Why Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin is a superstar in Poland

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. 'Opiłek' means 'metal chip'

Two of the more than 300 bronze dwarfs to be found on the streets of Wrocław. They commemorate the surrealist anti-Communist Orange Alternative protest movement of the 1980s, whose symbol was a dwarf, and which started in Wrocław. ‘Opiłek’ means ‘metal chip’

Wandering around the Festival of Good Beer outside the football stadium in Wrocław, southern Poland last weekend with the Welsh beer blogger Simon Martin, it was quickly clear I was in the presence of a genuine superstar. A stream of young Poles – mostly male, but including the occasional female – were rushing up to Simon, greeting him by name, shaking his hand warmly and asking if they could have their picture taken with him. During a break in the flood of fandom, Simon wryly told me that he wished he was half as famous back in the UK as he is in Poland. His YouTube video blog, Real Ale Craft Beer, has just under 10,000 subscribers and gets around a thousand views a day – respectable numbers. But while, clearly, many of those viewers come from the UK – after all, Simon is based in this country, and speaking in English – a surprising number come from Poland. The reason seems to be that in the past four years, Poles have developed a growing thirst for craft beer, and an equal thirst for information about the subject, and access to easily digested, enthusiastically delivered knowledge about new craft beers. That is what Simon’s beer-reviewing video website brings them, and they love it – and him.

Poland, you may be surprised to learn, is the third largest brewing nation in the EU, and looking to soon overtake the UK and move into second place. It produced around 40 million hectolitres in 2013, from 155 breweries, 96 litres per head per year, up 10.4% in four years, against 42 million hectolitres a year in the UK from 1,490 breweries, 66 litres per head per year, down 7.1% since 2009, and 94.3 million hectolitres a year in Germany, 107 litres per head per year, down 3.8% in four years, from 1,350 or so breweries.

From those figures you would be guessing that the Polish brewing scene is dominated by big concerns, and it is. SAB Miller has around 38% of the market through Kompania Piwowarska, including the Tyskie and Lech brands. Heineken has another 35% through Grupa Żywiec, and Carlsberg has 14% through its Polish subsidiary, which includes Okocim, leaving just 13% for the independent sector. But that independent sector is thriving: Tomasz Kopyra, the Polish beer blogger who invited me to the Wrocław festival (and who is even more of a superstar among Polish craft beer fans than Simon Martin – Tomasz has 50,000 followers on his own video beer blog and could not walk two yards across the festival grounds without being mobbed by people wanting selfies with him) told me that there were 500 new beers launched on the Polish market last year, a number that will certainly be exceeded by a considerable margin in 2015, when 100 new beers were launched in April this year alone.

Poland now has some 30 newly built craft breweries, and around 30 or 40 other craft brewer concerns contract-brewing their beers on the plant of older-established businesses. The beers they are brewing, just like the beers made by craft brewers elsewhere, largely reflect what is happening in the United States, with big, hugely hoppy IPAs and thumping stouts (though Poland has had a long tradition of very strong porters dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, when London brewers such as Barclay Perkins exported porter and stout to the Baltic region and local brewers were forced to compete with their own versions).

Atak Chmielu

Atak Chmielu, the most influential beer in Poland’s craft brewing scene, and another brew in the Pinta line-up, a ‘rice IPA’

However, the Polish market for really hoppy beers only started in 2011, when a couple of home-brewers, Ziemowit Fałat and Grzegorz Zwierzyna, upgraded from running a home-brew supplies shop, started a concern called Pinta and launched a commercial brew called Atak Chmielu – “Hop Attack” – with 58 IBUs and 6.1% abv. It was the first commercial beer in Poland made with American hops (Citra, Simcoe, Cascade and Amarillo, since you ask) and it absolutely revolutionised the Polish craft beer market, stunning drinkers with its flavours the way Sierra Nevada Pale Ale once did British beer drinkers, spurring all the other craft brewers in Poland to produce their own American IPAs.

Pinta is a contract brewery, its beers made at Browar na Jurze (“the Jura brewery”, based near the Polish Jura) in Zawiercie, to the east of Wrocław, itself founded only in 1997. Tomasz Kopyra told me that the success of contract brewers making more “modern” brews has persuaded the old-school brewers whose kit they use to start brewing their own craft-style beers, instead of continuing solely to imitate the bland euro-lagers made by the multinational concerns that dominate Poland’s beer scene. Ironically – some might say inevitably – Atak Chiemlu is regarded today by many Polish craft beer drinkers as not hoppy enough any more, with accusations that as it has grown more popular, so its quality has, allegedly, declined, though I found it a fine beer, darker than American IPAs normally are, with deep and mellow fruit flavours and not (comparatively) overly assertive.

Pinta, which also now has its own bar, in Krakow, called Viva La Pinta. makes a large range of beers – more than 30 in the past four years, including several “collaboration” brews, one with Simon Martin, named Call Me Simon (you can see him making the latest version here) and one with O’Hara’s in Carlow, Ireland, with the pleasing name Lublin to Dublin. This is a “robust milk stout” made with the two most popular Polish hop varieties, Marynka and Lubelski, the latter named for Lublin, the city in Eastern Poland that is the centre for Polish hop growing. It comes with lovely chocolatey aromas and flavours, and at 6+ per cent abv, makes Mackeson look like an eight-stone weakling.

The Wrocław Festival of Good Beer – “Festiwal Dobrego Piwa” – attracts around 60 or so brewers, mostly from Poland, though a few are from Germany, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, including one, as we shall see, from England. They occupy open-air stalls in the huge space outside Wrocław’s football stadium, on the edge of town, which was built for the 2012 European football championships, and more often than not the brewers themselves are on the stalls, pouring their beers: why British brewers rarely seem to do this, I don’t know. Food is provided by a dozen or more stalls and trucks offering everything from burgers to traditional Polish szaszłyk (kebabs) to herring and carp to huge open-faced sandwiches, and it’s extremely good: vastly, vastly better than the “there to soak up the beer” stodge you’ll be offered at the average Camra festival. The  Wrocław festival also attracts a vastly more varied crowd than you’ll see at a British beerfest, with Poles of all ages, including some with very young children, along to see what is happening.

One of the food stalls at the festival: 'Pajda chleba' means 'chunk of bread'

One of the food stalls at the festival: ‘Pajda chleba’ means ‘chunk of bread’

I arrived at the festival about noon on the Friday, and Tomasz very kindly whipped me round the breweries, in his opinion, that should not be missed. Doctor Brew, like Pinta, is a contract operation started by experienced home brewers, Marcin Olszewski and Łukasz Lis, who are based in Wrocław, though their beers are made by Browar Bartek in the village of Cieśle, about 20 miles east, a small brewery that opened in 1992. Doctor Brew began in 2013, which makes it positively ancient in Polish craft beer terms, and like almost all the brewers I tried in Poland, its beers are exceedingly well-crafted and very worth drinking. The Kinky Ale, for example, is made with Equinox, the latest hot American hop, which was released to huge excitement last year, and the beer was filled with deep orangey flavours. As well as a line-up of keg brews on its stall, Doctor Brew also had two Jack Daniels barrel-aged beers, still in their barrels, one a barley wine made with American hops at 10.5% abv, which had spent three months conditioning in the brewery and then four months in the barrel, and the other a Russian Imperial stout. Each was tapped for the first time at the festival – “it was a scary moment,” Łukasz Lis admitted. But for a first attempt at barrel ageing, each was remarkably fine, with huge amounts of coconut and vanilla from the oak and considerable remaining sweetness making for dangeriously drinkable beers.

Jarek Domagalski of Browar Nepomucen

Jacek Domagalski of Browar Nepomucen

Next up was a brewery only two months old, Browar Nepomucen, which had been built from scratch in a former bakery in the village of Szkaradowo, just over 30 miles north of Wrocław, by home brewer Jacek Domagalski and the brothers Piotr and Mariusz Musielakówie. Jacek had been a home brewer for eight years, and again this experience has translated with impressive ease into a professional set-up. As well as the usual line-up of beers, Nepomucen (named after a local saint, Jacek told me) brews its own version of the newly revived Polish smoked wheat beer style Grodziskie – Grodzisk Wielkopolski, the town where the style originated, is about 50 miles north of Szkaradowo (and about 80 miles from Wrocław). Nepomucen’s Grodziskie is made from smoked barley malt, smoked wheat malt, and Saaz and East Kent Goldings hops, to a strength of 3.9%, and as my first introduction to the style I thought it very fine.

A genuine Grodziski from Grodzisk

A genuine Grodziski from Grodzisk

Soon after I was drinking my second example of a Grodziskie, this one from Grodzisk itself, made from 100% smoked wheat malt, 3.1%, beautifully drinkable, not over-smoky, brewed by a man with the excellent name of Aleksander Chmielewski (chmiel is the Polish for ‘hops’) and his colleagues at the Browar w Grodzisku Wielkopolskim and served in a lovely old-skool Grodziskie glass, which is also embossed on the bottle. Although Grodziskie is an ancient style, this was from an even younger brewery than Nepomucen. Albeit a revival in original brewery buildings, using the original recipe and the original malt, the first “genuine” Grodziskie for 22 years only hit the bartops this month. The brewery is also making three other beers, including a very fine redcurrant-flavoured one and a stronger, more smokey, leathery Bernardyńskie, named for a 16th century saintly monk who allegedly blessed a dry well in Grodziskie that then began flowing again, supplying water for the brewery..

Other beers I noted:

● A double oatmeal stout, aged in Jack Daniels oak barrels again, but only for a few weeks, from the Artezan brewery in Błonie, near Warsaw (and nearer the other Grodzisk, Grodzisk Mazowiecki). This was the first “purpose-built” craft brewery in Poland, as opposed to contract craft brewing set-up, opening in June 2011. The oak had supplied vanilla again, but dialled down compared to Doctor Brew’s beer, with coffee, a touch of chocolate and just a sniff of sourness.

● Hard Bass Stout from the Fine Tuned Brewery in England. Pawel Kubinski, the Polish head brewer at Glastonbury Ales in Somerton, Somerset also produces beers as Fine Tuned, and was in Wrocław to promote his English-brewed beers to fellow Polish drinkers. This is a good 6% abv stout, hopped with British and American hops – Challenger, Northern Brewer, Chinook, Cascade, Fuggles and Citra – and alarmingly smooth, with a nice, slightly liquorish-ish, follow-through, possibly from the rye that is one of the seven grains used. Once again, dangerously drinkable

Michał Saks of AleBrowar

Michał Saks of AleBrowar

Two of AleBrowar's striking bottles

Two of AleBrowar’s striking bottles

 Rowing Jack from AleBrowar, another contract-brew collaboration by three home-brewers, led by Michał Saks, in 2012 and using the Gościszewo brewery in the village of the same name in Pomerania, northern Poland, 30 miles from Gdańsk. Many of Poland’s craft brewers have clearly grasped the importance of stylish branding, and AleBrowar’s bottle labels are among the best: individualistic and striking. (The name, incidentally, appears to be a bilingual pun: “ale”, pronounced “ALay”, means “but” or “however” in Polish, and certainly Poles pronounce the name of the operation as “ALayBROOar” rather than “ail-brooar”.)

● A minty wheat beer from Browar Trójmiejski Lubrow in Gdańsk called Kolender z Miętolina, “coriander and mint”, 4.2% abv. This could easily have failed as a product, especially for me, as I’m not fond of mint flavours generally, but it works very well – I really wanted some mint ice-cream with it …

While the Polish craft beer scene is still tiny – Tomasz estimated craft beer sales at only around 1% of total beer sales in the country – it seems clear craft beer will get bigger, with a rush of new brewers into the market, while the rise in the number of beers is being matched by the rise in the number of what in Poland are called “multitaps” [sic], craft beer bars. Thanks to Tomasz, I got to see three new small breweries in and around Wrocław last Saturday morning. One, Widawa, in a restaurant in a small village 20 minutes outside Wrocław, was opened in March 2012, but of the other two, one, Browar Stu Mostów, started only last November, and the other, Browar Profesja, opened its doors just two months ago.

Inside the Widawa restaurant brewery in Chrząstawie Małej – a small village outside Wrocław that Google Translate suggests would be called 'Little Horseradish Pond' in English. On the left is the combined mash tun and copper, on the right the lauter tun.

Inside the Widawa restaurant brewery in Chrząstawie Małej.  On the left is the combined mash tun and copper, on the right the lauter tun.

All are already producing excellent, impressive beers. The Widawa brewery, in Chrząstawa Mała (which means “Little Horseradish Pond”, unless Google Translate is lying to me), is run by Wojciech Frączyk, who installed the beautiful copper-coloured brewing kit, plus conditioning vessels, all made by Kaspar Schulz of Bamberg, Germany, at the family restaurant two years ago. The kit being designed for a small version of your standard continental brewing operation, the vessels are a combined mash-tun and brew kettle “heater/boiler”, and a lauter tun – so mash in the heater/boiler, everything into the lauter tun for separation of grains from wort, and back into the heater/boiler for boiling with hops. It was only brewing a standard line-up of beers – pils, hefeweizen – when Tomasz Kopyra turned up on the doorstep to find out what was happening. Tomasz quickly told Frączyk his beers were boring, and persuaded him to brew a stout. Since then the pair have brewed an extensive range of beers, including a coffee pale ale, a wood-aged IPA and a milk stout.

Michał Gref in the brewhouse at Browar Profesja

Michał Gref in the brewhouse at Browar Profesja

The kit at Profesja in Wrocław, which must be the only brewery based in a former Nazi parachute factory (for the high ceilings) was made and put together by the founder, Michał Gref, and his head brewer, Przemysław Leszczyński, simply because they couldn’t afford to pay large sums to buy ready-fabricated vessels. “Profesja” means “occupation” or “profession”, and the brewery’s bottle labels and beer tap handles all show a dwarf who is following an occupation linked to the name of the beer: Bursztynnik, for example, an amber ale, from the Polish for “amber”, bursztyn, shows a long-bearded amber jeweller holding a fishing net to haul the amber from the Baltic, where it floated onto the shore. (Dwarfs are one of the symbols of Wrocław, from the Orange Alternative, an underground protest movement which started in the city during Communist times in the 1980s, and which sprayed pictures of dwarfs on walls where the authorities had covered up anti-government slogans. On one occasion ten thousand people marched through the centre of Wrocław wearing orange dwarf hats. Now, in commemoration of the Orange Alternative, there are large numbers of small bronze statues of dwarfs found around Wrocław.)

Przemysław Leszczyński and Michał Gref of Browar Profesja

Przemysław Leszczyński and Michał Gref of Browar Profesja

Bursztynnik is hopped with Willamette hops and bittered with Hallertau. Alchemist, a “Brettanomyces IPA”, which has a drawing of a mad-looking dwarf chemist on the bottle labels, is made with Brettanomyces bruxellensi trois, a comparatively mild variety of Brett, fermented very warm, at around 28C/82F, hopped in the kettle with Chinook, Cascade, Galaxy and Saphir and dry-hopped with Citra. It’s the best all-Brett beer I’ve had, with just a touch of “cheesy feet” to give it a character apart from the usual run of assertively hoppy American IPAs. Michał Gref says Profesja “could have brewed for the geeks, but we’re brewing for the people.” Przemysław Leszczyński appears to find this a little frustrating: we found him later competing in the homebrewing contest that is also part of the Wrocław beer festival with brews he admits are too far out for his colleagues at Profesja ever to agree to brew commercially.

Part of the very impressive set-up at Browar Stu Mostów, where a balcony bar looks down on the brewing area. That's the mash tun on the right, if my translation of 'kocioł zacierno warzelny' is correct.

Part of the very impressive set-up at Browar Stu Mostów, where a balcony bar looks down on the brewing area. That’s the mash tun on the right, if my translation of ‘kocioł zacierno warzelny’ is correct.

In complete contrast to Profesja, Stu Mostów (which means “hundred bridges” – Wrocław sits on the Oder, and the river’s braidings and channels mean there are indeed around a hundred bridges in the city) was founded by a former banker, Gregorz Ziemian, with backing from ex-banking colleagues, and has a beautiful new 20-hectolitre set-up from the German company BrauKon, erected in a former cinema (high ceilings again) which looks as if it cost a very great deal of money. It only opened in November last year, but again the beers, which include, for example, a chocolate mint FES, are all impeccable. It has three separate brands, WRCLW for “more traditional styles”, Salamander for “new wave” brews, and Art for “collaboration brews” and the like. It has a bar on a mezzanine floor inside the brewery, looking down on the brewkit, which is doing well enough that Ziemian wants to expand by putting a beer garden on the roof of the building.

David Twigg, of Kraców via Cambridge, and Paulina Golec of Browar Twigg

David Twigg, of Kraców via Cambridge, and Paulina Golec of Browar Twigg

Perhaps the most surprising brewery I came across, though, was Browar Twigg, from Kraców, which occupied one of the 50 or so stalls at the Wrocław beer festival. If that name doesn’t look Polish, it’s not – Browar Twigg was founded by David Twigg, from Lincolnshire via Cambridge, where he gained a Phd in particle physics (yet another craft brewer with a Phd), practised his home-brewing skills, met an attractive young Polish woman called Paulina Golec, and came out to Poland 18 months ago with Paulina to open a craft brewery. Social media has been very important in promoting the growth of his brewery, David told me – not for the usual reasons, but because Poles found the “twi” sound in Twigg as hard to pronounce as English speakers find “szczy”, until the rise of Twitter, when suddenly they got it. The brewery, the only one now in Kraków itself, is based in part of an old steel works. The kit, from Dave Porter’s PBC in Bury, near Manchester, is 25 hectolitres and many of the beers have “astrophysicy” names, such as Dark Matter, a black IPA, and White Dwarf. “The start was quite hard, but now it’s starting to gain momentum. Poland is in the middle of a beer revolution, people are wanting American-style beers, and I think the market is going to go the way of craft beer in the Western world,” David told me.

Wrocław, pronounced, very approximately, “Vrotswaf”, and around 740 miles almost exactly due east of London, is a very attractive old city in its own right, with some fine medieval buildings (or reconstriucted medieval buildings) to admire and a fascinating history: the city is known to German-speakers as Breslau, it was the biggest settlement in ancient Silesia, and its ruler changed repeatedly: Bohemia around 1000AD, then Poland, Bohemia again in the 14th century, the Hapsburgs of Austria in 1526, and Prussia in 1742. It remained ruled from Berlin for more than 200 years, as Prussia grew into the German Empire and Germany eventually mutated into the Third Reich. But in 1945 Silesia became Polish again, as Stalin shoved post-war Poland violently west, annexing much of the country’s eastern side to the Soviet Union. German speakers fled, and Wrocław and its surroundings were repopulated largely by Poles displaced from what had now become parts of Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania. Wrocław is due to be the European City of Culture next year, and its Festival of Good Beer, the biggest in Poland, will be in its seventh year – and doubtless bigger than ever. It will be well worth a visit.

The Old Town Hall Wrocław

The Old Town Hall in Wrocław, Poland’s fourth largest city

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 earlier 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

Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting

Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.

Unexpected free beer and other adventures

The occasional free beer is, of course, one of the benefits of writing a blog about hopped alcoholic refreshment: but it doesn’t usually come to me via random interactions in the road.

Strictly, I wasn’t actually on the public highway. I was standing in what used to be Black Eagle Street, a turning off Brick Lane, in the heart of what is now Banglatown in the East End of London. Black Eagle Street was swallowed by the expansion of Truman’s brewery, at one time London’s biggest brewer, which closed more than 20 years ago. It is, now, since the old brewery site began to be converted into (quote) “East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter”, a slightly scruffy pathway lined with slightly scruffy food outlets, bars, art galleries and the like.

I had just come out of one of those bars, where, in an attempted homage to the brewery’s past, I had drunk an Anchor porter from San Francisco. Anchor porter, inspired, ultimately, by the original 18th century beer style that made Trumans famous, was introduced in 1972 – the year after Trumans lost its independence at the end of a ferocious takeover fight.

Hobsons at Trumans

Alice Churchward, left, and Laure Roux of Hobsons brewery, parked up in the Dray Walk at the former Trumans Brewery off Brick Lane

While pondering that, and other ironies, I spotted a van in the impossible-to-miss livery of Hobsons Brewery, from Cleobury Mortimer, a tiny town on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border some 120 miles from the East End, parked 20 feet away.

Fortunately the two young women with the van were not put off by a grey-bearded loony in a blue hoodie approaching, claiming to be a beer blogger, and demanding to know what they were about. Seems that Hobsons, undeterred by the boom in London’s own brewing scene, has decided there is an opportunity for a brewery whose logo is a bowler hat to sell its beers in the capital. The van, as well as dropping off casks to pubs, was delivering mild ale for the guests at a preview show for an exhibition due to take place at one of the art galleries on the Trumans site.

They, in turn, wanted to know if I knew Hobsons (answer: heard of, never drunk) and would I like to try some, they happened to have a few bottles in the van? There’s probably a bye-law somewhere in the constitution of the International Beerbloggers’ Union that says you’re never allowed to turn down unsolicited free beer. So entirely unexpectedly, thanks to Alice Churchward of Hobsons and her companion Laure Roux, I left the former Truman’s porter brewery with a bottle of British-brewed porter, Hobson’s Postman’s Knock (and also a bottle of Hobson’s Manor Ale). Thank you very much, Alice – tried the Postman’s Knock, a fine medium-strength easy-drinking porter that would be an excellent match, I suggest, with Shropshire Blue cheese.

That very pleasant surprise made up for the unpleasant surprise three minutes later when I turned out of the top of Brick Lane, crossed the road, and discovered that Mason & Taylor, recommended as “one of London’s most ambitious new beer bars” by people I respect, doesn’t open until 5pm. I’m sure the people running the bar have what they believe to be excellent operational reasons for being shut at lunchtimes and in the afternoon, but frankly, I don’t care. If you’re not open to serve me at what I regard as a perfectly reasonable hour to be served, you’re not doing a good enough job.

Instead I went to the Water Poet nearby in Folgate Street. It may be almost a parody of the trendy Spitalfields bar – the wacky artwork on the walls, the second-hand leather sofas with the stuffing bulging out and the faux-ironic Scotch eggs on the menu (I don’t recall spotting any dimpled beermugs, but most other boxes were ticked). However, the Water Poet did manage to serve me a very pleasant pint of Truman’s Runner (from the people who revived the Truman’s name in 2010) at 3.15 in the afternoon, which is very considerably better than bleedin’ Mason & Taylor managed.

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An 1875 Arctic Ale tasting

Legendary: it’s an overused word. But some beers literally are legendary, in the sense that far more people will have heard of them than will ever see them or taste them.

1875 reputed quart AAA bottle

Reputed quart bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale with date ‘1875’ painted in punt

One indisputably legendary beer is Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, the powerful, rich Burton Ale, original gravity 1130, north of 11 per cent alcohol, brewed in Victorian times specifically for expeditions to the Arctic Circle by British explorers. There are a very few bottles left of the Arctic Ale brewed for the expedition under Sir George Nares which set out in 1875 to reach the North Pole. And this week I drank some.

I can’t think of superlatives high enough to describe how thrilled, privileged, lucky, honoured I felt to get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try a beer 137 years old, with so much history behind it. This is exactly the same beer the Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard drank when he visited Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent in 1890. Subsequently Barnard wrote the experience up in his chapter on Allsopp’s in Noted Breweries of Great Britain. How often do you get to compare someone’s 122-year-old tasting notes with your own experience?

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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