And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

The stout that dare not speak its name

Sainsbury's Celebration Ale labelHave public perceptions of beer styles become so skunked that it would be a marketing disaster to call a beer by its proper name? On a rare trip to Sainsbury’s I picked up something from the supermarket chain’s current Taste the Difference beer range that it calls “Celebration Ale”, and which announces itself as “A rich, dark winter warmer”. It’s brewed by Black Sheep of Masham, which is a recommendation, for me, and since I couldn’t see McEwan’s Champion Ale on the shelves (a truly excellent Edinburgh Ale/Burton Ale) I though it might make a good substitute.

I know I’m not the average supermarket beer shopper – I write a beer blog, for a start. So my expectations might well not be the same as everybody else’s expectations. But when I see a 6 per cent abv beer described as “a rich, dark winter warmer”, I’m expecting something ruby-coloured, fruity, strong and slightly sweet, though, hopefully, with a good bitter kick. Back home, however, when I opened “Celebration ale”, it poured dark brown-to-black, with a firmly chocolate-roast nose.

A look at the back label (printed, as is typical for back labels, in the tiny 4pt type that requires anyone over 45 to find their glasses) shows that this is in fact, as you’ve probably guessed, not an Owd Rodger-style ruddy ale but “a dark, velvety stout”. Indeed, the allergy-alert ingredients listing on the back reveals that “Celebration ale” contains “cow’s milk”. What that must mean is milk-derived (and unfermentable) lactose sugar: and there’s only one style of beer I know that contains lactose. Yes, “Celebration ale” is not just a stout, it’s a milk stout, albeit a milk stout that seems afraid to reveal itself as such.

Why? I can imagine Sainsbury’s corporate lawyers might fear the wrath of the neo-temperance army if they sold a product with the word “milk” in its description that contained alcohol (supermarket promotes beer to milk-drinking children shock! horror!), but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Bristol Beer Factory promoting its own Milk Stout, with pictures of milkmaids and cows.

Is it the word “stout” that is the problem, fit today only to be printed in tiny letters on the back label, in case it frightens the shoppers? Is “stout” so completely associated with the Guinness-style product that Sainsbury’s fears that non-Guinness drinkers won’t buy a beer too clearly labelled a stout, and that Guinness drinkers will take the bottle back once they try it and find it’s nothing like the beer they’re used to?

Whichever, it’s a backwards step in beer education if a major UK supermarket feels it cannot describe properly a beer appearing under its imprimature, in apparent fear that the beer-buying public won’t understand accurate terminology. If you’re selling a milk stout, Sainsbury’s, call it a milk stout, not “Celebration ale” or “dark winter warmer”. THEN we can celebrate.

Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading

Why there’s no such beer as ‘English brown ale’

The man who invented brown ale …

The ability to deny the evidence of your senses is widespread. There’s the dictator insisting to television interviewers that his people love him, while across the country those long-oppressed people are taking up arms and waving the flag of liberation. And on a much less serious plane, there are people who will insist two beers that look totally different, taste totally different and are produced in totally different ways are variations of the same type.

It’s like setting up a category “horse” and insisting the seahorse and the clothes horse are its sub-categories. That’s slightly more ridiculous than insisting that Newcastle Brown Ale and Mann’s Brown Ale are sub-types of something called “English Brown Ale”. But it involves an identical confusion between “name” and “category”.

I don’t actually have any problems with the idea of “beer styles”. Labels can be very useful. But only if they’re meaningful. When I read that someone is going to be brewing “an English Brown Ale”, I have no idea what sort of beer they are intending to produce.

Look, here’s Newcastle Brown Ale, the urtyp “northern brown ale”, so-called. It’s “brown” only in the sense that if I had a pair of shoes that colour I would probably call them “brown”, if I didn’t call them “tan”. The beer is made – or was made, the method has changed, certainly since production was moved from Tyneside to Tadcaster in North Yorkshire – by mixing a low-gravity beer brewed at about 1030 OG (and sold separately for many years as Newcastle Amber Ale) with a matured, darker (from crystal malt and caramel) high-gravity beer to produce a blend with an abv of 4.7 per cent. The high-gravity beer gives fruity notes to the blend, and a final colour that is much the same as or only a little darker than many traditional English bitters, and certainly paler than, for example, Young’s Winter Warmer (which is a Burton Ale). The sweeter, maltier characteristics are more forward than you’d find in a bitter/pale ale, and there’s less of the hop apparent than would be found even in a Burton: bitterness, I believe is 24 IBU.

Then there’s Mann’s Brown Ale, the urtyp so-called “southern brown ale”. Brown? It’s almost black. That colour comes from roasted malt, and as you’d expect this is a beer with distinct chocolatey, roasty flavours (though less than you’d find in a stout or porter). It also has considerable sweetness (another one of the differences between this style of brown ale and stout – and Newcastle Brown Ale) and almost no hop character (brewers would use Mid-Kents and other non-premium hops for brown ales, and old hops as well, where the aromatic qualities had vanished but the preservative ones remained). Apart from the name also containing the words “brown ale”, Mann’s is utterly different from Newcastle Brown Ale. How can anyone with their brain not in “standby” mode think it works at all to ram these two very dissimilar beers under a single category called “English brown ale”?

Continue reading

Bottle-ageing beers: the don’ts and do’s

There’s a simple rule for most modern bottled beers when it comes to ageing: don’t. It’s not worth it. Probably the vast majority of beers are designed to be drunk fresh, and all they will do if you keep them is deteriorate. However, a few beers actually need ageing before they’re in perfect condition, even if only for a couple of weeks to a month (in the case of lower-gravity bottle-conditioned ales) and some need even longer than that: nine months to two years before they’re drinkable.

For example, when bottled Guinness Extra Stout (at 4.2 per cent abv) was a “live” naturally conditioned beer (until 1994 in the UK and 2000 in Ireland) the expected number of days after bottling before the beer came into condition was seven to 14, with an average of 10 days. (This depended on the ambient temperature that the beer was stored at, of course, and it was the fact that, thanks to the arrival of central heating, pubs were much warmer inside by the 1980s that Guinness decided it needed to stop letting its stout mature naturally in the bottle: hotter pubs meant faster maturation meant the beer in the bottle was not in the condition Guinness wanted when it reached the customer’s glass.)

The stronger Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (7.5 per cent or so abv), when that was a naturally conditioned bottled beer, before 1948, required six weeks of conditioning after bottling but was then expected to remain in a perfectly drinkable state for at least a year. Lactic acid content increased as the beer aged in the bottle, but was balanced by the production of esters and other volatile components in the maturing beer, and the lactic acid was believed to add to the “fullness” of the flavour. Brewing chemists at Guinness found that yeast could survive in bottled FES for up to 35 years, suggesting that a beer could continue to mature for at least that long.

Worthington White Shield, the 5.6 per cent abv bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale, is considered to take four weeks from bottling to come into prime condition, and to stay in condition for another nine months. After that, the beer is likely to be in a less than optimum state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that White Shield will come back into condition at 15 or 16 months old, albeit with an altered taste profile. It will not, though, survive much beyond about 24 months without showing signs of deterioration.

It’s an interesting experiment to take a crate of newly-bottled lowish-gravity bottle-conditioned beers and taste them over three or four months: when I had a wedding stout made for me by the Pitfield brewery, which was bottled “live” in June at around 5 per cent abv, it hit perfection (and very fine it was) two months later, in August. After that it gradually went downhill (unlike, I’m happy to say, my marriage).

My experience is that the effect of bottle ageing on beer varies considerably depending on (1) the alcoholic content of the beer (2) whether it is bottle-conditioned, that is, contains live yeast, or not (3) the conditions under which the bottle is kept and (4) the colour of the beer, with darker beers ageing better than lighter ones. I’ve drunk a 20-year-old pasteurised 8 per cent abv stout that was fine: I doubt the same would be true of a pale beer that old, even one that strong.

Continue reading

Cask beer equals live music, bottled beer equals CDs

A few weeks ago I went to a performance by Wynton Marsalis, whose music I have been buying since the early 1980s. He arrived then as a young trumpeter who could play jazz and classical music with equal genius: I remember listening to his recording of the Hayden Trumpet Concerto in 1983 and feeling that every note he blew was placed in exactly the spot required: not a femtosecond too early or late, too long or too short. At the same time it was Hayden’s music, but played by someone who was aware of everything that had happened after Hayden.

All the work he’s done since, I think, has been while standing on that same platform: technically impeccable, respecting the music’s history, recognising that we listeners come with modern ears. I commend to your own ears Mr Jelly Lord, his CD from 1999 of Jelly Roll Morton tunes first put down by the fellow New Orleans master 75 or so years earlier. It’s properly Morton, but played by people who are aware, and who know that we the audience are aware, of bop and other developments in jazz history in the decades since Morton’s death.

And yet … I came out of the Marsalis concert feeling that I had listened with real enjoyment to musicians who had played flawless improvisational jazz, rooted in the music’s history, though with enough of a flavouring to show this was not merely a reproduction, a tribute band. But I wasn’t blown away. Was that evening much different to listening to Wynton Marsalis on CD? Not a lot.

Seven days later I saw a performance by the Zawose family from Tanzania – and if you don’t have a grin across your face within 45 seconds of starting to watch those ladies, have yourself checked by a doctor: you may be dead. Fantastic, exhilarating, explosive: as a live experience they shove Wynton Marsalis off stage and out the door. I wouldn’t want to buy their CD, though. The Zawose family are an excellent illustration of a great live act that won’t reproduce well on an MP3 player, or similar sound-only recorded music deliverer. Tremendous visually, fantastic enthusiasm, send you home very happy, but paddling about in the shallows musically.

What has this got to do with beer? Only that while I was thinking about the difference between live and recorded music, and how ultimately live music, when it’s good, is unbeatably superior to the best recorded music, because nothing surpasses the enjoyment of being there while it’s happening, it occurred to me that I have similar feelings about cask beer, proper live maturing-in-the-cellar brews, and bottled beer.

Continue reading

The most expensive beer in any bar in the world?

There might, I suppose, be a bar selling BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin or Sink the Bismark for, what, three times the store-bought retail price, but even that wouldn’t beat it.

And admittedly this is a beer that has spent a year maturing in the caves of Champagne (that’s “cellars”, incidentally, and not, as one English beer book that came out last year claims, “caves”), in 75cl corked bottles, reaching 11.5 per cent alcohol by volume.

It’s also an excellent brew, sharp and subtle, creamy and invigorating, and deserving of the label that the same book put on it, “an ideal wedding beer”.

But I’ve bought bottles of this in an English off-licence for less than £15, and it’s been on sale in good restaurants in London for only (“only”) £35 or so.

However, if you were insane enough to order a bottle of Deus Brut des Flandres, brewed by the Bosteels brewery in Buggenhout, Belgium (best known, probably, for another excellent beer, Kwak) in the Belgian Cafe Bar at the InterContinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, what do you think you might be expected to stump up?

I’ll give you a few facts before revealing the answer: an “ordinary” bottle of Belgian speciality beer here will cost you 40 dirhams, just over £7, though this isn’t much different than you would pay, probably, in a smart hotel bar in London, where a small bottle of Meantime pale ale, £1.50 or so in Waitrose, is £8 in somewhere like the Met Bar in Park Lane.

This is, however, also the country where someone believes there’s a market for chocolates that cost $250 each – yes, £164 for one single two-inch chocolate truffle.

So: you’re having a night out in what is probably the best bar in Abu Dhabi (though this is, to be truthful, like being called “probably the best football team in the Faroes” – there aren’t very many and they’re mostly rubbish), you’ve decided to show off and you’ve asked the friendly Filipino bar staff to pop the cork off a big bottle of Deus. What figure is going to show up on your credit card statement?

Save some of the Deus to steady yourself with, because that one bottle will cost you 700 dirhams, £125 at today’s exchange rate, $190 US (€145 for you Europeans). You could buy the half-bottle, but even that will be 350 dirhams, £62.50. Or you could wait until you get back to Britain and buy 12 gallons of Stella Artois from Tesco for the same sum (they do also sell Stella in the Belgian Cafe Bar, but I’ve never been stupid enough to buy that there, either).

A short history of bottled beer

Bottled beer was invented in Hertfordshire some 440 years ago, the most popular story says, by a forgetful Church of England rector and fishing fanatic called Dr Alexander Nowell.

While Nowell was parish priest at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, around 20 miles north of London, in the early years of Elizabeth I, it is said that he went on a fishing expedition to the nearby River Ash, taking with him for refreshment a bottle filled with home brewed ale. When Nowell went home he left the full bottle behind in the river-bank grass. According to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of Britain, published a hundred years later, when Nowell returned to the river-bank a few days later and came across the still-full bottle, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed (causality is mother of more inventions than industry) the original of bottled ale in England.”

The ale, of course, had undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle, building up carbon dioxide pressure so that it gave a loud pop when Nowell pulled the cork out. Such high-condition ale must have been a novelty to Elizabethan drinkers, who knew only the much flatter cask ales and beers. However, Fuller’s story is fun, but it seems unlikely Nowell really was the person who invented bottled beer: it seems more than probable that brewers were experimenting generally with storing beer in glass bottles in the latter half of the 16th century, though there is no apparent evidence of commercial bottling until the second half of the 17th century, only bottling by domestic brewers.

Continue reading

Aged White Shield

The Long Ship, where I misspent much of my youth, was everything you would expect of a pub run by Watney’s on the ground floor of a 1960s office block. Its attractions for the students who made up most of the customers, however, were that it was central, large, mostly dark inside and, crucially, the bar staff never asked any questions about your age.

The beer, of course, was generally awful (Red Barrel! Star Light!), but the Ship did stock Worthington White Shield, originally called Worthington IPA, and named for the “white shield” trademark on the label .

Beer&Skittles beermat

The beermat produced to publicise "Beer and Skittles"

In 1976 my then girlfriend had bought me my first ever book on beer, Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles. Boston wrote one of the pioneering columns on beer and pubs, in The Guardian, which started in 1973, and probably did as much as Camra to turn people on to a proper appreciation of the glories of British beer. Beer and Skittles devoted several pages to White Shield, then one of only five surviving naturally conditioned bottled beers in Britain, correctly describing it as one of the world’s greatest brews.

Because it contained a yeasty sediment in the bottle, Boston revealed to his wondering readership, White Shield altered as it aged. The beer came into prime condition about four weeks after bottling, Boston informed us, and would then stay in condition for up to another nine months. As this was the 1970s, “best before” dates were still in the future, and the only indication of when a bottle had been filled was through the numbers, one to 13, printed on the label, and the nicks, one, two, three or four, cut into the label’s edge. The nicks indicated which quarter of the year the bottle had been filled in, the numbers showed which week of the quarter.

After 10 months, Boston, said, White Shield went out of condition, and could develop a sulphury taste (not surprising, since it was made with the notoriously sulphury well-water of Burton). But if the drinker could hang on for “as long as fifteen months, one of two things may happen. If you are very unlucky, it will develop a really unpleasant flavour. Most bottles, however, should come back into condition with a flavour that is different from the original but which some connoisseurs consider to be even better.”

Continue reading

Bracia: great beer, shame about the dodgy history

Ping! It’s an email from the chaps at Thornbridge with details of their Bracia chestnut honey beer, the one raved over by more than just me at the Guild of Beer Writers dinner last week. The press release details exactly what goes into the beer, and also reveals where they got the name from: Bracia is, they say, “the Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire … [made] with cereals and, most probably, honey”

Aargh, ooh, er, cripes, well, no, actually, very sorry, guys, you’re wrong. Bracia isn’t the name of a type of Celtic beer.

There is a word, bracis, which was known from Pliny’s Natural History, written around AD 77, and which he says is the Gallic name for a “ genus farris“, or type of grain.

Thornbridge's Bracia

Thornbridge's Bracia

The word was largely unknown apart from that one reference until the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden writing boards dating to the last years of the first century and early years of the second century AD found at a Roman fort a few miles south of the later Hadrian’s Wall, close to the modern English/Scottish border.

These tablets reveal, among many other fascinating facts about the lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around AD 100-120 (such as they wore socks with their sandals – very British), that they were supplied with locally brewed beer, which was made from bracis.

Continue reading