Monday 26 September 2016

A Short Break

Looking back over the past month, I appear to have been rather busy bashing out posts on a wide range of subjects. With two brewery visits to write about, a pub threatened with closure, but granted a reprieve, fish products in beer, green hops, trying to take the perfect photo of that perfect pint and the desire to enjoy that pint in peace and quiet; September’s certainly been a busy month!

It’s time for a short break now, as this week I’m heading off to foreign parts; to the city of Regensburg, in eastern Bavaria, to be precise, for some rest and relaxation with the family and the chance to chill out for a while.

My son and I have been to Regensburg before; back in 2008. It’s a lovely old city in its setting on the River Danube which, unlike many German cities, suffered very little damage during the Second World War. Today it’s a thriving university city, and is also home to substantial plants operated by both BMW and Siemens.

More importantly, for the beer lover, Regensburgis also home to three long-established brewing companies in the form of Bischofshof, Kneitinger and St Katherinen (Spital Brauerei). The latter has a beer hall and lovely shady garden, overlooking the Danube, which must rank as one of the best settings imaginable to enjoy a few beers. It is also possible to enjoy beers from the nearby Kloster Weltenburg in the city, as well as Hofbräu and Kloster Andechs from Munich.

As often seems to happen, there are a couple of events happening locally, which I will miss. The first is a “tap-takeover” by Tiny Rebel Brewery, of Fuggles Beer Café in Tunbridge Wells, whilst the second is a similar event at the Old Fire Station in Tonbridge, with Old Dairy Brewery, providing the beer.

Never mind; you can’t win them all, as the saying goes, and some tasty Bavarian beer, served and enjoyed in an historic city, should more than make up for me missing these events at home. So, no posting for a while, but no doubt there will be plenty to write about when I return.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Kent Green Hop Beer Festival 2016

Friday 23rd September was the date for the launch of this year’s Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight. With the weather set fair I booked the day off, and joined a group of 10 local CAMRA members and friends, to travel across the county to Canterbury to attend the launch of this now annual event, at the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival.

I was probably over-dressed for the weather, although the fleece I was wearing did prove useful towards the end of the day, when the sun started to go down; but walking through the busy streets of Canterbury, en route to the festival, it seemed as though summer was still well and truly with us.

The Canterbury Food & Drink Festival takes place over a long weekend, and is held in the city’s Dane John Gardens. This is an attractive public space which lies in the shadow of Canterbury’s medieval city walls. The festival was in full swing when we arrived, and the Gardens were thronged with people who had come along to enjoy the autumn sunshine and to sample some of the goodies on offer at the event.

The festival is Kent’s largest food festival, and with around 100 traders signed up, there was something in the culinary line to suit all tastes. I last attended the event back in 2013, and was surprised to see how much the festival has grown in the last 3 years. The types of food were too many and too varied to list, but must have covered virtually the whole spectrum of comestibles and the range of different drinks was just as wide and varied.

Cider as well as beer was available
Although we had come for the beer, there were local ciders, wines, cordials and even a stall from Kent’s first Micro-Distillery! The Green Hop Beers were housed in a separate marquee, at the foot of the ancient mound, just around the corner from the main section of the gardens. With the organisers claiming this will be the one location and occasion where all available Kent Green Hop Beers will be served in one place at the same time, it was definitely the place to be, for anyone wanting to sample these stunning beers.

Beers are normally brewed using hops which have been dried. Drying helps to preserve the important flavouring characteristics of the hops and ensures the harvested crop lasts throughout the year. Hops providing the “seasoning” to the beers and impart tanginess, bitterness and aroma which contrast with the sweetness and “body”, obtained from the malt.

Enjoying the festival and the sunshine
Green Hop Beers are made with fresh or “green” hops, and the resulting beers have a characteristic fresh taste because the green hops used contain oils and other aroma compounds that are normally lost when hops are dried. The brewers make sure the hops are as fresh as possible by using them within 12 hours of being picked. Because brewing with green hops can only be done during harvest, their use creates a very special beer with a truly unique flavour.

Brewing using green hops is a relatively new idea, and whilst some might describe it as slightly “gimmicky”, the idea has really caught on, especially as they have some amazing flavours due to the abundance of hop oils and other flavouring compounds. These are elements which are either diminished, or lost altogether during the drying process. There is a normally a resinous tang to the beer, and a distinct mouth-feel, which is noticeable in the form of a slight furriness on the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

There were around 30 Green Hop beers available at the festival; all were brewed by Kent-based breweries, with some companies producing more than one. We were disappointed not to see a beer from local hero Larkin’s, but we knew from the brewery’s Facebook page that the hops were only harvested last week (Larkin’s grow the bulk of their hops),  which would have left insufficient time to brew the beer and have it ready for sale.

There will undoubtedly be a Green Hop Beer from Larkin’s at the SpaValley Railway Festival, which my local CAMRA branch helps run ever year, in conjunction with this heritage railway organisation, which operates trains on a restored railway line, between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge. This year’s festival, which takes place between 21st and 23rd
October, will be the sixth such event, and like previous years Green Hop Beers will be an important feature. We have ordered 28 of these beers and so far 22 have been confirmed; so if you were unable to get to Canterbury, take a trip to Tunbridge Wells, ideally by train, for what must be the second largest collection of Green Hop Beers available, anywhere this year.

So what of the Green Hop Beers at this year’s festival? Well, according to the judges, the overall winner was Green Giant a monster 6% IPA from Kent Brewery, hopped with an enormous amount of East Kent Goldings, but my personal favourite was the 5% East Kent Brewers’ Collaboration Beer. Also good was the Gadds’ Green Hop Ale 4.8%, bittered with East Kent Goldings and the 4% Challenger Green Hop from Old Dairy Brewery. Incidentally, Old Dairy brewed three different beers; each using a different Green Hop variety.

There was talk amongst our group though, that this year’s beers seemed somewhat “tame” compared to previous years. Most seemed to be lacking the intense resinous hop oil finish which is such a characteristic of Green Hop Beers, and we put this down to a number of factors; the chief being experience.

By that I mean when brewers first started making these beers, they were unsure how many hops to add to the brew. Brewing calculations, and hence ideal hopping rates, are based on the alpha acid content of dried hops; information which is normally supplied by the grower. In most instances, figures for alpha acid content are not available for un-dried Green Hops, so it was very much a case of “suck it and see”.

or beef?
The result was these intensely oily hop bombs, which we all loved, but did the public at large? And given the high price of hops generally, were such large amounts of hops economically unviable? Brewing Green Hop Beers takes a fair bit of organisation, as the hops have to be used within 12 hours of being harvested. Several breweries have competed to set records for the fasted time from picking to adding the hop cones to the copper, but again with all hands required, Green Hop Beers can work out expensive for the brewer. At the Festival, they were all priced at £4 a pint, but there were obviously extra overheads involved in exhibiting and selling at the event.

I am looking forward to sampling many more Green Hop Beers over the coming few weeks, and especially at our Spa Valley Railway Festival, towards the end of next month, and will make a note of which I find the hoppiest and most true to form.

The obligatory visit to the New Inn
Finally, it is worth mentioning that there were some “ordinary” non-Green Hop beers available at Canterbury. It was pleasing to see relative newcomer, Romney Marsh Brewery there, with a stand selling three of their cask beers and also some of their bottled ales. The 4.1% Marsh Gold, which is normally a bottled beer only, was absolutely stunning and was enjoyed by all of us who tried it. Kent Brewery were also selling three of their non-Green Hop beers, as were Canterbury Brewers.

We left the festival shortly before it closed at 6pm, calling in at the lovely little New Inn on our way back to the station. As always it was good to visit Canterbury and the fact that we were again lucky with the weather, made it a smashing day out.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Photographing Beer

Just about right

As a regular blogger I have always tried to include relevant photos in my posts, as not only do they break up what can sometimes be, large and somewhat daunting-looking blocks of text, but they also attract the reader’s interest and help draw him or her into the main subject matter.

I have tried, wherever possible, to use my own photos, as not only are they more personal, but they are often more relevant. Of course, this is not always possible, but relying upon online sources is often fraught with difficulties, especially over the issue of copyright, so it is always preferable to try and use original and topical photos taken by oneself.

Now I used to fancy myself as a bit of a lens-man, and back in the day I had a pretty decent 35mm SLR, complete with a number of interchangeable lenses. I also had the equipment to process my own black & white films; it's still up in the loft! However, times change and technology moves on, and the world of celluloid film, along with developing and printing photos, now seems like ancient history, following the rise of modern digital photography.

Too much reflected light
Despite jibes from my family, about lugging all that camera gear around, I stuck with my trusty Pentax, until about eight years ago, when I finally accepted the inevitable, and switched to digital. So from carting a bulky SLR around, I went completely the other way and started using the camera on my Smartphone.

It made sense, as I normally had the phone with me. It was also light enough to carry in my pocket, easy to use, and I didn’t have to wait for the photos to come back from the processors. More to the point, digital photos are easy to upload and can, if necessary, be altered using simple computer software. The only trouble was, the quality was nowhere near that achievable from a decent camera.

It's easier with dark beers
I bit the bullet again back in 2015, when I pooled the money I’d been given for my 60th birthday, and bought a half decent, compact digital camera. The difference in quality was noticeable straight away, so having now acquired a reasonable camera it seemed a good idea to learn how to get the best out of it.

Step forward renowned Dutch photographer TeoKrijgsman, who gave a presentation on “Beer Photography”, at last month’s European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam. Perhaps the presentation should have been titled “How to take eye-catching photographs of beer”, because whilst I had never heard of Teo before the conference, once he had shown us some of his work, I realised that here was someone who could take photos of beer and make them look really sexy!

Teo started with the basics and said that whilst the advent of digital photography has made things a lot easier, taking a good photo is as hard now as it was 100 years ago. So to try and précis what we were told, especially in relation to photographing beer, I will attempt to break the topic down by listing out some of the bullet points.

  • The basis of a good image is making the right choices.
  • It is important to know what goes on inside the camera, as well as what is happening in front of it.
  • It is vital to have total control over this, as it is the key to taking a good photograph,
  • A tripod is often essential in order to hold the camera still, and in one place.It also ensures your photos are sharp, and in focus.
  • When photographing beer, remember it is a product and photographing a product well is one of the hardest things to so.
Too much refelction from use of flash. (Good head though)
Moving on and going into slightly more detail, remember that light will pass straight through glass, almost as if the glass does not exist. It is therefore vital to understand the importance of light when making a photo; especially one incorporating a glass of beer.

Light will obviously pass through the beer, but some will also be reflected back; the amount varying with the colour and/or clarity of the beer. A glass of beer will have foam on top of the beer, and bottles will normally have labels. Bottles in fact can be tricky because of the colour of glass, the presence of any labels and, of course, the curved shape of the bottles. This curvature effect also applies to a glass.

To overcome problems associated with reflected light, make sure there is a light source behind the beer, when taking the photo, but try and ensure the source of the light is out of sight. Photographing a glass of beer with a window, or a lamp behind is one way of doing this, but make sure the light source is not so powerful that it “washes out” the rest of the image. A more subtle way of providing additional light, is to place a piece of white paper underneath the glass.

A good effort
Professional photographers use many tricks to enhance the look of the product they are photographing, and in the case of beer, Teo told us how a pinch of salt, added to the beer, causes it to foam quite dramatically, creating that tight, thick head which advertisers like to show us. Another trick is to spray a mixture of glycerine and water on the outside of the glass, using one of those cheap, hand-held spray-bottles. This gives the impression of beads of condensation on the outside of the glass or bottle, with the added advantage that these droplets won’t run down the outside and spoil the effect!

Teo did show us some quite stunning examples of his work, in the form of a series of magazine shots he did for Dutch brewer, Grolsch, but these were all carefully staged and composed, and not the sort of work taken in the heat of the moment in a crowded pub or bar.

Outside in shaded light - just right
Obviously the detailed stage-management of the scene and the sorts of tricks mentioned above are for professionals, and as most of us would want to drink the beer once the shoot has finished, adding salt to it, or spraying glycerine around, would quickly render the beer unpalatable. So in the question and answer session which followed, I asked Theo what tips he could give for photographing beer in a “live” environment. By that I meant in a pub, or bar, both of which could be busy, with all sorts of distractions both in front of the subject and behind it.

Subtle backlight
This is important, as many writers and bloggers will want to write something about the beer they have just drunk, so they need to know how to take the best picture under what an often be, trying circumstances. Theo drew attention to the window option, highlighted earlier, but accepted that as this wasn’t always practical, or even possible, the next best thing was to provide light either directly behind the glass or bottle, or from the side. (Side-lighting is more effective for bottles, because the glass will normally be coloured).

Don't use flash when photographing unfiltered beers!
One of the best and most practical light sources is the torch, which many people have as an accessory on their Smartphone, so after the afternoon’s session had finished, many of us had a go at using this technique. You can see some of my efforts interspersed amongst the text of this blog, and there are also some examples showing what not to do. But in general I feel we all came away from the session with an enhanced knowledge of how to take a better photo and, more importantly, how to apply some of these techniques to photographing beer.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

In the Pipeline

Just over a year ago I was fortunate to visit the De Halve Maan Brewery (the Half Moon Brewery), in the historic city of Bruges. I was there with a group of beer bloggers and writers, on the last day of the European Beer Bloggers post-conference tour. We had spent the night in Bruges, after a packed day touring round East Flanders, and the following morning had been treated to a walking tour of the city.

The picture-postcard centre of Bruges attracts some 6.5 million tourists a year and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is filled with Gothic brick buildings, canals and historic churches. I had been to Bruges twice before this visit, but on each occasion had only scratched the surface. It was really good then to walk around, in the company of a locally born guide who really knew her stuff, and learn about the history and the development of this beautiful city, as well as discovering more about some of the lovely old buildings and the stories of the people behind them.

After the final part of the walk, which was through the city’s peaceful and historic Begijnhof community, our guide deposited us at the entrance to the Halve Mann Brewery, where we were expected, as guests, for lunch and a brewery tour. We soon became aware that a new brew house has been installed and shoe-horned into the rather cramped city-centre the site and now occupies much of the downstairs area. 
Picturesque Bruges

De Halve Maan brews beers under two distinct brand names; Brugse Zot with a 6% Blonde beer and a 7.5% Bruin, and Straffe Hendrik, with a 9% Tripel and an 11% Quadrapel. We were fortunate to try both beers over lunch.

Of more interest was the old brewery, which is constructed on a traditional tower principle. The old equipment has been left in situ, and gives a fascinating insight into days gone by. It is open to the public as a museum, but with the help of our attractive and knowledgeable guide we were given access right to the top of the tower, and out into the open, from where we had an amazing view over the rooftops of Bruges. From the rooftop we could see towards De Halve Maan’s modern bottling plant on the edge of the city, and it is the story associated with this facility that I now want to concentrate on.

Whilst we were at the brewery, we were informed of the company’s innovative and ambitious plan to run a pipeline from the brewery, to the bottling plant. This would enable them to remove, at a stroke, the 40 tonne tankers which run daily, back and forth between the two facilities. If you have ever been to Bruges you will at once realise that the city’s narrow streets, many of which date back to the Middle Ages, were not designed with modern transportation in mind, so De Halve Maan were really keen to turn this pipe dream (if you’ll pardon the pun), into reality; not just for their own convenience, but because they desired to give something back to the city.

It is a distance of 3 km (2 miles) between the brewery and the bottling plant, and whilst this may not sound much, a considerable amount of work would be involved in order to bring the scheme into fruition. The pipeline was four years in planning and five months in construction. The cost was €4 million, and De Halve Maan received a subsidy from the Flemish Regional Government, but they also raised about €350,000 through crowd funding. This was one of the largest ever such undertakings in Belgium and contributors are paid back in beer. According to the news reports, those paying the top-rate €7,500 will be rewarded with a bottle of Brugse Zot every day for the rest of their lives.
Old original mash-tun
New mash-tun
I was therefore extremely pleased last Friday, to see the story which appeared on several news sites, that the pipeline is now complete and that beer is flowing from the brewery to the bottling plant. So the previous day the brewery finally bid farewell to the trucks, which had been running at between 10 and 15 per week, through streets designed for a horse and cart and now packed with tourists. The pipeline can pump 4,000 litres of beer an hour, equivalent to 12,000 bottles, all under the streets as you’re walking over them, totally unaware of what is happening below. 

De Halve Maan’s managing director, Xavier Vanneste, said the idea of a pipe had seemed crazy until he saw local workmen laying underground cables and started looking into it. He said that he could have moved the brewing to beside the bottling plant built in 2010 and kept the old site as a museum, but he wanted to retain the beers as products of the old city. “People want to see something that is alive and not just some dusty museum,” he declared.

The brewery should also benefit after volumes grew by 30 percent last year to 5 million litres and are set for a further expansion of 20 percent in 2016. Vanneste said, “We could potentially increase by a factor of four or more with the new pipe. The bottleneck has been the trucks.” 

As a scientist I’m bound to ask a few awkward questions, such as how is the pipeline cleaned, and what happens if here’s a leak? But having said that, pipelines are used to convey commodities such as water, oil and gas over vast distances, without any problems, so transporting beer over a few kilometres shouldn’t be too much trouble.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Missing the Point?

A nice cool pint of Pilsner Urquell
One of the best, and certainly one of the most looked forward to beers I sampled at the recent European Beer Bloggers Conference in Amsterdam, was Pilsner Urquell. Dispensed from one of the brewery’s specially designed, mobile bar and Tankovna set-ups; complete with an integral tank containing  lots of lovely  unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, the prospect of a few chilled glasses was something definitely worth waiting for. The fact is there are only so many over-hopped Double IPA’s, Imperial Russian Stouts or barrel-aged sour beers one can sample, before ones palate becomes jaded and a longing develops for something clean tasting, and much more refreshing.

Oddly enough, I felt the same, the previous year, at the EBBC in Brussels, when after various Lambics, Saisons, strong Trappist Ales and Sour beers I was almost gagging for a pint of something more “normal”, and something more refreshing.

Some serious beer sampling
This got me thinking that much of this beer geek stuff has lost sight of what beer is all about. Sure I enjoy sampling some of these extreme beers, but by their very nature they are not every day quaffing beers; and they are certainly not session beers. Beer is essentially a long drink best enjoyed in the company of friends or like minded individuals, and whilst beers at the cutting edge of what’s possible in a brewery obviously have their place, the pursuit of something different, just for the sake of it, is a road which will eventually lead nowhere.

Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, devotees of the new, the novel and the downright bizarre, will eventually get tired and move onto the next “in thing”. We have already seen this at the extreme end of the craft beer movement, where these acolytes have graduated onto artisan gin, as being the next trend to follow, and the next drink to be seen drinking.

Tankovna - mobile bar-system
It is a pity really because there are some really interesting beers being brewed, with brewers really pushing the boundaries as far as established styles are concerned. Breweries such as De Molen, which I visited recently, and wrote about here, are a case in point. 

The trouble is that for every innovative brewery like De Molen, which 9 times out of 10 gets it right, there are an awful lot of breweries who don’t! I get the feeling that some just experiment for the sake of it; fair enough if you’re not attempting to foist your undrinkable, grossly un-balanced mishmash of a brew on the unsuspecting public. However, if you are nothing more than a crowd-pleaser, turning out the latest “in thing” in the beer world, just to make a fast buck, without having done your homework properly, then you are doing the world of beer and brewing a grave disservice. 
Beer menu - De Molen

Unfortunately, even if you are turning out amazing beers, unless you can shift your market focus away from these fickle followers of trends; fair-weather friends, who have no real appreciation of what your beers are about, and who are only looking for the next “awesome” beer style, then much of your effort and innovation will be wasted. 

I admit it will be a hard task trying to convince the average pub drinker to slip that far out of his or her comfort zone, but a steady trickle down may in the end have some effect. After all, who would have thought we’d see drinkers enjoying a glass of cloudy wheat beer, of a strong Abbey-style beer; even if it is Leffe. Going back even further, who would have predicted the rise and general dominance of that most Germanic drink – lager; especially just a couple of decades after the end of the Second World War?

Lager is obviously now well-established as a mainstream beer in the UK, and some native styles such as mild ale, are in terminal decline, but there is still a huge world of difference between the beers the vast majority of pub goers, and home consumers drink, and the much more “extreme” beers enjoyed in specialist beer bars, or purchased through online suppliers.

For me the ideal strength for a beer is between 4 and 5% ABV. Stronger than this and the beer can be cloying, and even too sweet; but equally a beer much below 3% will be thin and lacking in body. This is why those glasses of Pilsner Urquell were so appealing, and this is why it is so enjoyable to sit in a local pub and quaff a few pints of one of the best beers available in this part of England; namely Harvey’s Sussex Best. 

There really are few things finer in life than the appreciation and enjoyment of good beer; especially when it takes place in an unspoilt country pub, here in the UK, or under the shade of the chestnut trees in a sunlit Biergarten in Bavaria. Some of Belgium’s classic beers too are best enjoyed in a quiet, atmospheric café, tucked away down a side alley in one of the country’s historic towns, and knocking back a few mugs of hoppy Pilsner, in a bustling Prague pub, takes a lot of beating.
Gasthof Brückenwirt - Munich
In effect, what I am trying to say is there’s a beer for every occasion and for every location. In other words, as the advertising campaign tells us, “There’s a Beer for That!” What we shouldn’t’ lose sight of is that beer is a drink to be enjoyed, rather than be dissected and analysed (or should that be analised?), to the nth degree. Somewhere along the way there are people who have lost sight of this, and completely forgotten (that’s if they even knew in the first place), what beer is all about.

Nothing Fishy About Beer

Earlier last week, CAMRA held the official launch of its flagship publication; the 2017 Good Beer Guide. Most beer lovers and, indeed, many pub goers will be familiar with the GBG which is now in its 44th edition. The Guide lists 4,500 pubs which serve the best pints of “real ale” which can be found, up and down the country. It also gives details of every brewery in the country.

Like any self-respecting publisher, CAMRA wanted to give this latest edition the best launch possible, so it put out four different press releases, each highlighting a different aspect of the guide, in order to create the maximum amount of publicity. These releases were:

> Fishy business: Good Beer Guide reports moves to axe isinglass.
> CAMRA's Good Beer Guide warns global brewers threaten choice.
> New ‘safe drinking’ limits are rocky road to prohibition.
> Good Beer Guide celebrates London as Beer Boom City.

Two of these releases were slightly controversial, and whilst such topics might be considered good publicity, unfortunately for the campaign, the press picked up on the first one and ran with it. They ran with it so much, that the use of isinglass finings as a means of clarifying beer, ended up overshadowing the Good Beer Guide itself, and its celebration of all that is best within British pubs and British brewing. 

The press, being the press, also got much of the story wrong; no surprises there, so it’s worth taking a much more detailed look at a practice which has gone on largely unnoticed, and without controversy for a couple of hundred years, and probably much longer. 

When beer is ready to be racked into casks, it typically contains around one million yeast cells per millilitre. This amount of yeast creates an undesirable haze in the beer, so it has to be separated out. If the beer is to be sent out as “brewery conditioned”, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the brewery, in conditioning tanks, there are several means to remove the yeast, prior to packaging. The most common are centrifuging and filtration; both of which result in a nice clear glass of beer.

For cask conditioned beer (“real ale”) though, it is necessary for the yeast to remain in the cask in order to allow a secondary fermentation in the beer. If the cask is left long enough, the yeast will eventually settle naturally, leaving the beer bright and clear, but as most pubs cannot afford this luxury this is where the use of isinglass finings comes into its own.

Isinglass finings - ready for use
To achieve adequate cask conditioning, but also allow the landlord to serve a clear pint, brewers add a processing aid known as finings to the cask; the most common of which is isinglass finings. Isinglass is a type of collagen which is derived primarily from fish swim bladders. At one time these swim bladders were obtained from fish such as sturgeon, but these days the most common sources are catfish, drumfish and threadfins caught in tropical and subtropical waters.

To prepare isinglass as a fining agent, the swim bladders are removed from the fish and dried naturally. If dried too quickly much of the clarification potential can be lost, so this is by nature a slow process. Once dried the bladders are cleaned, sterilised and ‘cut’ in acid. The cutting process results in an emulsion-like white liquid known as isinglass, which is then ready to add to beer.

The means by which clarification of the beer takes place is that the isinglass passes through it rather like a fishing net. The yeast cells become enmeshed in the net by means of an electro-static interaction between the positively charged sites on the collagen molecule and the negatively charged surface of the yeast cell. This creates a bond between yeast and isinglass. This newly created particle is quite large in size and so sediments out of the beer far quicker than the yeast would naturally. The pub landlord now has a nicely clarified cask of ale ready for serving.

As mentioned earlier, this practice has been carried out for many years, and some historians even credit the Romans for its discovery as a means of clarifying wine. Fast forward two thousand years to the 21st Century, and drinkers who are either vegetarian or vegan, are clamouring for the use of isinglass to be restricted, or indeed discontinued. A spokesman for the Vegetarian Society said, "The use of isinglass in drinks production is a major frustration for vegetarian beer lovers as there are very few obvious ways to identify whether or not it has been used." 

Dried swim bladders
This frustration comes about because isinglass is not classified as an ingredient and is therefore exempt from Food Labelling Regulations. Despite pressure for Isinglass to be included under the 2003 EC Labelling Directive, the brewing industry successfully argued that it was a processing aid, not an ingredient that would be consumed. Isinglass finings are a tried and tested method of clarifying beer, and with a long history of use with no recorded incidents of an allergic reaction, there was a good case for isinglass to be exempt from the directive.

Now CAMRA has entered the debate with a call in the 2017 Good Beer Guide for breweries to examine alternatives to isinglass, as a means of clarifying beer. The BBC ran with this story, but at least they were more accurate than some newspapers who falsely reported that CAMRA had called for an outright ban on isinglass. 

CAMRA hurriedly issued a denial, but the damage appears to have been done, with some breweries receiving calls from disgruntled consumers, asking them to discontinue using isinglass in their beers. The BBC contacted a couple of breweries who have done just that, and stopped the use of isinglass, but unfortunately this is where emotion and abject subjectivity starts taking over from reason and scientific fact, with people talking about dead fish and even “fish guts” in beer.

Use of the latter term would imply isinglass is produced from the fish’s digestive system, which of course it is not. The swim bladder, which allows the fish to control its depth without having to expend energy by swimming, is located in the upper portion of the fish, well away from the stomach and other digestive organs. 

It is therefore disingenuous, and also highly emotive to label isinglass as “fish guts”, but whilst I can perhaps understand vegetarians and vegans using such terms, brewers should know better. Of course companies, who don’t use isinglass, may view it as advantageous to describe fined beers in this way, and whilst I personally have no problem with un-fined beers, I think they are being more than a little dishonest with both themselves and the drinking public.

This does lead on to the equally controversial problems associated with hazy beers; un-fined or otherwise. Again, I am quite happy to drink a slightly hazy beer, but unfortunately a substantial number of drinkers are not. The misconception that hazy beer will give you a dose of the “trots” the following day still persists; in fact a friend of mine, who could best be described as “old school”, insists this myth is true and will return any beer with the slightest of haze, even if it tastes perfectly fine. He is not alone, and this false belief, which seems to have been kicking around since before I started drinking, over 40 years ago, persists and brewers who produce un-fined beer will to struggle to dispel it.

Some have taken to issuing notices, which appear at the point of sale (on the pump clip or bottle), advising drinkers that the beer is naturally hazy. These developments are to be applauded, as educating drinkers is the obvious way forward, but what of plant-based alternatives to isinglass, such as Irish Moss or synthetic materials like silica gels?

From what I have read, vegetable derived finings perform well initially, but having worked once are incapable of clearing the beer for a second or indeed third time. This is an important consideration, as a cask may be moved several times during its journey from brewery to pub cellar, and each time the carefully settled sediment is disturbed. This is where isinglass comes into its own, as it is capable of working several times over.

To sum up, isinglass is not derived form “fish guts”, and neither is it an ingredient in beer. It is best described as a “processing aid”, as once the finings have done their work, by attracting and combining with the yeast cells suspended in the beer, it forms a layer of sediment called “trub”,  which sits at the bottom of the cask. Finings are thus not present in the clear bright beer which ends up in the consumer’s glass, so let’s cut out the emotion and hysteria over this, and carry on enjoying good, honest, traditional British Cask Ale.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

All change for EBBC

This year’s European beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference in Amsterdam was the sixth such event, and the third conference I have attended. Sadly, it will also be the last on both counts, as in a shock announcement right at the close of proceedings, and just before the end of conference party, Reno Walsh  coordinator from the event organiser, Zephyr Conferences, informed us that Amsterdam would be the last EBBC in its present form.

He spoke first about the main Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference which takes place in the United States, and told us that this event continues to grow, year on year, before making a contrast with the European event. Here attendance figures have stagnated, and this year even fell, but what he didn’t allude to was the fall in numbers might well be down to Zephyr leaving it until quite late in the year (April) to announce the location.

This wasn’t entirely the organisers’ fault, as Vienna, the original city of choice, fell through, virtually at the last minute, due to problems over sponsorship, but unfortunately the damage appears to have been done and low attendance figures meant this year’s conference either only just broke even or possibly even lost money.

Something had to change, but before telling us what the changes might be, Reno went on to say that the EBBC is the only conference which Zephyr organise which takes place outside North America. It is also their smallest conference, running at about half the size of the North American Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference, which itself is Zephyr’s smallest conference on the other side of the Atlantic.

It is also their only conference which regularly rotates countries, and is therefore the event which attracts the most international mix of attendees. Having said that the bulk of the attendees at EBBC are either from the UK or Ireland and this, coupled with the fact that conference proceedings are conducted solely in English, means that delegates from other European countries are not really represented as well as they might be, or as the organisers would like. In addition, there are a lot fewer active English-language beer blogs in Europe (166 Citizen Bloggers, by their count) than there are in North America (654). And most of those are located in the UK.
With these self-evident facts in front of them it is easy to understand Zephyr’s reluctance to continue with the event in its present form, so what they are proposing is returning the conference to the UK. Next year’s event will therefore take place from March 17th – 19th in the Beer City of Sheffield, and will be run in partnership with SIBA - the Society of Independent Brewers. The name of the conference will also be changing to Beer Now. The event coincides with SIBA’s annual BeerX conference and Beer Exhibition, and conference attendees will have free access to the latter, as well as the Awards Presentation.

Zephyr have explained the full rationale behind the change on their website, but insist the move is necessary to ensure the continued viability of a blogger-focused conference. The major change beyond the new name is expanded content. They will still be maintaining an emphasis on blogging and writing and will still offer sessions on social media and such blog-related topics as digital marketing and search engine optimisation.

They will also be expanding the scope of the conference to include topics relevant to brewery marketing and communications professionals, such as beer tourism, bar room and events management. Their aim is for Beer Now to be everything past EBBC attendees have appreciated, but with the goal of attracting more participants from within the beer industry. By making this change to Beer Now, Zephyr aim to ensure European beer bloggers and writers still have a conference to attend in 2017, and in years to come.
In summary:
  • Beer bloggers and writers in Europe still have their own conference with content applicable to them. They will have access to expanded content to help expand their industry involvement if they so choose, and will have access to more conference sponsors and industry attendees than were available with the EBBC.
  • The beer industry (brewery marketing, communications, and tap room managers; brewery associations; tourism promotion agencies; beer tour operators; etc) has a new conference focused on a side of today’s beer industry (marketing, tourism, and communications) that is under-served in terms of industry training. Plus, sponsors and attendees of Beer Now will have access to the extremely influential beer bloggers and writers who attend.
  • Zephyr Conferences will gain an expanded base of attendees and sponsors that should make the conference viable into the future.
The announcement left us all a little stunned, and once the realisation had settled in,  many of us were feeling rather sad and a little despondent at the realisation that this would be the last conference in this particular format.  Although I have only attended three conferences, I got to know many bloggers and writers drawn from countries all over Europe; as well as several from North America.

Quite a few attendees have become friends, and as each conference was announced I looked forward to catching up with them, and the excitement of meeting up in a different location each year, only added to the enjoyment of the occasion. Getting together in Sheffield each year will somehow not feel the same. For me the social aspects of the conference were every bit as important, if not more so, than the conference proceedings themselves.

Although I realise such thoughts were probably far from Zephyr Conference’s mind, the conference retreating to the UK sends out the wrong sorts of signals, especially at a time when Britain has very narrowly (and very foolishly), voted to turn its back on Europe. Confining the conference to the UK will only add to this sense of casting the Anglo-Saxon world adrift from the rest of Europe, and will just increase the sense of isolation which many pro-Europeans, like me, have felt since the referendum. 

I am undecided, at present, about attending Beer Now. I often go away in March, as with spring in the air, or just around the corner, it is a good time of year for taking a short break. Last March I went to Barcelona, and the year before I went to Berlin. Sorry everyone, but Sheffield somehow doesn’t quite have the same appeal! I will however, be keeping a close eye on the attendance list to see which, if any, familiar faces have signed up, and this may well influence my decision one way or the other. As I said before, the social side of these conferences is something which appeals to me even more than the actual content.

One thing is certain though, I am planning to attend next year’s North American Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference, which takes place during August in Milwaukee. I made this decision some weeks before the Amsterdam event, so the scrapping of the European conference, in its current form, has had no bearing on this.

From my point of view it will be interesting to view the continuously evolving beer scene in North America and experience a small part of it at first hand. From a more personal perspective, the event will also give me the chance of visiting my sister and brother-in-law, once the conference and excursions have finished.