An evening with Eric Toft, Reinheitsgebot iconoclast

Rod Jones and Eric Toft

Rod Jones, left, and Eric Toft at the Old Brewery, Greenwich

Eric Toft – middle-aged, handsome, seldom seen out of lederhosen despite being born in the United States, passionate about beer in all its varieties – is an American with a mission: to drag German brewing kicking and screaming out of the 16th century.

After a career that would be the envy of – well, me, certainly – Toft is currently brewmaster at the 232-year-old Schönram brewery in rural Bavaria, just a few miles from the border with Austria.

There he produces the usual run of beers you would expect from a rural Bavarian brewery run by the eighth generation of the same family: a Pils, a Hell, a Weissbier, a Dunkel. Alongside that, however, Toft, the first and currently the only American to run a Bavarian brewery, also makes beers in styles you might fear a rural Bavarian beer drinker would never even have heard of: an IPA, an imperial stout, a porter, even a Belgian pale ale.

The idea, Toft says, is to show that the Reinheitsgebot, or “purity law”, firmly limiting the ingredients that go into beer, to which all Schönram’s output sticks as strictly as any German brewery, need not be a straitjacket forcing brewers into making bland clone-beers.

His motto is “Reinheitsgebot, not Einheitsgebot”, which doesn’t sound quite as good translated into English, “purity decree, not sameness decree”, but the message still comes across. “The Reinheitsgebot should be an inspiration and a motivation to creativity,” Toft says. “It’s blamed for making German beers bland. But the main reason for blandness is that the purchasing of raw materials has been taken out of the hands of brewers and given to the accountants.”

I met Toft this week because he was the speaker at the latest of the regular beer and food matching evenings at Meantime’s Old Brewery on the Royal Naval Hospital site in Greenwich, and Rod Jones of Meantime had been kind enough to ask me along as a guest. It was fascinating listening to Toft describe his career: he was born in Colorado and studied at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, which is next door to Coors’ brewery. That proximity helped Toft become interested in home-brewing, and after graduating he decided he was much more keen on a career making beer than spending years in, eg, Saudi Arabia prospecting for oil.

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What it means now it’s Miller Time at Meantime

Alastair Hook, left, and Nick Miller

The news that Meantime Brewing Company has appointed Nick Miller, former managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, as its new chief executive is the most significant event in the UK brewing industry this year.

(Incidentally, I love the iconography of the photo of Nick and Alastair Hook, Meantime’s founder and brewmaster: “We’re not suits, but we’re still serious working dudes who love beer …”)

Don’t, please, lazily assume this means SAB Miller will be acquiring Meantime, the way Molson Coors bought Sharp’s back in February. Meantime is a company with ambitions: it has already announced that it wants to increase production fourfold at its new brewery in Greenwich, south-east London from 25,000 hectolitres a year to 100,000hl in the next five years – that’s a little over 60,000 barrels a year, UK, for the non-metric, about as much as a medium-sized family brewer such as Hall and Woodhouse produces.

If you brew it, they won’t necessarily come, though: hence the appointment of Mr Miller. He is, as far as I can find out, the first real sales and marketing heavyweight ever to join a UK craft brewer. He had 20 years of experience in sales, strategic projects and marketing with Coors UK (formerly Bass), where he was director of sales, before he joined Miller Brands as sales director in 2005. His new employer boasted then that Miller had “a history of consistently delivering improved customer relations, sales and profit”, and he rose to be MD at Miller Brands in 2008.

He certainly seems to know how to sell beer, even in a recession. For example, Miller Brands saw UK sales of Peroni rise 29 per cent in the 12 months to the end of April, 2010. And if you think: “Peroni – pfff”, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that UK sales of the Italian lager are equal to more than 300,000 barrels a year, about as much as Fuller, Smith & Turner’s entire output. It’s the number one “world beer” brand in the UK on-trade and number two in the off-trade.

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London: from brewing hero to practically zero

Those few of you who caught my 15 seconds of fame tonight on the London ITN regional television news, talking about the announcement that AB InBev is going to close the Mortlake brewery, I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t the Thames at Mortlake behind me. It was actually about nine miles down river at Wapping, which is where I was when ITN got hold of me and asked if I’d be interviewed about the history of the brewery.

I was still within a short distance of two once-huge London breweries, though, Courage, hard by Tower Bridge, closed 1981, and Hoare’s, between Wapping and St Katharine’s Docks, which had been one of the “Big Twelve” London porter brewers, and which shut in 1934. Hoare’s has, effectively, vanished: Courage’s brewery still stands, a monument to London’s former position as one of the great brewing cities; probably, in the 19th century, the greatest brewing city in the world, which was the point I was trying to make to the ITN man.

The closure of Mortlake means the disappearance of the last big brewery left in London. In 1971, the year Camra was founded, the capital boasted a still-magnificent line-up of well-established giant brewers: Whitbread, on the edge of the City, founded 1742; Truman’s, in Brick Lane, dating back to at least 1666; further out in the East End, Mann’s in the Whitechapel Road, built 1808, and their near-neighbours Charrington’s in the Mile End Road, first recorded in 1770. Courage was still brewing at Southwark after more than 180 years, Guinness, the newest big brewer to open in London, was producing a river of stout at its 35-year-old Park Royal brewery. Out in the suburbs to the East, Ind Coope was making beer at Romford, and Watney’s still had Mortlake, renamed the Stag brewery after the company’s original Stag brewery in Westminster, closed 1959.

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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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Legal smoking and drinking

What flavour did the first porters have? Empyreumatic, I reckon – a word you can easily work out the meaning of yourself (that “pyre” in the middle is the clue), which basically translates as “the taste or smell of something burnt”.

Henry Stopes, author of Malt and Malting, published in 1885, uses it in his description of the making of “brown, blown, snap or porter malt”, talking about how the porter malthouses of Bishop’s Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border, and elsewhere burnt faggots of beech-wood or oak under the wet malt to dry it, going slowly at first until almost all the moisture has been driven from the malt, then building up the fire so that the sudden violent heat makes the malt grains pop, growing 25 per cent in volume, and

the nature of the fuel employed communicates, very agreeably, the empyreumatic properties that distinguish this class of malt.”

In other words, it tasted burnt and, probably, smoky as well from the initial drying over wood at a lower heat.

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