Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Glassware


Glass is a fairly inert substance; it reacts with very little in normal use. This makes it an ideal substance to make drinking vessels out of. It's thermal properties make it more comfortable to drink out of than metal drinking containers and it's optical properties help our visual perception of the beverage we are drinking.

Most drinkers dislike plastic drinking vessels. Most drinkers would be put off if given a pint of beer in a large pot mug, even if it did conform to weights and measures legislation. Very few drinkers, except perhaps a few real nutters (you know who you are, keep up the good work) would drink out of pewter. Many drinkers dislike the dimple glass, although a few do morn it's passing.

The issues get a bit more interesting when we get on to the more subtle question of exactly what shape makes the perfect pint glass; some like the nonic, some like the tulip and some like the conical. Of course, it gets all a little bit more confusing when we talk about pint to the rim or pint to the line.

And then we have stemmed glasses. For beer? No, that's all far to poncy for beer drinkers, surely. Next we'll be drinking beer out of oversized wine glasses for goodness sake.

Well, for me, I think the type of glass that one drinks beer out of does influence the whole experience. Sure, the taste of the beer in the glass is the most important thing, a nice glass will not make rubbish beer any better and good beer is still good beer in any glass, providing of course the glass is clean and chip or scratch free.

This thread of thought started by me finding a picture on the internet of a pint of Hardknott beer in a glass of branding other than Hardknott. This started a discussion on twitter regarding the importance, or otherwise, of the glassware in a pub. I maintain that putting a drink in a glass with inappropriate branding is an inexcusable wrong in the pub trade. @NorthernWrites replied to me suggesting that if the beer is good then why worry about the branding on the glass? I want to try and explain why it is so very important and why I'd like to see much more emphasis put on getting it right in pubs.

I know there are a proportion of drinkers who really care very little about the branding on the glass. In some ways I feel they are lucky; even before I became a beer geek and even before I owned a pub it was something that irritated me. When we had our own pub we worked hard to try and avoid it happening, training staff, organising the shelves so that the correct branded glassware was available and looking after the glasses. I'd even go as far as to say our treatment of the subject was compulsive. So if you don't care, perhaps you are lucky not to have such a compulsive disorder.


I know that there are people to whom it does matter. I know there are people, generally the same ones that shuffle off into the corner and mutter to themselves about the carpets, wallpaper and curtains not matching, or that the music is poor choice, or that really the amount of iron work in that oinks face behind the bar is off putting1. Yes, the reader is probably right, they perhaps are in the bracket of customers that can never be happy. But really, putting the right drink in the right glass is not difficult, stacking the shelves so that the correct glass is to hand next to the normal point of dispense for that product is easy and plain unbranded glasses are not expensive so a stock can be kept in case the correct branding is not available.

Considering how easy it is to get it right and considering how easy it is to train staff to get it right it irritates me even more when it is overlooked. It shows a deep routed sloppy behaviour of management and staff in establishments. A proportion of drinkers notice these things and in my view that proportion are also the ones that are more discerning, more mature and likely to have more money in their pocket.

When it comes to branding there are even more reasons why a good beer establishment should care. The big companies put money into branded glassware. They give glassware away fairly liberally. Many pubs will avoid spending any money on glassware and depend upon the brand owners for all their drinking vessels. This results in an over abundance of major brand lager glasses. Perhaps this is a reason why major brands do so well. To me though, putting a pint of pongy real ale in a lager glass, or lager in a Guinness glass or even Guinness in a Jaipur glass is an insult to all brands, it mixes up the brand messages and overall is detrimental to the branding efforts put in by all the brand owners. It also undermines efforts we all put in within the industry to lift beer out of its bad image status.

What you drink says a lot about what you are. To the people who say they don't care about the branding on the glass I would ask them to consider this; Do you really not care if you are a craft beer drinker and you are seen with a glass that says "I'm drinking Fosters, actually"?. Are you comfortable with the fact that the bar person cares so little about you that they have effectively put a sign around your neck saying so? Would a craft beer drinker go to the pub wearing a T-shirt that had a brand name on that they didn't care for? Why then should we be happy to be seen in the pub holding a glass with the wrong branding on it?

I started this piece talking about the material and shape of the drinking vessel. These things are very important to the experience of drinking any beverage. When stood drinking a few pints in a busy pub with no spare seating a glass that is comfortable to hold is important. Even if sat quietly the drinker still appreciates the ease at which the glass is picked up to enable transit to the lips. More controversial in the beer world is the stemmed glass and even the use of big bulbous wine glasses. Well there are some technical reasons why wine glasses are stemmed and designed to be only half filled. Stems prevent the temperature of smaller measures, that might be dispensed for stronger beers, being effected by body heat through the hands or any conductive surface the glass is placed on. Furthermore, bowl shaped glasses do indeed show off the pongyness2 of beer very well indeed. The best glass I've found for this is from All Beer. Unfortunately, I broke both of mine.

With branded glasses the difficulty of knowing what is best for what beer has already been decided by the brewer. A good British session beer would probably be best in a tulip or conical. A Belgian wheat beer in an over-exaggerated tulip. Fruit beer should be in a stemmed glass. Trappiste in a big stemmed bowl. Perhaps a continental lager in one of those conicals with a big heavy base.

Finally, a comment from myBrewerytap points out that Belgium, who in my view have a very healthy beer branding attitude as well as a superior hospitality customer care approach are, in my experience anyway, very diligent in their approach to branded glassware. I could be wrong, but I suspect Belgium has a healthier beer export trade than the UK, perhaps that is part of the reason.

Drinking beer is a holistic experience. The colour of the beer, the carbonation, the temperature, taste and aroma matter. To most drinkers the light levels, music volume and choice, ambient noise and the company matter a lot. More subtle things like decor, cleanliness and demeanour of the staff all effect the drinking experience. The glass we drink out of is just another thing to add to the list.

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1And anyway, with that amount of piercings it makes you wonder what other anatomical areas have half a scrapyard rammed through them.

2Just for any casual readers who are unfamiliar with Cooking Lager's Blog, pongy is a reference the gent uses in relation to any beer that is not lout. We love his blog and his satirical approach to the beer world. I now find it difficult use the word "aroma" when referring to the smell of beer.

Monday, 27 September 2010

A bright future for cask

Today sees the publication of The Cask Report – Britain’s National Drink, 2010-2011. First published in 2007, todays edition is the fourth in a line of good beer news written by the award winning writer Pete Brown.
"Despite declining total beer sales and continuing pub closures, cask ale last year outperformed the beer market, increased its share of on-trade beer for the third successive year and grew its drinker base by 1.4%"
There, that's the headline news; Despite a deep recession our national drink is bucking against the economic backdrop. In more detail the report shows that micro-brewed beer has seen a growth in volume by around 5% in the year compared to 1% for the regionals and "super-micros" and in contrast the volume for multinational cask ale dropped by a staggering 11% resulting in only 16% of cask beer being brewed by multinationals.

The report gives great detail as to why all this might be the case. It explains that although we are more careful with how much money we spend, it also means that we spend the little we have more wisely. Indeed, a shock perhaps to some who think cask beer can only ever be priced low, the report cites research that shows most cask drinkers are in fact prepared to pay more for well kept quality cask beer. In summary, cask is enjoying a steady trend towards premiumisation.

The Cask report goes into detail of how people generally are becoming ever more conscious of the environment, and furthermore, cask drinkers in particular tend to be more discerning
and adventurous and have more disposable income. Couple this with the fact that the pub industry is fairing well in the eating out market compared to restaurants, and the natural association of cask with good pub food all helps to mark out a strong performance.

I could continue to digest and regurgitate more salient points from the report, like the starkling North-South divide, but you should read it at the official web site really. I could also nit pick out the things I disagree with, like the point that beer is somehow unfairly taxed; it isn't, beer attracts less duty per unit of alcohol than wine and spirits. I may well return to various issues highlighted in the report, but for now I want to make one extension to what I think is a very interesting point.

The report points out that cask drinkers are more likely to be adventurous and that cask drinkers are getting younger. Pete has been commissioned by the cask beer industry to write this report and as such the focus is clearly on the cask market and there is nothing wrong with that.

However, although I do not have access to the industry statistics that Pete has, there is some anecdotal evidence to show that beer drinkers in general are becoming more adventurous and adventurous beer drinkers are getting younger. The report does not cover what appears to me to be a fast growing alternative to cask beer; bottle and craft keg. Indeed, I'm marginally irritated by the glossary at the end where keg is deemed as being filtered and/or pasteurised when we know that this clearly does not have to be the case.

Many supermarket shelves now contain a good selection of bottles of microbrewed beer. Much of this incidentally is not bottle conditioned. A well known importer/wholesaler of foreign craft beer is constantly reporting good growing sales of their products often breaking records on volume alone, never mind the real value growth. I think this is an indication of a very strong, vibrant and exciting time for growth in craft beer that goes well beyond cask beer. Cask beer is a majority part of that scene but I suspect the growth of imported and microbrewed bottles and keg beer, were it to be measured, along with a growth of specialist beer bars, would surpass the already great news that is contained in the cask report.

There is, quite rightly, a section indicating how important blogging, facebook, twitter and other forms of on-line communications are to emerging craft beer consumers and brewers alike. This I think reflects the fact that the adventurous beer drinker is getting younger and more trendy. Beer is gaining a trendy image amongst a technologically aware audience and that audience is highly social not only on-line but also, it turns out, in real life too.

The UK beer scene is, in my view, extremely exciting. There is everything here and it's becoming more accessible. Our national treasure of cask is going from strength to strength in an otherwise declining market, but it would seem that further premiumisation is sought by the adventurous beer drinker as we now have great availability of continental, American and even our own home-grown facsimiles to round off perhaps the best beer country in the world.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The End of History

Many a beer enthusiast does not see the point; a 55% beer? what's all that about then? It can't be beer, yeast can't ferment to that sort of alcohol concentration. Of course it can't, this is a beer that has been concentrated by freeze distillation. OK then, it's not a beer, it's a spirit - that's the declaration. For goodness sake, it's even been stuffed inside a dead animal, that just can't be right.

Whatever the reader thinks of the hype, and I've wondered at times about the way BrewDog whip up controversy, but it is conceptual in my view, and the packaging could be considered art, although I respect those that disagree. When I criticised the naming of their 41% beer I was promised a sample by James, it never came, which miffed me a little more. I remained curious about an IPA amplified, it seemed that it might be an idea too far, but I was willing to try for myself before passing judgement. It has yet to happen.

Time overtook things, James and Martin surpassed themselves by producing The End of History but at £500 a bottle there was no bloody way I was going to buy one. I really wanted to try this. Having tried Tactical Nuclear Penguin and enjoyed it, even if I thought it a little expensive for what it was, I was keen to have a go at The End of History, and to my pleasure they organised an event in The Sheffield Tap which we decided to attend.

I've already mentioned that there were some very good keg beers available. There was some delightful cask available to enjoy too. For a Wednesday night there was just far too much jolly exciting beer for the good of my health. Just to add to this weekday nights debauchery some of the beers we got to try were completely free, really, do these people not care about my liver?

I can't remember all the beers I had, but three stood out as being exceptional, if a little controversial. These were; Bashah Reserve, I Hardcore You and, of course, The End of History.

Bashah Reserve is a Black Belgian Double IPA and controversial in itself due to the fact that this is such a mashed up style. I know that many beer aficionados will criticise this sort of nonsense, without actually realising that that's the point, it is nonsense. My god people, is it that important?? and no, I don't think it is. It's a tasty black beer, well hopped and fermented with some sort of Belgian yeast, that's it.

The fresh beer I enjoyed around 18 months ago, or whenever it was. It was a little harsh perhaps and Jeff Pickthall suggested it needed some ageing. Perhaps BrewDog got wind of this, I suspect sometimes they do bring out ideas that Jeff and I have already thought about, we really should stop hanging around thinking and drinking and do more, well, doing. That way perhaps Hardknott will be first instead of us being accused of copying BrewDog. Either way, James and Martin stuffed some of this iconoclastic beer into a couple of whisky casks along with soft fruit and left it to fester for a while.

The results? Looking back at my tweets from the evening I seem to get confused about what fruit is used in one, but the other was raspberries. I prefer the one that was matured with the fruit that wasn't raspberries, tayberries perhaps. Both had fantastic vanilla flavours and aromas that I love very much in these styles of barrel aged beers.

I Hardcore You was on keg, if I remember correctly. I've not had either Hardcore IPA or I Beat You and some seemed to think this blend fails to be even as good as either of the base beers. I don't know about that but I liked it, bordering on the barley wine IPA at 9.5% it is very hoppy but balanced with a sweetness and alcohol that was very satisfying, even if it's not a beer to drink much of.

Interestingly, this style of beer is often condemned by the fans of session beers. However, it's just the sort of beer that HardknottAnn likes to drink, I continue to wonder if the mainstream beer world misses a trick by not promoting barley wines to women. We can argue the toss about why women tend to prefer these stronger sweeter styles of beer, but be it a different gender palate or just some social conditioning the fact remains it is there. It's still beer and it's liked by women.

The End of History, that's why I was here. There was a bit of a scramble for this one, and I was just as keen as everyone else to get my hands on it. James, who was pouring out the measures, caught my eye and I swear he gave me an extra large measure, cheers James, guess that's an end to the Sink! argument then.

But what is this spirit-beer like? Well here are my spontaneous tweets;

  1. Hop flavours balanced with barley malt sweetness to make a powerful spirit very different, but at the same time similar to whisky.
  2. Hot spirit taste but with powerful hop flavours; not overly bitter. Very definitely hop rather than brutal bitterness.
  3. Fruity smell reminiscent of a good liqueur like Benedictine.
  4. End Of History - nose is Belgian and spirity.

There, I don't think in hindsight I can improve on that. But what is the point? It cost £500 a bottle I am told. Sure, you get a roadkill stuffed animal thrown in, if that does it for you, but at the price it's around £38 a 25ml shot and that's not with any mark-up if you bought it in a bar. I think the most I've ever paid for a single malt is about £8 for 25ml measure. This is really a little over priced.



But then again, it is very different to any other spirit I know. It's hoppy flavours and aromas are very interesting and I think the comparison is a good Islay whisky; very few would have much more than the occasional dram. I think there is a future for this type of drink, whether it is a spirit or a beer is academic in my view, it's what it is and it's link to beer due to the hop connection is fine in my view.

On a closing point a comment was made about aromas that seemed wrong. Esters in a spirit would normally be associated with impure distillation but if you freeze distil a belgian beer then it perhaps is not so strange, in fact, I'd go as far as to say that's one of the things I liked about the drink, I could have just sat with my nose in the glass and taken in the lovely fruity banana and spicy aromas, had there actually been anywhere to sit on this busy night.


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Ghost of Beer Past, Present and Future

It was silly really; driving all the way to Sheffield, spending money on a hotel room, drinking far too much on a weekday night and then getting up far too early to drive back home again and try and get a whole days work in before I can settle down and start to write about it all.

What could I do? I'd missed the BrewDog End of History tasting in The Rake, but London is just too far to go, then they planned to do it all in Sheffield Tap with the added advantage of some Thornbridge beers too. Damn, it seemed that Jaipur would be available on both cask and keg, at the same time, now there is a test I have always wanted to carry out; tasting the same beer on these two forms of dispense.

To be fair, I'd had a busy day and had been snacking on rubbish on the journey over. I was hungry and thirsty, I'd have probably enjoyed a pint of any form of amber liquid had it been chilled enough. I ordered a half of Jaipur and interestingly the barman immediately went to the handpull. I explained that I wanted a half a pint of over-chilled, over fizzed Jaipur and one half of cask, he suddenly remembered that he should have asked which I wanted. I then proceeded to sample each in turn.

It’s the old question; is cask ale really the best and only way to serve craft beer or can keg be as good, or even for some styles better than cask. It is very rare to get the very same beer on gas tap and on handpull in the same establishment. This occasion saw the ideal opportunity to try a great beer in both formats.

Being thirsty the keg version instantly won me over, the slightly increased carbonation, just less than 2 volumes according to Kelly Ryan, and the slightly colder serve temperature combined to quench my deep thirst. I have to say I was impressed by the keg version and the cask was dull and flabby in comparison.

I tweeted that I preferred the keg version, Tandleman tweeted in reply questioning if the cask was in good condition. A very valid point, I believed it was but inevitably it might have lacked maximum condition and may have already been on a couple of days. I found no detectable defects however.

Notwithstanding my thirst and possible mood influence on my declaration of keg being the winner of this less than ideal comparison, it is perhaps useful to have a greater analysis of the real perceptible differences.

Unfortunately I tasted the keg version first, which may have masked appreciation of the cask version. The keg beer had a very enjoyable hop flavour and aroma that was significantly subdued in the handpulled beer. A very plausible explanation for this is loss of hop aroma due to the cask having been vented a few days. The lovely hop experience aided the quelling of my desire for liquid refreshment.

Shortly after purchasing my halves of Jaipur I met with Reluctant Scooper. We had a short discussion about the keg beer. He pointed out that keg beer tends to have reduced malt character. Yes, I’d agree, the colder fizzier Japiur really was thinner and more refreshing. Whether that is good may well be a matter of opinion and even down to the mood and palate variations of the drinker at that time.

It is true that the cask was more malty, silky and velvety. Perhaps on a different occasion I would have found the cask more balanced and less harsh. It would be valid to say that the kegged version unbalances the beer on to the hoppy side to the detriment of the malt profile.

That evening I continued to drink a variety of different beers, some cask, some keg and some bottles, right up to a crazy 55% squirrel encased audacious spirit masquerading as a beer. Some beers were Thornbridge, some were BrewDog and some Stone, if I remember correctly. It was a great night with great beer right from 4% ABV upwards.

After my initial keg verses cask comparison I stopped worrying about the dispense method. I enjoyed every single beer that night and shall return in another posting to say a little bit more about one or two of them.

It seems obvious to me that the discussion about keg verses cask will rage on forever, and so it should. I am a fan of good beer, it is as simple as that. Good beer can be found in cask, and the fact remains that the majority of good beer in the UK is to be found in this format. Despite that it is not true to say that all keg beer is rubbish and there are some very clear benefits to that format of dispense.

There are also some very poor cask beers. Sometimes it’s the fault of the brewery, and we have been guilty of that from time to time. Sometimes it’s the fault of the pub, and when we had our pub we also failed occasionally there too. But cask beer does take a little more care and planning than keg beer. It is easier to get cask beer wrong and I challenge even the best cask brewer or cellar man to honestly tell me they have never made a mistake.

Cask inevitably suffers from the problem that in dispense air is let into the cask. Carbonation is released and with it lovely volatile essential oils, even within the 3 days recommended cask life beer does change flavour profile. Some drinkers like beer that has lost some of its more aggressive flavours. Many drinkers feel that particular beers benefit from some exposure to air, Timothy Taylors is one case in point.

I also feel that some breweries give advice to cellar men that result in much of the condition in the beer being lost before it ever sees the pumps. I shall hopefully return to this at some time, but clearly if beer is lacking carbonation before the first pint is served then the last is going to be well past acceptable. There is also the inevitable problem of licences trying to edge their bets and leave cask beer on sale past acceptable deterioration compounded by the desire by many to provide a good selection.

These limitations of cask are accepted by many of us. It is better to have some poor quality cask than to have no cask at all. When it is in top form it can be superb. Many styles of beer just cannot be bettered in any other form and in particular good traditional styles such as stouts, porters and milds come into their own in this format.

It still remains that there is a growing interest, all be it limited and small scale, to craft keg beer. At the evening in the Sheffield tap there were a number of brewers who are either already experimenting, or are planning to experiment in the future with keg beer. I talked to some of them and came away with some great consensus views.

The key thing about craft keg is that it is not "mass produced, over carbonated, chemical shit". Many of the brewers I spoke to were concerned about issues such as carbonation volumes. Thornbridge for instance currently carbonate at less than 2 volumes, although there seemed to be a little descent on this one from the new Aussie guy, who's name I forget. The point is that the level of carbonation is important. It is possible to make keg beer that is low carbonation and I think Thornbridge got it about right.

Later I talked to James Watt, you know, that crazy Scottish guy who's in charge of Stuff at BrewDog. We were talking about filtration levels and I commented that one bottling company filter beer to 0.5 microns. This is great in some ways as it will filter nearly all bacteria and yeast cells and so ensure long shelf life for bottles. James seemed a little shocked about this, clearly he believes that this level of filtration to beer will knock out much of the good hop flavours in the beer. My experience would bear this out.

I believe that many of the craft breweries who are kegging beer are not sterile chill filtering. The product is still live and very possibly undergoing some secondary fermentation in the keg. Clearly yeast counts will be far less than in the cask versions but the important point is that the product still retains the vibrant flavours and aromas in the beer. Thornbridge have a fancy centrifuge which is supposed to be the dogs whotsits for sorting out clarity whilst carefully controlling the cell count in the beer. I talk about technology in beer production in a previous post, careful appropriate application of such technology will provide some interesting avenues for the future of craft beer.

Some brewers, bar managers and beer geeks are proclaiming that keg is the future of the craft beer market. Some have even gone on to say that cask beer will die out some time soon. I'm not sure I quite agree that strongly. Keg beer, Proper Real Keg if you like, is part of the future. Cask beer will also be part of the future.

I'd like to leave you with a little bit of topical controversy. Sex is good. Great sex with a loving partner is fantastic. In a long-lasting relationship sex can even occur without the inconvenience of using, what I believe can be referred to as, prophylactics. But just consider this; is insisting that good beer can only be served without the aid of any extraneous carbon dioxide just as bad as insisting that sex can only ever take place without the use of a condom?

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This blog post is a little delayed. I was in hospital yesterday getting my hernia sorted. The last couple of weeks have been mad as we've been trying to sort out the brewery. I've got to rest a bit now, so hopefully I can get a bit more blogging sorted. I intend to tell you my thoughts on various BrewDog beers I tried at Sheffield last Wednesday.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Brewers' Objects of Beauty No 4 - draining floor


Every brewer worth his salt knows that cleanliness is vital for good beer. Our current Heath Robinson set-up gives me great cause for concern in this respect, the biggest issue being the lack of any drain in the floor. Washing out the plant is very hard work when one can't just let the washings run out onto the floor and away down the drain.

Stringers has a neat solution to the problem of leasing a building and having the difficulty of getting the landlord to agree to fundamental below-ground drains being installed. I'm not to proud to copy other peoples great ideas, so I did. Yesterday we poured about 20 tonnes of concrete. The brewkit will be installed on this in the coming month.

video

Thanks to Jeff and Ben for considerable efforts during this activity.

The floor consists of around 850 solid concrete blocks laid dry on their side, a single block retaining wall and then filled with a 90 - 130 mm thick concrete slab. The drainage channel is made with heavy duty Osma channel. Hopefully the very slight fall will prevent puddling.