Thursday 27 March 2014

By the long bar

In the summer the beer garden buzzes and the voices of hundreds of happy beer drinkers rise to the clouds as they have done (with the odd gap due to historical interruptions, for after all this is Berlin) since the middle of the 1800s (which apparently makes Prater Garten Berlin’s oldest beer garden). However, this is the end of February and I’m here inside the long bar, sitting on a stool, one of several that gather at the long bar, still and sentinel like in the way they place themselves here every day and night. The floor is wooden, the bar is wooden with a marble effect top; the tables are wooden, the kind of wood that’s in distress as soon as the day dawns and light strokes its surface (the wood ends halfway up the wall and there’s a sort of Dairylea yellow colour the rest of the way and across the ceiling). The windows are arched and mullioned and I also note a couple of stuffed birds, stranded in perpetuity in the corner of this long bar. Further on, to the left of the long bar, the room opens out, tables and chairs in rows, dotted with early diners, knives and forks handled, gliding through the still air, cutting, spreading, stabbing, lifting, the rough but strangely balletic poise of the motion of eating. And finally, my eyes rest on a small stage at the back of the larger room, presumably a respite for a musical interlude, dare I think brass and bratwurst and a Berliner’s burst of Oktoberfest? Or will it be Brecht?

Thoughts on the room gathered and garnished I turn to the beer in front of me on the long bar: it’s the Prater Pils that is brewed for the pub by Berliner Kindl Schultheiss Brauerei (in my ignorance I thought a brewery might be somewhere on the premises). Into the glass it goes, a pale golden yellow with a whipped egg white purity of a foam head; a delicate touch of a hand on the shoulder aroma of bready and warmed grain with a lemony sweetness in the background; meanwhile crisp carbonation, lemony bitterness and a dry finish sing their song on the palate. It’s an ample beer and just the job to satisfy a thirst that has grown and grown after an afternoon spent cycling along the route of the Wall.


Yes please.

This time I plump for the Schwarz, which is rye bread, liquorice, alcohol and cinnamon and then some treacle, molasses perhaps and a dry malt loaf finish, which to me suggests that I need to reinvestigate Schwarzbier as a style.

And in the meantime, footsteps sound on the wooden floor and the purr of voices changes to a swirl as more drinkers and diners enter, while outside on the Kastanienallee Berlin’s evening traffic passes on by as certain and as pertinent as the stream of history that Prater Garten has drifted along since the day it began.

What I saw on my bike ride

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Beer House Club

There’s a beer club having a meeting at the front of the bar here at Beer House Club in Florence. Tonight it’s stouts that are being discussed and tasted, which is just as well as there are several on the taps (dry, imperial, oatmeal). Outside in the streets of Florence I passed a couple of bars that were pledging their troth to St Patrick’s night, which in one instance meant green and white balloons around the entrance and in another the promise of green beer. Here however at the Beer House Club there’s a glass of their own brewed Imperial Stout in front of me, a deep dark mahogany beer with a fluting of cascade and roast on the nose and a rich fullness on the palate. Another glass appears with the same beer in it, though this one has had dried ginger added during the rest period of fermentation. It’s 12 months old by now I’m told, but its ginger character is mellow and herbal, a gratifying addition to the creamy and appetisingly dry finish. People still like their IPAs I am told by the guy behind the bar, but late at night, he continues, they turn to Weissbier, maybe, he continues to muse, it’s something to do with the brisk carbonation and the quenching nature of the beer that makes it so effective after a meal. There’s a fridge full of bottles to the left of the bar, with beers from all over the place. I spot Demon Hunter from Birra Montegioco, a beer that appears in 1001 Beers, but which I have yet to try. It’s 8.5%, has a firm foam, and a blast from its nose can only be considered as mocha with hops. Meanwhile, the beer club continues its discussion and outside in the streets of Florence St Patrick’s night takes a downwards curve and the green and white balloons move ever so slowly in the night air.  

Monday 17 March 2014

The Italian Job

This is what judging beer looked like in the Brewers Exhibition
back in 1937; the bowler hats are probably in the cloakroom
This is not true to style. Words I have never uttered before and as I said them I wanted to claw them back, vanquish and erase them, but it was too late they were out there (and inside my head a man carrying a notebook filled with the names of thousands of beers he’d drank and put into their appropriate styles hooked his thumbs into his Union Jack waistcoat and tipped his bowler hat at me with malicious glee). Thankfully no one else on the table took any notice of what I’d said. Why should they? The occasion, after all, was the judging at the Birra Dell’Anno in Rimini, where over 600 beers would be tasted, sipped and investigated over the course of two days by a jury of 40 plus judges from Italy and various parts of Europe. This was my second year of service and the event is one of the best competitions at which I judge during the year — it’s well run, it offers a chance to investigate what’s going on with Italian artisanal beers (no one said the word craft once as far as I can remember), there’s a good crowd of people, there are great beers and setting it in Rimini is a rather ingenious masterstroke — the Adriatic in early spring, plenty of sun and that bright and breezy sense of a seaside resort about to wake up from its winter hibernation.

However, there is a serious side to things. There are 26 categories of beers, including golden ales, IPAs (both English and American influenced), beers made with wine must, sour beers, a variety of Belgian, German and British influenced beers and the one beer style that is uniquely Italian chestnut beer (though it has to be said it’s not the most popular category). We received a press pack with a thorough dissection of what to expect from the variety of beers, the colours, the taste specs, the clarity (or not), the persistence of the foam and whether or not some diacetyl could be allowed. I’m relatively relaxed when it comes to style perimeters, but I found the existence of these rules intriguing and thought-provoking, it was a challenge to be faced, it made for stimulating conversation and it made me think about the beer I was dealing with.

The styles our table dealt with were golden ales, honey beers (a collective groan from the table when we saw this, though there was a stunning one made with chestnut honey), the final of Italian lagers, double IPAs (not as impressive as the ones I judged last year) and the final of Belgian-influenced dubbels. The latter was incredibly impressive and for once we didn’t discover any DMS, diacetyl or solvent notes. However, there were two beers we knocked out, which was when I held a light amber glass to the light, then sniffed the crystalline, slightly dessert wine nose that reminded me of a tripel and uttered the words: this is not to style.

So what I have learned about Italian beer? BrewFist’s Galaxy saison is a superb beer, but I couldn’t pick out any saison character (the Galaxy gives it a big fat character that for me swamps the pleasing austerity of saison); the same brewery’s Too Late double IPA is incredibly drinkable, even at 9.4% and HopFelia’s Foglie d’Erbe is a ringing, chiming assemblage of Northern Brewer, Tettang, Centennial, Citra and Amarillo that all comes together to form a bright, brilliant, zestful, cheerful IPA. I have learned that not all honey beers are bad; I have learned that some Italian brewers make what they call a double IPA but during brewing it seems that they get to the hop precipice, look over and turn back; I have learned that not all Italian beer people swoon over Le Baladin anymore; I have learned that there are some superb lagered beers being made (Bruton’s floral, crisp and bittersweet Eva for instance); and I have learned that dry-hopping roast potatoes is a brave and bold move but doesn’t necessarily work. After all, spuds and hops, er, this is not to style.

The results for the Birra Dell’Anno will be found here and if you go to Rimini then hang out in Catinetta and Fob, where an intriguing beer dinner included pig clouds (think massive pork scratchings), bone marrow with Westmalle bread, pork ribs cooked with bock and dry-hopped potatoes.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Why not a brewing day…

In the course of my research on the history of the International Brewing Awards I keep coming across comments from the brewing industry that could easily be said today; this one comes from late 1938, perhaps when a lot of people (not everyone) was breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of Munich and thinking that history would just go on as before.   

‘One thing, however, occurs to me about advertising: Do we as a trade use our own premises enough as an advertisement? My experience of the ordinary man and woman is that their knowledge of the actual process of brewing is nil, and this is often the cause of some of the ridiculous statements one hears made about beer and the brewing trade.

‘Continental breweries appear to make much more use of their premises in this way and I feel we might well copy them. Other trades, such as tobacco and chocolate makers, do a lot of it, but I do not believe that any of these processes is more interesting than the brewing of beer.

‘One has days for this and weeks for that. Why not a brewing day and get local maltsters or manufacturers of brewers’ requisites and materials to open their premises for inspection by the public on the same day as the brewery. It would all help to educate the younger generation and show what a pure and health giving drink a good glass of beer can be.’

Captain HD Wise, Chairman of the Allied Brewery Traders’ Association, Saturday, October 29, 1938, from the Brewing Trade Review, December 1938. 

Friday 7 March 2014

Brussels Beer Project

Delta force
The beer flows into the shapely glass, a long stemmed, full-bodied glass marked with a simple logo; the beer is golden-orange in colour, dulled and hazy, the sun seen through a layer of thin cloud; a tub-thumping, No 1, prop-forward meringue-white collar of foam squats on top of the beer, while down below minuscule chains of bubbles rise upwards, seeking to escape the beer; bubbles giving up their existence to anchor the beer’s effervescence onto the drinker’s tongue, talking of which there’s a rugged and robust spray of passion fruit and pineapple on the palate, with a dry and voluptuous finish and a scattering of bitterness, as if a palm full of coins were thrown onto a table (with less contempt of course). This is not an easy beer (it’s a Belgian IPA with saison yeast for Odin’s sake), it’s complicated and constant in the demand it makes on the palate but I discover that continued study of it makes me very happy.

The name of the beer is Delta and it’s a beer I tasted yesterday in Brussels, in the company of Sébastien Morvan, co-founder of the Brussels Beer Project, which at the moment is having its beers brewed by BrouwerijAnders (there are plans for a physical brewery next year, which will only be the third brewery in Brussels). So what you might ask, another gypsy brewer, another cuckoo in the nest, another contract brewery, but there’s something different about the BBP (nice logo by the way). Morvan and old friend Olivier de Brauwere started out last summer and went straight for the crowd funding model, using Facebook to raise funds and gather support (there is also an element of regional funding). There’s been a minimum of PR and a flutter of social media but from the brief time I spent with Morvan it seems that the idea (as well as the beer) has captured the imagination of Brussels’ beer people.

Sébastien Morvan gets the beers in 
‘We told people that for 140 euros they would get 12 beers every year for life,’ says Morvan, ‘and when we posted this we got 369 people signing up instead of the 200 that was our objective.’ As well as this, there is also regional funding and the guys have become celebrities (of sorts) with their own radio show, while the Belgian monarch Albert II was presented with a specially designed beer. There’s even been a collaboration brew with Quebec-based Du Lac St Jean, which resulted in an Imperial Chocolate Porter.

If this sounds slightly corporate or beer made with a branding market in mind, then time spent with Morvan will soon disabuse this. ‘We are funky, cosmopolitan Brussels, we are not the Brussels of the Grand Place,’ he says; the use of the word funky being literal as he has plans to produce a Berliner Weiss with added Brett. ‘We are very interested in using acidity in our beers, obviously in the right way.’ All this is said quietly and confidently and you get a sense of the patience and — dare it be said — passion that drives the BBP.

‘You cannot discount tradition,’ he continues, ‘and we also look around the world for ideas.’ Which is perhaps why Delta has Citra (plus the Bavarian variety Smaragd, formerly known as Emerald), but there’s an added story here. Part of the BBP’s brief is incredibly democratic: they brew four prototype beers and then ask people to decide which one will become a regular. At their first tasting 850 people turned up and 66% chose the Delta as the favourite. That’s it. The other three beers are not brewed again, while Delta is now a regular. At the time of our conversation, Sébastien was toying with the idea of the next quartet of beers for consideration, including the aforementioned Berliner Weiss.

Now this is how to get information
out to the drinker
I try another beer, which didn’t get through the preliminary rounds of the BBP’s voting: this is Dark Sister, a black IPA the colour of dark, stained mahogany — it has an oily texture, through which restrained bitter chocolate, grapefruit and orange notes flow; it’s also earthy and elemental without smelling of the dung heap while the finish is grainy and dry with a short scattergun of sweetness.

This is post modernist brewing, a journey undertaken without maps but instead with memories, moments and fragments of ideas and influences. It’s the making of beer with a sense of adventure and excitement as well as a sense of naivety (it’s refreshing that the word branding is not uttered once); of course it could all be so much hot air if the beers were poor but as Delta and Dark Sister showed they’re not.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Sugar sugar

The Daily Mail recently ran a story about there being nine teaspoons of sugar in a pint of cask beer; the BBPA refuted this claim and said that there was less then a teaspoon. It’s a sensitive subject, especially given the recent declaration of war on sugar (I always think that the various special interests of the health profession are like planes taxiing above Heathrow, layer upon layer of them all waiting to land and deliver their message about what constitutes this week’s health threat: oh look a plane has landed with a warning about alcohol; the next one will feature sugar and the others might see Russian special forces tumbling out with warnings about fat, coffee, dairy, meat or carrots). However, sarcasm aside, there is too much sweetness in our food and drink (those fruit ciders for instance, when I tried one it had my teeth uttering a piercing scream that would not been out of place in Munch’s The Scream) — it’s a sign of the continuing infantilisation of our culture and probably helps to contribute to obesity. The point of all this? This morning I see on the PMA’s website a report on the Beer Innovation summit last week, which I have been told by a couple of those that took part went well. However, I’m not going to write about beer innovation (my piece about it was in last week’s PMA), but this story caught my attention, especially the bit about the sweet tooth generation, who are defined as Millennials and then further on how hybrid beer is the future and what seemed to me to be a call for brewers to produce sweeter beers. Given the fuss made about sugar I mentioned above I wonder if this is something the brewing industry really wants to go into and that if it does then sometime in the future the Daily Mail will get a story right about beer?

There’s another story that indirectly includes sugar, which I’ve long wanted to investigate: how much of Britain’s brewing heritage is tied up with the empire? I’m thinking of the sugar trade for starters and remembering how once when I was talking with Miles Jenner of Harvey’s that he said his brewery’s beers started to get sweeter in the 1950s. This was when sugar came off the ration. There’s a remarkable description of the effect of German bombing on the spice warehouses in the London docks during the Blitz in Richard Collier’s 1940: The World In Flames, but apart from the odd honey beer, British brewers in the late 19th century and 20th century didn’t seem to go spicy like they’d once done as you can read in Martyn Cornell’s Amber, Gold & Black. But that’s a story for another day (and lots of research).