Saturday, 13 February 2021

Do you remember drinking Friary Meux?

 


For the past six months or so, I've been digging for information on the Friary Brewery in Guildford. In 1956 it merged with the Meux brewery to become Friary Meux, and was taken over by Allied Brewers in 1964.

Deep Google searches and newspaper archives are bringing up lots of fascinating stuff on the history of the brewery, but it's much more difficult to find any material on the beers themselves.

So I thought I'd put out an appeal. Do you remember drinking Friary Meux beers

Any first-hand recollections would be hugely appreciated. Leave a comment, or if you prefer, drop me a line at joetindall at hotmail dot com. 

Thursday, 28 January 2021

I know very well, but all the same...

Our ability to succumb to the immersive illusion of fiction film is often referred to as ‘suspension of disbelief’. From what I remember from my time as a Film Studies student, Christian Metz tells it differently – we don’t simply switch off the part of our brain that consciously knows that the world playing out on the screen isn’t real. For Metz, it might be more accurate to say that we allow ourselves to become immersed in the film, whilst simultaneously marvelling at the workings of the ‘machine’ that enchants us.

Borrowing a phrase from psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni, Metz suggests that the viewer in the cinema tells themselves “I know very well, but all the same…” This is what I tell myself when I drink alcohol-free beer.

A common retort to alcohol-free beer is that other drinks, naturally lacking booze, are available. Rather than have a beer you could just drink tea, sparkling water, juice, and so on. This is a reasonable point, except it supposes that beer is merely a drink. Especially in the current miserable circumstances, it is also often part of a special sort of personal ritual, signalling the moment when the working day is done, dinner’s eaten and the washing up done. The point at which I sit down on my sofa and enjoy a couple of hours of freedom. These moments are important – they’re pretty much as good as it gets at present - and deserve some ceremony. But at the same time, I don’t want to drink every day.

So I might sit back with an alcohol-free beer instead. On one level, I am trying to suspend disbelief, buying into the fantasy that I’m relaxing with a ‘real’ beer. If it’s no good, the illusion is shattered. But at the same time, the very fact that I am assessing whether the beer is good or not means that the illusion is never total. And if the beer is good, I might find myself thinking, “hey, this actually tastes like beer! How did they do that?” Like Metz’s film audience, I am both allowing myself to be swept up in the illusion, whilst also admiring the brewery’s ability to sweep me up in the first place.

All of this means it is difficult to assess the quality of alcohol-free beer from a neutral standpoint. Beer is never going to taste the same once you take the booze out; equally it’s easy to overrate some examples just for tasting vaguely decent. There’s no accounting for taste, but I have seen people whose opinions and palates I trust very highly raving about a 0.5% stout that I poured down the sink because it tasted like damp sticks.

I wanted to write something on this subject that says something beyond, “some alcohol free beers are nice, actually.” So what follows is a brief attempt to categorise the sub-genres I’ve found on my travels through the 0.0 – 0.5% beer world.


The watery ones

If you had never tried an alcohol-free beer, but had to guess what one is like, I think you might assume they were watery and bland. In many instances you’d be right. Some examples go beyond mere blandness and are actually quite impressive in terms of their near-total absence of flavour. Brewdog’s Nanny State, for example, has a promising hop aroma which briefly translates to the palate before fading to absolutely nothing. California Uncommon, from AF-beer specialists Mash Gang, does it the other way round. Bizarrely sold as an alcohol-free malt liquor, which is meaningless gibberish, it starts off tasting like straight-up H20, but then a hollow ghost-flavour of toasted malt niggles at you in the finish. Both are pretty unsatisfying.

The sweet ones

AF beer often has a lot of residual sweetness. This sounds unpleasant, and in some cases it is – dry-hopped wort, anyone? But in others it works very well. Hoppy styles seem to particularly benefit from the extra body this brings, and the sweetness rounds out the flavour and offers a good foundation for hop character to assert itself. Mikkeller’s Weird Weather is the best alcohol-free IPA I’ve encountered so far. Allow for the extra sweetness and it is convincingly beery, with juicy stone fruit notes and a citrus kick in the finish.


The various IPAs from Coast are quite similar, perhaps because they are also contract brewed at De Proefbrouwerij in Belgium. Their standard IPA has an odd strawberry jam flavour which is quite pleasant but not likely to let you forget that that’s merely near-beer in your glass. A recent range of single-hopped beers are much better, with much more precise hop flavour.

One big success in this area was the short-lived Guinness 0.0, which had a sweetness that would stop the flagship product from tasting so acrid and bland. Famously withdrawn in record time due to disconcerting possibilities of contamination (announced just slowly enough for me to finish a 4-pack), I hope it’ll return in a form fit for human consumption.

The ones with lactose

Picture the scene; the brewing team are sitting around having a post-shift pint, pondering a potential new line.

"I think we need to diversify our range and make it as inclusive as possible. We should make an alcohol free beer – lots of people are more mindful about their drinking these days and we don’t want to alienate customers."

"Great idea! And let's put dairy products in it!"

Look, I don’t want to get militant vegan on you, but I do think its safe to say in the current climate emergency, we all have a responsibility to think again about our consumption of products that derive from intensive animal farming. May I suggest that milk in an alcohol free lager is just about the most pointless, wasteful use of animal products imaginable?

The ones with adjuncts

One way to paper over the less convincing elements in alcohol-free beer is to add in some additional flavours. This is a delicate balancing act. It’s already not real beer; take the adjuncts too far and you end up with a sort of simulacrum that supposedly simulating beer, whilst predominantly tasting of grapefruit, or coffee, or rhubarb and custard sweets.

When done right, though, this is perhaps the most enjoying and deceptively beery category of them all. Non-alcoholic stouts are tough to pull off, and a lot of those I've tried just taste like malt extract, if not Marmite. However the aforementioned Mikkeller’s coffee-infused Beer Geek Flat White 0.3% is superb and I had settled on this being my go-to school night treat until I bought 4 bottles, all of which were infected and sour. I'll try again soon and hope that was a dud batch. Hamburg’s Kehrwieder also do wonderful things with coffee in their Road Runner porter.


On the fruity end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of Lowlander’s 0.0 Wit (another brewed under contract at De Proefbrouwerij, who clearly know their stuff). Made with waste lemons and limes from bars, this threatens to teeter into fizzy pop territory, but retains an element of rustic wheat that hits the spot. Another shout for Mikkeller, too – they’re the best in the AF game, for my money – whose Limbo series of fruited sours is superb. Riesling is the pick of the bunch for me, with a complexity and dryness that almost matches its boozy equivalents.

And the others

Then there are some beers that don’t fit really fit into any of the sub-genres outlined above. Two recent highlights come from UK brewers. Signature Brew recently released Lo-fi (DISCLAIMER - my samples were gifted by the brewery), which although maybe slightly on the thin side, could never been accused of being watery. It’s billed as a New England IPA, and does a good impression of one. This includes a couple of the less desirable tendencies of that style; tropical notes not quite gelling with savoury caraway, and a touch of asprin-like hop burn, but these are minor enough to overlook. It’s good fun and I’d definitely add it to my regular weeknight rotation.

Ridgeside’s Currant Wisdom is a sour so heavily fruited that the blackcurrant and apricot qualify as stars of the show, rather than adjuncts. It starts off a little watery, but the sour fruit tang soon overpowers that, whilst a smooth vanilla note fills out the middle.

So there you go. Some alcohol-free beers are nice, actually.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Beers from the smoke


In life, I am a planner. In beer drinking, I am a ticker. These two characteristics compliment one another, especially whilst travelling, but if I’m not careful spontaneity can go out the window. Whilst I’ve had many beer experiences in which careful planning paid off and I was right to leave nothing to chance, the experiences I wasn’t expecting are often more powerful.

The photo above is a memento from one such occasion. As my train pulled into Kings Cross, I smelt smoke. Not the kind that might raise alarm bells in a major railway station, but delicious smoke, charcoal grill-type smoke. I don’t know what it was – possibly something as mundane as a ham and cheese toastie wafting down from the refreshments car – but it was especially evocative, and put immediately in mind of rauchbier. In fact, rauchbier was already on my mind; I’d read that morning that Anspach and Hobday would be pouring theirs at their Bermondsey tap room that day.

With my nose held high in the air, chasing aromas like the grotesque children in vintage Bisto adverts or Divine in John Waters’ Polyester, I formed an improvised plan. I’d need to change trains at London Bridge, so a one-stop diversion could have me in Bermondsey in no time. Over to Druid Street for a swift smokey treat, then back on my way. That’s exactly what I did, and it was wonderful.

Why am I telling this story? I don’t know, really. It is a very long and quite tangential way to start talking about rauchbier. To discuss this style, I need to return to that word evocative. Rauchbier feels especially appropriate at this time of year, as distant bonfires spread their aromas far and wide, soaking into your clothes and confirming that summer is well and truly over. I’ve drunk Spezial Rauchbier on Brighton beach in mid-30 degree heat, and it was still great – but a crisp autumnal air is undoubtedly more appropriate.

I was delighted, then, to find that not one but two London breweries have tried their hand at the style for the A/W 2020 season – the afformentioned Anspach and Hobday, and Signature Brew, who kindly gifted me two cans of theirs.


Signature call their offering In the Dark, so I was surprised that it poured a pretty light amber colour reminiscent of Vienna lager. The aroma proves quickly that there’s nothing half-hearted about it though, with a big hit of smoky bacon on the nose. This is, as will be obvious to anyone familiar with rauchbier, a large component of the flavour, if not an original tasting note. Once you get used to the style, what’s interesting is what else is going on beyond the ham. In this case, the smoke is well integrated with the malt flavour, mingling with toasted and bready notes. There are some almost salty mineral flavours, and just a touch of lemony astringency lending a welcome zingy freshness, before finishing on a burnt caramel note. Like the best smoked beers, this balances intensity, complexity and drinkability very well indeed – I confessed by ticker tendencies at the start of this post, but I’d happily forget all that and drink this all night if I found it in my local.


To Anspach and Hobday, then. This year’s simply titled The Rauchbier is, for the first time, a lager. It makes for a beautiful pour, with a big off-white head that sticks around right til the end of the glass (a result of the addition of that very un-Germanic ingredient, maize?) That meaty umami smoke is there in spades, as per, but rounded out by an intriguing herbal note suggestive of oregano. Spot on, really – but the real coup here is actually more about texture and mouthfeel. The carbonation is relatively soft, which makes the beer feel full and smooth – closer to Schlenkerla marzen poured directly from the cask than the bottled equivalent.

Time for more planning – how can I get hold of more of these beers to see me through the lengthening nights ahead?

Thursday, 3 September 2020

(Actually) brewed in Brighton

 Basing your brewery in Brighton is a great idea, from a marketing perspective. It’s a popular summer destination, so you have that association going for you; it’s well known for its bohemian character, so there’s that, too. There are recognisable landmarks like the Laines, or the skeleton of the burned out pier that now eerily shadows the slick, pointless i360 tower. You could draw on these in your branding.

Not such a great proposition financially though. Rents are high, second only to London. So you can see how one might form a dastardly plan to claim, or at least heavily imply, to have a brewery based in Brighton, whilst taking care of the inconvenient of business of brewing beer somewhere cheap in the Sussex countryside. 

To be clear, there are a number of excellent local breweries who don't actually brew in Brighton and have never suggested that they do. They have made the city their primary market and have become associated with it. I have no problem with that whatsoever. Gun, Franklins and Downlands are amongst my favourites. 

But the strategy I describe is increasingly familiar, and brings about various questions about contract brewing and transparency. It might be worth making a distinction between contact brewing – where beers are made to your specifications at a third party brewery, such as Missing Link in East Grinstead – and cuckoo brewing, where brewers don’t have their own site but do the hands-on work on other breweries’ kit. The former isn’t ideal, but can be an important step towards breweries establishing themselves in their own permanent home. The latter is preferable in terms of transparency; the ownership of the stainless steel is less important than the understanding that the group of brewers representing the brand name on the can, or bottle, or pump clip, rolled their sleeves up and made the beer you’re drinking.

But there is also the question of authenticity and a sense of place. If I’m told a beer is from a certain place – be that Brighton, Brussels, Berlin – then I expect it to have been brewed there. It is an important factor, one of the intangible things adjacent to whatever’s in the glass, that means something.

Assuming it means something to others, too, I thought I should pull together a small directory of the breweries who actually brew in Brighton. I can't guarantee it’s complete - these things move fast. Still, if you’re in Brighton and want to legitimately drink local, here’s some options.

Brighton Bier

Brewing since 2011, Brighton Bier is the city’s original craft brewery. For a good while they were the only full scale commercial brewery in the city, and have been known to speak their minds about those breweries claiming Brighton heritage whilst brewing elsewhere. Before setting up at their current Kemptown brewery, they began life at Hand in Hand brewpub just down the road.

Their flagship pale ale, simply named Bier, typifies what they do so well. Endlessly drinkable, it crams a lot into its 4% ABV, with lots of fresh lemon and pine and a moreish bitterness. Their cask beers are also excellent – find South Coast IPA in good condition and you won’t want to drink anything else. Their output can feel a little samey at times – a lot of pale ales at around the 5% mark - but regular beers like Grand Havana, a beautifully smooth cask porter, and No Name Stout balance things out.

The beers used to be available in cans, but that seems to have stopped, and whilst they do make it outside of the city, they’re at their best in one of the brewery’s excellent pubs. Brighton Bierhaus, the most central of the three, is designated as the official taproom, but the equally excellent Haus on the Hill and Freehaus in the Hanover area of town are also highly recommended.

Hand Brew Co.

I wrote a profile on the Hand in Hand brewpub back in 2018, and much has changed in the time that’s passed. The ‘idiosyncratic’ brewing set up, which necessitated a kind of ‘make do and mend’ approach, has been expanded and modernised and, most significantly, Hand Brew Co. has outgrown the premises. A new brewery and tap room in Worthing is set to open soon, which is exciting news. The beers have always been impressive, but have grown increasingly accomplished over time. Most recently, I was seriously impressed by the Hans Pilsner, a dead ringer for a herbal, bitter Bavarian pils.

The new operation in Worthing doesn’t, however, replace in-house brewing at the pub. Head brewer Jack assures me “we’re still brewing at the Hand and always will.” As is blindly obvious, the best place to find these is the pub itself, happily also one of Brighton’s most characterful boozers.

BRZN

BRZN has apparently existed in some capacity for over a year now, but completely passed me by until a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled across their new venture on my way home from the shops. Initially operating as a cuckoo brewer, they moved into a shipping container in what’s known as the ‘Cobbler’s Thumb’, just up the road from Preston Circus, in May. Their model of selling beer directly to pubs was challenged by lockdown, so now they open their doors every Saturday for takeaways.

The beers are pretty inventive, ranging from fruited sours to imperial milk stouts, and they seem to make liberal use of the magnificent Voss Kviek yeast. I was hugely impressed with Modern Solutions, a Voss-powered pale ale with cold brew coffee from the superb Pharmacie roastery in Hove. Combining both foam bananas and the little pink shrimps that shared their pick ‘n’ mix bag, sweet orange, zesty and floral coffee notes and a gentle, refreshing acidity in the finish, this is an incredibly flavoursome beer for a relatively low ABV of 4.5%. On the strength of Modern Solutions, I’ll be back at the shipping container pretty soon.

Unbarred

Unbarred began life as a homebrew operation, before setting up commercially through the aforementioned Missing Link. They now have a permanent home in Brighton, having taken over a great purpose-built brewery and taproom space from the now defunct Holler Brewery last year. For me, the beers are far more consistent these days.

It would be reductive to say that Unbarred specialise in wacky adjuncts, but they’re certainly not averse to them - it's part of the 'anything goes' approach to brewing implied by their name. These range for the tasteful - pale stout with Nicaraguan coffee cherry tea - to the... decadent. Take Bueno Shake, a hazelnut milk stout inspired by a certain European chocolate treat, or Dip Le Donut, a coffee and doughnut white stout which uncannily reproduces both the sweet bready quality and the gooey glaze of a Krispy Kreme.

If the thought of all that makes your teeth hurt, then look to something like their Casual Pale, an aptly named easy-going pale ale, full of refreshing lemon and pine notes on a faintly biscuity pale malt based that’s made for multiple laid-back pints.

Larrikin

I've been slow to investigate Larrikin because of shellfish. The brewery operates out of the basement of The Urchin, a Hove pub specialising in shellfish, a cuisine to which I am extremely averse. However much I want to support what is by all accounts a lovely pub and a small Brighton-based brewery, the thought of sitting sipping beer in a room that hums of mussels is not my idea of a good time.

I was excited, then, to see that Larrikin had started selling cans to take away and drink in a neutrally-scented environment. This seemed perfect until I opened them. I have to assume that something is going wrong in the canning process, because all three beers (IPAs of various iterations and ABV) were the same unappetising brown colour, like fruit left out to go oxidised. They also all tasted remarkably similar, with a sweet fruity note recalling boiled sweets, and some fresher melon notes that were reasonably pleasant. 

It's hard to believe these beers were as the brewer intended, but then ideally, I think the brewer intended for them to be drunk in the pub and I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm exaggerating about the shellfish thing for comic effect, but according to those whose opinions matter (i.e. people who can stand to be in the same room as a prawn), the place is excellent. And yes, they do brew an oyster stout - it would be mad if they didn't.

Loud Shirt

Loud Shirt is probably the Brighton brewery I'm least familiar with. Hence the lack of relevant photo; hopefully this snap of kids TV icon and loud shirt trailblazer Dave Benson Phillips will suffice. They have been brewing since 2016, but I’m not sure how long they’ve occupied their brewery in Whitehawk.

I may as well acknowledge that, even if unconsciously, the name and general ‘embarrassing dad’ vibe of the branding has probably been a barrier to investigating their stuff. I did once encounter their Ecstasy Stout at a local CAMRA festival; rich and chocolatey but with an unusual clementine note (is it Sorachi Ace?), I liked it enough to forfeit the ticking potential of such a setting and went back for more.

They do bottle and can, but I was unable to find anything for my important research, so Loud Shirt remains a bit of an enigma for me. Some of the beers sound very appealing; Hallucination Brune in particular - I'll be keeping an eye out for more.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Mein biergarten

Like everyone else, I’ve been stuck at home a lot lately. Aside from the three-and-a-bit months of fairly strict lockdown, I’ve also been slow to return to the pub – partly because I’m still anxious about COVID-19 and don’t fancy taking the risk, and partly because I’m happy drinking at home.

My new garden certainly helps. I count myself lucky to have some outdoor space, something of a rarity for rented flats in Brighton. It’s small, and a bit of a ‘fixer-upper’, but big enough that I can satisfy a medium-term dream and sit drinking lager at a trestle table, pretending I’m in a German biergarten.

To further aid this holiday-at-home pretence, I’ve been drinking my way through a box of beers from Franconia, purchased from Hier Gibst Bier (thank you to Jezza on Twitter for the tip). I’d always assumed ordering beer from abroad would take ages and be extremely expensive, but neither is true in this case. Based in Bayreuth, this site stocks beers from all over the region. Of course I understand that bottled beer is a poor substitute for Franconian lagers poured bayerische anstiche in the brewery’s own timber-framed pub, but it’ll do me just fine.

These beers are designed for drinking, not thinking. But I’ve been pondering what makes them so satisfying and so highly regarded. Some of the classic lager descriptors don’t necessarily apply – some of these beers aren’t ‘clean’ for example – diacetyl is not uncommon amongst my selection, but then I’m not diacetyl-averse. They might not be exactly ‘refreshing’ either – they often have a rustic, bready quality that feels more nourishing than quenching.

The Lagerbier from Fassla in Bamberg exemplifies a lot of what these beers do well. Pouring a rich golden colour, it has a huge depth of malt flavour. If that conjures up thoughts of something sweet and sticky then think again, because it’s wonderfully balanced, finishing with herbal hops and a mineral note that leaves it slightly dry.

What is it that makes these beers different to, for example, those found in Munich – good lagers, sure, but in comparison to the best of the Franconian beers in this box, it seems like they’re missing an extra layer of complexity. Is it decoction that makes the difference? Fermenting in open containers? Or are these practices just relics of the brewing past, held onto more for a sense of rustic authenticity than anything that actually benefits the beer?

Maybe I’m onto something with that last thought. I’m attaching a considerable romance to these beers, as my whole pseudo-biergarten project suggests. And I’m fine with that. Another box is on it’s way from Bayreuth as we speak.

As well as the Fassla lager, I especially enjoyed the Kellerbier from Brauhaus Binkert and the Breitenlesauer Pilsner from Krug-Brau. On a slightly different tip, the Fraundorfer Rauchbier from Brauerei Hetzel is an excellent, light and hoppy take on a favourite style of mine.


Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Tasting beer: a confession



Here’s an odd confession for a beer blogger – sometimes, I can’t really taste beer.

This has been going on for a couple of years. It comes and goes. I can taste some beers more than others. One day my palette might be operating at full power, but the next I might find the IPA in my glass no more flavoursome than tap water.

The problem isn’t my sense of taste so much as smell, which intermittently loses intensity. As is fairly obvious, olfactory perception is a large component of taste, and this is particular important with beer. In fact, I don’t seem to have any issues tasting food. It’s the relationship between aroma and taste in beer (but also coffee and wine) that I struggle with. Thankfully I can still enjoy scented candles, freshly cut grass and dusty libraries.

There isn't a clear medical reason for this, according to ENT specialists who’ve shoved cameras so far up my nostrils that my eyes watered. I’ve tried so many different nasal sprays that I could probably start a side blog noting their nuances. In September, I had an operation to cut back inflamed soft tissue behind my nose. None of it seems to make much difference.

Should I admit this? Might it damage whatever shred of credibility I have as someone who opines on beer? Well, hopefully it goes without saying that if I drink a beer than I can’t really taste, I’m not likely to mention it on this blog. It’d be dull reading if I did – every post would say “yet another beer that is almost completely devoid of flavour” – and unfair, too. I decided to write this post whilst reflecting on how my drinking has changed over the past couple of years, and how I’ve adapted to the situation.

One factor is temperature. It’s not exactly a revelation that flavour and aroma is slightly muted by colder temperatures, but I’m particularly sensitive to this. Any beer that’s been kept in my fridge needs 30-60 minutes at room temperature before I get stuck in. This is more difficult in pubs, where keg beer is often served far too cold for me. If I’m just having one pint, it tends to be from cask, which is (hopefully) cool but not cold.

This gets complicated if I’m settling in for the evening. Let’s take my beloved Evening Star in Brighton as an example – they’re likely to have numerous beers across cask and keg that I’ll want to try over the course of a session. I have to be a tactical here; start by ordering two beers, one cask and one keg. Drink the cask beer first, allowing the other glass to warm up a little. Then, there’ll be a kind of rolling system, one beer ready to drink whilst another ‘matures’ on the table in front of me. I’ve made it work but it involves more thought and planning than a simple evening in the pub should, and answering the inevitable “why have you got two beers?” question can be embarrassing and long-winded.

Then there’s beer style. Heavily hopped IPAs are the unfortunate casualty in all this; although very bold in flavour, they rely heavily on the aromatics. I haven’t completely stopped drinking them, but I have to be pretty careful. What could be more disappointing than ordering a pricy 2/3rds of hazy, hyped DIPA and having to desperately chase the ghosts of flavours that should be dancing a samba on your tongue?

I’ve found myself gravitating towards simpler, subtler beers – not because my palette has ‘developed’ or ‘matured’, which would be self-congratulatory, elitist nonsense. I just find that the roasted coffee notes of a porter, the bready malt and grassy hops of a pilsner, the rustic hay and pepper of a saison, all present themselves boldly on my palette.

There is a satisfaction in going back to these beers, which can be unjustly overlooked in the IPA-driven craft beer world. I’d prefer to just drink whatever I wanted, though. And I’d like to go back to ordering one beer at a time. It would make buying rounds with my friends so much simpler.

Friday, 28 February 2020

On veganism and beer


Recently I told one of the young people I work with that I’m vegan, and apparently blew his mind. Every time I see him, he asks me a series of questions about how this works, ranging from “are those leather shoes?” to “can you have bread?” It is quite possible that he will one day ask me if vegans can drink beer, and I will laugh and say “of course we can.” Usually.

Once, it was simple. If you needed to ensure your beer was dairy-free, you could simply avoid anything sold as “milk stout.” Clear, obvious, right there in the name – this stout contains milk. Or at least, lactose, the sugar found in milk, which gives these beers their creamy sweetness. Sorry, vegans, look elsewhere. These days, lactose doesn’t always announce itself with such clarity.

By law, the presence of milk must be clearly signalled in ingredients lists on bottles and cans, so shopping for beer isn’t an issue. In a pub or bar, though, you don’t have access to this information. A pump clip might make things more obvious, but modern craft beer bars don’t always display these.
Certain beer styles are easily swerved. Take the much-maligned “pastry stout” subgenre (which, incidentally, I was fond of when I was merely vegetarian). Omnipollo’s Chocolate Vanilla Coconut Blackout Cake Imperial Stout doesn’t sound very plant-based, and I’m happy to stick to that assumption and look elsewhere. Terms like “milkshake” and “ice cream” may seem infantile when applied to beer, but they’re useful because they heavily imply the presence of lactose.

Beyond that, things can get a little hazy – no pun intended. Heavily dry-hopped IPAs, especially those with added fruit, increasingly turn to milk sugar for balance, as have some big, dark beers – often imperial stouts or even Baltic porters. At the point of sale, it can be difficult to establish whether these beers are suitable for vegans. You could ask the bar staff, but they often aren’t sure themselves. Looking online often isn’t much help either. The result is that I’m now hesitant to order beer styles once loved, just in case I end up with dairy ingredients in my glass.

Veganism is, for me and many others, a strongly held ethical position and as such, I would be irritated to unwittingly lapse on this conviction by drinking an inadequately-labelled, lactose-laden IPA. This shouldn’t be underestimated. But it is also worth remembering that some people are lactose intolerant, and such a mistake could cause them real discomfort.


To be clear, I don’t really care if breweries make beers that aren’t vegan, if that’s what they want to do.  But Ritchie Bosworth, head brewer at Coventry’s Twisted Barrel brewery, suggest there’s no need. “In IPAs/Pales, lactose is only really used to balance beers that have been badly designed in the first place, with sweetness required to balance an excessive use of hops,” he writes in an email. “In most cases, these pale beers are too vegetal/bitter to drink without the addition of lactose to balance them out.” All of Twisted Barrel’s beers (and all food served at their taproom) is, and always has been, vegan.

In dark beers, Twisted Barrel use several methods to replicate the sweetness and body of lactose. They mash at high temperatures, producing longer, complex sugar chains yeast struggles to process, leaving more sugars present in the final product. This is particularly effective with old English yeast strains that don’t ferment complex sugars. Oats and wheat mimic the sweet, creamy qualities, especially in combination with vanilla pods; this combination is often used in their pale beers too. In beers like Gods Twisted Sister: Breakfast Edition, oat milk is even added for smooth, silky texture. This goes in after the boil at a rate of around 1ml oat milk per litre of beer.

There is, then, an argument that brewers should think more carefully about the drinkers they’re losing by using lactose unnecessarily. But either way, my principal problem is that there is no consistency in the way pubs and bars communicate whether what they serve is suitable for vegans. Some breweries make efforts to communicate this their end, and I know I’ll always be safe with something from Cloudwater or Moor. Whether pubs pass on this message is less certain – sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. If I walk into a bar with 10+ taps and only one is actually labelled vegan (which isn’t unfeasible), am I really to assume that none of the other options are suitable?

Isinglass remains a complicating factor. This fining agent, made from the swim bladders of farmed fish, isn’t really suitable for vegans or vegetarians. Frustratingly, its use is difficult to detect. It isn’t listed as an ingredient even when it’s used and bar staff often don’t know. Beers that don’t use it, perhaps not fining their beer at all, don’t always make this clear, either. I will confess to adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to isinglass – many vegans will be more particular.

By way of a solution, I point to my local brewery, Unbarred. They’re known for hazy IPAs and beers with culinary adjuncts or added flavours – Honeycomb Milkshake Pale and Chai Latte are fairly typical examples. Both contain lactose. However, in the Unbarred taproom, these beers are clearly marked with an ‘(L)’, and vegan beers with ‘(VG)’. This is so simple that I have to ask – why isn’t everybody already doing this?