Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Meantime/Grolsch controversy

Meantime is not blending London Lager with Grolsch, it was revealed today. This rumour, first reported on Beer Insider, always seemed too weird to be true. The truth is still pretty weird, though - as reported by the Morning Advertiser, a "liquid" is, occasionally, brewed at Grolsch's brewery in Enschede in the Netherlands and sold as London Lager. It is, reportedly, identical to the beer brewed at Meantime's facility in Greenwich. Except that Greenwich is in London and Enschede is in an entirely different country.

I have many thoughts on this subject, and I'm sure I'll be just one of hundreds of bloggers expressing their disappointment. For what it's worth, I like/d Meantime. Some of their beers were important 'gateway' discoveries for me and, even if I don't drink many of them any more, a few remain absolute corkers, especially the IPA. About 18 months ago I went on their brewery tour, and the beers all tasted amazing from the brewery tap. I reserved judgement when they were taken over by SAB Miller (interesting reflections on which here and here), reasoning that it wasn't necessarily an act of evil if it didn't affect the quality of the beer.

Meantime's branding relies heavily on its London roots. The brewery name refers to their Greenwich location. As well as London Lager, they also have a beer called London Stout and another called London Pale Ale. They sell merchandise with the word 'Londoner' emblazoned on it.  If you make a geographical location an integral part of your brand, customers will inevitably be disappointed to learn that the beer in their glass was brewed elsewhere. Meantime must know this, and that's why we're just learning about this now.

This is particularly worrying because it smacks of big, corporate business. Meantime are far from the first craft brewer to contract brew at other facilities. But why not be upfront and honest about it, especially if, as they claim, the arrangement is only temporary? Because they know their loyal customers won't like it, and because they know it looks like a money-saving measure imposed by SAB Miller.

But amongst these heartfelt concerns, a more trivial issue troubled me when I first heard the rumours of the London Lager/Grolsch blend. I didn't like the idea that I might have consumed a beer which contained Grolsch, in however small proportion, without realising it. Surely a big, important craft beer connoisseur like me, I reasoned, has a palate refined enough to instantly reject the slightest hint of macro lager in my glass. Had I been handed such a beverage, I'd have instantly thrown my glass against the wall and rinsed my mouth out with Rosé de Gambrinus. I doubt I'm the only drinker to have arrogantly concluded, "that can't be true - I'd have noticed" when they heard this rumour. Or perhaps the craftiest of craft drinkers wrote off London Lager as bland and undistinguished a long time ago. I've always quite liked it myself.

Just to be totally clear, again, London Lager has not actually ever contained Grolsch, But, if Meantime had been even more dastardly and decided to blend their beer with Grolsch, could they have got away with it? Would drinkers tell the difference? Would the better beer elevate the cooking lager, or would the macro fizz overpower the 'craft'? I decided to conduct a little experiment. I would pour half a bottle of London Lager into one glass, and, in another glass, blend the Meantime beer with Grolsch. Then I'd close my eyes and ask Sidony to hand me a glass without telling me which was which. I didn't taste either beer prior to conducting the experiment, and it's a long time since I drank either.

I'm happy to report that I correctly identified the London Lager/Grolsch hybrid. It was more watery and less crisp. London Lager has earthy English hops, a slight honey note and warm, soft malt, but the version with Grolsch lost all of these subtleties and gained an unpleasant metallic tang. A glass that was 90% Grolsch to wasn't improved by the inclusion of 10% London Lager, and a glass that was 100% Grolsch was very ropey indeed.

What is my point? Confirming the superiority of my palate, of course, and having a little fun. I can say, from experience, that I'm very glad that London Lager has not ever been blended with Grolsch, because the results would have been very poor. But I also doubt I'll be buying another bottle of this, or any other Meantime beer, in the foreseeable future. You can be absorbed into a multinational corporation if you insist, but it might not help you understand your own brand.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Imperial brown ale

In the months since I started this blog, I've paid particular attention to brown ale. I try to order brown ale or buy a bottle whenever I see it, because it’s an interesting style that I think is underused and underrated. Few brown ales I've tried taste alike, and the style is very loosely defined, which leaves more space for brewers to get creative – hence the existence of ‘imperial’ brown ales.

Style pedants will hate this term, of course. ‘Imperial’ refers to the extra-strong stouts brewed for export to the Russian imperial court in the 1700s. Brown ale never made such a journey, but the term has come to denote a stronger and altogether bigger version of just about any style from pilsner to saison. So imperial brown ale isn't a style with any tradition behind it, but one that’s been invented by brewers looking to experiment with the humble brown ale.

The two examples in question here are big beers – Nøgne Ø's Imperial Brown Ale is 7.2%, MRS Brown 9.5%. The brown ale story begins with Mann’s, now just 2.8% (though originally stronger), whilst encompassing big boozy beasts like these, and that’s just another example of the diversity I love in the style.

This beer contains vanilla, pecan and maple syrup. Sounds like a recipe for a delicious breakfast cereal  rather than a great brown ale, but I’ve often found where Siren are involved, the wackier ingredients do tend to work with the beer. Not only that, but it’s aged in bourbon barrels, too, so we can expect flavours far removed from your average brown ale.

The beer pours very dark, almost black. There are translucent brown edges around the glass when held up to the light, but otherwise this looks much more like a porter or stout. The aroma is strong bourbon, vanilla and appetising, fresh chocolate. My first impression after a tentative gulp is of the sheer complexity of the beer – there are so much flavours going on at once - more chocolate and vanilla, toasted marshmallow, dark berries. The maple syrup only comes through as the beer warms, and is sweet and earthy and delicious, a little like caramel. The pecan is present towards the second half of the glass, too, and brings a certain bitter and dry quality. There’s warming whisky and a bitterness like dark chocolate in the finish.

It’s a beautiful beer, harmonious despite its complexity. The high ABV works with the bourbon flavours – yes, it’s boozy, but then it’s a beer with a pronounced whisky influence. Approached as a brown ale, though, it doesn't offer much – in fact, it almost begs the question of whether you can blow up a brown ale in this fashion without leaving the style behind. If this had been labelled a porter instead, I doubt it would have raised any eyebrows, though there isn't a roasted malt quality in MRS Brown. In any case, the style is really only used a base for the additional flavours – you’re never going to drink this and think “this is a great brown ale”, because the experience of drinking it is all about taking a sip and saying “oh I get the maple syrup now… and there’s a bit of pecan.” In any event, the most important thing is this – it’s a great beer.

Turns out you can inflate a brown ale whilst staying true to the style, as that’s exactly what Nøgne Ø have achieved here. Its colour is far more befitting a brown ale, and the aroma of caramel and currants is familiar although the ‘imperial’ nature of the beer brings a big whiff of booze, too.

Though it's brewed in Norway, stylistically this is somewhere between British and American takes on brown ale. The hops, for example, are a mix of East Kent Goldings, Chinook and Columbus, and the yeast is a traditional English ale strain. Honestly, I didn't get much of the C-hops, not even much bitterness. At the same time, it’s not sweet, just dominated by malt flavours rather than hops. Sherry, vanilla and toffee along with the elevated ABV give an impression of a soft and warm beer, and it’s satisfyingly full-bodied without being viscous and oily as strong dark beers can be.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Brown ale roundup

In my last brown ale round-up, I linked to a Beervana article about the use of caramel colouring in Newcastle Brown Ale. I may have misunderstood the situation - I thought the controversy was based on the use of an additive to obtain the beer's colour, but in fact it was based on health concerns around the colouring in question, 4-MEI. In any case, we hopefully all agree that artificial colourings used in the likes of Coke and Pepsi don't belong in beer.

Another thought-provoking development in the world of brown ale is this post from Ron Pattinson, in which he shares a recipe for Adnams XX mild from 1950. Here, Ron says that Adnams Nut Brown Ale would likely have used the same recipe, though primed differently for the bottle. This reminded me of a conversation I had with @WestBromEL after my initial brown ale posts. He'd always been told that brown ale was essentially bottled mild, and it is true that mild is rarely bottled. No beer books on my shelf mention any such link between mild and brown ale, but clearly there was such a relationship at one time. Anyway, here are some brown ales I've been drinking lately, starting with an old classic.

For months, I couldn't find Mann’s Brown Ale anywhere. I wanted to include it when I did my initial brown ale round-up in the early days of this blog, but nowhere near me stocked it. Eventually, I found myself in one of those enormous ASDA superstores when I clocked Mann’s bottles on the shelves, and became consumed with excitement which I knew, even at the time, would inevitably outstrip the quality of the beer. I was mainly just curious – Mann’s is often cited as an example of a now near-extinct breed of brown ale, a counterpart to the likes of Newky Brown. You’ll find little bitterness and no dry finish to Mann’s – it was reportedly considered close to a soft drink at one time, which I can understand. It’s not just the meagre 2.8% ABV, it’s also the sweetness and easy drinkability. It is refreshing and thirst quenching, but in much the same way water is, and not very much like beer is. It also tastes an awful lot like cola to me, with a finish that recalls sparkling mineral water, and hints of treacle and toffee flavour.  I can’t imagine anyone ever thinking “I think I’ll have a nice beer” and then enjoying drinking this.

Thornbridge Charlie Brown (peanut butter brown ale)
My hand has often hovered over Charlie Brown in bottle shops, but something always stopped me taking the plunge. It’s a brown ale with peanut butter and, whilst I love brown ale and love peanut butter, I somehow couldn't quite believe it could be as great as it sounds. Still, I eventually had to try it. Upon pouring, the peanut aroma is immediately evident – it doesn't really smell of peanut butter, but more like raw peanuts with the husk still on. I was expecting more peanut on the initial taste – this is more like a brown ale that heightens the peanut butter flavours that are usually to be found somewhere in beers of this style, rather than providing a massive peanut butter hit. That’s fine – I still want it to taste of beer, otherwise I’d just eat a peanut butter sandwich.  Trouble is, I'm not overly enamoured with the base beer – the body is too thin to work with the peanut butter richness, and there’s an unpleasant, slightly vinegary acidity in the background that also clashes. I was a little disappointed, but not because brown ale and peanut butter don’t go together – I just don’t think this is a great brown ale to begin with. 

North Laine Brewery Deadwood
This one is currently available in cask-conditioned form at Brighton's North Laine brewpub so, if you're interested, you should probably get over there and try it while you can. And it is definitely worth a try, even if my pint wasn't without flaws. The beer is aged in bourbon barrels (edit: it's actually aged on bourbon-soaked oak chips, not in a barrel), which in principle is an excellent idea - it's usually stouts that get this treatment but, since your average brown ale is a little lighter-bodied, you're less likely to end up with anything so thick and oily as certain barrel-aged stouts. The bourbon profile in Deadwood is expertly judged, never overpowering the beer - the whisky brings honey and vanilla, and the time in the wood brings a dry, red wine-like finish. The further down the glass you get, the less prominent the bourbon notes, and bitter chocolate and grassy hops come to to foreground. Unfortunately, my pint was let down by a lack of body - it lacked the smooth, substantial mouthfeel I'm looking for from cask ale, and felt thin and watery. I'm hoping to try it again while its around - perhaps my complaints are simply due to the inconsistency of the cask, and it is otherwise a very good beer.

So far I've mainly been interested in British-brewed brown ales but, since there aren't huge numbers of them, I'm going international with this time. I’d heard some good things about Norway’s Lervig, but unfortunately, their brown ale is a dud. There’s a little toffee, a little chocolate and, if you swill the beer around in your mouth desperately looking for it, a touch of hop bitterness. But overall, it’s watery and bland.

I was expecting a powerfully hopped American brown ale from this, but it’s actually a more nuanced beer. The recipe is inspired by brown ales from the brewery’s past which, in turn, shows a strong British influence – liquorice, treacle, caramel and fruit cake are all in there, bringing to mind something like Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown if it were twice as strong. A more modern twist is the use of Citra hops, which didn't exist when Anchor was brewing these early beers. Initially, I couldn't get any of the hop flavour at all, but it comes out as the beer warms, with a subtle gooseberry tang. It may not have the hop hit I was expecting, but this is a great beer.

I have a big soft spot for Triple fff, as they are responsible for what I think was my first ever encounter with cask ale, many years ago. Whilst a little south of legal, I once entered an establishment in the brewery's home town of Alton, Hampshire and, in a bid to convince the barman I was surely of proper drinking age, asked for a beer recommendation. He suggested Moondance, their Best Bitter. I professed to love it at the time, though I wonder now how much I truly liked it and how much I was just pretending to be a grown up. I’d certainly love to try it again.

And, perhaps fittingly, Triple fff are the outfit behind what I think is my first taste of cask brown ale – all the others I’ve tried have been from kegs, bottles or cans. In fact, I think hoppy brown ales might work best from casks; I’ve always found well-hopped beers softer and more rounded in cask form compared to the spikier, punchy keg equivalents. Both versions have their merits, but the smoothed-out hops in this beer work nicely with the malt flavours – the balance is perfect. The malt brings caramel and toffee along with a big hit of wafer biscuits, with tangerines from the hops. It’s excellent.

The Kernel Brown Ale
The Kernel's interpretation of brown ale pours disappointingly black. I'm worried I'm in for a thin-bodied porter. But then, as I go for a sip, dark ruby colours slosh around in front of me - that's better. The nose is a big whack of cereals, and the first sip is full of roasty, toasted malt flavours. It actually is a little like a porter, though perhaps medium-bodied where a darker beer might be thicker. In fact, it's the perfect body for a brown ale according to my preferences. Some caramel and toffee inch the beer away from porter territory, and there's a citrus zing in the finish; although the label doesn't tell us which hops are included, I'd guess something American and beginning with C. This is delicately done, though - it's not an American brown ale, it's a modern British version which looks to the US for influence. I like it a lot.


I've also recently come across a couple of brown ales with the audacity to call themselves 'imperial'. They'll get their own post next week.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

American Pale Ale, three ways

Dark Star’s American Pale Ale is an important beer for me. I remember my first pint well – bored with the selection of ‘premium’ lagers at the pub I was in (most of which tastes much the same as the cans of Holsten Pils I used to drink at home), I observed as a friend approached the bar. She ordered an American Pale Ale. I’d heard good things about Dark Star, and figured I could probably manage a pale ale. So I went for it and, obviously, was knocked out. I couldn't even tell that it was the bitterness of the beer, much less the flavours from the hops, that I was enjoying – I just knew it was good, and different from any other beers I’d tasted. Even if it took a while longer for me to take a real interest in beer, I would always excitedly order a pint of American Pale Ale whenever I saw it, and that excitement continues to this day.

When Dark Star announced they’d be releasing cans of their APA a couple of months ago, I was curious. How would it differ to the cask version I've always known? And then an idea hit me; I could go to the Evening Star and sit down with a glass of each version to see how they compared. In fact, the Star also often has the APA available from key keg, so there are three distinct versions of the same beer.

As I set them out on the table in front of me, I was amazed at how different each glass looked. The cask beer is clear and golden, still and with a small, frothy head. The glass from the keg is a little hazier, possibly unfiltered, and with an extremely lively effervescence that almost looks like someone’s dropped a Berocca in the glass, and with a tight white layer of foam. The beer from the can is somewhere in between, golden-amber in colour, with a small head and the odd jet of carbonation.

A sip from the cask version first. I'm so familiar with the beer, it’s hard to analyse its flavour. The hops are Cascade and Centennial  and, whereas the newer breeds of US hops (Citra, Mosaic etc.) tend to be tropical-tasting and fruity, these classic varieties primarily bring citrusy bitterness. Grapefruit is the dominant flavour here, and it’s a big hop hit. The beer is in excellent condition, with only the very softest carbonation but a silky-smooth and satisfyingly full bodied.

Moving to the keg beer, I'm initially disappointed by its blandness. That smack of hops isn't there at first, but there is a lingering bitter aftertaste. The more I drink and the more I switch between the three beers, though, it ended up as my favourite incarnation, precisely for this subtlety.

The canned beer is different again. That citric bitterness is even further delayed here, but crisp, warm Marris Otter malt is there in spades. So whilst it comes on like a golden ale to begin with, the hops creep up on you. It’s probably the most balanced of all three beers, the least assertive and my least favourite. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not writing the APA cans off, though – I’ll be sure to try it in its own right soon, as I expect I’ll find much to enjoy.

I don’t think much about methods of dispensing or packaging beer – I usually just drink whatever takes my fancy regardless of whether its cask or keg. Bottled or canned beers are rarely as good as those on tap, but I usually don’t think of them as being markedly different. This experiment shows me what a difference these things can make – ostensibly the same beer in three different glasses, each distinct from the next. Dark Star American Pale Ale remains one of my all-time favourite beers regardless of which of these glasses I reach for.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Two Lithuanian beers

Lars Marius Garshol, of Larsblog, is responsible for the most fascinating beer reading I've undertaken this year. In a series of blog posts and subsequent e-book, he has undertaken a thorough investigation of Lithuanian beer culture, travelling to Vilnius and beyond reporting his findings from tiny regional breweries and traditional beer bars. Due to my own ignorance (perhaps, even, the ignorance of Western Europe in general), Lithuania seems an impossibly obscure country, one I know next to nothing about. And yet it is home to a singular tradition of farmhouse brewing that owes little to the brewing cultures of the rest of Europe. Lars’ findings suggest that traditional Lithuanian brewing practices are not always as well preserved as we might like, but they still exist for the curious beer hunter to discover.

Enthralled though I was with this subject, I doubted I’d ever taste a traditional Lithuanian beer. Not many make their way to the UK and, even if they did, most authentic farmhouse beers travel very poorly. Even the journey to Vilnius can reportedly affect the quality of these brews, and they are best tasted at the breweries. I can only imagine my very patient girlfriend’s reaction if I were to suggest we take a tour of Lithuanian farmhouse breweries in search of unusual, challenging beers – let’s just say I won’t book the flights just yet.

Having a quick poke around Google after reading Lars’ e-book, I was surprised to find that Beers of Europe, my favoured mail-order beer retailer, stocks a handful of Lithuanian bottles. They were, of course, out of stock, and I had to imagine they were unlikely to come back in. Still, there’s an option to receive an email alert when products come back in stock. I took advantage of this and then completely forgot all about it, whilst still daydreaming about these mysterious brews from time to time. And then, one day, I received an email informing me that two of the more interesting beers were back in stock after all. Given Lars’ warnings about the vulnerability of these beers in transit, I lowered my expectations a little – this wouldn't be a totally authentic Lithuanian beer experience, but the closest I could get without travelling. And in any case, these appear to be more industrially produced beers rather than small-scale farmhouse operations.

Butautu Dvaro Alus Šviesus came first. The word ‘šviesus’ translates as ‘pale’ and, although the style isn't clearly defined, there are certain common characteristics, including a hazy appearance, a rustic, straw-like flavour and lots of diacetyl. Diacetyl, an off-characteristic in most beers which produces a slick, oily texture and buttery flavours, is reportedly a common characteristic in Lithuanian brewing, and considered a complement to the flavour of the malts rather than a brewing fault. Lars' e-book does warn that certain beers may use the word on their labels, but the contents of the bottle are closer to normal lager. I'm not sure where this would fall as I have nothing to compare it to - it pours clear and has a certain resemblance to lager, but possesses many Lithuanian peculiarities either way.

The aroma is vinous, but also a little earthy, something like oxidised white wine, and there are also a lot of honey and lager malts on the nose. What initially registers in terms of flavour is the sweetness - the reason this sticks out is that, as a general rule, Lithuanian beers lack hop bitterness due to the low yields of domestic hop varieties. Honey is a big flavour here, alongside synthetic vanilla and icing sugar. Diacetyl is certainly playing a large role, too , revealing itself in strong butterscotch notes. The dry, earthy, straw flavours that are often described as characteristic of Lithuanian beers are there in certain mouthfuls, and so is just the tiniest hint of vinegar. Carbonation – again, as it apparently the norm in Lithuania – is low, and the diacteyl contributes to a slick and oily body. If that sounds like a sloppily brewed mess, think again – oddly, it works, whilst the flavours are so unusual and so unlike other beers that I'm constantly drawn in for another inquisitive sip. 

The second beer is Kanapinis Alus Šviesus, brewed by Taruškų. Certain internet sources make reference to the use of hemp seeds in this beer but whilst there are beers in this range that use hemp, I don’t think this is actually one of them. It pours hazier than the Butautu example, with a fluffy white head which vanishes quickly. The initial flurry of carbonation also fades fast, and the beer ends up practically still, like a traditional German kellerbier. The aroma is dominated by honey, with caramel and something like buttery pasty in there. Again, my initial impression on taking a sip is of an unusual sweetness, with those honey notes continuing, although there is some sort of concession to bitterness here – not quite enough to balance that sweetness, but it’s there. The one predictable flavour is of standard lager malts, although these are mutated by a big dose of buttery diacetyl. There are also stewed apples, cereals and an ever-so-slight sour vinegar note far in the background, and it finishes dry and chalky in a way that’s reminiscent of sparkling mineral water. Lars’ e-book often talks about a nutty, oily flavour which is unique to Lithuanian beer – exactly what causes this is not yet known – and whilst I didn't get much of this in the Butautu beer, I can pick it up here – it’s something like peanuts, and the oiliness is only compounded by the slickness the diacetyl brings.

"The first thing you should do, before having your first sip of Lithuanian farmhouse ale is to reset your brain. The beer in front of you may look like a saison, or a zwickel, but it is in fact neither. It belongs to a completely separate beer tradition that has developed its own frame of reference, and you have to treat it as such. You should, in a sense, expect the unexpected."

The above is Lars' advice on how to approach Lithuanian beer for the first time, and they're wise words. The two that I've sampled here may be some of the tamer examples out there, and even these were plenty weird in comparison to what I'd normally drink. But beer is like that - imagine, for example, that you'd never encountered, or never heard of, the tradition of British cask ale. Your first pint might seem tepid and flat - but then, it's supposed to be that way, and the condition of the beer is the result of very deliberate and complex decisions on the part of the brewers and publicans. The same is true of these Lithuanian beers, however bizarre they seem at first. You can order them yourself from Beers of Europe here. They're also available in litre bottles, and would make great sharing beers.