Michael Jackson and the invention of beer style

British Guild of Beer Writers trip to West Flanders 1988, Poperinge Hop Museum (for key, see below – click to enlarge)

How long have we been talking about styles of beer? Fewer years than you might think. In the firestorm set off around the beer blogging world by the zythographers’ union‘s recent seminar on the subject of beer styles (see, for example, here and here and here, and also here and here, and here as well) one perhaps important point seems to be missing. The expression “beer style” is entirely an invention of the late Michael Jackson, it’s barely 30 years old, and it’s only been “mainstream”, in the sense that “everybody” uses it when talking about beer, for a couple of decades.

I was invited to be one of the speakers at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ “beer styles” seminar in the Old Brewery at Greenwich, but to my deep regret I couldn’t make it. However, here’s a little taste of what I would have said had I been there, based on the research I did for the forthcoming Brewery History Society magazine “Michael Jackson” special edition.

The perhaps remarkable thing is that before Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer in 1977, nobody used the expression “beer style” at all. I searched through books on beer from the 1830s to the mid-1970s, and they talked about “divisions”, “species”, “kinds”, “varieties”, “types”, “classes” and “families” of beer, but never “styles”.

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The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

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Lager: the truth (or some of it)

A flyer for Allsopp's lager

A flyer for Allsopp's lager

If not actually unique (always a dangerous claim to make), it was certainly a very rare sight in the cellar bar at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday: four draught lagers on tap from four different British craft brewers, Meantime in Greenwich (its smoked bock); the Cotswold Brewing Company; Taddington, a new Derbyshire brewery, with Moravka; and Harviestoun (Schiehallion), and no draught ale at all. Thornbridge Hall, of course, has its own brewery, and it was also where the British Guild of Beer Writers held a successful seminar on wood-aged beers last year This year it was the first seminar on lager ever organised by the guild in its 20 years of existence (a shameful omission considering lager is the beer of choice for 70 per cent or more of British beer drinkers now) and prompted by the fact that, thanks to people like Alastair Hook at Meantime and Richard Keene of Cotswold, Britons generally are starting to realise there is more to lager than being fizzy, yellow and cold.

British beer writers, naturally, would like to claim that we knew that already. But even so there has been the unspoken feeling, I suspect, that lager was something they did “over there” (points across English Channel, North Sea and Atlantic) and we didn’t have to concern ourselves with it except when we went “over there” ourselves, where we could be free to pontificate about lagering periods and decoction mashing.

There was also, as Roger Protz, who was the first speaker at Monday’s seminar, made a point of saying, a misunderstanding among British beer writers for a long time that lager was a “new” beer, invented in the 19th century, “a modern style made possible by the new technologies of the industrial revolution.” In fact, as Roger illustrated, cold storing of beer was being practised in places such as Bamberg in the 14th century, and may well go back to the 11th century at Weihenstephan, near Munich. The documentary evidence for the depth of history behind cold-brewed lager beer, of course, has just been given firm scientific support by genetic studies of lager yeast that show it developed several hundred years ago, almost certainly in Bavaria.

Paul Buttrick, a former brewer with Whitbread, revealed that even Stella Artois used to receive a respectable 42 days’ lagering, against the seven to 11 days the beer receives today. Blame the accountants? However, if building a 300,000-barrel brewery costs £6 million for 40 lagering tanks in which the beer will be stored for two weeks, but £36 million for 240 tanks in which the beer could be stored for 12 weeks, and you can’t show a 12-week lagering period produces a beer so much better than a two-week lagering period that you could charge an appropriate premium to cover your costs, then you’ve got to give the accountants some sympathy.

At the same time, Paul said, technological advances have meant better handling for beer, giving greatly reduced oxygen levels in the final packaged product, so that a beer will remain fresh for three to four months after packaging, against the two to three weeks of 50 years ago. So “lager beer is certainly higher quality today – but does it taste better?”

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The sixth-best beer writer in Britain …

Big cheers to Alastair Gilmour, who has now pulled off the unique feat of winning four Beer Writer of the Year gold tankards at the Zythographers’ Union annual awards bash in London – nice man, fine writer.

This does mean, however, that the UK’s top beer writing trophy has been won by only 10 different people in its 20 years of existence, with just three – Alastair (four times), the late and much missed Michael Jackson (three times) and Roger Protz (three times) – sharing half the gold tankards between them.

Indeed, while nearly 70 different people have won awards at the BWOTY bashes over the two decades since it started, the table below (based on five points for being BWOTY, three for a silver/category winner, one for a runner up and two points for the Budvar trophy) shows how much the big guns have dominated.

Alastair’s two gold tankard wins in the past three years have catapulted him out of the pack and in sight of the leaders, but Protzie and Jacko are still comfortably in front and uncatchable for at least a couple of years, given that, as this year’s gold tankard winner, Alastair will be chairing the judges for 2008′s awards and thus ineligible to enter.

BWOTY league table 1988-2007

1 Michael Jackson 29 points
2 Roger Protz 27 points
3 Alastair Gilmour 23 points
4 Allan McLean 16 points
5 Brian Glover 15 points
6= Martyn Cornell 10 points
6= Andrew Jefford 10 points
6= Ben McFarland 10 points
6= Barrie Pepper 10 points
10= Arthur Taylor 8 points
10= Jeff Evans 8 points

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The woodbegoods

There’s an odd feeling, like you’re doing something slightly illegal, when drinking and discussion beers that would have been poured down the drain by every generation of brewers before this one for being irredeemably faulty. But 21st century brewmasters have discovered the flavour found in wood, and declared it good.

Unlike wine-makers, especially many white wine makers, and distillers, especially whisk(e)y distillers, brewers who have used wooden fermenting vessels and wooden casks always made it an axiom not to have any influence from the wood apparent in their beers. Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

Oak for casks, vats and brewing vessels was sourced from places such as Russia and Poland that were known for growing wood that would not impart any flavours to the beer. Casks were lined with “brewer’s pitch”, vats were scrubbed down so that when stock ales, porters and stouts were being matured in them, no tang of the timber would come through into the beer. Once fermenting vessels began being lined with metal, and steel and aluminium casks came in, wood flavours disappeared as a worry.

The introduction of wood flavours as a desirable characteristic, in the UK at least, was a serendipitous discovery springing from the wish of the Scotch whisky distiller William Grant in 2002 to add to its range of “cask reserve” whiskies, all finished off in casks that had previously held other alcoholic drinks, such as sherry or rum. Grant’s wanted a beer to fill casks with and enable it to make “ale cask reserve” whisky once the beer had been emptied out.

Dougal Sharp, then of the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, designed a malty, estery, sweet, not very hoppy beer he and Grant’s felt would give the casks a good foundation for maturing whisky in. The beer was aways meant to be thrown away once it had been in the casks long enough to impart flavour to the wood that could be absorbed subsequently by the whisky. But workers at Grant’s distillery sampled the beer, and liked the oaky, vanilla flavours it had picked up from the new wood so much that instead of disposing of it they started taking it home …

Intrigued, Sharp tried putting the beer into a blind tasting at the brewery, where it scored a consistent nine out of nine with the tasters. The “tweaked” version of their original brew for Grant’s that Dougal and his father Russell launched in 2003 as Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer has been so successful subsequently it has effectively launched a completely new category in the UK marketplace – wood-aged beer.

Which is why I was at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday for the Zythographers’ Union’s latest seminar, tasting different styles of beers aged in different ways in different types of cask, and listening to Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery, John Keeling of Fuller’s in London and Dougal Sharp himself talk about their wood-aged beer experiments and experiences.

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