Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight

Last Friday finally saw the back of the beer ordering process for the Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival. I can’t say I’m sorry it’s over now, as it was quite a long drawn out process with several selection meetings to sit through, numerous enquiries to send out, replies to respond once details were received of which beers were available, and at what price. Part of me can’t help thinking the whole process would have been a lot easier if we had just gone to a couple of beer agencies and, after making our selection, placed the order with them. Instead we went down the path of dealing direct with the individual brewers, fully expecting to make significant cost-savings. However, after looking at one particular agency that we were obliged to use in the end because a few of the breweries weren’t able to deliver direct, there wasn’t that much difference in price after all. 

I say “we”, because there was supposed to be two of us involved with the selection and ordering, but as things turned out it was me who ended up doing virtually all the ordering and most of the chasing. Such is life, but at least it's done and dusted and all we have to do now is to wait and hope that our suppliers deliver what they have said they will, and on the various days agreed. Obviously a lot of work still needs to be done, but two of my colleagues have agreed to produce the festival programme, and put together the various tasting notes. Then a couple of days in advance of the festival, a group of volunteers will assembly at Spa Valley’s headquarters at Tunbridge Wells West Station for the delightful task of getting the beer racked up on the stillages, ready for tapping and spiling. 

Hopefully our volunteer group will be a large one, as lifting the beers up onto the stillages, especially when they’re arranged three high, is back-breaking work as anyone involved in the past with running a beer festival will testify! Then there’s the weekend of the festival itself and the same question again – “Do we have enough volunteers?” It got pretty manic last year, especially on the Saturday during the late afternoon/early evening session. We’re hoping we’ve got this vital area covered much better this year, but there’s always a danger that not everyone who promises to turn up and help actually materialises on the day.

Going back to the beer order for a moment; this year we’ve decided to make a feature of  “Green Hopped Beers”, bearing in mind there will be a lot of these beers available in October. Kent and East Sussex are traditional hop-growing counties, so it is only fitting that the vast majority of brewers in the area have decided to produce one or more Green Hopped Ale, meaning we really will be spoiled for choice in respect of these beers. 

For the un-initiated Green Hopped Beers are produced using hops that have been freshly gathered, with sometimes a little as a few hours occurring between harvesting and brewing. The normal practice of course, is to dry the hops to reduce their water content in order to preserve them. After drying they are traditionally pressed into large hessian sacks (plastic sacks are often substituted these days), which has the advantage of keeping the air away from them and ensuring a long shelf life. After all, they will have to last for at least a year until the next season’s harvest is available. Modern variations on this practice include pulverising the whole hop flowers, and then pressing them into small pellets. Pellets take up far less space than traditionally pressed hops and, as they can be stored in airtight containers, this gives the added advantage of an even longer shelf life. Some hop merchants take things a stage further, and produce a hop extract whereby the active resins and flavouring compounds are extracted from the hop flowers, and then concentrated into a syrup-like gloop. Beers produced using hop extract though are often lacking in taste, aroma and character, and the use of such extracts is frowned upon by traditional brewers.

Because “green hops” are used straight from the hop gardens, and are not dried or processed further, they are bursting with attractive hop flavours and aromas. This means that a beer brewed using this type of hops will be very clean tasting, superbly fresh and wonderfully hoppy. They can also be somewhat unpredictable, primarily because the growers and brewers will not have had much chance to assess bitterness and aroma levels on a properly scientific basis. This, for many drinkers, only adds to their appeal. The other attraction is their seasonality, with only the limited time during the month of September available for green-hopped beers to be produced.

With the seasonality aspect in mind, for the second year running now, the vast majority of Kent’s 30 or so brewers have got together to hold the “Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight”,  which kicks off this coming weekend in Canterbury, as part of the highly successful Canterbury Food & Drink Festival.  The organisers’ claim that as some Kent are brewing more than one green-hop beer, there will be approaching 40 of these beers available. A group of us are heading over to Canterbury on Friday to sample as many as we can, but we can always catch up on those beers we miss at our own festival, at the Spa Valley Railway, next month. 

The Canterbury Food & Drink Festival takes place from 27th to 29th September in Dane John Gardens, Canterbury. Opening times are 10am to 6pm Friday and Saturday, plus 10am to 5pm Sunday. Admission is free, and as well as the Green Hop Ales, there are all sorts of other lovely goodies on sale from picnic fayre, tapas, fine dining, hog roast, wines and ciders all provided by award winning local food producers from throughout the south east. The event also features live music and a vintage funfair.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Crafty Spoons?


Following his post last week, about "craft keg", I promised Curmudgeon,  that I would provide details of what I thought was "craft keg" being sold at our local JDW in Tonbridge, the Humphrey Bean. Well I'm not certain I would class "Revisionist Craft Lager" from Marstons as "craft", although I'm not sure about the American Pale Ale from Shipyard Brewing Company of Portland, Maine, USA. Strangely enough, this 4.5% beer is not listed on their website, which makes me wonder, if the beer being brewed over here, and if so, are Marstons the company behind it? Can anyone shed a little more light on this, please?

For the record, I didn't try either beer, as it was shortly after 9am yesterday, and I was in Spoons for breakfast! Also, I never want to be served with the first pint of the day from the beer lines, regardless of whether it's cask or keg, and I know the Humphrey Bean has a particularly "long  pull" from the cellar to the bar.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes

Most beer drinkers will know that the visual aspect of a glass of beer plays an important role in the appreciation and enjoyment of the final product; most sensible beer drinkers that is! Of course there are those who prefer to “neck” their beer straight out of the bottle, trendies on the one hand and out and out plebs on the other. With the visual side of things missing, beer consumed in this fashion just doesn’t taste as good. This applies to even the lowest forms of brewing; the likes of American Budweiser, Fosters, Carling etc., as even with these lacklustre brands, the brewers will have gone to great lengths to ensure the consumer ends up with an attractive looking, crystal clear product in the glass. Why then swig the stuff out of a bottle?

The Belgians have long realised the importance of matching beers with the correct size and shape of glass, although they have gone a stage further by offering branded beer glasses. Running a bar in Belgium must be a nightmare in respect of the different types of glasses one needs to stock, but I have to say the correct glass for each individual type and brand of beer does add something to the drinking experience. Branded glasses are nothing new in the UK either, even though the majority are chosen from the most popular styles of pint glasses, with the appropriate brewer’s logo, or brand name shoved on them. I have some interesting examples at home; some dating back to the 1950’s, or perhaps even earlier, which show that brewers have been promoting their wares in this fashion, for a long time.

The importance of good glassware to the enjoyment of good beer, was brought home to me back in the summer, during my visit to Franconia, primarily because in many places there was an absence of glassware altogether! In this region of Germany, ceramic, stoneware mugs, known as “Steinkrugs” are the order of the day, particularly in the more rural spots. Stoneware mugs have the advantage of helping the beer to remain cool over a longer period of time than would be the case with glass vessels. Many of them are branded, normally with the brewer’s name or logo fired onto them. I can appreciate the reason for their popularity, having experienced on my past two visits temperatures in the mid 30’s, but I do strongly feel that however functional and traditional they might appear, they detract from the enjoyment and appreciation of the beer, especially as the beers of this region are among some of the finest in the world.

Every time I have had a Franconian, or indeed other beer, served in this fashion, I can’t help wondering what the colour of the beer is. I’ve tried waiting for the foam to subside and then trying to peer down through the beer, but the off-white-greyish colour of the stoneware prevents all attempts at trying to guess what the true colour of the contents of my mug, actually is. I have actually discovered that some of the beers at least are lighter in colour than they seem, proving that taste is no indication of colour. I know this because I brought a number of bottles home with me, having enjoyed their draught counterparts whilst over there. I still remain curious as to the colour of a lot of these beers, and next time I visit the region I’m tempted to take a small glass mug with me, so I can decant a small amount and see for myself!

Of course totally opaque drinking vessels are not exclusive to Franconia. Tankards fashioned out of pewter were once common place in English pubs, and a few decades ago seemed to be experiencing something of a revival. I remember receiving from my parents, neither of whom are drinkers, a pewter pot, for my 18th birthday in what was probably some kind of “right of passage”, something that seemed the right thing to do when their eldest, and only, son turned eighteen. When I proudly presented it at the local pub, the landlord warned against polishing it, and told me the pewter would take a while to “condition”. By this he meant it would need to develop a protective “oxide” coating, before it could be drunk out of. Of course I couldn’t wait for this to happen and insisted on being served a pint in it straight away. It was then I noticed the characteristic “pewter taint”, a slightly metallic aftertaste associated with this alloy. Modern pewter is lead free and, so it is claimed, does not taint the drink which is kept in it.

I disagree, as although I have been through phases of using my pewter tankard, mainly at home, I still find a metallic tang present; even after all these years! Pewter, like stoneware, does keep the beer cool for longer, although I am not sure quite how long this effect would last in the hot temperatures found in Central Europe during the summer months. Pewter, being a metal, is a far better conductor of heat than ceramic, and would undoubtedly heat up much quicker than the latter, thereby negating any initial advantages it may have.

Leaving matters of taint and rate of heat transfer aside for a moment, I can think of few, if any, reasons for wanting to drink out of a pewter pot (ok, if you knock a pewter tankard over, or drop it on the floor, it won’t break). Pewter has none of the advantages of stoneware, but all the disadvantages; the biggest one for me being not being able to see what I am drinking. Pewter also has associations with middle-aged Morris-Dancers (tankards hanging from clips on their belts), or the worst sorts of bearded beer-bores and scoopers! Having said that, I’m still tempted to give my old tankard another go, solely out of curiosity and in the privacy of my own home! I want to see whether years of standing empty in the cupboard has done anything to diminish that unpleasant metallic taste, or whether the beer still ends up tasting like metal polish!

To sum up, like it or not, we all drink with our eyes – “bottle neckers” and ultra-conservative Franconians aside, meaning that glass is not only the best, but also the obvious choice for the proper appreciation and enjoyment of good beer.

Footnote: I retrieved my pewter tankard, dusted it down and gave it a thoroughly good wash and rinse. That was this afternoon, and this evening I poured half a bottle of Brakspears Bitter into it, and poured the rest of the bottle into my usual drinking glass. 
Verdict: still a definite metallic taste, and nose, lurking in the background when the beer is drunk from the pewter pot. Untainted, and exactly how the brewer intended the beer to taste, when drunk from a glass. Sad to say, but my old pewter tankard will be relegated to the back of the cupboard again!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Some Unusual Beers for the Area

It’s often interesting turning up at a pub, a few days after their beer festival has officially ended, just to see what’s left. This wasn’t our intention when we visited the Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells, the other Tuesday evening, as we were there for our regular monthly Spa Valley Railway Beer Festival “update meeting”. Nevertheless it was good to have some unusual and indeed novel beers to try; something, if you like, to act as a “sweetener” to make a potentially dull and boring meeting seem a little less tedious. The beers were left over from the weekend festival, put on by the Royal Oak to introduce customers to some different beers; something they would not normally get the opportunity to drink, and thus something out of the ordinary.

My first choice though was a bit of a disaster. I had arrived slightly late for the meeting; 8pm starts are a bit rushed for me, and proceedings were already underway when I walked into the pub. Deep Porter 4.5%, from New Plassey Brewery, took my fancy, I nodded to it and the barman asked if I wanted a pint? I replied in the affirmative, the barman pulled the pint for me, it looked good, I pocketed my change and had a quick slurp before walking over to where my friends were sitting to take my place at the meeting. On the way over I had an inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the beer. Sharp-tasting with a sour edge! I had another slurp, after I had sat down and offered my apologies for being late, but that was no better; in fact it was worse. I noticed that the person sitting next to me was also drinking a porter. I asked him if it was the same one as me. It was, but he was at least a third of the way through his. “Unusual”, was his comment; more like “off” was my reply. After a couple more pulls at the beer I decided that I definitely didn’t want to drink a pint of it so, after apologising again to the chairman, I walked back across to the bar, and asked for it to be changed for something else.

“Ah”, said the barman, “that one was on when I came on shift. I wasn’t sure about it myself, but you’re the second person to return, so what would you like instead?” I opted for a pint of Rye Pale Ale, from The Liverpool Craft Brewing Company; a 5.0% full-bodied pale ale, which was rather nice. Mine host did the decent thing and turned the offending pump clip round, so that no-one else would end up with a dodgy pint; this was good of him, as it is not his pub. To me, it looked (and tasted), like an infected cask, rather than something which had sat around opened for too long, but full marks to the barman for taking it off sale.

My second pint of the evening was also from The Liverpool Craft brewing Company. This time it was American Red. It was enjoyable, but not as much to my taste as the Pale Ale was. I am not a huge fan of the “Red Ale” style; possibly it’s the inclusion in some versions of roasted barley, giving the beer a slightly “burnt “and to me, an unpleasant taste. (The beer which always springs to mind here is Hobgoblin; but there are others). Nevertheless, after the unpleasant experience earlier with the Deep Porter, it was nice to have something another beer that was perfectly ok to drink.

The third, and final, beer of the evening was Teleporter – a 5% porter, brewed by the Summer Wine Brewery, from Holmfirth (where else?). This was dispensed from a cask perched up on the bar, and because of this the beer was at room, rather than cellar temperature. This was despite an insulated jacket around the cask but then, on the other hand, the beer had probably been there since the weekend. Although slightly “tired”, the beer was still quite drinkable, but I still decided to make it the final beer of the evening as there was work in the morning, and I didn’t want the encumbrance of a “thick head” to slow me down and muddle my thinking.

Like I said at the beginning, it is sometimes good to catch the tail end of a festival. In the case of the Royal Oak, the festival had been running since the previous Friday, and the theme behind the event had been beers unusual to the area. I would have gone along myself, had the festival not clashed with Maidstone’s one, over at East Malling, which wrote about here. According to friends who did manage to get along though, there was another relative new-comer present, in the shape of Pig & Porter. This is an outfit who offer food as well as beer; an “event catering business” if you like. They’ve been functioning as a “cuckoo” brewery since starting up earlier this year, producing their beers as “guests” in a number of different breweries spread across the South East, but now they’ve acquired a home of their own, for the time being at least, in the premises of the former Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery. Regular followers of this blog will recall that RTWB unfortunately ceased brewing at the end of 2012, after trading for less than three years. 

It’s good news to learn that the mothballed brewing kit  is to be put to good use once again, but the story doesn’t end there as, apparently, Pig and Porter will be sharing the premises, and the equipment, with an Estonian-based concern which is planning to brew a lager for its home market, back in the Baltic States. An interesting development and one which need watching with interest, but it does mean that the West Kent CAMRA area is now home to five independent breweries of various shapes and sizes. Will there be room for them all in the market? Well, that remains to be seen, but in the meantime the local beer scene has never looked so interesting.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Great British Beer Hunt 2013

Having missed the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt for the past two years I was keeping an eye out for this year’s promotion. Even so, had I not taken a chance walk down the “seasonal products” aisle I would have ended up missing this year’s as well!

I won’t bother repeating the details about the GBBH here, but suffice to say things have now reached the final stage where 20 beers from the regional finals stage now go head to head, for a three week period, in 300 Sainsbury’s stores across the country. 

The 20 finalists are shown below.

  • Barney's Brew - Hilden Brewery
  • Gonny no brew that - Wiliams Bros Brewing Co
  • The Honey Thief - Wiliams Bros Brewing Co
  • Hipsway - Wiliams Bros Brewing Co
  • Wayfarer IPA - Orkney Brewery
  • American Pride - Double Maxim Beer Co
  • Crafty Dan - Thwaites Brewery
  • Infra Red - Hardknott UK LTD
  • Swedish Blonde - Double Maxim Beer Co
  • Windermere Pale - Hawkshead Brewery
  • Devon Dreamer - Hunters Brewery
  • Gower Gold - Gower brewery company ltd
  • Harbour IPA - Harbour Brewing Co
  • Harbour Porter No.6 - Harbour Brewing Co
  • Serendipity - Bird's Brewery
  • B Bok - Batemans
  • Black Pepper Ale - Batemans
  • Reindeer Droppings - Ridgeway Brewing
  • Querkus - Ridgeway Brewing
  • Lavender Honey - WBC (T/A Wolf Brewery)
 To start with, I selected six beers which, on paper, took my fancy. All are retailing at just £1.50 each. Over the next three weeks I may choose a few more, but for the record the ones I selected are:
  • Windermere Pale - Hawkshead Brewery
  • Harbour IPA - Harbour Brewing Co
  • Harbour Porter No.6 - Harbour Brewing Co
  • B Bok - Batemans
  • Querkus - Ridgeway Brewing
  • Hipsway - Wiliams Bros Brewing Co
As I drink my way through them, I will let you know what I think, but seeing as they are priced so low, it’s worth nipping down to Sainsbury’s and picking a few of them up yourself.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Maidstone Beer Festival 2013

A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which I described how I was suffering from “Festival Fatigue”; tired and disillusioned with the whole CAMRA beer festival scene. It’s somewhat ironic then that last Saturday I ended up eating my words and going along to the Maidstone Beer Festival – an annual event organised by the local CAMRA branch.

I must confess there is a personal interest here, as back in the early 1980’s when I was living in the county town, I was an active member of Maidstone and Mid-Kent CAMRA, and still keep in touch with several members of the branch. My association with Maidstone CAMRA was strengthened recently, as back in April I met up with a contingent from the branch at the CAMRA Member’s Weekend and AGM in Norwich.

Maidstone CAMRA have been running their annual beer festival for more years than I care to remember, and for a long time the event was held at the Kent Museum of Rural Life, at Addington, just outside Maidstone. I was a regular attendee at this festival, as was my son when he was younger, for there was always something different and interesting for him to see at the museum, whilst I enjoyed a few beers. However, in 2010, alarmed at the increasing costs of admission to the museum which, they believed, was starting to discourage people from attending, Maidstone CAMRA decided to take the festival elsewhere and relocated it to East Malling Research Centre. The event is now organised and run solely by the branch.

For various reasons I have missed attending the festival since its relocation, so Saturday was bound to be an interesting day out. I am vaguely familiar with the site, as in the past I have walked through some of the extensive orchards which form part of this important fruit research centre. To reach East Malling from Tonbridge my friend Don and I travelled by train along the scenic Medway Valley line, from Paddock Wood and then up through Maidstone to Aylesford; site of an ancient river crossing, but these days marred by industrial development and extensive paper mills. There was a free, half-hourly shuttle bus, running between Aylesford station and the Research Centre, making an almost seamless journey. The admission charge to CAMRA members was just £2.00; far better value compared to the £11.00 or so charged by the Alternative Maidstone Beer & Hop Festival, which is run by the Kent Museum of Rural Life, and takes place over the same weekend.

I have to say that East Malling Research Centre is a lovely place to hold a beer festival, with its orchards set against the backdrop of the North Downs and with the dramatic gap formed by the River Medway in the distance. A couple of marquees, set at right angles to each other, are used to store and serve the beers and also to provide a limited amount of indoor seating and protection against the elements, should it decide to rain. That perhaps is the main drawback to this festival, as it is much more weather dependent than most. We were lucky this year, as although temperatures had dropped significantly from their mid-week peak in the upper twenties; for the most part it remained sunny, allowing festival goers the chance to soak up the early autumn sunshine and to listen to the varying live acts that formed the afternoon’s entertainment.

However, although the large open field in which the festival takes place is surrounded by tall hedges, of the type traditionally planted in fruit-growing areas as protection against cold winds, there is little in the way of shelter should the heavens decide to open. We were lucky to get a seat inside the tent, as a couple of Don’s friends, who live locally, had arrived virtually on opening time and had managed to procure a table and chairs, so the folding canvas chairs I had brought as a precaution were not needed.
As for the beer, there was a mix of local brews combined with offerings from further a field, with around 60 beers in total. As things turned out, this was not enough. The sunny weather had attracted large numbers of people, and from mid-afternoon onwards thirsty drinkers were four or five deep at the bar. I felt sorry for the hard-pressed staff as they struggled to serve the hordes of thirsty punters, but by 6pm their tribulations were over and the beer had all run out. The cider had run out an hour or so beforehand, proving how popular this traditional alternative to beer has become in recent years. Unfortunately there were still two hours left, but with no beer left, Don and I decided to make a move, and catch the next bus back to Aylesford station before the queues built up too much, once people decided to leave en mass.

Beer of the Festival for me was Salopian Lemon Dream, a 4.5% bright-golden top-fermented, wheat beer, served “bright”. According to the copious tasting notes supplied as part of the festival programme, the recipe uses a small amount of fresh lemon to compliment the citrus flavours produced by the Goldings, Saaz and Cascade hops. Also on top form were Raspberry Blonde, from Saltaire and Top Totty from Slaters.

Would I go again? Yes if the sun is shining, but definitely not if it is pouring down with rain.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Time to Embrace the Can?

I must admit I’ve never been much of a fan of canned beer. For some reason I’ve always regarded the humble can as inferior compared to the glass bottle, but I’m not quite sure how this prejudice came about. It may date back to when I first started drinking, when 330ml cans were the only size available (apart from the dreaded Watney’s Party Sevens, of course, but that’s a different story!), but  that shouldn't have been a problem seeing as most bottled beers were packaged in smaller half pints (275ml). It may have been down to cans being cheaper, and hence “inferior” to bottles, or it may even date back to when it was necessary to use a can opener with a sharp-point to pierce the top of the can, making two holes, close to the rim, but opposite each other – one to let air in, the other to let the beer out.  Even so, one needed to use a bottle opener to prise off the crown cork, so there’s no real difference in the effort required to get at the contents.

The use of can-openers, of course, pre-dates the humble ring-pull. The first ring-pull can I was aware of, was that for Ind Coope Long Life, export pale ale. (I wasn’t old enough to drink at the time, but I remember being impressed watching the TV ads and seeing the cans being effortlessly opened!).

Compared to bottles though, cans are a comparatively recent form of packaging for beer. They were first introduced in the UK by Felinfoel Brewery of Llanelli, back in 1935, as a means of trying to boost the local tin-plate industry, which was flagging at the time. They had first made their appearance, a few years earlier in the United States, following the ending of Prohibition, but they didn’t really catch on this side of the Atlantic until the late 1950’s – early 1960’s. I have seen photos of these early cans, which were known as “cone-tops”, because they had cone-shaped tops, sealed with traditional crown-caps!

Until then, glass was very much the king, and the decades following the Second World War saw a dramatic increase in sales of bottled beers as consumers embraced the consistency which bottled beer offered, compared to the increasingly variable quality of much of the draught (cask) beer available at the time. Even as late as the early 1970’s, virtually all breweries produced a range of bottled beers, even most of the remaining small independent ones. A flick through the pages of Frank Baillie’s ground-breaking 1972 classic, “Beer Drinker’s Companion” will confirm this.  A decade or so later though, sales of bottled beer experienced a steep decline with the advent of “keg” beers, (effectively bottled beer in a bulk container), and with the increasing popularity, and rise in the consistency, of cask beer, following the success of the “Real Ale Revolution”, sparked by CAMRA.

Things swung back the other way again sometime in the late 80s or even early 90s, with the advent of single 500 ml ale bottles in supermarkets, aimed at the take-home market. Nowadays there is a vast range of bottled beers, both ales and lagers, adorning the shelves of supermarkets and specialist off-licences, but not so large a range of cans.

As mentioned, early cans were constructed out of tin-plate (steel, with a protective coating of tin), which means not only do they have a seam down the side, but they also require both the top and bottom to be welded on as well. During the late 1960s – early 1970’s ’aluminium cans began to make significant inroads into the canned beer market. Aluminium is considerably lighter than steel, and can also be “spun”. This means it is possible to manufacture the body of the can in one piece, leaving just the top to be welded on, normally after filling. The only problem was the inner part of the can, the part in contact with the beer, required a thin plastic coating to prevent the aluminium from giving the beer an unpleasant taint.  The coatings used today have virtually eliminated this problem, so really there are no reasons, apart from those based purely on snobbery, why the can should not take its rightful place as the “de rigueur” container for beer in the take-home market. 

Cans, of course, are much lighter than bottles, and are less bulky as well, but they continue to be regarded as downmarket. The rise in popularity of canned beer in America during the 1950’s, gave rise to the “six-pack” and led to beer packaged in this way being regarded as a commodity, something to be picked up with the rest of the weekly grocery shopping down at the supermarket.  Where America leads, the rest of the world often follows, and a decade or so later slabs of “cooking lager”, sold at giveaway prices, became a familiar sight on the shelves of UK supermarkets. Low prices have not helped the can’s image, but I have a feeling the can is on the verge of a comeback and a reappraisal of its cheap and cheerful image.

In Japan, a country I visited recently, there were no downmarket connotations attached to the can, in fact in an increasingly environmentally aware country, the can is king, so far as the take home market is concerned. This fact was brought home to me whilst shopping in a Kyoto supermarket for items to bring home with me. There were lots of different canned beers on the shelves, but precious few bottles. I remarked on this to one of my Japanese colleagues who was with me at the time, as I was concerned as to whether cans would survive the lengthy flight home in my hold baggage. My colleague replied that he had never had any problems in this respect, so I grabbed a few that took my fancy. He was right of course, and my cans made it home in one piece, and what’s more the contents tasted every bit as good as their draught counterparts I had sampled during my stay in the country. I also got to try a locally-brewed Japanese craft-beer in a Kyoto bar, and that came in a can. Yona Yona Ale proved to be an excellent pale ale, being one of a number of different beers brewed by Yoho Brewing based in the small town of Karuizawa

Leaving aside “cooking lager”, which is purposely sold as a cheap commodity, most of the leading ale brands, such as Fullers London Pride, Greene King Abbot, Wells Bombardier, Badger Tanglefoot etc., are available in cans, here in the UK. One or two of the new wave of “craft-beer” brewers, such as Brew Dog, have packaged some of their higher volume brands in cans as well. It remains to be seen whether others will follow.

There is one additional advantage that cans have over bottles, and that is by their inherent nature they are completely light-proof. As we know, all bottles allow a certain amount of light to pass through them.  This applies to both brown and green bottles, because if they didn’t they would be completely opaque and it would not be possible to view the contents inside. Brown and, to a lesser extent, green bottles filter out the harmful waves of UV light, responsible for imparting that “light-struck”, or “skunked” effect. This can cause unpleasant off-tastes and degradation of the finished beer. Bottles manufactured from clear glass, of course, offer no such protection, but marketing departments, keen to show their company’s beer, and its colour, in the best possible light, often ignore this fact and insist on the beer being packaged in clear glass. There is no possibility of marketing departments doing this with cans; it just cannot happen! The result is a much more stable product.
Is it therefore now time to re-appraise the humble can, drop the misplaced snobbery against this form of packaging, and embrace it for the advantages outline above?

Monday, 2 September 2013

Beer Appreciation

This post was originally written some 15 years ago and describes my introduction to beer, and how I developed both a taste for and an appreciation of the best long drink in the world. It may seem a little dated now, but I have included it it here as my contribution to Boak & Bailey's "Long Post Project".

"The author, Graham Greene, wrote about his first taste of beer in his autobiography "A Sort of Life". He described how, after initially hating the taste, and having to force it down to prove his manhood, he later found the memory of the taste coming back to haunt his thirst during a long walk in the country. Greene went on to describe how he and his companion stopped for a drink plus some bread and cheese at a country inn, where he “drank bitter for the second time and enjoyed the taste with a pleasure that has never failed me since.”

The journalist and pioneering beer writer, Richard Boston in his highly informative and entertaining book "Beer and Skittles", describes a similar sort of experience.

I cannot claim that my first experience of drinking beer was as memorable, or indeed as special. It was at a "Country Fayre", held in the small town of Wye, a few miles from my home village of Brook. I was member of the local scout troop at the time, and our contribution to the Fayre was to run the coconut shy. The main highlight of the event though was to be a re-enactment of a civil-war "skirmish” by members of the “Sealed Knot Society”. 

Watching this colourfully dressed bunch of cavaliers and general bon-viveurs, wandering around the Fayre, prior to the enactment, with a string of pretty girls in tow and clutching their foaming tankards of ale, persuaded myself and a couple of my fellow scouts that a drink would be a good idea. So forgetting all about what Baden Powell might have said, we nipped into the beer tent where I was treated to a light ale by the two patrol leaders. They were both a couple of years older than me, and were no strangers to beer. Like Graham Greene, I wasn't over keen on the taste, but drank it down nevertheless.

The reason I chose light ale was that I believed that the description "light" would adequately describe its taste. However, a comment from one of my two companions, that brown ale was sweeter than light, prompted me to try one the next time.

The occasion was at the house of one of the aforementioned patrol leaders. A group of us would gather there to listen to records and play cards. Bill's father always had a supply of beer in stock and was not adverse to us lads having the odd bottle, or can. I found brown ale to be eminently drinkable and enjoyed it on quite a few occasions.

By the time I reached the VIth form at school, I was a regular visitor at several local pubs. I slowly graduated from bottled beer to draught. In Whitbread pubs I tended to drink brown and mild, whilst in Courage houses I drank Tavern Keg initially, before switching to PBA - a light mild which has long since been discontinued.

Later on my friends and I went through a phase of drinking mild and bitter. This was for the somewhat perverse reason that we liked asking for a pint of "AB" ("And Bitter") and seeing the effect this had on inexperienced bar staff, Experienced landlords who had been in the trade a long time knew of course what we were referring to; the abbreviation referring to the fact that at one time mild was the normal drink, and that the bitter mixed with it was, in effect, an addition (hence “AB”).

I ought to add a word or two here about lager. I first became aware of this drink when along with a couple of school friends I spent an evening in the seaside town of Folkestone. We were joined on this visit by a friend of one of my companions who was a couple of years older than the rest of us. This particular character thought he was the height of sophistication, smoking cigars and knocking back a drink called “lager and lime”. For some reason I thought that this was a soft drink; the confusion in my mind having arisen from a mixture sold in cans when I was a boy called “Limeade and Lager”! After trying a pint or two I soon realised my mistake, but although the straw colour of the drink looked attractive, the combination of lime with British-brewed Harp Lager was not to my taste.

As I became more mature I developed a liking for bitter itself. I have written elsewhere about how I first sampled cask-conditioned Trophy and of my love-hate relationship with Shepherd Neame. I have also described how a burgeoning awareness of the enormous variety of cask beer available, and the different breweries, still in operation during the early 1970's sparked off a life-long interest in beer and brewing.

As well as wanting to sample the bitter ales brewed by as many breweries as possible, I tried to sample the corresponding milds as well. Other styles, such as old ales and barley wines were particularly enjoyable on a cold winter's night, but it was not until the late 1970's that I began to take an interest in Irish Stout.

At the time, Guinness was the only brand of this style of stout available, and I enjoyed it mainly in bottled form. In those days Guinness was naturally conditioned in the bottle, and formed a welcome friend in many an otherwise “fizz only” pub. When I was eventually persuaded to try the "draught" version, I found it a lot less gassy than I had been anticipating, albeit a trifle on the cold side for my liking.

The appearance, in Britain, of Beamish proved to be something of a watershed. This genuine Irish Stout, brewed in Cork, had a chocolate-coffee like aroma that perfectly complemented its hoppy bitterness. For a keg beer it was superb. It was joined soon after by a stout from another Cork brewer - Murphy's. The latter though, was brewed under licence in the UK, and whilst it is a pleasant enough beer it has to my mind never quite matched the taste of its close neighbour.

As the years passed, I slowly learned how to appreciate a good pint and how to recognise a bad one. But it was to be nearly a decade later that I began to take an interest in beer styles from other countries.

My first taste of foreign beers had been during the summer of 1975, when I embarked on a month's travelling round Europe by train. However my travelling companion, Nick and I were on a very tight budget, so beer of any description, yet alone quality beer, was not the highest of our priorities. Lager of course, was the order of the day; we even managed to take in visits to the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam and the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen where the drinks in both instances were provided free of charge!

However, our arrival in Germany proved to be something of an eye opener. We had decided to split up for a few days, the idea being that Nick would spend some time with his then girlfriend, who was studying in Stuttgart, whilst I would stay with an old school friend who was working in Cologne.

We parted company at Hamburg railway station, having made arrangements to rendezvous in Stuttgart a few days later. I boarded the train for Cologne, and was met at the main station by my friend Mick. I was promptly dragged back to the office where my friend was working, to find a party in full swing. The actual reason for the celebration escapes me, but it was a Friday afternoon and someone was either retiring, getting married or had been promoted.  What I do remember was the brightly polished wooden cask standing upright on a table in the corner. There was a small brass tap inserted into the side of the cask, an inch or two above the base, allowing the beer to be dispensed by gravity.

Throughout the afternoon it was a case of “get Michael's friend from England a drink and make sure his glass doesn't get empty!” I've no idea what the beer was, but it tasted superb, especially to someone weaned on English ale that had been forced to put up with cold fizzy lager for the best part of a fortnight. I was drinking on what was virtually an empty stomach, and as the afternoon wore on I became more and more affected by the beer. When Mick's boss suggested stopping off on the way home for a drink, plus a bite to eat, I was all for it.

The following evening, Mick took me to one of Cologne's famous pubs where the local beer style of “Kolsch” was actually brewed on the premises. “Kolsch” is a pale, straw coloured beer which is top-fermented. It can therefore be classed as an ale, despite its lager like colour. I did remember to take notes this time; the tavern was called Paffgen, and although the beer was served in tall thin 33cl glasses, we managed to put a fair few of them away that night.

The beer drank on the rest of that holiday was unremarkable. Almost exclusively it was cold, gassy pilsner style lager. However, my experiences in Cologne had awakened an interest in German beer at least.

Intermittent visits to France, Italy and Germany, plus a holiday in Spain in the years that followed, afforded precious little opportunity to sample any decent beer. In France, Italy and Spain, wine was the order of the day, whilst a single business trip to Hamburg, gave very little time to sample anything other than bottled pilsner.

Then, in 1984, I spotted a trip to Czechoslovakia being organised by the now sadly defunct, CAMRA Travel. I persuaded a couple of friends to accompany me on the trip (they didn't need much persuading!) We duly paid our deposits and waited eagerly for the day of our departure to arrive. I have written a separate article about the trip, but suffice to say genuine, Czech-brewed pilsner was a real eye opener, and a superb and well-crafted drink to boot. The beer we sampled in the Pilsner Urquell Brewery ranks amongst the finest I have ever tasted, as was the beer in several of Prague's fine old taverns, including U Svatheo Tomase and U Fleku.

Over the last few years my interest in continental beers has widened with my sampling of some of Belgium's delightfully different beer styles. Again, I have written elsewhere about Belgian beer. At beer festivals I have always tried to include the sampling of at least one different foreign beer style. On the home-brew front too I have experimented with the brewing of a number of different beer styles, and have successfully brewed Marzen, Bock, Doppelbock and Rauchbier, as well as Pilsner style beers, using the authentic continental malts and hops which are now available from specialised suppliers.

Despite this burgeoning interest in European beers, I have not neglected indigenous ales, porters, stouts and barley wines. British beers remain first and foremost the main love of my life. This year, (1997) I attended seven different beer festivals. At these events I tasted, for the first time, nigh on 70 new ales; the vast majority of them were excellent, some were superb. Also, in the course of a year’s drinking, I drank 60 different ales in roughly 40 separate pubs; not bad for someone who is not much of a regular pub-goer these days.

As you can see, the quest I embarked on some 30 years ago, is still going on, and will hopefully continue for many years to come."