About Martyn Cornell

Author, journalist and beer historian

Young’s pubs sell a million pints of craft beer in six months

Craft beer taps at the Narrow Boat in Islington, a Young's pub

Craft beer taps at the Narrow Boat in Islington, a Young’s pub

One fascinating statistic popped up when I was talking to Stephen Goodyear, chief executive of Young’s, this week for the day job: Young’s pubs sold a million pints of craft beer in the six months to September 29 this year.

That’s “craft beer” defined as “kegged beers made by small brewers”, in Young’s case, pretty much Meantime and Camden Brewery. To save you working it out, across Young’s 240 or so pubs, that’s equal to not quite two 50-litre kegs a week per pub of beers such as Camden Hells Lager and Meantime London Pale Ale. Since quite a few Young’s pubs don’t sell draught craft, that probably means those that do are indeed getting through two kegs a week or more. It’s also the equivalent of 7,000 barrels a year – there are plenty of small breweries in the UK that don’t even brew that much on their own.

Is that making any difference to Young’s cask ale sales? Well, according to Goodyear, cask-conditioned beer is still around 25 per cent of the total beer sold in Young’s pubs, which is considerably higher than the national average of 16 per cent (more than half as much again, in fact). Some of that is cask beer from other people, but beer branded “Young’s” as a proportion of that is about four to one. So 20% of draught volume in Young’s pubs is still Young’s beers: Special, Ordinary, Winter Warmer and the like.

Not, of course, that Young’s brews those beers any more: since it cashed in on the value of the brewery site in the heart of Wandsworth, they’ve been brewed in Bedford, by Charles Wells. But Goodyear was adamant that having a Young’s beer offer, even if the company still doesn’t brew the beer itself, is still “very important: Young’s beer has been in Young’s pubs for the thick end of 200 years and we always want to keep that going. Wells have done a great job brewing the beers, and I think it’s better than it’s ever been, frankly.”

Not, I’m sure, that many of the more Taliban-esque Camra members will agree, but haters gotta hate, and since the demise of Whitbread, Watney’s and the rest, Camra’s tiny minority of haters have turned to hating the big family brewers who were once the heroes, such as Fuller’s and Wells. Fortunately, they make no difference to the success of a company such as Young’s, which runs some of my personal favourite pubs and sells some of my personal favourite beers, and which saw revenues for the 26 weeks to 29 September up 7.8% in total, to £116.6m, and up 6.9% on a like-for-like basis.

Place-based beer, a world-wide local movement

I gave a presentation in Denmark to a conference called to discuss “Ny Nordisk Øl” – “New Nordic Beer” – on “Beer and terroir from an international perspective” on Friday November 7. This, slightly tweaked, expanded in a couple of places and cut in a couple more, is that presentation.

The brewers of Denmark, Sweden and Norway are already enthusiastically making beers that reflect the place they are made, using local ingredients: you can read about some of those beers here. But what the Ny Nordisk Øl movement is doing is just part, albeit a tremendous part, of a wider movement to get away from internationally reproducible styles of beer, a movement that is finding expression in North America via campaigns such as “Beers made by walking about” and by brewers such as the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco, the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, the Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois and Plan Bee brewery in New York state, in Italy, in New Zealand, and in Australia, most eloquently by Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Tall brewery in Tasmania.

As I researched for my presentation, it became clear that the “place-based beer” movement is a growing global phenomenon, albeit as yet those engaged in it often seem unaware that others are fighting a similar crusade. This is a long blog but, I hope you’ll agree, fascinating in its implications for the future of craft beer.

Beer and terroir coverBefore I begin talking about beer terroir, it would be best to say exactly what I mean by the term in the context of brewing, what I think you need in order to be able to say that a beer has characteristics that fall under the name “terroir”, and some of the problems of trying to talk about “beer and terroir”.

There are plenty of complicated ways of defining “terroir”, and what it takes for “terroir” to be reflected in a beer. But the one I like best was said by an American craft brewer who said he was attempting to achieve in his beers “the essence of here”.

How do you achieve “the essence of here”? In beer, there are, I hope you will agree, six major variables that affect the “hereness” of a beer:

● Grain
● Hops and other flavourings
● Water
● Yeast
● Brewing method
● Style – to the extent that style is not dictated by one or more of the other five factors.

Any one of those, I suggest, can be “local”, and capable of variations that can give the brewer a legitimate claim to be reflecting something of his or her region or people. With hops, the effects of terroir are widely accepted, though with grain there are more doubts: Mark Dorber, co-founder of the Beer Academy in the UK and a judge at the Great British Beer festival, said in 2012: “I certainly believe that the delicate citrusy Goldings grown in the East of Kent are markedly different from the more deeply perfumed Goldings of clay lands in Hereford and Worcester. But whether barley has ‘terroir’ as well is unclear. Barley’s plumpness, nitrogen content and general health may be more a function of annual weather patterns than of the soil and microclimate of its area of birth.” However, it seems unlikely that with hops, grapes, apples and other agricultural products reflecting where they are grown, barley grown in different terroirs and soils would not also show variable flavour characteristics.

Finnish-style kuurna

Paul Arney of the Ale Apothecary brewery, Bend, Oregon and his Finnish-style kuurna

Different yeasts have demonstrable effects on the flavours in beers, and the same is true of brewing methods. A decoction mash produces a different beer to an infusion mash. An IPA brewed in a Burton Union set will be a different beer to one brewed using exactly the same ingredients but in Yorkshire squares, and each can be legitimately said to reflect different regional traditions – including how a beer is served, with a “Yorkshire Square” beer suited to a specifically regional type of presentation, with a very tight head, that itself has implications for flavour and aroma – and different definitions of “here”. Each one of those variables can and will feed back into the others, and outside factors also reflecting “hereness”. If, for example, the local cuisine tends towards fatty foods, the local beer is likely to be more carbonated, to help cleanse the palate. If the local culture tends towards lengthy times spent socially in a bar or pub, the local beer is likely to be weaker than places where beer is more an adjunct to meals.

The difficulty we have in maintaining that there is such a thing as “beer terroir”, of course, is that all the factors that directly make a beer what it is can be reproduced, today, anywhere in the world. Grains, hops and other ingredients can be transported, if necessary, around the world. Water can now be demineralised and remineralised to match any location you like. Off-the-shelf yeasts to brew any style of beer you desire can be bought via the internet. And you can install a Yorkshire Square in Adelaide, or a Finnish kuurna in Argentina, or any other piece of kit anywhere you like, to imitate the brewing traditions of a land thousands of miles away.

A rare example of a British ale with place-specific ingredients

A rare example of a British ale with place-specific ingredients

Every brewing style we have inherited started as a local beer somewhere, reflecting local ingredients, local brewing methods, local tastes and local requirements for food matching and the like. Land-race barleys meant every region had malts made from barley varieties that had been bred, consciously or semi-consciously or entirely unconsciously, to suit the soils and environments in which they grew. Beers were made from local ingredients, in local styles that suited the local foods and the tastes and lifestyles of the local people. In some places this is still true. Across the Czech Republic, certainly for the majority of brewers, the barley they get for their Pilsner malts is almost always locally grown, with maltsters being very demanding in the barley cultivars they will accept, helped by the existence of an EU protected geographical indication (PGI) for “Czech Beer”, with the barley varieties allowed for production of beer that can use the “Czech Beer” PGI characterised by, among other things, a lower apparent attenuation limit, causing the presence of residual extract, with all that implies for taste, mouthfeel and so on.

Similarly the hop varieties will be limited to those traditionally used in classic Czech styles, and most be grown in one of the Republic’s three demarcated hop-growing territories, Žatec (or Saaz) and Ústí (or Auscha) in the north and Tršice (or Trschitz) in Moravia to the east, all of which have their own protected appellations. Most of the brewers of at least the “regional” size have their own labs and thus, most likely, their own yeast strains, and most breweries will use their own well-water to make their beer with. All of the beers will be made using variations on the decoction method of mashing the malt, which adds its own flavours and mouthfeels and so on. And Czech beer styles – Pilsen aside – are pretty much restricted to Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, particularly the most popular style, the pale, low-strength lager Světlé Výčepní pivo (literally “light draught beer”), which seems designed to fit into the Czech cultural preference for drinking vast quantities. So here we have an entire country whose beers strongly reflect place in pretty much every possible way: grain type, hop varieties, water, yeast, brewing methods and styles. Yet the idea that Czech beer has a terroir is seldom heard. The Czechs themselves seem not to make very much of the concept of “beer terroir”, and the rest of the world appears to regard Czech beer as just another, if generally superior, example of “global lager”, without recognising how much of it contains “the essence of there”.

Other Old World beer styles that sprang from a very specific place seem to suffer from the same problem: that because they can be reproduced anywhere and everywhere, no one regards them as particularly reflecting the “hereness” of where they sprang from. Dunkel lager may seem – it does to me – to be particularly suited to the pork-based cuisine of Bavaria, but nobody links this to the terroir of Franconia. Kölsch is another beer with PGI protection, and strict restrictions not only on the area within which it can be brewed and the types of barley and hop varieties that can be used to make the beer, but even on the style of glass it can be served in. But nobody seems to talk about how the beer is the essence of Cologne, and dozens of other breweries outside Germany make Kölsch-style beers without anyone calling them out. The same is true of other specifically geography-based German beer styles, such as Weissbier, and is happening with recently rediscovered styles, such as Grodziskie from Poland, or Gose, once very specifically a style of beer from Leipzig. Now American brewers, for example, are making their own versions of Gose, and not asking why and how this sour, salty style of beer grew up, and what it was about the region of Saxony that encouraged the development of that particular beer.

Wyeast Lambic packet

‘Payottenland in a packet’

In Belgium, home of probably more geographically defined beer styles in a small space than anywhere else, the lack of attention paid to any idea of “terroir” is even more remarkable. Lambic has to be made in a very specific area – Payottenland – in a very specific way, allowing fermentation by wild yeasts that are very specific to that geographical area, using very specific ingredients. But nobody talks about Lambic, or its blended version, gueuze, being the “essence” of the countryside west of Brussels. Anyone can buy Wyeast 3278 Lambic blend, with its mixture of Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces yeasts and Lactobacilli, “Payottenland in a packet”, and make a “Lambic-style” beer themselves. And hundreds do, particularly in the United States, where “Belgian-style” ales of all kinds find an enormous and welcoming market. Nobody seems to mind that their “lambic” did not come from anywhere close to the Belgian village of Lambeek.

Britain had its regional beers once, and once again they became internationally reproduced, global styles. Porter originated in London, was made from London well water, excellent for dark beers, with dark malt from neighbouring Hertfordshire and hops from neighbouring Kent, and was for 150 years the beer most associated with London. Having tumbled to vanishing point in the UK for two or three decades in the 20th century, porter is back, but still a minority beer in the UK today, with only one in 20 brewers nationally making one. In London, however, 40 per cent of the capital’s new small brewers, apparently aware of the city’s brewing traditions, make a porter: is a porter brewed in London today, because of the style’s origins in London, a “bière de terroir”, to invent a phrase?

If Britain no longer has specifically regional beer styles, according to Ali Capper, spokeswoman for the British Hop Association and a farmer who grows 40 hectares of hops in the Herefordshire-Worcestershire area, the country’s second most important area for hops, British hops have a unique terroir, with lower levels of myrcene, one of the flavour oils found in hop cones, and more British hops are being exported to the United States and Australasia because they are more delicate and complex in flavour than those grown in places such as Oregon, Tasmania and Nelson. In 2012, she told a meeting of 320 British craft brewers, in an attempt to persuade them to use more local-grown hops, rather than the deeply fashionable American, ones that the country’s hop-growing terroir was found nowhere else: “Every other hop-growing region in the world is continental; hot summers, colder winters, very different to Britain’s uniquely maritime climate. As a result we grow some of the most delicate, complex and complimentary aromas in the world.”

However, while Britain has brewers who can point to their specific water supplies, or their local malts or hops, and brewers such as Shepherd Neame, of Faversham in Kent, who can and do claim to use entirely local ingredients, in this case, Kentish hops and Kent-grown barley, plus its own well water and its own house yeast, very few British brewers seems to have taken on board the word “terroir”, perhaps fearing ridicule. Even though it is noticeable that the London brewer Fuller Smith & Turner, which uses essentially the same ingredients as Shepherd Neame, makes beers with very different flavours, in large part because of the influences of the two breweries’ house yeasts, again there is no claim by Shepherd Neame to any sort of Kentish terroir. It is ironic that Kent is also home to some of England’s best wine growers, who are making some very highly regarded sparkling wines, and who are keen to point to the similarities of their soil to that of the Champagne region, and to claim a similar sort of terroir to the place where the most expensive sparkling wines come from.

One British brewer not afraid to use the ‘T” word is the Lancashire company Moorhouse’s of Burnley, which has persuaded farmers in its home county to start growing Maris Otter, the now traditional “cask ale” barley, and one which, perhaps significantly, has clear genetic links with landrace barleys of the past. In July this year, Moorhouse’s managing director, David Grant, said: “We aim to build a ‘terroir’ similar to that for French wines. We want publicans to know they can have cask ales with real provenance from Burnley – ales brewed in Lancashire from the best Lancashire malt. By ensuring a market we are helping it to survive, for our own sustainable future and for the industry.”

Wild Beer: reflecting the Somerset terroir

Wild Beer: reflecting the Somerset terroir

Another is the Wild Beer Co of Somerset, founded in 2012 by Andrew Cooper and the perhaps aptly named Brett Ellis. Both were working at another brewery, but felt there was an opportunity to present a unique brewery concept in the UK, concentrating on barrel-ageing, wild yeasts and unusual ingredients. Among their beers is one called Somerset Wild, first brewed in October 2013, made with extra pale, wheat and acidulated malts, and yeast harvested from local apple orchards in Somerset, a county known for its ciders. The beer is very pale and hazy, dry, cidery and lemon-sour, and its use of local wild yeasts, Cooper and Ellis say, is “an homage to the Somerset terroir.”

There are a few British brewers using local ingredients, most notably, of course, Williams Brothers, which has ploughed a more or less solitary furrow since first making Fraoch heather ale 20 or so years ago. Williams Brothers has inspired brewers outside the UK to take up using local ingredients, but very few have repeated the company’s efforts back home, apart from occasional special brewings. I was involved in one such effort earlier this year, when the Windsor and Eton Brewery went to the London Amateur Brewers group and asked its members to take part in a competition to find a recipe for a beer to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which was signed (or to be historically accurate, sealed) at Runnymede, a sort distance down the Thames from Windsor. One of the group’s members, Manmohan Birdi, approached me to ask about Berkshire hops, and I suggested that it would be slightly more authentic to use herbs such as yarrow and ground ivy/alehoof in the ale, since these would probably have been used by 13th century brewers and would be found in the Runnymead area growing wild. Manmohan followed my suggestion, and his beer won the competition, with Windsor and Eton brewing a commercial-sized batch of the beer for bottling.

The brewery managed to source commercial quantities of yarrow and ground ivy, but Paddy Johnson, the head brewer, wasn’t happy with the look of the ground ivy – rather dried-up – and went out the evening before brewing was due to take place to see if he could find some growing along the Thames. He was staring at a patch he though was the plant when a man walking his dog came along and asked Paddy what he was doing. The brewer explained that he was after ground ivy, to brew with, but wasn’t sure of the plant in front of him was the right one, and the dog-walker said: “Well, I’m a botanist, and yes, that’s ground ivy all right.” What are the chances? So Paddy filled the plastic bags he had brought with him, and Magna Carta Ale contains ingredients that grew just a short distance from Runnymead.

Like the beers made by the Williams brothers, Grant, Cooper and Ellis, however, this seems to be a rare exception of a beer with the “essence of here” among the ingredients. So is “beer terroir”, the belief that you can reflect the “essence of here” in a beer, a non-idea for commercial brewers, because what makes a beer “from here” is so easily reproducible everywhere? The makers of the many traditional formerly locality-based European beers seem to think so, because even when they attempt to protect themselves with PGIs and the like, the concept of “terroir” is not one they consciously wield.

However, there ARE brewers not afraid to pick up the idea of beer terroir and run with it wherever it might take them, though ironically, it is brewers working outside the older brewing countries who are the enthusiasts for the possibilities of local beer that reflects local environments, local authenticities, local tastes and local uniquenesses. In the Americas, North and South, in Australia and New Zealand, in Japan, and in countries such as France and Italy that are familiar with the concept of terroir as it applies to wine, brewers are experimenting with local ingredients, local yeasts, local flavours and partnerships with other local alcohol traditions to make beers that do indeed contain the ineffable “essence of here”.

Sometimes these efforts seem to be nothing more than an attempt to show that something can be done: for example, the Ontario Beer Company in Canada and its two “all-Ontario beers”, 100 Mile Lager and 100 Mile Ale. Both hops and barley are grown in Ontario, but not in huge quantities, and Ontario brewers would normally get their hops from the United States and their malted barley from Saskatchewan. To make all-Ontario beer (using Lake Ontario water) in commercial quantities, 35,000 litres, brewer Brad Clifford had to buy Chinook and Cascade hops from five different farms in the province to get the 300 pounds – 140kg – he needed, and place a special order with the Canadian Malting Company for sufficient malt, well in advance of brewday. But nothing very much is being claimed for the two beers in the way of Ontarian terroir.

Sierra Nevada Estate AleRather more is made of Estate Ale, made by Sierra Nevada in California. Although it is now a substantial brewer, employing 400 people and producing more than a million barrels a year, Sierra Nevada also has a positively minute operation at its home in Chico, California where two full-time farmers look after 30 acres of organic barley and nine acres of organic hops: Cascade, Chinook and Citra. The barley is harvested and turned into malt every autumn, which is then ground to make wort, the hops are picked and added undried to the brewery kettle (since Sierra Nevada has no kilns to dry them), and a tiny 800 barrels of 6.7 per cent abv Estate Homegrown Ale is made. Unlike in a normal brewing operation, there is no chance for the brewer to blend the malts and hops used to make the beer to try to achieve consistency, and thus, far more than in regular beers, each batch of Estate Ale reflects the weather – rainfall, temperature and humidity – over the time that the barley and hops were growing, and each year’s beer will be subtly different from previous years. This is exactly the sort of “terroir” influence that winemakers talk about, and Sierra Nevada is not afraid to use the word “terroir” when describing the flavours found in Estate Ale, such as grass, green vegetables and cedar. Some of those flavours come from the use of “wet” – undried – hops, and Ken Grossman, founder and now president of Sierra Nevada, was one of the pioneers of “wet hop” beers, in 1996, a process that ties the beer made with wet hops into a very specific time: the hops, if not dried, have to be used within 12 hours or less of being harvested. Wet hop beers are becoming increasingly popular as a sort of “Beaujolais Noveau” of beer, with brewers racing to be the first to get freshly harvested hops into the copper. Few, though, are making anything to the “terroir” aspect of using fresh, undried hops.

In a slightly different take on the same “brewery farm” idea, the Oregon brewer Rogue Ales leases 265 acres from Oregon farmers for growing two varieties of barley, called Risk and Dare, and 42 acres for raising seven strains of hop, which are used to make specifically Oregon brews. The beers made from those hops and that barley go out under the Chatoe Rogue name, and the bottle label goes so far as to give the latitude and longitude of the “micro” hopyard and barley farm. Five different beers have been made so far, including an amber ale called OREgasmic Ale, a wet hop ale, again, and a black lager.

These are, however, expensive beers to make, and perhaps only big, successful brewers like Sierra Nevada and Rogue can afford the luxury of their own hopyards and barley farms. Ken Grossman has said that, including labour, it costs his company $170 to grow a pound of its own Estate hops, against the mere $2 a pound it would pay for hops on the open market. At the same time having the fields where the Estate Ale hops and barley are grown certified organic cost Sierra Nevada tens of thousands of dollars.

For brewers in the right parts of the world, there is no need to have your own farm. The Seven Brides Brewery is in the Willamette area of Oregon, the heart of the Pacific North West hop-growing area, and uses local-grown malted barley and hop varieties grown within three miles of the brewery: Willamette, an American type, but also Hallertau and Perle, originally from Germany, Fuggles from England and others. Jeff DeSantis, owner-brewer at Seven Brides, says that the soils of the Willamette valley produce hops with distinctive flavours and oils compared to their European counterparts, so that even with the same recipes and same varieties, his beers are going to show a definite Oregon terroir.

It can be argued that “terroir” was properly discovered in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when brewers in California first started deliberately using massive amounts of Cascade hops, inventing the “American Pale Ale” style, the continent’s first indigenous style, which quickly revealed a previously untapped desire among drinkers for strongly hop-forward beers. The Cascade hop’s parentage undoubtedly includes some contribution from the wild American hops that were already growing across the continent when European settlers arrived with their own hop varieties. Those European hops interbred with their wild American cousins, which contributed flavours to American varieties such as Cluster that European brewers dismissed with adjectives such as “rank”, “piney”, and “catty”. But from 1980 onwards, with the influence of beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, made with Cascade, the flavours that hops with a contribution from native American varieties gave to beer became increasingly popular. Again, while American Pale Ale reflected its terroir, through the use of hops with an American ancestry, there were and are no barriers to brewers elsewhere making beers with the same hops, not any barriers to hop growers elsewhere growing those same hops, and indeed, Cascade is now grown in Australia, in New Zealand and in England: in Australia and New Zealand, at least, there is a definite “terroir” influence, with New Zealand Cascades, according to one brewer who knows both varieties well, having a more grassy/chlorophyll character.

Neomexicanus hops

Neomexicanus hops: a genuinely American variety

However, brewers are now moving on from “half-breed” Euro-American hops to the full-blooded version: there is increasing interest in brewing with actual wild American varieties, and breeding those wild varieties to find types that can be cultivated by farmers. Of the three varieties of wild hop in North America, the one exciting most interest goes under the botanical name of Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus, which as its name suggests, is found in New Mexico, and right through the Rocky Mountains area, from the Mexico border to Saskatchewan. A man called Todd Bates has been home-brewing with wild neomexicanus hops he finds around his home near Taos, New Mexico since the mid-1990s. The best varieties that Bates has discovered are now being grown on a hop farm in the Yakima Valley in Washington, and the first commercial beers made with neomexicanus appeared this year, one made by Crazy Mountain Brewery of Colorado, Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale, and the other, almost inevitably, by Sierra Nevada, which releases its Neomexicanus Wild Hop IPA next month, December. Sierra Nevada said of the beer: “These bizarre, multi-headed, native US cones have a flavour like nothing we’ve tasted, and for the first time, we’re showcasing their unusual melon, apricot and citrus aromas and flavours in our beer.” Without a doubt, a large part of the appeal of these and what seem certain to be many more neomexicanus hop beers to follow will be customers’ desire to taste a truly American beer made with a truly “essence of here” hop.

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan

Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan

Others find terroir in a different way. Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan of the Almanac Beer Company in San Francisco say they “aim to create something special and uniquely Northern Californian” with a brewery “dedicated to producing seasonal artisan ales, brewed specifically to complement local cuisine, sourced and prepared with the same great care and craft. Each harvest we partner with a different Northern California farm to supply the fruit used for our next brew. Every beer is a collaboration between us and the local terroir. Before brewing ever begins, we collaborate on ideas for interesting, unusual and seasonal beers. Once we’ve settled on that idea, we carefully select our partner farm – focusing on small, family-run operations, just like us. Then we start with the basics. Water, malt, yeast and hops are combined to create a balanced beer with equal parts sweet and bitter. Then the fruit is added, so that the hungry yeast can eat the sugars in the fruit as well. This creates a beer that has all of the flavours of the fruit, without overbearing sweetness. All of our base recipes are rooted in, but not limited to, classic beer styles and brewed in small batches. When ready, our beers are released to our favourite local restaurants and retailers to be enjoyed with food and friends.” Among the Almanac Beer Company’s beers is one called Golden Gate Gose, at five per cent abv.

A similar line is taken by Kim Kowalski, brewer at the Mount Pleasant Brewing Company in Michigan, who says: “Anything we can harvest locally is what I like to use. Local honey, local vegetables or fruits or herbs is really fun because it says who we are, speaks for the area it comes from.” Some go further than just harvesting herbs, At the Ale Apothecary brewery in Bend, Oregon brewer Paul Arney felled a 200-year-old spruce tree that grew down the hill on the brewery grounds in 2012 and hollowed it out to make a Finnish-style kuurna, the rudimentary, rustic trough-like log that acts as a lauter tun in sahti brewing, though he lined it with a lattice of Oregonian spruce branches rather than the juniper branches used in Finland. About the spruce, Arney says: “There’s a connection with the American colonial brewer and it grows on our brewery property.” After lautering, Arney boils the wort before adding a small amount of hops for bitterness or, in the spring, fresh, herbal spruce tips, and selling it as Sahati.

Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson

Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson

It is, however, the growing farm-brewery movement that is the among the most specifically enthusiastic about beer terroir. Plan Bee brewery in New York state, run by Evan Watson, is the only brewery to currently make every one of its beers with all-New York ingredients. The hops and barley are grown in the state, with many of the hops coming from Watson’s back yard, and his current house yeast strain was originally found on Muscadine grapes growing in his back yard as well, and developed through repeated brewing sessions. Watson is currently experimenting with other yeast strains: a peach tree strain, strawberry yeast, and a newly cultured honey yeast. Watson wants to find a larger property, of around 15 to 30 acres, put most of it to over to growing grain, with an acre of hops. With that, he hopes, Plan Bee can source every ingredient from its own property, with a larger apiary, a malthouse, a hop-oast, and a small orchard.

The Scratch microbrewery and farm in Southern Illinois “focuses on farmhouse beers and other styles brewed with home-grown and locally farmed and foraged ingredients.” The brewers describe what they are doing as “an uncharted frontier in modern brewing, showing the nearly limitless possibilities of brewing and bittering with plants other than hops in combination with modern malts, yeasts, and global beer styles.” It produces more than a dozen different sorts of gruit beer, sparking up traditional beer styles with the addition of local ingredients, including nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion and maple sap. The brewery’s beers include an unhopped burdock sahti, a sour Finnish ale bittered with cedar and roasted burdock root; hickory leaf IPA, an “English-style” IPA made with fresh hickory leaves, which add a dry bitterness to the end of the palate, and in particular 105, a strong saison made with 105 different “previously living organisms”, all herbs, roots, fungi, fruit. The brewers describe it as “an aroma of earth and herbs … complimented by a complex flavour of citrus, pepper and dirt created by the myriad of Southern Illinois’ ingredients: the essence of here.”

Foraged ingredients are one of the important strands in experimental new brewers’ search for a terroir of beer, a strand that looks back to pre-hop brewing traditions, and what was known on the mainland of Europe – although not in Britain – as gruit beer, when flavourings were whatever herbs, plants, roots and leaves could be found in the local woods or on the local moors. One of the forces behind the nascent “place-based beer” movement in the United States is the Beers Made by Walking project, founded by Eric Steen in 2011. Brewers are invited on hikes, and then brew beers inspired by those hikes, using ingredients found and identified on those hikes. To quote Steen, ” Each walk is different, each beer is a portrait of that landscape … Each beer becomes a drinkable look into the specific place that inspired its creation.” Among the plants that have gone into beers from the Beers Made by Walking project, a fair few are well-known pre-hop ale herbs, such as yarrow and spruce tips, but more unusual additions have included rose hips, huckleberries, Melissa mint, vanilla leaf, red cedar tips, Saint John’s wort, wild ginger, sumac, bee balm, pineapple weed and amarinth

In Britain, the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith, just outside Edinburgh in 2013, linked up with the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith, which has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus. The restaurant supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for a gruit ale to be sold to diners – scurvy grass, a relative of horseradish; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn; and juniper branches. The Ilkley brewery’s 5% gruit ale, called Doctor’s Orders, uses a recipe put together by beer sommelier Jane Peyton containing a couple of very traditional herbs for flavouring pre-hop ale, yarrow and bog myrtle, along with rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor. In Corsica, Brasserie Pietra makes a wheat beer called Colomba that is flavoured with herbs gathered from the local “maquis”, or shrubland.

Other have been adding ingredients that are simply there, rather than ones that have to be foraged for. In Italy, a country with almost no native brewing traditions, the host of new small brewers have been enthusiastically throwing whatever is at hand into their brews. Several brewers have been combining local grapes with beer: Nicola Perra of Birrificio Barley in Sardinia takes Cannonau grapes right after they have been harvested, boils them for 16 hours, adds wort from mashing six types of British malt and Cascade hops and ferments it all to make a brew called BB10. Similarly LoverBeer in Piedmont brews a tart and citric beer incorporating local Freisa grape must. Many put chestnuts into their brews, in the form of chestnut flour, roast chestnuts, chestnut pieces, as in Birra Amiata Artisinale of Tuscany’s Vecchia Bastarda – “Old Bastard” – chestnut honey and chestnut jam. Chestnut beers have become such a characteristically Italian style that they now have their own category in the country’s annual beer competition. This is terroir – using local produce – almost forcing itself upon brewers.

Draught GoseIn New Zealand, brewers have been reflecting where they are by flavouring their beers with indigenous trees and shrubs. The Good George brewpub in Hamilton made a Lime and Horopito Gose, which included lime zest and juice, leaves from the horopito shrub, native to New Zealand, and also called a pepper tree because its leaves have a hot taste, Marlborough sea salt, and Motueka hops. The Wigram Brewery from Christchurch makes a spruce beer in memory of the 18th century Captain James Cook, who himself made a spruce beer when he landed in New Zealand, and like Cook they use leaves from the native manuka tree, the New Zealand tea tree, which give menthol flavours to the beer.

In Japan, while beer has been taken up enthusiastically since it arrived in the 1870s, there has been no sense of anything that might be recognised as “terroir” about the country’s beers. A few years ago, one man, Shiro Yamada, a financier who had spent time studying in England and had fallen in love with European beers, decided that what his country needed was beers that could pair with Japanese cuisine. When I met him, he told me: “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK, beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.” Yamada picked two typically Japanese flavourings, sanshō, or Japanese pepper, and yuzu, a citrus fruit that looks like marriage between a grapefruit and a mandarin. Yamada says he went to Japanese brewers to try go get his beers made “but in terms of quality and passion” nobody matched Wim Saeyens, the brewer at De Graal in Belgium. Thus to make his beers, Kagua Blonde and Kagua Rouge – Kagua meaning “Japanese aroma” – the sanshō and yuzu that give them their aroma and flavour are grown by “top quality producers who have exceptional reputations”, according to Yamada, harvested, and flown out to Belgium from Japan, 6,000 miles. Once the beer is brewed, then it has to make the journey back again, to go on sale in Japanese restaurants and bars. Kagua is a beer that, through the flavours derived from the Japanese ingredients, certainly reflects “hereness” better than most Japanese beers, but a 12,000-mile round trip may detract from the “localness”.

Yamada’s aim was comparatively simple: to make a Japanese beer that could complement Japanese food. The most radical expression of the search for beer terroir today comes from a few thousand miles south of Japan, in Tasmania, and from a man who was originally not even a brewer, but a wine-maker. Ashley Huntington was born in Australia, trained as a wine maker, worked in the Languedoc in France for six years and came back to Tasmania, where he bought a farm with the intention of making wine. “I soon realised that 60% of Australian hops were grown all around me and yet not a single brewery was located within cooee … odd! It smelt like opportunity and, with the wine industry in meltdown, I jumped in head-first.” Huntington knew so little about brewing, he thought he had to grow his own ingredients, setting up a small hopfield and harvesting his own cereals.

Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Brewery, writer of what could be the place-based beer brewer's manifesto

Ashley Huntington of Two Metre Brewery, writer of what could be the place-based beer brewer’s manifesto

The first brews from his Two Metre Tall brewery were hit by wild yeasts – but Huntington welcomed this, figuring that the esters and acidity the wild yeasts brought made for better, more drinkable beers. He experimented with steeping fruit from neighbouring orchards in barrels with his acidic beer. Today all the brewery’s beers are made from ingredients either grown on the farm or sourced locally. They include a Sour Cherry Ale, made with whole Morello cherries grown locally and oak-barrel fermented for seven months, and a Sour Plum ale, made with wild plums collected from along the river around the farm. Huntington says: “The fruit is thrown into the barrel with its skin on and the indigenous yeast goes to work. Wild beer is a beautiful, natural, risky technique and no result is guaranteed – just the way I like it.” All his beers, he says, reflect “the desire to create expressions of place and time. Beer terroir!” Two years ago, Huntington won a $20,000 Churchill scholarship which enabled him to travel to Europe and America, talking to brewers and maltsters about farmhouse brewing, spontaneous fermentation and the use of fruits in beer. At the end of the trip, Huntington wrote a report summarising his experiences which could serve as a manifesto for those who, like him, believe in the possibility of beer terroir:

” I could envisage in my mind’s eye the very alluring prospect of travelling around the world drinking beers which were not a slavish local mimicry of some internationally ubiquitous “beer style”, but beverages produced by creative and inventive brewers harvesting their local ingredients – cereals, hops or local significant spices and aromatics – and transforming these worts into beers of provenance by harnessing the fermentative powers of the microflora indigenous to the location of the brewery. It recalled the very best of the international wine industry, and evoked the elements common to the most flavoursome, the most sought after and the most revered foods on the planet; time, place and individual. Even more alluring was that such a concept in beer could emerge from the intellectual ruin of the profiteering multi-nationals, who for their own profit, have reduced the imagination of brewers and the expectations of consumers to the very baseline. No, beer is not simply the common beverage of the poor, just as it is a fiction that wine will somehow raise the social standing of those who are knowledgeable about it. Beer deserves its place as one of the oldest, most important, most nutritious and most culturally significant foods offered to humankind and it is very much the remit of the brewing craftsman to deliver against this ambition.”

Many thanks to all those who supplied me with information for this presentation, including Kelly Ryan, Graham Reeks, Gary Gillman, Max Pivero, Eugene Tolstov, Ricardo Aparicio and Stefano Ricci

Place-based beers and 13-year-old Special Brew

I have a new “magic beer moment” to savour: drinking 13-year-old Carlsberg Special Brew in the cellars of the Jacobsen brewery in Copenhagen.

den Lille Havfrue

If you’re in Copenhagen you do, really, have to go and pay your respects to den Lille Havfrue

Actually, that was just one of a number of great moments during my trip to Denmark eaelier this month to talk about “beer and terroir from an international perspective” to a bunch of brewers not just from Denmark, but Norway and Sweden as well, as part of a conference in the town of Korsør organised by the New Nordic Beer movement (Ny Nordisk Øl, pronounced roughly “noo nordisk ohl”).

The men leading the campaign are two brewers, Anders Kissmeyer, formerly of the award-winning Copenhagen brewery Nørrebro Bryghus, and Per Kølster of Kølster Malt og Øl in the appropriately named village of Humlebæk – “Hops Creek” – north of Copenhagen, and PR man Christian Andersen. The idea of Ny Nordisk Øl is to forge a distinctly Nordic take on brewing, using Nordic traditions and, most especially, Nordic ingredients – not just flavourings, such as heather, sweet gale and wormwood, but yeast and other micro-organisms sourced specifically from a Nordic environment, in just exactly the same way as the New Nordic Cuisine movement has fused tradition and modernity to create a style of cooking that is rooted in a place and yet free to experiment (the success of which effort can be judged by the fact that the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, short for “Nordisk Mad”, or “Nordic Food”, which is one of the leaders of New Nordic Cuisine, has been voted “best restaurant in the world” by its peers in four out of the past five years). In a world where the craft beer movement seems intent on replacing one kind of ubiquity – bland Big Brewer lager – with another – highly hopped fruit-salad pale ales – it’s a trumpet-call to battle on behalf of individualistic, rooted, idiosyncratic beers, made by brewers intent on arriving at something that could only have been made in one place and at one time, that excites me greatly.

Hærvejs Lyng

Hærvejs Lyng heather beer: the ‘hær’ in Hærvejs is the same as the here in Hereford

Judging by the number of highly enthusiastic Nordic brewers I met in Korsør – I’m guessing, but there must have been 50 or 60 attendees – and the excellent Ny Nordisk Øl-inspired beers I drank there, it’s a movement with a good weight of support behind it, and terrific results to show those wondering if “beer terroir” is just a gimmick.

There have been various names given to the sort of products brewers involved in the Ny Nordisk Øl movement are making, but the one I like best comes from the United States – “place-based beers”. Fortunately I was able to tell the Nordic supporters of “place-based beer” that they are far from alone. In the United States, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Italy and France, there are plenty of others pursuing the same goal, of making beers with what one American called “the essence of here” in them. (I’ll be putting up my presentation on this blog, and naming names, later in the week). The bad news is that in what one might call the “Old World”, there is much less interest in the concept of “beer terroir”.

Hø Øl, or 'Hay Ale',

Mark Hø Øl, or ‘Hay Ale’, once brewed in Britain

One of the ironies of trying to find “beer terroir” today is that once, of course, all beers were local, and reflected their local environment, local ingredients (local hop varieties, “land-race” strains of barley, local water, local yeasts) and local traditions. Porter, the world’s first “industrial” beer, the popularity of which powered the growth of what became the world’s largest breweries at the time, was developed in London as a local beer for local people, satisfying the desire of the city’s working classes for a refreshing calorie-filled beer, brewed using brown malt made in Ware, Hertfordshire, 20 miles to the north, hops from Kent, just to the east, and London well-water, full of calcium carbonate, which helps make good dark beers; matured using giant vats, a technique invented by and originally unique to London brewers; and served using methods of blending old and new beer specifically reflecting customers tastes, while being drunk with foods it was regarded as a particularly fine accompaniment to: boiled beef and carrots, for example, a very traditional old London dish. Even pilsner, the most widely reproduced beer style in the world began as a beer very much reflecting its Bohemian locality: made with Moravian malted barley, local Saaz hops and its home town’s particularly soft water.

Coming from the other direction, brewing traditions that are still deeply rooted in the local landscape – in particular the Belgian brews such as Lambic – now seem to be as reproducable as pilsen became, and almost as global. Every American brewer seems to want to make a Belgian ale laden with Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and they can buy that yeast right off the shelf, rather than having to move to Payottenland. When you see a brewery in Britain making a Gooseberry Gose, a variation on a style of beer from Saxony that was effectively unknown until a few years ago, you know you’re living in a world where “local” appears to mean very little.

Xperimentet No 2, beiitered with sea wormwood ('strandmalurt' in Danish

Xperimentet No 2, bittered with sea wormwood (‘strandmalurt’ in Danish)

Which is what the supporters of Ny Nordisk Øl are fighting against – and although they don’t have many fellow travellers in the rest of Europe, it’s to be hoped that when other brewers start tasting the beers that Ny Nordisk Øl has inspired, it will spur them to produce ales that reflect their own places. Here are my notes on some of the “place-based beers” I tried in Denmark:

An unlabelled (IIRC – although I may just have failed to record the name) ale brewed with sea wormwood (less bitter than the wormwood used in absinthe), camomile and sea buckthorn, three popular flavourings with Nordic brewers seeking to make a hopless ale. This had a lovely, deep, tongue-coating, very up-front bitterness, a pale, slightly cloudy appearance, a mouthfilling rotundity, and finally a sweetness under a full, vegetally/weedy flavour.

Ny Nordisk Hærvejs Lyng from the Vyborg Bryghus: a hop-free heather beer with a massive nose of honey, and liquid honey in the mouth but with a sharp tart lemony undertone, lightly petillant with no head. It’s alcoholic lemon and honey cough sweets. (The ale is named for the Hærvejen, or “Army Way”, a road that runs down the Jutland peninsula from Viborg to, eventually, Hamburg.) Continue reading

Siren’s blast

Back in August last year, after encountering Siren Craft Brew’s American IPA at the London Craft Beer Festival, I promised: “I shall definitely be drinking more Siren.” I’ve now drunk the brewery’s beers whenever I find them, and I’ve never been so impressed with the products of a new brewery since we started having new breweries in Britain again. There hasn’t been one I wouldn’t score an eight, at least. It should be clear, I think, from the first sip of any of the brewery’s beers that in the 31-year-old American Ryan Witter-Merithew, Siren has found a brewer of supremely rare talent, someone with a “palate imagination” powerful enough to give him the ability to pull off stunts other brewers leap at and fail to achieve.

Whiskey Sour beerIn particular, he seems to have an amazing ability to blend two ideas together and get a whole considerably greater than the parts. His Whiskey Sour beer contains two of my personal nightmares – beer brewed with actual lemons in it, and beer aged in oak casks sufficiently for the flavour of oak to enter the ale. Yet I find it a marvellous drink, full of depth, totally integrated, the oak, the lemon, the bourbon and the citrussy hops producing a symphony of harmonious flavours: a beer I’m eager to try matching with different foods

I was delighted to get an invite to meet Darron Anley, the founder of Siren Craft Brew at a “showcase” organised by the property agency Davis Coffer Lyons at the East London Liquor Company in Bow Wharf, East London, the first bar-with-a-distillery (actually two stills, beautiful copper affairs) I have seen. It would be very unfair to call Anley a dilettante brewer, since he is clearly serious about what he is doing and it’s not merely a hobby, but like a few others in the modern UK brewing scene, it was making a fortune elsewhere, in his case building up and then selling an IT security company, that gave him the freedom, and the finance, to become a brewer. His previous company was sold in 2011, but Anley’s interest in beer went back a lot further than that, he revealed: Continue reading

Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst: Continue reading

The 40pc leap in capacity at the Doom Bar brewery and the 2014/5 Cask Report

One of the items of news that may have shot by you recently is that Molson Coors is pumping enough money into the Cornish economy to boost capacity at Sharp’s brewery to a potential 350,000 barrels a year of Doom Bar ale, a 40% expansion. There is no guarantee it will be able to shift that amount of what is already the UK’s biggest-selling cask ale, of course. But if it did, that would mean Doom Bar had become a brand one tenth the size of Carling lager. That might not sound much, but blimey, there’s not been a cask ale brand with that kind of clout in the market for decades.

It would be fascinating to know what all those drinkers of more than a million pints of Doom Bar a week  think the beer actually is: do they believe they are drinking “craft beer”? Do they know it actually comes from one of the biggest brewers in the country?

It’s also an interesting question as to whether any other cask ale brand, even with the weight of Molson Coors behind it, could ever have contemplated looking at potential sales that recall the heyday of Draught Bass, even in an era when cask ale drinkers may be entitled to feel more optimistic than they have been able to be for almost two decades. Has Doom Bar’s popularity any connection with it coming from the village of Rock, described by the Daily Telegraph as “the Kensington of Cornwall”, populated during the summer by affluent teenagers staying at their friends’ multi-million-pound holiday homes, and surrounded by expensive Michelin-starred restaurants owned by big-name chefs? Plenty of Rock’s affluent young visitors will be drinking in the Mariners, the pub owned jointly by Sharp’s and the celebrity chef Nathan Outlaw, and Doom Bar is likely to be the tipple for many. Does that at all put a halo on the beer that helps it rise to sales levels effectively unheard of for a single cask beer brand?

Cruikshank's draymen

Draymen, by George Cruikshank. Note the chequers on the doorpost, an indicator of a public house.

Well, probably not, but it is certainly the case that you are indeed much more likely to find the young and affluent drinkers who flock to Rock to meet mates (and mate) drinking cask ale than you would have even ten years ago. As the latest Cask Report revealed, a third of all 18-34 year-olds have tried cask. And it’s not that they have tried it and walked away back to Carling or Peroni vowing “never again” – of all those who have ever tried real ale, 86% still drink it to some extent. Nor is it just young men trying out real ale. A third of all female alcohol drinkers have tried cask – and, again, 75% of women who have tried cask still drink it.

Continue reading

It’s not your father’s beer can – but is it yours?

Considering it was (little-known fact alert) a European brewery that first produced canned beer, in 1933, in Lorraine, France (the Americans only followed two years later) we Europeans have been distinctly sniffy about beer in cans. One French website, talking about the record of the Brasserie Vezelise, “Premiere brasserie Française a mettre de la biere en boite”, adds: “Helas!”. In Britain, anyone who reckoned they knew about beer knew canned beer was, to quote the 1984 Good Beer Guide, “inferior” – tinny-tasting and cheap .

An advertisement from 1933 for canned beer

An advertisement from 1933 for canned beer

In fact canned beer did not have a universally wonderful reputation even in the United States, which invented the name “Joe Sixpack” for Mr Average. When the first canned craft beer appeared there – just 12 years ago, in 2002 – it shook up considerable controversy. Even in 2005, there were not much more than a dozen US craft breweries who had followed Oskar Blues, the Colorado brewer that pioneered craft beer in cans, onto the canning line. By 2012, however, that number had grown to more than 200 brewers making canned craft beer. Today, according to the Cantastic database, the figure is 413 breweries, canning 1,484 different craft beers in 94 styles across 49 states and Washington DC (the one non-craft beer canning state is West Virginia).

But is it any bloody good? I first had canned craft beer in Hong Kong, where several small Japanese craft brewers, such as Yo-Ho, have their beers on sale in cans in classier supermarkets, and where semi-pro American beer importers bring in West Coast craft beer in cans, and lo, ’twas frequently very tasty. Indeed, Yo-Ho’s Yona Yona pale ale became one of my favourite fridge beers. Back in the UK, though, I’ve returned pretty much 100 per cent to bottles for my home beer consumption, simply because the places I buy beer from pretty much solidly don’t sell craft in cans: there still are very few craft beer brewers in Britain canning their beers. But if there were canned beers as good as some of the canned beers I tasted in HK easily available, then I’d be happy to buy them.

Canned beer from Barclay Perkins in 1940

Canned beer from Barclay Perkins in 1940

I was delighted, thus, to get an invitation to last week’s Indie Beer Can Festival, which was set up by the Can Makers, the trade body for British beverage can makers. It was a well-thought-out competition: brewers did not have to be canning their beer already to enter. Out of the initial entrants – and some 70 brewers put themselves forward – 12 were to be picked, and any of the 12 who were not already canning would be given a “limited edition” canning run. They would all go into a blind tasting, and three winners chosen.

All the finalists were available in can for sampling on the day, and I went round with cup, pen and notebook making my own judgment – which one of the entrants’ canned beers would I most like to take on a picnic? The “Breakfast Stout” from Arbor Ales, was tarry, sweet, smooth and warming, but at 7.4%, too strong for a picnic – too strong for breakfast, probably. Longhorn IPA, normally a craft keg beer, from Purity Brewing, 5% abv, had an initial fullness not matched, unfortunately, by the follow-through, and felt comparatively slight against many of the other beers there. Springhead‘s Roaring Meg was light for a 5.5% beer, with honey and grain: a picnic possible. There were two beers from established family brewers in the final, each of which was already being canned: Thwaites’s 13 Guns delivered a lovely mango nose, but frothed up badly in the glass (or plastic cup, rather) which lost it picnic points, while Adnam’s Ghost Ship was a solid, down-the-middle pale ale, but failed to bowl me out.

The one Irish entrant, Blacks of Kinsale‘s Kinsale Pale Ale, was restrained for an American Pale Ale, with biscuit malt more apparent than the tropical notes in the mouth, though there was a good long lingering bitter aftertaste, and I thought this was going to be the picnic test winner. Then I tried Concrete Cow‘s Dirty Cow. Did anything good ever come out of Milton Keynes apart from the A5 to London? Yes, this, a lovely 5% abv mix of American pale ale and wheat beer, a little sour, tangy, with hints of fruitbowl, refreshing when cool, but – and this is the clincher for a picnic beer – with a collection of flavours that suggest it will still taste good when it’s warmed up over an English summer afternoon. Give the picnic prize to the Cow.SONY DSC

You’ll not, I’m guessing, be surprised to hear that the official judges didn’t agree with me at all. The gold medal went to Adnams’ Ghost Ship, the silver to Thwaites’s 13 Guns, the two experienced canners taking the top prizes, while the bronze was snatched by Arbor with its Breakfast Stout.

Still, it confirmed that craft beer does indeed belong in cans. And cans, as the Can Makers will declare, do have advantages over bottles: the beer inside a can is far less likely to be affected by beer’s big enemies, oxygen and light, which ruin far too many bottled brews, while cans are also lighter than glass – ten or eleven times lighter, in fact – and cool down faster in the fridge. So are we likely to see more British craft brewers speedily follow BrewDog (who began canning in 2011), Beavertown, Camden and Fourpure of Bermondsey?

Well, not if Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Thornbridge, is correct. In a blogpost this week that is essential reading, Rob points out that the sort of small canning line that is all most craft brewers in the UK are likely to be able to afford is not going to be able to guarantee the benefits that canning beer is supposed to bring:

Although the can format is being sold as the best way to eliminate oxygen from the beer after packaging, it is during the packaging process itself that the greatest danger lies. I am unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen.
It would seem that it is possible to produce good beer on a budget canner, but personally I’m not convinced. Although I am sure we could achieve extra sales and the exposure would be great having beer in can, I feel that on the flip side of the coin, customers drinking oxidised beer from a can would do no favours for our reputation.

So there we are. Today’s craft brewery canned beer is not your father’s canned beer, but it’s not necessarily the answer to a beer drinker’s prayers.

An advertisement from 1958 for canned beer

An advertisement from 1958 for canned beer