Return of the Beerstash Chronicles: Hold that thought – Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2020
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020

This blog also appears on @aPieandaPint.com  

Readers will, of course, need no reminding that I maintain a healthy scepticism about the benefits of aging beer deliberately, as opposed to drinking it fresh. LATER EDIT: Apparently, a few forgetful souls did need reminding, so here’s a link. Do try and keep up in future.

Having said that, there’s no denying that beers designed to be put away for drinking down the line often bring out the best in their brewers. Fullers Vintage Ale is a case in point. The 2020 edition marks the 24th year since the Griffin Brewery began producing this limited edition beer.

I’m fortunate enough to have been to a couple of tastings of various vintages. In 2011, John Keeling, then the Fuller’s head brewer and now the brewery’s ambassador at large, hosted a memorable tasting in the Hock Cellar at every vintage to date. Sadly, I seem to have misplaced my own no-doubt incisive notes from that occasion, which is a clear loss to posterity, but thankfully my friend Des de Moor’s careful notes on each beer are available:  https://desdemoor.co.uk/fullers-vintage-ale/

Much more recently, I contributed a few bottles when I took part in a tasting organised by fellow beer writer Glynn Davis at the Great Northern Railway Tavern, the proceedings of which are recorded here: https://beerinsider.com/fullers-vintage-ale-tasting/

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2020 gift pack
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020 gift pack

So when Asahi UK very kindly sent me a bottle of the newly released 2020 Vintage, as well as a gift pack containing the 2018 and 2019 as well, my initial thought was that I should express my thanks by cracking open one of the 2020s and put some tasting note online.

But I’m not going to. For several good reasons. Firstly, anyone who’d like to know what the beer currently tastes like is going to be far better served by the opinion of the great Roger Protz: https://protzonbeer.co.uk/news/2020/10/19/fuller-s-vintage-goes-on-the-dark-side

There is also an excellent video of a comparison tasting of the 2020 vintage alongside the 2011 featuring the aforementioned John Keeling, as well as Guy Stewart, Fuller’s Brewing Manager and the creator of  this year’s vintage, as well as Richard Simpson of Simpsons Malt and Paul Corbett of hop merchant Charles Faram & Co: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b21HFULDS6k&feature=youtu.be

Just as importantly, I’ve decided this is not a beer I want to open and taste as a sad and solitary experience, especially now . We live in difficult times. Around the world, more than a million families are mourning the loss of a loved one to COVID-19. The hospitality sector in the UK is on the brink of the abyss as measures intended to control the spread of the virus, effective or otherwise, hit hard.

Fuller's Vintage Ale 2020 pour
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2020 pour

So, hold that thought. I’m going to put my bottles of Fuller’s Vintage 2020 away in the hope that, somewhere down the line, I’ll open and share them in happier times, with friends.

All credit to Asahi UK, which acquired the Fuller’s brewery and beer brands at the start of 2019, for continuing the tradition of brewing Vintage Ale, and many thanks for sending me the beers.

Here’s to better times ahead.  Cheers!

Guest Blog: Conor Shaw, CEO of workforce management experts Bizimply

Conor Shaw Bizimply CEO
Conor Shaw, CEO, Bizimply

GMs must be front of house to reassure customers and staff post-lockdown

The best hospitality operators definitely took a ‘glass half full’ approach when lockdown was imposed and looked for the opportunities in a situation that was beyond their control, rather than railing against it. Enforced closure allowed for the reflection and review that are hard to make time for when you’re running a busy restaurant, and the operators who made sure their teams used that time wisely rather than in front of Netflix are undoubtedly the ones who are now coping best with the challenges of trading in a post-COVID world.

We’ve just conducted a survey of our customers, to understand their plans and expectations for their business, as they emerge from lockdown. The 92 responses received from restaurants, bars, coffee shops, pubs and hotels in the UK and Ireland provide an interesting snapshot of operator sentiment across the sector. Here are some of the key findings:

Some businesses expect to wait before reopening: although most expected to be trading again by the end of July, 15% are waiting until later in the year, or even early 2021. Time will tell which operators made the better decision – those who rushed to reopen, or waited patiently for a clearer view.

Trade is down, customer numbers the main challenge: of the businesses who have reopened, 73% said trade is worse than pre-lockdown, 14% are finding it better, and 13% about the same.  The biggest challenge around reopening was customers not coming through the doors, cited by 41% of respondents, followed by reducing numbers to comply with social distancing (33%). Supply chain interruptions were mentioned by 28% and organising safety measures by 22%.

Looking beyond ‘business as usual’: the majority of respondents (67%) have researched options other than ‘business as usual’ for trading after they reopen. Offering takeaways (60%) or delivery (46%) were cited, as well as ‘radically reduced’ customer numbers on the premises (47%). It will be interesting to see whether customers’ ‘lockdown habit’ of ordering food from restaurants to eat at home will persist now that they can dine out again, or whether the uplift in takeout and delivery was just because they had no other option.

Financials the biggest worry: Almost half (46%) of businesses said they were worried about whether they would be able to pay staff and suppliers, and a similar number are concerned they won’t have enough customers (44%). Getting staff back to work was a worry for 35%, with similar numbers anxious about their own and their family’s health.

Clarity is needed on the Government’s guidelines: 37% of respondents were confused by some aspects of the official advice. Issues cited included how to deal with customers refusing to comply with social distancing rules; how to manage safe use of customer toilets; how many staff could work together.

The overriding theme from the survey responses was uncertainty. Operators are unsure about many things: customer numbers and revenue, staff behaviour, customer compliance with the new rules and how to diversify their business to make it more ‘future proof’. On top of which there are more macro concerns like second waves of COVID-19 and local lockdowns.

Dealing with uncertainty requires strong leadership and now, more than ever, operators need to make sure they have the very best GMs running their sites. The GM is the key to building the staff and customer confidence on the ground that’s so vital for business recovery.

At Bizimply we are big advocates of ‘letting managers manage’, and that’s never been more important than today. For a GM to inspire confidence, they need to be highly visible, front of house, reassuring staff and customers that their health and safety are paramount. If GMs can help to overcome the understandable anxieties that everyone will be feeling in the weeks after reopening, then staff will feel motivated and start loving their job again, and customers will relax and start enjoying their visits to the pub or restaurant.

Behind the scenes, we’ve been working to equip operators with the tools they need to trade in this new world. Our workforce scheduling tools make it easy to create rotas around the staff ‘bubbles’ that are now advised to minimise contact between team members, and staff are able to log in and out of their shifts contactlessly by using a stylus or mobile phone. The right technology can play an important role in helping GMs and their teams to overcome the COVID-19 challenges and rebuild their businesses.

Life is probably not going to feel like ‘normal’ for a while, but the hospitality sector has been adapting for centuries and the best operators will, we’re sure, find a way to deliver a memorable experience for their customers.

 

 

Time to get back to the pub

Eating out at the pub

Like many in the hospitality industry, I was cheered by the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday. Reduced VAT on meals and mini breaks from next week, coupled with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme during August, certainly get my vote – professionally and personally.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I haven’t been back to the pub since the great reopening last weekend, but that all changes this Friday, with a family lunch in London. We didn’t go to this pub before lockdown, but their website had all the right messages about social distancing and hygiene and when I phoned to book a table their tone struck the right balance between welcoming and responsible. I’m reassured they’ll do their best to serve a damn fine pub lunch AND avoid our party being taken down by COVID-19. In these strange times, I’m not sure we can ask for much more.

There aren’t many silver linings for operators in the cloud that is trying to run a pub or restaurant in a post-COVID world, but here are a few that I think are worth latching onto.

  • Gathering customer data: as if operators didn’t have enough to deal with, along comes the Government’s advice for hospitality businesses to take guest contact details in case they’re needed for Track & Trace. But once the logistics of this are overcome, it is surely a golden opportunity to collect valuable customer data? The Track & Trace solution from sector technology specialists Airship has been taken up by a number of operators including Pret, Leon and Roadchef and, of the 17,000 customer check-ins so far, 28% have opted in to receive marketing emails. Factor that by however many months this is going to be a part of hospitality – which must surely be until we have a COVID vaccine – and it’s a serious addition to any business’s marketing armoury.
  • Table service: this will be heresy to some, but I’ve never been a fan of waiting to order at a crowded bar. All that worrying about whether you’re going to inadvertently jump the queue or miss your turn, while trying to hold your party’s drinks order in your head. Staying at your table while a waiter takes and then delivers your drinks seems a more civilised approach and for smart operators it must also be a route to upselling.  I’m more likely to say ‘yes’ to the offer of another glass of something lovely brought to me than to bother getting it myself. And upselling is surely easier done through a leisurely chat at the table about the merits of, say, the wine that’s just a notch up or two from the house,  than at a busy bar where frazzled bar staff serve customers what they ask for just to keep things moving.
  • Alcohol-free drinks: yes, it’s disappointing that the VAT reduction isn’t including alcoholic drinks, and it does mean that wet-led pubs aren’t getting the same help as those where food is the focus. But does it present an opportunity for pubs to up their game on drinks without alcohol? I’m not going to pretend I’m planning a series of completely alcohol-free trips to the pub this summer, but the experience isn’t all about the drinking, as testament the growing number of younger drinkers in particular who are choosing to give up alcohol completely. And with the range of no-alcohol beers, ciders and other drinks now better than it’s ever been, nobody’s sacrificing taste or flavour.

The hospitality industry, and its customers, are still learning about what going out looks like post-COVID, and there are many tweaks to be made to improve the experience on both sides of the bar. The challenges of trading profitably under the new rules and regs may seem daunting, but it’s worth remembering that the pub has been adapting to a changing world for centuries. I’m confident that ultimately, pubs, and pubgoers, will be ok.

 

 

 

 

The BeerStash Chronicles 2: Fresh thinking

A blog by John Porter from www.apieandapint.com

Beer is best drunk when it’s freshly brewed*. There, I’ve said it. It may not be the most sensible contention to make at the outset of an article which sets out to assess the merits of a beer that’s been knocking around for years, but it’s probably worth setting out my stall.

It is, I’d suggest, fundamental to the success of homo sapiens as a species that we’ve found ways to eke out the nutritional benefits of food and drink beyond the point where it would naturally go off, in order to see us through the lean times.

Fat, sugar and, yes, alcohol have all played their part as effective means of preservation, and so it’s worth noting the irony that, as medical science explores the limits of human longevity, they’ve also been identified as contributing to our inevitable decline. Back in the day when outrunning a dire wolf or sabre toothed tiger was more of a consideration, the longer term implications, compared to the advantage of being able to eat preserved grain or fruit whatever the season, were less important.

The human capacity for self-delusion, as well as our willingness to fall for a well-targeted PR campaign, means that over the course of time we’ve come to believe that the mouldy blue veins in an aged stilton or the cloying, musty flavours of an old wine are a badge of quality rather than a by-product of preservation. And let’s not even get started on the implications of aging meat and game to the point of putrefaction, then charging a premium for it.

Focusing on beer, at some point quite soon after our ancestors discovered the joys of beer, possibly even the next morning as they surveyed the empty crude stone vessels that had until recently held the unexpected elixir of the harvest, they decided it would be a good idea to try and make the next batch last a bit longer.

Knock it on a few dozen millennia, and there’s no shortage of people ready to tell you that beer that’s been barrel aged, bottle conditioned, cellar stored, highly hopped or any of the many other methods that human ingenuity has come up with to keep beer drinkable, is better than a cool, fresh pint straight out of the brewing vessel. It’s not*. Aged beer has its joys, of course, but the compromises of preservation have contributed to the myths, I’d suggest.

Imperial Russian Stout is a case in point. Surely it’s the emperor’s new clothes in a bottle? Even the most cursory examination of the various wars, pogroms, sieges and massacres undertaken by the imperial Russian family, never mind their laissez-faire attitude to intimate relations with livestock and mad monks, would suggest that their opinion on what constitutes a decent pint shouldn’t carry much credibility.

Having said all that, we are where we are, and I’m certainly not saying aged beers don’t have their charm. So, in my stash is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout dating back to 2012. At that point, Bedford brewer Charles Wells had recently acquired the rights to the Courage brand and beers, and revived this famous strong beer.

Avoiding any tasting notes or information other than what’s on the label, the beer was bottled at 10% ABV and “enjoys a rich, espresso body with pear overtones and an intriguing fresh, smokey, fruity finish.” The best before date is 16/08/25, suggesting that eight years could actually be a bit young for this one, but, hey ho:

Appearance: There’s a reassuring puff of carbon dioxide as the bottle opens. The beer pours clear, but its dense, ebony colour means no light gets through. The head lingers on the side of the glass, showing a rich, oily viscosity as it slips back into the beer. It shouts “luxury”, and the appearance alone helps to explain why this beer was a valued commodity seen as worth the cost of a 1700 mile journey from Britain to Moscow.

Aroma: The aroma is dominated by bitter coffee and dry sherry, with a mature sweetness underneath – for me, it’s the richness of dates and toffee apples rather than the freshness of pear mentioned on the label.

Taste: The beer is noticeably bitter, but it’s the rich coffee bitterness of roasted malt that dominates, rather than any strong hop character. In the mouth, my tastebuds keep searching for the sweet notes that the aroma promised. They’re there, but it takes the third or fourth sip to find them behind the dominant bitterness.

Courage Imperial Russian Stout glass
Courage Imperial Russian Stout glass

Overall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

For a detailed look at the history of both Imperial Stout in general and the Courage version in particular, there are links below to articles by my good friend Martyn Cornell, whose attention to detail and historical accuracy when it comes to beer history more than makes up for my ramblings and conjecture:

http://zythophile.co.uk/2011/06/26/imperial-stout-russian-or-irish/
http://zythophile.co.uk/2012/02/21/courage-irs-a-40-year-vertical-tasting/

*As always, all views expressed are those of the author and other, equally valid opinions are available. Just not here.

More of John’s BeerStash Chronicles from lockdown can be found at www.apieandapint.com/blog

Pinxtos and pre-history: a ‘restless’ trip with San Miguel

Swapping the grey skies of a London winter for two days of Spanish sunshine would have been an offer too good to pass up even without the added attraction of visits to San Sebastian, the Atapuerca archaeological site, and Michelin starred restaurant Cobo Vintage. So when San Miguel invited me to join a trip as part of their ‘cerveceros inquietos’ – best translated as ‘restless brewers’ –  campaign, I barely hesitated before jumping on a flight to Bilbao.

Day One started with a drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian and The Basque Culinary Centre. This institute has been such a success since it was founded in 2011 that I wondered why we don’t have one in the UK.  As the name suggests, it is dedicated to promoting gastronomy, through education, research and innovation. Some of the initiatives we saw, and tasted, included their work on meat substitutes – chorizo made from pumpkin and an alternative to chicken, complete with crispy ‘skin’.  

Pre-lunch beer and food matching at the Basque Culinary Centre

Lunch in the Centre’s newly opened ‘Co-Creation Space’, co-sponsored by San Miguel,  followed this theme, with a menu that showcased the institute’s innovation with vegetables, as part of its mission to create a more sustainable gastronomic culture.  The roasted beetroot with kimchi and hazelnut and chive oil was the standout dish, paired beautifully with San Miguel 1516.  Unsurprisingly this beer and food match is one of the most popular in the Centre’s restaurant.

1516 was the first San Miguel beer not available in the UK that we tasted on our trip.  At lunch we also enjoyed San Miguel Fresca, paired with a dish of hake cooked in a green sauce – a Basque tradition.  Fresca’s crisp, fresh taste proved the perfect partner.

After enjoying panoramic views across San Sebastian from the top floor of the Culinary Centre, we explored the city on foot with an expert guide. It’s a fascinating city with a rich history – much influenced by its proximity to the French border and a strong cultural heritage – it hosts an annual international film festival, jazz festival and was a European Capital of Culture in 2016. It’s also widely regarded as Spain’s gastronomic capital, boasting one of the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre in the world.

Back in Bilbao, we were taken for dinner in a local bar for some delicious tapas – or, as the Basques call them, pinxtos. Each exquisite plate was matched with a San Miguel beer. Stand out pairings included red mullet, asparagus and squid ink teamed with Magna, the newest addition to the brewer’s portfolio, launched in April last year, and pork with cauliflower puree matched with Selecta.

Our hosts from San Miguel took us through the brewery’s history, from its start in 1890 in the Philippines, through its global expansion, split in 1953, when the Spanish San Miguel Brewery became independent of the Philippine parent and finally, the acquisition by Mahou to create Mahou San Miguel, Spain’s largest brewer. The Philippine roots evidently influenced the naming of its Manila India Pale Lager, a wonderful 5.8% ABV beer that I’d love to see in the UK.

Day 2 started with an uplifting view of Jeff Koons ‘Puppy’ outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, just yards from our hotel.  More than 1.2 million people visited the Guggenheim last year, making it one of Spain’s top cultural destinations.

Two hours drive south of Bilbao brought us to the city of Burgos, home to one of three San Miguel breweries in Spain – the others are in Malaga and Lleida, Catalonia.  Burgos is the centre for San Miguel’s R&D, and Magna, 1516 and 0.0% were all created here. It is also the only brewery where Selecta, Radler and gluten free are brewed. The scale of production here is impressive, and so are the site’s sustainability credentials.

To round off our tour, we were treated to a beer and food matching session from some of the brewery team.  For me, the standout pairing was a Burgos speciality of black pudding and egg with Selecta – its strength (6.2%) and toasted notes cutting through the dish’s fattiness.

Next stop was the archaeological site of Atapuerca, just outside Burgos. Excavations, which started here in the 1960s, have unearthed human and animal remains dating back millennia and in 2013, the discovery of a flint lasca proved the presence of humans 1.4 million years ago. San Miguel is one of the patrons of the Atapuerca Foundation which manages this important site, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Our guide at the Atapuerca archaological site

Back in Burgos, the last stop on our San Miguel tour was lunch at Cobo Vintage. The restaurant was founded by Miguel Cobo in 2015 and awarded a Michelin star a year later.  To say this meal was exceptional hardly does it justice; every one of the seven courses was delicious, beautifully presented and paired to perfection with a San Miguel beer. We tasted mussels with seaweed, smoked sea scallop with pickle, fish with a ‘pil pil’ sauce, veal ribs and more. With these dishes, we enjoyed San Miguel 1516, Manila, Magna and Selecta. And we were privileged to have chef Miguel at our table for each course, explaining his inspiration for the dishes and the beer pairings.

The trip certainly made me see San Miguel in a new light, which is the aim of the ‘cerveceros inquietos’ initiative. The extent of the San Miguel range – far broader than we see in the UK – the quality of the ingredients that go into the brew, and the potential for food pairing, were all showcased in an exciting and memorable way.  My thanks to San Miguel and to their professional and ever-helpful PR company Newlink for including me in this enjoyable, and restless, experience.

It’s a Trappist!

As someone very clever once remarked, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. They were almost certainly talking about something even more important than beer, such as building an atomic bomb or holding a referendum, but there are also plenty of breweries who would be well advised to have the saying inscribed over the brewhouse door in big gold letters.

So, I’ll admit it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I accepted – by which I mean blagged – an invitation to the launch of Britain’s very first Trappist beer. The tradition of monastic brewing goes back at least as long as there have been monks, and in fact beer’s links with religious rituals predates Christianity by millennia.

There are eleven Trappist breweries worldwide – six of them Belgian – currently allowed to sell beers with the Authentic Trappist Product seal of approval. The beers are much admired by beer aficionados, so there was considerable interest when the news came out a year or so back that that the Mount St Bernard monastic community in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, would become the twelfth accredited Trappist brewer.

We, as in a group of beer writers and a smattering of local media, rocked up at Mount St Bernard on a gloriously warm July day at the invitation of James Clay, the leading craft and specialist beer distributor, which is distributing the beer.

The details – not only the style and flavour of the beer itself, but also the name and branding – had been kept a secret. My niggling worry, I’ll admit, was that we might end up tasting a beer that was trying a little too hard to be an authentic Trappist beer in the Belgian style, and would end up missing an opportunity to celebrate the British monastic brewing tradition. I needn’t have worried – but more of that in a moment.

We were greeted at the implausibly tranquil and scenic Mount St Bernard by the Abbot, Father Erik. He explained that all Trappist communities have a duty to be self-sustaining and, having taken the decision to exit dairy farming five years ago, after some debate the monks voted to have a crack at brewing.

Planning permission was obtained, and buildings that formerly housed the monastery’s kitchen, refectory and laundry now contain a 20 hectolitre brewery, kitted out with modern German-specced brewing equipment, as well as a bottling line.

Before the grand unveiling of the beer itself, I had a chat with Father Michael, the head brewer, who was very clear that they had been determined all along to come up with a Trappist beer that brought something different to the party – and reading between the lines, it also seems clear that other Trappist brewers were keen that their British colleagues complement rather than compete with the existing beers.

Father Michael took his time creating the recipe and comparing it with existing brews, as evidenced by the range of empty bottles in the pilot brewhouse; everything from Belgian classics to premium British ales and beyond. Among those the monks consulted for advice were the great Steve Wellington, former Master Brewer at the William Worthington’s Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, and Dutch master brewer Constant Keinemans, who sits on the quality commission of the International Trappist Association.

And so to the reveal: The new beer is called ‘Tynt Meadow’, named after the field on the monastery site where the monks first settled in 1835. The official tasting notes describe the beer as having aromas of dark chocolate, liquorice, and rich fruit flavours; full-bodied, and gently balancing the taste of dark chocolate, pepper, and fig. I’ll go along with that – to my palate, the fruit flavours are on the dark side, with raisin and blackberry prominent. Enjoyed over lunch in in Tynt Meadow itself, the beer matched beautifully with strong blue cheese and spicy gingerbread.

Just as importantly, at its heart, Tynt Meadow is a quintessentially British ale, and as such thankfully adds a welcome new dimension to the Trappist beer landscape. The beer is brewed with English barley and hops, and an English strain of yeast. It is twice-fermented, with a second fermentation in the 330ml bottle.

In style terms, the official guidelines may need to be amended; to my mind Tynt Meadow falls somewhere between a strong brown ale and a barley wine, as well as being reminiscent of a traditional strong porter. It’s definitely a gastronomic beer, at 7.4% ABV one to savour slowly at the dinner table rather than to quaff at the bar.

Mike Watson, head of marketing at James Clay, describes it as “a huge milestone for the UK beer scene,” while Father Erik says “being the first active Trappist brewery in the UK puts us in a really good position to bring something truly special to consumers across the country and we feel honoured to be at the forefront of this.

All proceeds from the beer will go towards the upkeep of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey and towards charitable works – when you have the opportunity, it’s well worth trying.

 

The Treasure of the Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson's Green
Sierra Nevada beers served at the White Horse Parson’s Green

There is much talk of consolidation in beer circles at the moment. It seems to received wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that the craft beer boom has left us overbreweried, which will inevitably lead to the big global players snapping up bargains by buying out the biggest craft players, while many of the smaller ones will simply fall by the wayside.

I’ve no real idea whether that’s true or not, and no strong opinion on whether or not it’s a bad thing if it is. Anecdotally, I know that a number of smaller brewers in the UK have quietly shut up shop recently, but it’s hard to say if that’s a trend. The nature of business failure is that breweries tend to arrive with a PR fanfare and depart with barely a whisper.

Equally, I know craft purists who vowed that not another drop of Camden Town Brewery beer would pass their lips after the business was sold to AB InBev in 2015, and who have sworn off BrewDog since its founders sold 22% of the company to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners earlier this year.

Personally, I find that I can enjoy Meantime IPA just as well now that the merry-go-round has stopped and it’s owned by Asahi of Japan, and I have no doubt I’ll continue to enjoy a pint of Young’s Ordinary when Marston’s takes over the brand just as much as I did when Wandsworth’s finest first moved to Bedford under the stewardship of Charles Wells. I’ve worked with at least two entrepreneurs who’ve swanned off with a few mill as a result of flogging the fruits of their labours, and I don’t begrudge them a penny of it – although the fact that I’m still working and they’re not is a good indicator of the extent of my own business acumen. 

Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Steve Grossman at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Nevertheless, it’s also good to know that there are independent breweries out there that stick to their guns. So, I was delighted to accept an invitation recently to a beer and food matching dinner at south west London’s temple of beer, the White Horse at Parson’s Green. The event was hosted by Steve Grossman of California’s Sierra Nevada brewery, one of the true pioneers of the US craft beer movement. The event was part of pub group Mitchells & Butler’s summer craft beer festival, and an opportunity to sample some Sierra Nevada beers we don’t see as often over here as the Pale Ale or Torpedo Extra IPA.

Founded in the 1970s by Steve’s brother Ken, over the years Sierra Nevada has built a repertoire of seasonal and speciality beers, with its passion for hops at the heart of its programme,  that keep it’s loyal customers coming back for more. Sierra Nevada remains resolutely family-owned, with a new generation of Grossmans now coming into the business.  

Steve admitted to me they’d had some “interesting conversations” with bigger players over the years but, in line with the brewery’s commitment to sustainability and long-term investment – Sierra Nevada has won awards for its approach to energy and water use at its two US breweries – there are no plans to change the ownership structure.

Given that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a top 20 US beer brand, the Grossmans seem to be doing a pretty good job without outside funding. In the UK, the beers are distributed by Fuller’s, with the flagship beers now a standard part of the back bar fridge range in Fuller’s pubs. 

The menu at the White Horse was:

*Asparagus salad with Sierra Nevada Summerfest

*Palate cleanser – Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet

* Lamb rump with Sierra Nevada River Ryed

* Rhubarb crumble with Sierra Nevada Tropical Torpedo

*Cheese board – Stinking Bishop, Colston Basset blue, Keen’s Cheddar and Innes goats cheese log with Torpedo.

Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson's Green
Cheeseboard at Sierra Nevada dinner at the White Horse Parson’s Green

Of the beers themselves, the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Tropical IPA  is definitely one I’ll seek out again. Made with Amarillo, Mosaic, Citra, El Dorado and Comet hops, it has wonderful flavours of mango, papaya, and passionfruit to counter the intense hop character. River Ryed has real pepper/spice notes that would, I suspect, make it a beer that would go sublimely with a vindaloo.

Of the food matches, the kitchen team at the White Horse produced superb food, with Sierra Nevada Peach IPA sorbet a real highlight. However, they saved the best for last. The cheeseboard, especially the Colston Basset blue cheese, was an inspired match with Torpedo Extra IPA, with the intensely bitter Magnum, Crystal and Citra hops a true contrast to the rich, sticky sweet/savoury cheese.

So, long may Sierra Nevada stay independent.  Unless they don’t. In which case, f*** it, I’m still having a Torpedo with my Stilton at Christmas.

Spice up your life! The art (and science) of whisky blending.

Grants Family Reserve cocktail
Grants Family Reserve cocktail

In my defence, I wasn’t the only invitee who read “blind tasting” on the email and briefly thought “blindfold tasting”. It wasn’t, however, a 50 Shades of Grey style sensory encounter that bought us to Islington on a wet Wednesday evening, but rather an event organised by the Grant’s Family Reserve whisky brand.

As regular readers know, Scotch is not my top tipple, but I know enough about the whisky market to appreciate that blended scotch has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride in reputation terms over recent years.

Traditionally, the art of the blender was key to the success of a Scotch brand. Take a number of whiskies with distinctive characteristics and put them together to create a blend that delivered the best elements of them all without going to extremes in flavour terms.

The Cult of the Single Malt has turned that view arse-about-face, with today’s whisky connoisseur actively seeking out the boundaries of flavour profile, looking for those extremes of peatiness, spice and other flavour characters.

In a quote the appropriately Scottish Miss Jean Brodie, “for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” In the process, though, it has become fashionable to look down on blended whisky.

However successful the Scotch Whisky industry has been in building its appeal to the Single Malt purists, I’d argue that it has sacrificed some of the accessibility that gave blended brands its broad appeal in the process. That, in turn has created an opportunity for American whisky in particular to strongly build share in the UK market.

Rob Allanson whisky writer
Rob Allanson

As part of the fightback, the team from Grants kicked off with whisky cocktails, which in itself would have some Scotch purists reaching for their heart pills. Once we were suitably mellowed – and reassured that no blindfolds would be required –  the assembled group of around 10 people was taken through a blind tasting by acclaimed whisky writer Rob Allanson.

We tried three whiskies without being given any details. Drawing on all the experience of my Beer Sommelier training, I carefully appraised the whiskies for clarity, aroma and taste before skilfully picking the wrong one – at least as far as my hosts were concerned. We’d tasted three blends, and while the majority of the group had diplomatically picked Grant’s Family Reserve, my finely tuned palate preferred Famous Grouse.

Blending whisky
Blending whisky

The second stage of the evening, again under Rob’s expert tutelage, required us to blend our own whisky. Armed with jars, bottle, test tubes and pipettes, as well as five different styles of base spirit, we set about enthusiastically blending different percentages of peaty, spicy, sweet and fruity to come up with a winning blend.

On the night I was, I’ll admit, very happy with my spice-forward blend, which I called ‘Spice Trade’, and went away armed with a couple of 100ml bottles. However, when I broke these out for some friends at a dinner party a few days later, it has to be said that the response wasn’t as universally enthusiastic as I’d hoped. ‘Cleaning fluid’ and ‘antiseptic’ were two of the kinder tasting notes.

Fair enough. I have a newfound respect for the art of the master blender. I’ll leave it to the experts.

Sauce for the Goose – the Vintage Ale House opens in Balham

by John Porter

Balham is, as Peter Sellers famously observed, the “gateway to the south”, but it was, a little disappointingly, not the late Goon’s sketch that bought Chicago brewer Goose Island from its home in the cradle of urban blues music to the dubious glamour of South London.

If John Lee Hooker ordered his usual ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon and One Beer’ at the Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, the beer on offer would be from the Goose Island range back in Chicago in his adopted city.

These are, I admit, two completely different introductory paragraphs.  I’m equally fond of them both, but I’m going to struggle to link them, so take your pick.

To business.  In December 2016, the Goose Island Vintage Ale House opened in perhaps unexpected location of Ramsden Road in Balham. Marking the first pub venture for Goose Island outside the Americas, as might be expected the Vintage Ale House serves the brewers core range on draught including Goose Island IPA, Green Line Ale, and Four Star Pils.

More interestingly, also on offer – when available – is the legendary Bourbon County Stout, as well as the seven-strong range of barrel-aged Belgian style beers, dubbed the ‘seven sisters’. These Belgian-inspired beers are aged for 18 months in wine barrels, each with 50lbs of a different fruit added. Each is sold in 70cl champagne-style bottles, and bottle conditioned with a five-year shelf life. The range includes Gillian, named for X-Files actor Gillian Anderson, who once worked at the Goose Island brewpub. Bottled at 9.5% ABV, this farmhouse ale is blended with white pepper, strawberry, and honey.

Other sisters include pale ale Matilda, a 7% ABV farmhouse ale fermented with wild yeast, Sofie, a 6.5% pale ales aged with orange peel, and Madame Rose, a 6.7% ABV brown ale made with wild yeast and aged with cherries.

At the Vintage Ale House, a bottle of one of these beers will set you back somewhere from £18 and £25, and come with suggested food matches rom a bistro-style menu that includes Porter & Molasses Glazed Beef Cheeks or the Roasted Cod and Seafood Fregola.

If that strikes you as a challenging sell to the standard Balham punter, I initially agreed with you. As a native south Londoner who went to primary school a stone’s throw from the location of the Vintage Ale House – if you can throw a stone half a mile -I’d be the last to disparage the area, but even so…

Fortunately, I had the very good luck to be invited to a dinner hosted by Goose Island founder John Hall and president Ken Stout and had the opportunity to ask a few searching questions.

To start, with, why Balham? Although acknowledging that they left the exact choice of location to someone with more local knowledge, John told me: “I spent time in London, and enjoyed the pub scene, way before I opened Goose island. I also spent time in other parts of Europe, and wondered why we didn’t have the same atmosphere and beers in the States.

“The biggest influence on what I did, of any one thing, was Fuller’s. So, I opened a brewpub, and we sold beers of the world, put probably more than anything we sold English style ales, hand pulled.

When the opportunity came to expand, we thought why not go back to London. We’ve had our beers over here since 2002/2003, and over the years as craft beer has become more popular, we’ve done well. London’s huge, and we wanted to find a neighbourhood where we could fit in and establish ourselves, we wanted to be part of a community. That’s part of what we are.”

 Ken points out that “when John started the original brewpubs in Clybourn Avenue in 1988, it was a seedy area – there were ladies of the night, and it wasn’t necessarily the safest part of Chicago. Greg, John’s son, would walk down the middle of the street to get to the pub –  he didn’t want to be on the sidewalk, he wanted to be under lights. But since then that neighbourhood has become a gem.”

I mention that Balham has been through similar changes of its own, for example with gentrification among having seen the once-notorious Bedford Hill tone down its act considerably. Ken said: “I’m not saying we’re her to save Balham. But we’ve been part of the resurgence of the community in Chicago, and we’d love to be part of the resurgence that’s happening in Balham.”

So, what about the audience for those premium beers? John says: “In the States, we really pioneered brewing wine-like beers. When we bought out Matilda and Sofie, we were nervous originally, and we underpriced them, which hurt us little bit. But today, you’ve got beers out there that aren’t as good, that are priced higher.

“We have a selection of our beers here that are as worthy as any wine to go with a great meal. This is where we show people how to do that, show them how proud we are of these beers.”

Ken elaborates: “We’re trying to be part of the elevation of beer. These beers are for the developed palate. They’re influenced by the Belgian tradition but they’re very dry, there is no residual sugar. They’re for a palate that doesn’t want sweet and cloying, they’re tart and dry.”

While walk-in trade will enjoy the draught offer, John expects the vintage beers, paired with food, to attract a destination trade – “it’s going to be word of mouth.” The focus is on staff who understand the beers, along with the presentation, including bespoke stemmed glassware.

Ken says: “Our square footage isn’t huge here, but It’s not just about the number of people who come through the door, it’s finding the right people, those who really appreciate the experience. They become ambassadors without even knowing it, they tell their friends.”

The Balham opening has been made possible, at least in part by the investment in Goose Island by the world’s biggest brewer. AB InBev, which acquired Goose Island in 2011. Ken explains: “Since our partnership with AB InBev began in 2011 we’ve grown almost five times over in terms of volume, just in the US.  Any expansion projects, like the Vintage Ale House in Balham, don’t happen if we’re not succeeding as an individual business unit.”

John says: “I made the decision to sell because they told me, and I believed them, that they were buying us for what we could contribute.  Ken, who I hired many years ago, is now president and running the company, and I couldn’t be prouder, I love the beer, but I love the people even more.”

As for the prospects of further Vintage Ale Houses, Ken acknowledges: “If it works really well we’re going to want to do it in other great cities that have a beer culture. So Brussels would make a lot of sense, Paris would make a lot of sense, so would Rome and Milan.

And taking the concept back to the USA? Ken says: “We don’t really have an answer, we don’t know yet. We’re going to tend this garden and see what works. What can we do back home in Chicago potentially with something like this? It’s exciting to think about.”  John sums up: “I’ll be disappointed if we don’t.”

 

Whisky Chaser: The Glenfiddich IPA Experiment

by John Porter

I have a complicated relationship with whisky, dating back over 35 years to an ill-judged evening in the bar at uni and an early-hours visit to the A&E department at Colchester General Hospital. When the runes are right and the wind’s in the right direction, an unexpected whiff of Scotland’s finest can still summon up memories best left buried, a reaction I’m sure Proust never had to a madeleine.

On the other hand, I love IPA. I loved IPA before it was fashionable, and I’ll still love IPA when the last hipster’s moustache wax has hardened beyond the ability of science to save the density from dragging its wearer to the earth’s core.

So, it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I accepted an invitation to a masterclass to mark the launch of the Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, a collaboration between venerable distiller William Grant & Sons and the upstart Speyside Craft Brewery. Despite the 125-year age gap between William Grant setting up shop in 1887 and Speyside just four years ago, the two family-run enterprise have joined forces in the shape of Glenfiddich malt master Brian Kinsman and Speyside brewer Seb Jones.

The main result of the collaboration is a single malt whisky finished in IPA casks, with the 43% ABV Glenfiddich IPA Experiment now available from selected retailers, and being served in Young’s pubs as part of the pub operators Whisky Tide promotion.

Seb had three tries at creating an IPA before he came up with the flavour he was after. He says: “We did three trial recipes, each was a single hop IPA. The hop that made the grade was Challenger – which is a UK hop similar to that used in the original IPAs. This was serendipitous as the barometer of choice was with flavour profile and cellulose (wood) interaction.”

The resulting beer was kept in American oak casks, which were them emptied and filled with the whisky. That’s a very simple description of a very complicated process, but fortunately we were equipped with a handy, simple-to-follow guide that can explain it far better than I can:

All clear now? Excellent.  What I can do is tell you how the result tastes. Under the watchful eye of both Glenfiddich Ambassador Mark Thomson, as well as Seb Jones himself, attendees as the masterclass has the chance to sample the whisky, the IPA created by Seb to go in the barrels, and also the barrel-aged beer that subsequently emerged.

Taking the whisky first, the essential sweetness of every whisky is the first thing that hit my tastebuds. Beer and whisky are, essentially, the same products – whisky is distilled beer or, more accurately, distilled ale, given that the original distinction was that ale was unhopped and beer had hops added to counteract that sweetness.

On a second sip – always go back for a second sip – the citrus sharpness and fresh hop flavours have definitely had an interesting effect on the whisky.

More interesting was the beer. The original 6% ABV IPA created by Seb is, as he admits himself, fairly in-your-face thanks to the need for the beer to leave a chunk of its essence in the barrel. The earthy, peppery hop notes are up front, with the grapefruit and floral flavours harder to find.

The second beer is far more interesting. Its time in the barrel has knocked the rough edges of the more robust hop flavours to create a rounded, smooth IPA that delivers some unexpected flavours including, to my palate at least, liquorice and vanilla.

Whether whisky and I are every entirely comfortable with each other remains to be seen, but if brewers and distillers working together can create beers of this calibre, I’m definitely on board for the brews.  

Pictured: Speyside brewer Seb Jones and Glenfiddich Ambassador Mark Thomson