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Visiting Driftwood Brewery, Victoria, BC, Canada

driftwood brewing

Driftwood opened back in 2008, when there were just 55 breweries in British Columbia. Now there are 155. They’re based in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, which has around 25 breweries and brew pubs. Driftwood have grown quite a bit and now are the fifth largest craft brewer in BC. They do just larger format bottles and draft.

Gary Lindsay. co-owner

Gary Lindsay. co-owner

‘We wanted to brew a number of different styles, and the 650 ml bottle makes that possible,’ explains co-owner Gary Lindsay. ‘It’s the best margin and it’s simple.’

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As they’ve grown they’ve invested $2m on a new bottling line which allows them to control oxygen pick-up, resulting in better quality beers that last longer. The bewery capacity has risen from 30 hl to 60 hl, and this year they’ll produce 21 000 hl of beer. They make six core beers and on top of this there are seasonals and limited releases.

Gary explains that as a hop-centred brewery, the hop profile is key to the success of their beers. ‘If it changes, customers notice,’ he says. So a lot of work goes into making sure that the beers are consistent even though the hop harvests are different. They have their hop contracts sorted out until 2020.

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Driftwood have 60 barrels and produce a range of sours. Gary prefers barrel-aged sours and isn’t a fan of kettle sours. ‘For an IPA the turnaround is 10-14 days. For sours it is a year,’ he explains. ‘They cost a lot to make.’ Despite the current popularity of sours, he doesn’t think they will be the next IPAs because of this cost, and the fact that the flavour is not for everyone.

When Driftwood started in 2008 it was at the height of the craft boom, and they couldn’t source the hops to make IPA. So they began by focusing on Belgian styles. Now, though, their best-selling beer is the Fat Tug IPA. It’s 65% of their sales. There’s a huge malt base here but it isn’t a complex malt base. A ton of dry hopping develops the nose and flavour, but with the right base these bitter, astringent characters work really well. This is Driftwood’s skill: beers where all the flavours are integrated.

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The beers

Driftwood Cry Me a River Gose
5% alcohol
A salted sour white beer. Fresh, tangy and a bit salty. Tart and sour with some citrussy notes. Has freshness but also nice texture. Refreshing and saline. 8/10

Driftwood Farm Hand Saison
5.5.% alcohol
Made with Chouffe yeast plus white and black peppercorns. Fresh and tangy with lovely detail, and quite a bit of spiciness. Lively, spicy and vivid with a peppery edge. 8.5/10

Driftwood Entangled Haffenweis
7% alcohol
With the fruity, tropical north American hop Mosaic. Extremely fruity and very tropical, with some passionfruit. Nice texture here with toffee, apricot, marmalade and spice. 9/10

Driftwood Black Stone Porter
Burnt coffee nose. Very dry and savoury. Complex and spicy with tarry roast coffee notes. Dry on the finish, with some iron notes. 8/10

Driftwood Fat Tug IPA
7% alcohol
Amarillo is the main hop, supported by Cascade, Columbus and a few others. Beautifully complex, fresh and spicy with grapefruit and passionfruit. Powerful with a bit of sweet malt but also lovely complexity and freshness. 9/10

Driftwood Sartori Harvest IPA
7% alcohol
This is a fresh hop beer and it sells out quickly. It’s made with Centennial, grown in BC. 400 pounds of wet hops go into 70 hl of wort. This is lively and spicy with fresh hoppy notes and some marmalade. Grassy and herby, dank and skunky. Brilliant stuff, full of interest. 9/10

Driftwood New Growth IPA
5% alcohol
This is made from processed BC hops. Very fresh and lively with lemony fruitiness and some spiciness. It’s quite herbal and there’s some earthiness. Distinctive, hoppy and drinkable. 8/10

Thanks to Brent Muller of Vessel Liquor store, Victoria, who set this visit up

 

Toronado: visiting a San Francisco institution, with some amazing beers

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I was in San Francisco for a few days, and I wanted some beer action. So where else to go but Toronado, the famous beer bar in Haight. It describes itself as a pub, and I can see why. It feels more like a pub than a bar.

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You come here for the beer, not the décor, or the service. It’s gritty and old school. If you are a beer geek, this is heaven.

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Toronado was opened in 1987, and a couple of years later it was bought by employee David Keene. It was Keene who was to develop this into the beer destination it is now, with 50 interesting beers on tap.

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We spent the afternoon here. These are the beers we drank.

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Russian River Brewing Company Pliny The Elder
A double IPA with plenty of malt and hops, this is superb. It’s lively and complex with a tangy, hoppy edge. Fresh and textured at the same time. Brilliant. 9/10

Port Brewing Co/The Lost Abbey Hop 15
10% alcohol and an incredible 180 IBUs. A double IPA with 15 different hops. Very rich and bold; textured and intense with concentration but also some restraint and balance. Spicy, intense, rich, bold and amazing. 9/10

Vander Ghinste Cuvée des Jacobins (Rouge) Sour Red, Belgium
This lambic beer has been aged for 18 months in foudres – it’s a sour red ale. Brown red in colour. So complex, appley, tangy and edgy. Some animal notes and bretty intensity. Tangy and citrussy with some sour cherry. So distinctive. 8/10

North Coast Brewing Co Le Merle Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale
Lots of hops and a Belgian yeast strain have created a spicy, smooth, yeasty beer with richness and warm complexity. Lovely stuff. 8/10

Allagash White
From Allagash in Maine, this is an American interpretation of a Belgian-style wheat beer, with oats, malted wheat, and unmalted raw wheat, and spiced with coriander and orange peel. Fresh, lemony and complex with nice weight. Amazing freshness and lovely lemony flavours. 8.5/10

Toronado, 547 Haight, San Francisco, CA 94117
Website: http://www.toronado.com/ 

The beers of Goose Island, with founder John Hall

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‘One thing we pride ourselves on is that we make balanced beers,’ says Goose Island founder John Hall. ‘Drinkable beers.’

I caught up with him at the Goose Island Block LDN party in Shoreditch. It was a sell out event, with a band, food stalls, lots of Goose Island beer and a relaxed, alternative vibe.

John Hall, founder, Goose Island

John Hall, founder, Goose Island

‘Beer has been around for the ages, and the most popular beers that people drink are the balanced beers,’ says Hall. ‘That’s what makes beer such a popular drink.’

Hall’s story is an interesting one. ‘I was in corporate America, and I spent a lot of time in Europe,’ he recalls. ‘When you came over here you saw a much wider variety of beers than we saw in the States.’

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So in 1988 Hall decided he’d start making his own beer. He opened a brewpub in Chicago. ‘It was the best decision I ever made,’ he says. ‘I patterned it as much as anything after Fullers.’

A big moment for Goose Island was in 1992. Hall’s son Greg had begun working with him, and Greg met Jim Beam’s grandson at a cigar/beer/bourbon tasting. He had the idea of putting beer in a bourbon barrel. These barrels could only be used once, so there was a plentiful supply of them. Greg and John got six of them, and made beer in them. They were the first commercial brewery to do this style, and when they entered a beer in the Great American Beer Festival in 1995, it was a real hit. But the beer got disqualified, because it didn’t fit into any category. Now Bourbon-aged stout is an official category!

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A short film of the Block Party, with John Hall giving a speech:

 

In 2011 Hall sold Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch InBev. He’s now on the board. The world was watching: was quality going to suffer from this take-over, and inevitable expansion of production? Hall says he never had any doubts that quality would be maintained, and in some cases he thinks it has been improved. ‘The recipe hasn’t changed,’ he says. Hall is an advocate of balance. ‘I like a balanced beer,’ he says. ‘If it’s not balanced then I’m not crazy about it. I’m sensitive to ABV now.’

We tasted through a range of the beers, including some special production brews. These were a very exciting set of beers indeed.

Goose Island Sofie Saison
6.5% alcohol
Lively, spicy and vivid with lovely freshness and detail. Complex, spicy and food friendly with an almost saline edge to it. A lovely beer. 9/10

Vans x Goose Island Golden Lager
5.1% alcohol
This pilsner style beer is zippy and hoppy with subtle herby hints. There’s some spiciness and real bite. 7.5/10

Goose Island Juliet Sour
This is a sour made in white wine barrels with 50 lbs of blackberries in each. It’s inoculated with brettanomyces and spends around 10 months in barrel. Tangy and a bit spicy with lovely fruitiness. Very lively with a wine-like fruity quality and nice texture. There’s some sweetness here. 8.5/10

Goose Island Illinois Double IPA
8.4% alcohol
This is dry hopped with Citra, Cascade and Meridian hops. Sweetly textured and powerful with lovely spice, herbs and tangy hoppiness. Rich yet balanced. Lemon and tangerine peel notes here. There’s a hint of bitterness on the finish. A really lovely beer. 9/10

Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
14.2% alcohol
This is a truly remarkable beer, and it’s from the 2014 batch. Opaque black in colour, it’s so rich and powerful with complex flavours of treacle, toffee, roast coffee and vanilla. There’s lots of chocolate and vanilla, and also some black cherry. Astonishing stuff. Apparently it went to barrel at 11% alcohol and came out at 14.2. 9.5/10

Goose Island Bourbon County Templeton Rye
13% alcohol
51% rye. Rich and textural with spicy, dense, intense flavours of toffee and treacle. Bold, but not as sweet as the stout. Pretty serious stuff. 9/10

Goose Island Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale
8.4% alcohol
This is is made to an old fashioned recipe with 4-5 lbs of hops per barrel. Initially it is too bitter to drink, but time in oak mellows it, while the alpha acids keep bacteria at bay. After 11 months in barrel it has picked up alcohol and lost bitterness. Lively, tangy and herby with real power and zippy acidity. Tangy and bitter but balanced and lovely. 9/10

Goose Island Lolita Sour
8.5% alcohol
A sour aged in barrels on raspberries. Tangy and intense with a nice spicy bite and some fresh citrus notes. Lovely raspberry and cherry fruit with some noticeable volatile acidity. Detailed and exotic, and quite wild. 8/10

Beer, the lineage of the Pilsner: a seminar and tasting with Melissa Monosoff

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This Texsom seminar, presented by Melissa Monosoff, was an interesting exploration of the invention of the Pilsner, and its spread across the globe. It’s now the most imitated, most popular beer in the world. For example, Bud Light and Budweiser alone sold 11 billion dollars worth of beer last year. How did we get here, from a small town making a specific style of beer?

She began by asking what beer was like before the Pilsner, and the first beer we tasted was a clean version of what people were drinking in the mid 1800s and earlier. The beers were malt focused, with a malty, toasty nose. They were cloudy and dark. There wasn’t a lot of knowledge on how yeast worked, and no electricity or refrigeration.

Hofbrauhaus Munchen Dunkel, Munchen, Germany
Brown colour. Malty and sweet with a fresh tangy citrussy edge. Bright with a bit of bitterness on the finish. Interesting mix of sweetness and richness and freshness. 7/10

So, to the Pilsner. In the late 1830s the people of Pilsen were upset about the quality of their beer. It wasn’t very good. Back in those days every town had its brewery: it was very regional. If their beer went bad people were really upset. But no one really knew why it was bad because at that time they didn’t understand yeast and spoilage: they had no understanding of microbes.

The solution? Pilsen decided to build a new brewery. They also recruited Bavarian brewer Josef Groll and sent him abroad to research brewing. He came back with some new ideas, including some ideas about malt he’d learned while in England. When these were implemented, the result that a new style of beer that was to take the world by storm. Pilsner Urquell, the original Pilsner, was first brewed in 1842.

People had never seen a beer like this before.

Pilsner Urquell The Original Pilsner, Plzen, Czech Republic
Malty and broad with nice texture and depth. Fresh but with a rich nutty, malty character. 7/10

What is special about Pilsner? First of all, the malt: a very specific Moravian barley. The hops are distinctive, too: Saaz, with a specific flavour, high in aromatics but low in bitterness. The water: soft sandstone, with few ions in the water. This placates the hops and makes them seem softer and rounder.

Pilsner brewers were originally ale brewers, and they began to learn about lager brewing. They didn’t understand yeast at the time. They knew there was something going on, but it wasn’t specific. The lager yeast was cleaner than anything they had before.

Underneath the town they dug out 9 km of underground cellars to keep their barrels in. These cool cellars were part of the production process, because they allowed the specific bottom fermentation used to make lager, rather than the ale top fermentation.

But it was the kilning of the malt, without direct heat, that was really revolutionary. Back then the grains were kilned in direct fire heat, so some were burned. These dark, burned grains don’t work, and the underdone grains don’t work either. Indirect heat created a consistent pale malt that no one had seen before. Add this to the local hops, and it produced a beer that people went mad for.

The development of the railways (enabling the easy movement of beer) and the availability of Bohemian glass also contributed to the rise of pilsner. Previously people had drunk beer out of opaque steins and now with the Bohemian glass, suddenly people could see what they were drinking. And the development of refrigeration, allowing people to enjoy their beer cold, also helped.

But the town of Pilsen didn’t have any intellectual property rights with Pilsner, and others soon began making it too.

The German reaction to pilsner was that their breweries tried to make their own version. We tried one: the Bitberger Premium.

Bitburger Premium Beer, Eifel, Germany
4.4.% alcohol. Herby, hoppy, fresh and bright. Nice citrus. Tangy with nice acidity. Lively and with some grip. 7/10

The next element of the German reaction to Pilsner was the Helles from Munich. In Munich, the younger generation recognized the need for their breweries to be commercially viable. Spaten was the first to try making a light-coloured beer. The Munich water is not soft, and it accentuates the hops, and it took until 1894 to make the Helles style. Helles means bright, and this was the first bright beer made in Munich.

Spaten Premium Lager, Munich, Germany
Fruity and malty with some sweetness on the palate. Nice nutty, yeasty character with some attractive toffee notes as well as lovely sweet fruity character. Refreshing and generous. 6.5/10

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Belgium had to respond to Pilsner too, and begin making lighter beers. The Duvel is made with Saaz hops and lighter malts, but it has personality. It is an ale: ales produce stronger aromas. It’s the recipe of the Pilsner with the twist of the Belgian yeast, which is a very specific strain.

Duvel Golden Ale, Belgium
Citrussy and intense with a hint of coriander and lovely vivid spiciness. It’s textured, yeasty and complex with a lovely vivid spiciness. Just delicious, fresh and pure. 8/10

How did the pilsner come to the USA? From the 1840s until 1900 a million people emigrated to the USA from Germany and Czechoslovakia. They brought their brewing techniques and yeasts. But it became expensive bringing ingredients over, and they realized they needed to start using American ingredients, such as barley and corn.

The reason corn became an ingredient is that the first barley-only beers they tried to make just didn’t taste good: the barley here is six row, rather than two. This has more protein content and doesn’t work so well. And they didn’t like the local hops. So they used corn to tone down the harshness of the malt and the American hops. This was actually a more expensive ingredient than barley back then. It’s more recently that corn and rice have been used as a cheaper sugar source to make more neutral, cheaper lagers.

The late 19th century really was a golden age of brewing in the USA.

Full Sail Brewing Company Session Premium Lager, Hood River, Oregon
Very interesting lemon, peach and tangerine fruitiness. Fresh with a bit of hoppiness. So fruity and pure with lovely precision. Nice tanginess, with real personality. 8/10

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If the late 19th century was the golden age, then the dark ages were 1933-1971. Prohibition had removed most of the small brewers, and the scene became dominated by the big breweries. The USA went from regionality and specificity to commercial and national level scale. They brewed with more corn and more rice. The industry decided to target women, because most of the men were off at war. So they brewed nice light beers for women. People drank whatever the big breweries were making. It had become commoditized.

The revival began in the late 1960s when the Anchor Brewing Company was founded. In 1971 they produced their Anchor Steam beer.

When prohibition started there were 4000 breweries in the USA; in 1970 there were just 50. Now we are back to 3800.

So, the craft beer movement began, and the last thing that they wanted to make was a lager. They wanted lots of flavour. It has taken a long time for craft lagers to emerge, but now they are starting to become popular. The original craft brewers went for intense IPAs. Now we are seeing a reversal: people want something more refreshing and less hoppy.

Currently, in 2016, the sales of the big companies are dropping, so they are consolidating and buying smaller breweries. There’s the emergence of brands that look like craft. Over the last year there were 25 transactions where large brewers brought a small craft brewery.

We finished by trying thee craft PIls.

Victory Brewing Company Prima Pils, Downington, Pennsylvania
Lively complex and malty. Crisp with a herby, weedy hoppy edge to the bright citrus and pear fruit. Concentrated, complex and full flavoured with a lovely hoppiness and a bit of bitterness. 7.5/10

Real Ale Brewing Company Hans Pils, Blanco, Texas
Crisp and fresh with lovely refreshing citrussy notes, and also a tangy, spicy hoppiness. Taut and complex with nice weight. Intense and complex with nice precision of flavour. 7.5/10

Firestone Walker PIVO Hoppy Pils, Central Coast, California
So hoppy and detailed with nice herby, weedy hoppiness. Citrussy and bright with a grippy edge. Broad, complex, delicious and very hoppy. So distinctive. 8/10

 

 

Visiting Beavertown Brewery and Duke’s Brew and Que

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The London craft beer is exciting at the moment, and one of the leading players is Beavertown, a brewery that’s just four years old. They’re based in Tottenham Hale on an industrial site, and although they’ve not been there that long, they have outgrown it and are looking for new premises around three times the size.

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This is a remarkable journey for a brewery that started as recently as 2012 as part of Duke’s Brew and Que, an American BBQ joint in Hackney. It was founded by Logan Plant, son of famous rocker Robert, and self-taught brewer. Logan was inspired by the BBQ joints he’d come across in the USA which served amazing craft beer, and he wanted to bring this back to London.

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The canning line

The canning line

They can produce 15 000 litres a day, which equates to 45 000 cans, and about half this is just one beer, the Gamma Ray IPA. Production is also split 50/50 between small and big pack, and the brave move they have taken is to move pretty much all the small pack to cans. This is good for freshness.

Key kegs

Key kegs

They also use quite a few disposable key kegs, which are plastic containers that dispense the beer by air pressure on a metallized inner bag. This have quite an advantage over stainless steel kegs which need returning.

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The illustrations on the cans are by Nick Dwyer, who previously worked at Duke’s as a waiter.

The original kit from Duke's

The original kit from Duke’s

The Tottenham Hale brewery is open 2-8 pm each Saturday as a tap room.

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We visited the brewery and had an excellent tasting of some very interesting beers. We then popped over to Hackney to sample Duke’s. As well as serving the Beavertown range, Duke’s also has a really impressive list of craft beer. It was quite the day.

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Beavertown Neck Oil Session IPA
4.3% alcohol
I love this lighter-styled IPA. Very fresh, bright and linear, with lovely lemon, grapefruit and pith notes. This has real precision: it’s pure, direct and focused. 8.5/10

Beavertown Gamma Ray IPA
5.4% alcohol
Lively with nice spiciness. It has a bit of malt, quite a lot of hop character, and lovely weight in the mouth. Quite classic in this IPA style. 8/10

Beavertown Peacher Man
6.2% alcohol
A collaboration with Heretic, containing peach juice, oats, nutmeg and a Belgian witt strain of yeast. Cloudy and a bit brown. Very powerful and concentrated with lovely sweet fruity notes and a bit of earthiness. There’s also some banana and clove from the yeast. 7/10

Beavertown Bloody Ell
7.2% alcohol
This is made with blood oranges from Sicily. Beavertown take the whole harvest from a couple of farms, because they want the zest non-waxed. The beer contains zest and juice from the oranges, with the former going into the mash and the the latter in the fermenter. It’s a lovely beer with the oranges adding flavours that fit in well with the hops. Notes of orange peel: spicy, tangy and detailed. Lively and bright with a bit of pithiness, and lovely texture too. 9/10

Beavertown/Boneyard Bloody Notorious
This is Bloody Ell with some Notorious IPA from Boneyard in Oregon. 9.1% alcohol. This is such a beautifully complex beer. Amazing nose of peach, mandarin, some saline notes, oysters and seaweed. Lovely powerful, textured palate with real concentration. Complex and delicate with a grapefruit freshness. This is so delicious, showing lovely weight. 9.5/10

Beavertown Sour Power
7.8% alcohol
This is from Beavertown’s Tempus project, which involves barrels. It’s a mixed fermentation with Pediococcus, Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces. Redcurrants and sour cherries are added, too. It’s a remarkable beer with cherries, sour plums and damsons on the nose. In the mouth it’s quite sour with some fruit sweetness and an expressive personality. So detailed and fine. 9/10

Beavertown Holy Cowbell
This is a dry-hopped India stout. Powerful flavours of coffee, spice and nuts with nice black coffee aromatics. Fresh, complex and detailed, with lovely weight. 8/10

Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA
Orange/brown in colour. Sweet and textural with nice richness. Smooth and broad with interesting texture and nice depth. There’s real finesse to this beer. 8/10

Beavertown Delta Unda
This is no 10 out of a series of beers called invasion of the upuloids. 5.7% alcohol. Hops: citra, matoueke and enigma. Cloudy yellow colour. Lovely aromatics and a nice broad texture with a slight creaminess. Lovely depth and texture. 9/10

Beavertown Black Betty Black IPA
7.4% alcohol
Complex, powerful and textured with sweet coffee and chocolate notes, but also a luvely personality and some sweet creaminess. Complex, harmonious and balanced. 9/10

Here is a video of the visit to both the brewery and Duke’s:

Craft beer in the Sunday Express

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This week, I’ve reviewed craft beer in my Sunday Express S Magazine column, which is usually focused on wine. There’s a range of different styles, from more widely available beers to niche stuff. I was especially pleased to be able to include the case of London craft beers that’s currently being offered by The Wine Society. You can read the article online here.

Provenance and sense of place in beer

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Beers come from lots of different places. So do wines.

With wine there is the concept of ‘terroir': the idea that the flavour of wine is, in part, determined by its vineyard origin. It’s a really interesting concept: one that operates at different scales, and brings in disciplines such as geology, biology and even anthropology. The proof of terroir is that when wines are made from adjacent vineyards, in the same winery, by the same winemaking technique, from the same grape variety, the differences you taste between them are down to the terroir. So we talk of the place being reflected in the wine, and we like the notion that – in some mysterious way – a glass of wine can taste of the place it comes from. This somewhereness is at the heart of our aesthetic system of fine wine. But does somewhereness extend to beer?

Beer is a manufactured drink. The same brewery can make a range of beers that taste very different depending on the intentions of the brewer. Wine is different: although winemakers can do things to change the flavour of the wine they make, wine quality is largely dependent on the character and quality of the grapes. You can make a bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make a good wine from bad grapes. So any attempt to attribute somewhereness to beer would seem to be in vain.

But we need to look a little more deeply. While the concept of terroir is valid for wine, some part of the terroir mechanism is in fact cultural, as opposed to being determined solely by the vineyard site. The somewhereness that we attribute to wine is because we have become used to the sorts of wines that a particular region specializes in. We associate flavour with place through a process of entrainment. And there is also the complexing factor of different varieties of grapes expressing terroir in very different ways. A typical Central Otago Pinot Noir speaks to me of Central Otago the region, but that’s only because of the associations I have made with this style of Pinot and my visits to the place. Central Otago Riesling can be very fine, but I haven’t learned to associate Riesling with the region, so for me it doesn’t taste of Central Otago. Maybe in the future?

Even if beer is manufactured, there’s nothing to stop it having a sense of place. This sense of place isn’t normally determined by the physical characteristics of the locality, and not all beers have to express place for them to be great. [In contrast, most fine wines taste of where they come from.] But for many beer styles, there is a link between them and their region and country of origin which is cultural and historical. I don’t like Guinness, but it has a strong association with Ireland. A sense of place, if you will. Belgian Abbey beers taste Belgian. Weissbier tastes German. And cask bitter tastes of England.

What’s interesting is that this sense of place can belong to a beer even if that beer is brewed elsewhere. Hoppy American-style IPAs can taste American even when they are brewed in London, for example. This is very different to wine.

There is, however, a way that place has expressed itself in beer in the past, and this is in the characteristics of the local water. Water is at the heart of beer terroir.

Water is an important part of brewing, and these days most brewers will adjust the character of the water they use depending on what beer style they are brewing. In the past, though, it mattered a lot. The town of Burton on Trent was a particularly important brewing town accounting for a quarter of the UK’s brewing production, largely because the mineral content of its water was particularly suitable for brewing pale ales, with very high calcium and sulfate levels. The alkalinity of water in Dublin made it unsuitable for paler beers, but ideal for stouts. The water in Pilsen, in the Czech republic, is much better suited for pale lagers. So many of the traditional beer styles found in Europe reflect the suitability of the local water for those styles. This, I suppose, is beers sense of terroir.

In conclusion, for wine, sense of place is a critical factor. For beer, it needn’t be. But beer can possess somewhereness, and this is where local styles have, through time, become associated with a particular region or country. In part, these styles established themselves in the way they did because of the suitability of the local water for brewing those beer types. These days beer is moving away from being a commodity or staple, and is now regarded as a gourmet product with consumers at the high end looking for interesting flavours and new experiences. This is something craft or micro breweries are responding to, and now we see the same breweries producing a range of styles of quite contrasting beers, with few roots in local, traditional beer styles. This isn’t automatically a bad thing: it’s quite possible to appreciate the traditional classics while also loving the new styles of beer. And it’s also nice to see new interpretations of the classic styles. It is an exciting time for beer.

Why craft beer needs a definition

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Craft beer is on the rise, but it’s currently not properly defined.

What exactly is craft beer? At the moment anyone can put this term on the label, however the beer is made and whoever it is made by.

This is a problem, and I think that craft beer urgently needs some sort of legal definition. Big brewers are already producing boring, insipid beers and then dressing them up to look like craft beer, and this threatens the progress of the whole craft beer movement.

Why? Because if regular consumers try one of these ‘craft’ beers and find they are dull and unmemorable, then they’ll probably not try another.

The other threat is that of large breweries buying craft breweries, ramping up production, using cheaper ingredients, and slowly killing their reputations.

In the US, craft beer has been defined by the Brewers Association:

  • Fewer than 6 million barrels per year
  • No more than 25% of the brewery can be owned or controlled by a non-craft brewer

Interestingly, the rules were softened in 2010 when pioneering craft brewer Sam Adams grew beyond the previous maximum size of 2 million barrels. The Brewers Association also dropped the requirement that half of the brewery’s product be made from barely malt, rather than using corn or rice as a sugar source.
In the EU there is no definition. Scottish craft brewery Brewdog have proposed that craft beer should be defined thus:

  • Small – <500 000 hectolitres per year
  • Authentic – original gravity and no use of rice, corn
  • Honest – ingredient labelling and place of production on label, and all made at a craft brewery
  • Independent – no more than 20% owned by a brewing company operating any brewery that is not craft

The craft beer revolution has created a massive commercial opportunity for craft beers, and this is something that big breweries are eyeing up. Craft beer has exploded in the US, and this has led to the recent revolution in the UK. Consider the facts:

  • In 1978 there were just 89 breweries in the USA.
  • Now there are 2800, and the vast majority make less than 15 000 barrels. 25 have passed 100 000 barrels.
  • Currently craft beer is 8% of volume and 14% of value of US beer market, and this is expected to reach 20% by volume in 2020.

Imitation craft beers are now the big threat. Lines are blurring as some of the craft breweries get bigger, with the category becoming more mainstream. Shelves will likely fill up with products that look like craft beers, use the term on the label, but are actually boring industrial beers from big brewers. This is a big problem as it poisons the water for existing craft breweries who are making great beer.

This is why some sort of definition would be useful. But is there a better term? Might microbrewed beer be better than craft beer?

And, of course, it is possible for small breweries to make dull beer, just as it is possible for large breweries to make great beer. Generally speaking, though, the large breweries tend to make less interesting beer because they are catering for a mass market taste, and are using cheaper ingredients – when you are making serious quantities of beer, the accountants are not happy if the ingredients are pricey, and cutting this cost can save a lot of money.

Revisionist beers from Tesco

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It’s time for the big brewers and supermarkets to jump on the craft beer bandwagon.

Guys, clamber aboard, but be aware that your beers will be subject to scrutiny. I’ve nothing against larger brewers when they make great beer. But I can’t stand it when they make boring beer and use distribution and marketing clout to put it in front of poor suckers who don’t have much in the way of alternatives.

Tesco has just launched a range of ‘craft beers’, which they’ve called ‘Revisionist’. The packaging is great, and all but one is made by Marston’s (the odd one out is from Wychwood). How do they fare?

Revisionist Craft Lager
5% alcohol
Dry hopped with Admiral and Boadicea, made by Marston’s. Yellow/gold colour. Full flavoured lager with notes of herbs, straw and hay, with some citrus and bitter hop characters. Real personality here. 7/10

Revisionist Dark India Pale Ale
4.8% alcohol
Made by Jon Tillison and Dave Carter at Wychwood, dry hopped with chinook and citra. Full brown colour. Malty and warm but with fresh tangy citrus and herb hoppiness. Some bitter black chocolate notes too, and some floral characters. An odd beer that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. 6/10

Revisionist Pacific Hop Red Ale
4.2% alcohol
Made by Simon Yates at Marston’s, hopped at four stages with Waimea and Pacific Gem. Red brown colour. Sweet, malty and quite rich with some warm herbiness and contrasting bitter hop notes, as well as a bit of roast coffee and chocolate. Despite the hops this is a slightly cowardly beer, a little afraid of flavour. 6.5/10

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Revisionist American Hop Rye Pale Ale
‘Craft brewed by Marston’s’ and dry hopped with Amarillo and Citra, made using rye crystal malt. Spicy and slightly toffeed, with a rich nose that has floral herby notes. There’s a hint of roast coffee on the savoury, tangy palate as well as some bright, spicy notes. Could do with more richness and hoppiness? 7/10

Revisionist Belgian Saison Beer
5% alcohol
Made by Marston’s, dry hopped with Styrian and Lubeski. This is interesting: it tastes Belgian, a bit like Leffe Blonde, with lovely spiciness and a rich, sweet core, coupled with bracing citrus freshness. Real interest. 7.5/10

Revisionist California Common Steam Beer
4.7% alcohol
Made by Marston’s. This is a lager fermented at higher temperatures to produce a sort of lager/ale hybrid. Gold/bronze colour. Simple, a bit spicy, with nice fresh hoppy bite and some malty richness. A bit boring. 5.5/10