Friday, 27 November 2009

Juxtaposition

I just realised that Williams Bros make an India Pale Ale with lager malt and Amarillo hops, whereas BrewDog make a lager with pale ale malt and Amarillo hops. They're both great beers, but after a couple I start to wonder whether words mean anything any more.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Will anyone miss Scottish & Newcastle?

Today the former Scottish & Newcastle will formally become known as Heineken UK. While the name change is largely symbolic, it does mark the final end of independent existence of a company that goes back to the 1850s and once produced beers that made Edinburgh world famous as a brewing centre.

By the time I started drinking in the late 1980s, McEwan's ales, once famous, were ghastly and helped create a generation of lager drinkers. I don't suppose S&N cared, as ever since I can remember they've been more interested in pushing Kronenbourg and Foster's than McEwan's and Youngers.

This story is how I and many others will remember S&N for evermore:

IT'S a beer named after one of Edinburgh's most famous bars.

But Digger's 80/- has been ordered off the taps at the pub it was named after by brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle.

Bosses at the Athletic Arms contacted local "micro-breweries" to produce a beer as close as possible to McEwan's cask 80/- ale, which was phased out by owners S&N over Christmas.

Stewart Brewing came up with a replacement for the heavy, which took its brand name from the Gorgie bar's nickname – and the beer has been on sale at the pub since April.

But S&N officials have now enforced a clause in the lease that says the bar can serve only the company's ales on tap.

It wasn't enough for S&N to stop brewing a beer that was once a legend — they had to stop anyone else brewing it either.

This kind of price-of-everything-value-of-nothing idiocy and open hatred of their own brewing heritage is one of the reasons I will not miss S&N one bit. Heineken cannot possibly be any worse.

Good riddance.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The ABV doesn't lie

As I mentioned before, it's become unfashionable among brewers to give beers names which give drinkers a chance of figuring out what they taste like.

But I have hit upon a cunning strategy to thwart their nefarious naming schemes.

At the last beer festival I attended, the same numbers kept appearing over and over again: 3.2%, 3.8%, 4.2%. I realised that these are the secret style indicators.

3.2% is usually a dark, refreshing mild.

3.8% can range from very pale to brown and will be intensely bitter if you're lucky.

4.2% is generally a horrible overly sweet mid-brown mess full of toffee.

There's something to be said for second-rate micros all making the same three beers after all.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Observation

As a discussion on any beer forum grows longer, the probability of it turning into an argument about the history of India Pale Ale approaches 1.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Artificial froth

This article in the Guardian looks like mischief-making to me. It's dragging up a dispute from a local beer festival months ago to create an misleading narrative of CAMRA as hidebound fuddy-duddies preventing the growth of exciting new craft lager breweries.

The story of that earlier spat is briefly: CAMRA told Freedom Brewery at short notice that their beer couldn't be sold at the Burton beer festival because it was to be served by CO2 pressure.

The writer Oliver Thring would like to make the story more interesting, so resorts to selective quotation.

The quote from CAMRA has them — apparently — denouncing Freedom for "a mixture of naivety and arrogance." Freedom supposedly complain they were unable to reach agreement because CAMRA represent ale and they brew "the L word".

Now I don't for a second believe that the writer phoned up both sides and they only had one sentence each to say. I strongly suspect he took, in both cases, the most seemingly controversial statement out of a longer conversation and stacked them up against each other to make his story look more exciting.

The dispute was never about lager versus ale — it was about extraneous CO2 and the bizarre last-minute intervention that prevented Freedom's lager being sold at the Burton beer festival.

Freedom should have known CAMRA's position on extraneous CO2. So should Burton CAMRA. There should have been a resolution of the issue weeks before the festival; instead the problem was incredibly badly handled and made CAMRA look like idiots.

There's no need for a ban. CAMRA festivals regularly serve lager by gravity or air pressure. I have no idea why this was not acceptable to Freedom. It's a non-issue. CAMRA is not anti-lager. Many of its members are; that's because they're small-minded idiots and it's nothing to do with CAMRA policy.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Beer Swap: beers finalised

Well, I've got my beers and they're ready to be boxed up. I did say this in my last post on the subject, but we don't have enough stores in Glasgow selling good beer. The demand is clearly there — every shop in town was sold out of one local brewery's beer yesterday when I went looking for it.

My parcel from @beermerchants has arrived, but I'm promising myself I'm not going to open it until I've sent off my own Beer Swap parcel.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

I haven't written about BrewDog for a while. This is because I am, to be honest, fed up writing about them and aware that I still haven't blogged anything about several great breweries such as Colonsay, Harviestoun and Fyne Ales whose beer also deserves attention.

People have been complaining about the hype since BrewDog started. This has never bothered me because I have never paid any attention to the hype, only to the beer. If the beer had been crap I'd have been calling them a pair of pretentious wankers two years ago.

The announcement of Equity for Punks has been a bit of a watershed. Let's face it, selling shares in your business is not really very punk at all, no matter how you spin it. So I suppose that after the share offer, BrewDog's James Watt needed to make up for that by getting back to punk basics – gratuitously offending and alienating people.

As well as slagging off fellow brewers, James has in the last week revealed that BrewDog complained to the Portman Group about their own beer as a publicity stunt. Now people feel they've been led up the garden path and are upset.

I think people only have themselves to blame for taking the marketing nonsense seriously in the first place. Punk is all about manufactured outrage. What on earth did you expect?

To be fair, the outrage now is pretty mild compared to some of the reactions punk provoked in the 1970s, when a London councillor commented: "Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it."

BrewDog haven't wound anyone up anything near that much yet. Come on James, get your act together!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Beer Swap: what I'm not sending

While Scotland may be blessed with some fantastic breweries at the moment, Glasgow is short of good outlets, both off-licences and pubs. This is not a criticism of the ones we do have, I just wish there were a few more! Amazingly, the products of some of Scotland's finest breweries are tricky to find here in the capital.

This means that I'm still scouring the stores looking for certain beers that I have in mind.

A slightly annoying factor is not knowing what my swap-recipient can get locally. It means that to be on the safe side I have to leave out several great breweries, such as Harviestoun and Williams Bros, as their beer is so good that it already gets national distribution (well, I think it does. I haven't been all round the country to check). No Orkney or BrewDog either, although they are at the other end of Scotland anyway so technically ineligible.

At the other end of the spectrum, a secondary problem is that many of the local beers are not bottled so are non-starters: most of Kelburn's and Houston's beers, for example.

I've acquired two bottles as yet. Both are (I think) good quaffing beers. What are they? You'll have to wait until it arrives at the other end for me to spill the beans. Now perhaps I need something a little bit special. I have three contenders for two slots, depending on what I can get.

I am secretly tempted to put in a can of Tennent's Lager, just for a laugh.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

5 great organic breweries

People often say that organic beer is boring and dull. More generous souls might say it's inevitably compromised, because the organicness takes priority over the beer being fantastic.

Indeed, it's a bit suspect when the most interesting thing a brewery has to say about its beer is that it's organic. We've all encountered the sad selection of two or three beers in wholefood shops, bought one or more and been underwhelmed.

But there are some breweries making organic beer which is superb; not just "good considering it's organic", or "organic and decent", but beer you'd cross the street to drink whether it were organic or not.

Here are five of them.
  1. Black Isle Brewery, Ross-shire: up in a remote corner of Scotland this outfit produces rich, tasty beers in contemporary packaging using organic ingredients.
  2. Pitfield Brewery, Essex: I've never had a beer from this brewery that was anything less than stunning and their recreations of historical porter and IPA are spectacular.
  3. Marble Brewery, Manchester: Amazing beer and they've just won the Champion Beer of Greater Manchester, which must count for something.
  4. Traditional Scottish Ales, Stirling: formerly Bridge of Allan Brewery, well-made beers for those who prefer their ale on the malty side, and also the makers of Glencoe Wild Oat Stout, outstanding by any criteria.
  5. Brauerei Spezial, Bamberg: world famous for its smoked lager, less well known for taking all its barley from organic farmers in the local region. Barley? Yes, for Spezial is also one of fewer than ten German breweries that still make their own malt.
Here's a interesting short interview with Peter Scholey, former head brewer at Brakspear, in which he clears up a few myths and explains some of the problems involved in making organic ale. Despite the difficulties, the breweries above show that organic beer doesn't have to be mediocre but can be among the very best.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Brewing versus science?

I was quite flabbergasted to read Roger Protz's blog attacking Prof David Nutt on the same day the Home Secretary asked Nutt to resign as chief drugs advisor. I would have thought that the open New Labour contempt for science would be much more worthy of criticism, because that is much more dangerous than the opinions of an advisor, whatever they may be.

If you actually read Prof Nutt's paper, he is not demonising alcohol, but using it as a benchmark. The point is to give an indication of how dangerous certain drugs are in comparison to the drugs that are most familiar to most of us. Everything we do in life has an element of risk. That's the point.

The point is to quantify the risk involved. None of us would do the lottery if we thought about the incredibly low chance we actually have of winning. We do it for the excitement, a moment's entertainment and the hope that we will be "lucky". It is based on faith and hope, not logic and reason.

I suggest that faith and hope are a poor basis for alcohol policy, especially when combined with spin, PR, bullshit, bluster and fear of what the Daily Mail will say.

You may not agree with Prof Nutt's views. They are, however, based on evidence, while Roger's and the Home Secretary's are based on faith and prejudice. Why is this important? It means that you can argue with Nutt (by criticising his methodology, for example), whereas you cannot argue with the likes of Alan Johnson, who have already made up their minds.

It is the same reason you cannot argue with the neo-prohibitionists who rant about the supposed need to increase alcohol prices and decrease availability, even though alcohol consumption has been falling substantially for the last five years.

I therefore think it is very much in the interest of beer drinkers to support a science-based approach to reducing alcohol harm, rather than the alternative based on whatever prejudices the government of the day might have.

I think society would have fewer alcohol-related problems if people drank good beer. I bet Roger thinks so too. But he must know as well as I do that the majority of people and especially of alcohol abusers are consuming "vodka" made of watered down ethanol of unknown provenance, mass-produced barely-lagered "lager" and other concoctions. The majority of the alcohol industry is far removed from the romantic craft breweries Roger describes in his blog post.

I rather doubt that any of those breweries are as hostile to science as Roger. Maybe one or two are still measuring the temperature of their mash with their elbow, stirring their wort with a "magic stick" to get it to ferment, and calling the foam on top "god is good". But I suspect it's unlikely.

As an old Trot, Protz is surely familiar with the expression Lysenkoism. It's an example of what can happen when governments favour their own prejudices and what seems to fit their dogma, over actual science.