s a convenient phrase… especially if you’re looking to describe a different type of beer to someone who might not be familiar with it. Saying “it’s just beer” is true, and all well and good, but offering a passion fruit Gose to a person who understands “beer” to be either Fosters or a pint of bitter will leave them confused, stunned, and no doubt disgusted. It’s about context, but it’s also about understanding.

Andreas Krenmair is continuing his attempts to pin down the specifics of Anton Dreher’s Vienna beer, one of the foundation stones of modern lager, and this week revealed a few more nuggets of information that lead to a “pretty complete” spec for the beer as it was c.1887.

We don’t normally link to articles locked behind paywall but we’ll make an exception for this by Dean Robie at business journal Merger Market, the full text of which we were sent in a message:

Thornbridge Brewery is looking to raise GBP 10m in the next two years, CEO Simon Webster told this news service…. To finance the craft brewer’s expansion, Webster is open to selling a stake to either a megabrewer or a private equity…. Thornbridge has been in touch with several industrial as well as “half a dozen” private-equity suitors, he said.

Hardly shocking news but it’s interesting to see it being discussed (relatively) openly.

And finally, for old time’s sake, and because it might be useful gen for some of you holidaymakers out there…

Get down to The Star Inn, Crowlas this weekend for a genuine rare beer experience. Pete has finally tapped his cask of the 1st ever brew of #BigJob which he has been nurturing since 2012. On the bar with his own 8 yr old 8% L8TR and 2 yr old Scilly Stout ⁦@StAustellBrewpic.twitter.com/oDEr8fDUUX

— Roger Ryman (@roger_ryman) July 4, 2018

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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This is our contribution to Session #137 hosted by Roger at Roger’s Beers.

Our introduction to German wheat beer happened long before we were interested in beer and before we’d ever thought of going to Bavaria.

It was at the Fitzroy, a Samuel Smith pub in central London, in about 2001, where the house draught wheat beer was a version of Ayinger brewed under licence in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

We had encountered Hoegaarden by this point — it was ubiquitous in London at around the turn of the century — but hadn’t considered ordering any other wheat beer until a friend urged us to try Ayinger. “I call it banana beer,” they said, “because it tastes like puréed banana.”

At first we didn’t quite get it. To us, it tasted like beer. Weird, soupy, sweet beer. So we had a few until we understood what he meant. And yes, there it was — the stink of blackened bananas left too long in the bowl. “It gives you terrible hangovers, though,” he added, a little too late to save us. We couldn’t think of it for a year or two after that session without feeling a little overripe ourselves.

Pinning down anything relating to the history of Samuel Smith beers is trickier than it ought to be but, in the absence of firm evidence, we reckon it’s a safe guess that they started brewing Weizen in the 1990s, during or after the brief craze for wheat beer among the British beer cognoscenti (Hook, Dorber et al) during 1994-95. (As always, solid intel proving otherwise is very welcome.)

Sam Smith’s take might not have had the cool of a genuine import — the hip kids raved about Schneider — but it had the advantage of being both accessible and accessibly priced, and we can’t help but wonder how many other British beer geeks were first introduced to German wheat beer this way.

Session #137: “Banana Beer” originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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Two men, brothers perhaps, both at least 60-years-old, approach the craft beer bar hesitantly.

“This is it.”

“He said it was good, did he?”

“Yeah, he’s in here all the time with his university mates. Hold up, before we go in, look, there’s a beer menu.”

“A beer menu?”

He picks up the binder and turns it in his hands, bewildered, as if the very form is alien to him. He opens it and begins to scan the pages with a fingertip.

“These are all beers, are they? Passion fruit… Cherry…  They can’t be beers.”

“Give us a look. Yeah, look, it says here: fruit beers.”

“They’ve actually got fruit in them? Bloody hell. I don’t… What’s this… Two-thirds? Is that two-thirds of a litre or what?”

“I don’t know, mate. I don’t… I’ll just go in and get something. I’ll work it out.”

“Just get me whatever, I don’t mind, whatever’s easiest.”

When the forager returns it is with two half-pint stem glasses, one full of red beer, the other pink.

“I just got two small ones to start with. Er… I might have made a huge tactical error.”

“How d’you mean?”

“They’re both sour beers. she says.”

“What, deliberately?”

“I think so.”

They both sip.

“Huh.”

“I wasn’t expecting…”

“No, I didn’t think…”

“It’s clever, innit? The way they… How it…”

“It’s like the sourness makes it taste more fruity.”

“And it’s sort of… balanced out, is it? If you know what I mean. By the sweetness.”

“Huh.”

“Huh.”

They just barely clink their glasses in a quiet display of triumph before conversation turns to football.

Pub Life: Never Too Old originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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There’s been a bit of talk lately about working men’s clubs and the breweries established to supply them and we thought we ought to flag an apparently little-known book on the subject.

So They Brewed Their Own Beer by Ted Elkins was published in 1970 and tells the story of the rise of the Northern Clubs Federation. Elkins was a journalist from the North East of England whose career started in the 1950s and as a freelance PR man he wrote a few official company and organisational histories relating to brewing and hospitality.

STBTOB opens on 24 May 1919 at the Social Club in Prudhoe, a village on Tyneside, where the founders of what would become the Federation Brewery met for the first time to discuss the idea. Elkins, possibly scrambling to reach word count, or perhaps just to make the job more fun, lays it on a bit thick:

These were new men, bruised and bloodied in mind and limb by the carnage of slaughter and survival. They came back [from war] with a sense of comradeship, buoyant in triumph, each humbly aware of his obligation to his fellow man, the need to right the wrongs of a world irrevocably changed by the torment of war.

This leads to what in dramatic terms you might call an extended flashback, to the founding of the working men’s club movement in the mid-19th century, before circling back to 1918-19 and the revolt against profiteering brewers (as the clubmen saw them) which led to the founding of club-owned breweries in Leeds, Coventry, Llantrissant and Huddersfield.

The leader of the North East’s own brewery project was a miner, George Middleton, “a face-worker at Mickley Colliery”:

He was energetically involved in local politics and had already established himself as a stalwart of the club movement. As a boy he left Mickley village school to embark on a life of self-education, reading avariciously… Stocky and blue-eyed, George Middleton flourished a healthy moustache and a resolute approach. He was friendly, even-tempered and immersed in social work… Like his contemporaries in clubdom… he had seen too much of the war-time malpractice meted out to clubs by the private brewers.

He worked with a young accountant, Rupert Tetlow, recently demobbed, to draw up the joint co-operative framework under which the new brewery would operate, soon after that meeting on 24 May 1919.

They key calculation behind this scheme, and that of other club breweries, was the number of casks of beer a brewery would need to sell to affiliated clubs each week to, first, stay afloat and, secondly, ideally, return a profit. Elkins quotes a 1919 report from a visit to the Leeds club brewery in the form of a Q&A:

What is the maximum output possible to the brewery?
Answer: One hundred barrels per week.
What is the minimum required to make the brewery solvent?
Answer: thirty barrels.
Then am I right in understanding that you can live on 30 barrels and will grow rich on 100 barrels weekly?
Answer: Yes.
Then three of four large clubs in any locality could easily and profitably free themselves of private brewers?
Answer: Yes.

In December 1919, as Elkins recounts, a number of clubs in the North East decided to get together and buy the disused Smart’s Brewery at Alnwick for £10,000, where it was understood that the on-site well produced water perfect for brewing beers with the “Scottish flavour” then popular in the region.

But when the Fed’s first brewer, Albert Sewell, went to inspect the brewery after its purchase it became apparent that it was a disaster area: “We knew immediately we would never brew a drop of beer in the place… It was hopeless.” The plant had been used as a munitions factory during World War I and was essentially a wreck. Unable to back out of the deal the management all but wrote off this initial failed investment and started looking for another, better premises, settling on a premises in Hedley Street, Newcastle. It cost £5,000 and came with everything except casks, which were then in short supply due to the lingering effects of the war on the supply of Russian oak.

The first Federation beer was brewed in April 1921. Based on market research carried out by Rupert Tetlow it was formulated by Albert Sewell as a clone of the most popular beer in the region’s clubs, “Duddingston’s”, a pale ale:

Sewell set about brewing a similar [beer] in looks and taste. He achieved the required brew… A man of medium build, Sewell had no diplomas or qualifications other than the magic which produced the brew. A Tynesider with a gruff Geordie accent, little education and guilty of an occasional humorous malapropism, he won the admiration of all — working without an assistant and yet consistently producing the same quality brew, when wavering could have meant ruination.

The shortage of casks was the primary brake on expansion, limiting the brewery to producing 50 barrels a week when it could easily have brewed and sold far more. Eventually, after several years successful trading and with casks easier to come by, a second brew was introduced, Burton Mild Ale at 6d a pint, and then a third, India Pale Ale at 7d a pint, in the late 1920s. In 1930 the Fed purchased a third brewery at Hanover Square, Newcastle, which it then set about expanding and extending.

After his detailed account of these foundational years Elkins story picks up pace, rattling through the 1930s and World War II, introducing new character, and dishing out stats and facts on the way. What becomes clear is that the Fed quickly grew into a very substantial concern with plenty of money sloshing about, wood-panelled boardrooms, colossal egos, and in all that more or less indistinguishable, at least in cosmetic terms, from the private breweries its founders had set out to overthrow.

The final stretch of the book is typical official history, boasting about new facilities and talking up the bigwigs of present and recent management, but students of pub and club history will find plenty to enjoy in detailed accounts of how new state-of-the-art clubs were designed in the post-war period. Leslie Hutchison, who became the Fed’s Chief Executive in 1960, had strong views about how clubs ought to look and feel in the era of the Northern clubs boom:

His idea of an ideal type of club is one which is divided into three sections. It must have a good efficient bar for men only; the area of the club which makes the profit to cover the outlay. He also prefers to see a games annexe rather than darts flying over the heads of drinkers at the bar. The club must also have a comfortable lounge, suitably furnished for a man and his wife to relax and rink and talk without disturbances from bingo games or music being relayed from a ‘third section’ — the concert lounge.

On the beer front the 1960s saw Federation clubs switch from cask to tank beer:

As far as any brewery is concerned storage and transportation is more efficient with tanks compared to casks, and the back-ache has been taken from the industry… With casks, once the beer had reached the cellar it was in the hands of the club steward who could make or mar it. If for some reason he was not feeling happy about the Federation brewery he could do his worst. Whereas with tank beer the brewery has a greater measure of control. Foremen go around the clubs testing the beer from the tanks. Very little beer is returned to the brewery at all.

In the final stretch (again, possibly by way of padding out the volume) Elkins allows several individual clubs to tell their own stories, from their founding in the Victorian and Edwardian eras to the 1960s when most were booming, expanding, and finding new customers beyond the typical industrial worker. There is one particularly interesting account of a new club that opened on a post-war overspill estate in Gateshead in 1964, and its determined founder:

John Mulholland [is] a jovial Geordie dynamo of a man whose energies at 60 would put to shame many a would-be tycoon half his age… [A] supervisor in the Sigmund Pump engineering plant on the Team Valley Industrial Estate at Gateshead… [he] was quite happy to settle for a quiet pint and a chat in some conveniently situation local pub near his home. But as he watched the first of the many moving into their new homes he couldn’t help thinking they might easily remain strangers unless they had some focal point where the men could meet and chat and give their womenfolk too a welcome change of atmosphere in friendly surroundings…

The book is also loaded with black-and-white photographs of buildings, people and brewing kit, as well as scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations with a certain period appeal. Disorganised it might be, and a little ripe in its prose here and there, but if you’re interested in clubs and 20th century drinking culture, it’s probably an essential purchase.

So They Brewed Their Own Beer — The Northern Clubs Federation originally posted at Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog

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