Saturday 27 October 2012

On Yeast - or - Yeast Is Like Light*

As I sit here sipping my way through a bottle of Badger The Wandering Woodwose (8%abv), I'm immediately struck by two things. The first is what a lightweight I've become of late, and how I can feel the effects of the alcohol after barely a few sips. The second is that even though this is a substantial departure for Badger - 8%abv, bottle-conditioned - it's immediately identifiable as a Badger beer, mainly down to the house yeast character. There's something classically British (or is it English?) about the soft, fruity, ripe-melon sweetness in this beer that isn't down to the malt, hops, flavour additions (a favourite of Badger's) or anything notable about the water profile. It's the yeast, stupid.

Yeast is so much the underplayed ingredient in beer that one rarely hears it talked about, even in the uber-geek recesses of the beer blogosphere, and yet ask any brewer if they would switch yeast strains, and you'll receive the sort of "you don't get it, do you?" look and shake of the head usually reserved for the feeble-minded.

The reason for this is that no matter how badly behaved a particular strain of yeast is - and let's for the moment just restrict ourselves to the seemingly endless variations of s. cerevisiae - it is absolutely fundamental to the character of a beer. I know of a brewer at a particularly successful brewery who feels that if he leaves the building for longer than a weekend, the yeast can sense that it's their chance to misbehave, and things go awry. But rather than ditch and switch, they soldier on because nothing else tastes quite the same as their own house strain.

And it works the other way too - I've done guest brews at a brewery where when I asked what their house strain was (or what it started as - yeasts will subtly mutate over time), I was told that the brewer didn't know. And another brewery who need to let the yeast run away with itself and ferment warmer than might be conventionally expected, otherwise the beers don't have the particular character that they are famed for. Or the brewery that uses the waste yeast slurry from another brewery. And for the avoidance of doubt, all the above examples are top-tier UK breweries, not madmen making ropey beer in unsanitary conditions.

A few years ago, I stayed in post-festival Cannes for a couple of days. As someone who is interested in art, I remember thinking that all the tales about the intensity of the sunlight there turned out to be true. The light there gave your vision a peculiarly heightened quality that was hard to define, and yet also unmistakable in whole swathe of 20th century art. Just as the quality of light and how it affects what you perceive is important to an artist (go and have a look at Monet's Haystacks for an example of this), so the way a yeast behaves is key to how a brewer makes a beer, and how that beer is perceived by the drinker.

As I say, I've become a bit of a lightweight lately.

*with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Monday 8 October 2012

What The HELL Is Craft Beer?

Scoop front left, scallopcheeks dead centre
As questions go, it's an interesting starting point, but I'm not sure that anyone seriously expected the panel discussion at Indy Man Beer Con to yield any definitive conclusions.

John Clarke and Tandleman (Peter to his friends) both gave a viewpoint that was perhaps informed by many years as CAMRA stalwarts, with John perhaps having a slightly broader view of the global scene, and Peter taking more of a pubs-man approach. Both broadly agreed that anything that was good for beer had also to be good for the culture of beer, with Peter striking a surprisingly conciliatory approach born of a desire to keep pub culture alive - "there's a beer for everyone" was a quote I was surprised (but not disappointed) to hear coming from him.

What of people involved in the industry? BrewDog kingpin James Watt put on a virtuoso performance showboating against the calumnious claims of big brewers making faux craft beer, with a tirade against Blue Moon that produce applause and rolled eyes in equal measure. Big brewers don't make craft beer, small brewers make craft beer - that was the message, and indeed that sort of resonates with most accepted definitions of craft beer, although of course there is no guarantee of quality in that. Ever one for a spot of devilish advocacy, I asked James at what point in their growth BrewDog would cease to be a craft brewery, to an "ooooh, handbags!"-style response from the crowd.

There was an impassioned interjection from the floor about how craft brewing was about the willingness to experiment, and the willingness to get things wrong occasionally. My response - "By all means experiment, but if it goes wrong please don't dry hop it and call it a special" - might have been seen as an attack on the person raising that point (I think it was Jan from Marble), or on any other brewer that I waved an impassioned finger at as I said that (god knows there were plenty in the hall that I've had "polite words" with over the years). It wasn't an attack on anyone in particular, but more of general appeal not to sacrifice quality and consistency for restless, needless, or pointless experimentation.

You would imagine Toby McKenzie of Red Willow brewery to have a viewpoint, and indeed he did. He brews the beer he likes, and if people like it, that's a bonus. His most impassioned plea, though, was for everyone to stop taking everything so seriously, which I completely failed to do with my analysis.

I think craft beer is about identity politics. I think that whether you're a brewer or a drinker, it's about defining yourself as much by what you are not as by what you are. I think it's about a willingness to experiment, both as a brewer and as a drinker. It's the forerunner of something that's going to get bigger, in the same way that styles of music go from being underground cool to mass-produced products. And that's not to belittle mass-production - Sierra Nevada are an example of a brewery that has grown without ever compromising its core ideas, but who are now really turning it out in volume.

Is craft beer more a state of mind, for the brewer and the drinker, than anything else?

Thursday 4 October 2012

Borefts #2

Gaustalle-Brau Natrub Zoiglbier (5.8%) - very slightly hazy, gold, hint of wildness in the aroma. Great texture, slightly heavy, slightly sweet, perfumed, fruity, big bitterness building towards a grassy finish. Great.

Mont Saleve Sorachi Bitter (2.5%) - hazy peach colour, classic Sorachi aroma (oily coconut) but somehow a tasty beer emerges from the Sorachi slickness. Enjoyable orange peel character emerges from the oiliness, before a big, big bitter finish. Good.

Buxton Wild Boar (5.7%) - tropical fruit nose, diesely undertones. Lovely balance of fruitiness, dryness and bitterness. Excellent.

This is such an unusual festival, this year spread across two sites a couple of hundred yards apart.The road between the new brewery and the old mill is a constant procession of people parading from one to the other, glass of beer in hand, crossing roads, all without incident.

Jester King Wytchmaker (7.3%) - hazy copper colour, spicy hop nose, toffee and pepper. Sweet on the palate, spicy pepper and oranges. A funky rye-driven farmhouse saison. Very good.

Buxton Tsar Bomba (9.5%) - Tsar with an old cultured strain of brett. Lush, smooth and complex, intense espresso mocha with a tickle of brett. Excellent.

Buxton Axe Edge (6.8%) - I can smell this from the tabletop two feet away. Lychees, passion fruit, diesel. Slick and sweet, touch of alcohol mid-palate, then a long and sweetly perfumed finish. Excellent.

At the old mill, a woodwind quintet strikes up, sounding for all the world like the backing band for a 'Debut'-era Bjork Unplugged session. All around them, people drink great beer and chat. The quintet are all dressed in freshly ironed white clothes, a single unit, an island of beautifully syncopated music, an oasis of cool concentration among the polite bacchanals.

Thornbridge Aussie Summer Ale (5%) - pin-bright, golden, softly fruity aroma, tropical hints ont he palate and nose, Classic Thornbridge. Made from Victoria's Secret hops - only 200kg in the world this year, of which Thornbridge got 30kg. Good.

Del Ducato Via Emilia (5%) - is there a hint of green gold about this, or is it just a trick of the mind? Noble hop character all the way through, but perfectly in balance, FOr me, a text-book pilsner. Brilliantly hoppy, but perfectly balanced. Very good.

Mont Saleve Blanche (5%) - neither as hazy nor as aromatic as you might want from a biere blanche,but hints of lemon barley water on the nose and palate, faintly cat-pissy. Doesn't really have much drinkability or moreishness. Oddly bitter finish. Not much cop, in all honesty.

Day two arrives, brisk and bright, with cartoon cotton wool clouds scudding across a Simpsons-blue sky. Everywhere people bustle about, on Saturday chores, on foot, on bikes so large they need to be climbed down from at a red light. A woman takes the lead off her chocolate Labrador, and in gentle guttural Dutch urges it onto the grass verge for a pee.

Alvinne Freaky (3.8%) - hazy copper colour, wild nose, thin body, wild tart finish. I don't think I'm a fan of their Morpheus yeast.

Del Ducato New Morning Saison (6%) - slightly yoghurty lactic aroma alongside classic saison spiciness. Pinprick carbonation, savoury celery quality. Burst of gently perfumed brett in the finish. Excellent.

Del Ducato Masochist IPA (6.5%) - hazy orange gold, tangerine aroma, tangerine palate, tangerine finish. Unsophisticated, but very good.

Bodegraven is such a sleepy suburban town that I'm struggling to see how it fits in with the mainly urban phenomenon of "craft beer". And yet people have travelled from all over the world to be here for a couple of days of low-key, almost inconspicuous beer geeking. All human life is here, and a few other forms besides, from the pot-bellied local guy, to the chi-chi Euro-femme, to hipsters of all ages and nationalities arriving on Saturday to be disappointed by Mikkeller having sold out of beer already.

Haandbryggeriet Sur Megge (8%) - peachy gold, tartly fruity nose, peach, lemons, honey, mano, pineapple, a total riot of fruit. Tart finish, faintly nutty, dry cider, more fruit. Absurdly good, monumentally good, actually indescribably good [my beer of the festival]

Narke Coffee Porter - [no note]

Kernel Topaz IPA - what to say? It's good.

ACCELERATED DRINKING PROGRAMME including Kernel Imperial Brown Stout (excellent) [it actually says this in my notebook. IN CAPS]

The Tulip Hotel, 2am Sunday morning: woken by a raucous party in the room next door. Is it an overspill from Saturday night hotel bar antics, or is it a bottle-sampling party. Sleep. Wake. Is that Craig's voice? Is that the Spanish guy I spoke to earlier? Is someone smoking? I hope the fire alarm doesn't go off.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Borefts #1

Christ, Holland is flat. From the upper deck of this train, you can see for miles. Well, you could see for miles if the Dutch nation, no doubt freaked out by the endless expanse of Netherlands all around them, hadn't planted a lot of trees. The trees follow the road, they follow the canal, they act as waymarkers, and they break up the agoraphobia-inducing sense of colossal sky pressing down with biblical force on the horizon all round.

Buxton SPA (4%abv, Nelson Sauvin dry-hopped special edition) - straw gold colour, slightly hazy. Nose is a touch dieselly, like Riesling (diesling?), almost certainly from the Nelson. Tropical fruit, then slightly tart bitterness. Good.

Thornbridge Baby Black Harry (2.8%) - given that it's advertised as being dry-hopped with Amarillo and Citra, I was expecting a bit of oomph, but it's a pretty straight down the line dark mild, roasty, designed for pints rather than dinky tasting glasses. Nice.

An adapted line from Salt N Pepa's Grammy-winning smash hit "None Of Your Business" loops over and over and over in my head: "If he wants to be a freak and be a beer geek then its none of your business". I'm heading for the Borefts Beer Festival at De Molen brewery, for two days of unashamed beer-geekery. I've got a leather-bound notebook, a purple corduroy jacket, and a mischievous intention to try and introduce the phrase "boutique brewery" to the lexicon over the weekend.

Thornbridge Wye (4.7%) - pale, nay limpid gold. Fresh air (?) and pale malt on the nose, and then the palate bursts at the finish with cucumbers. Yes, it's wet-cucumbered (the antithesis of dry-hopped) in the conditioning tank. Very good, but again, needs at least a half pint to get it.

Mikkeller SpontanDoubleBlueberry (8.5%) - thick indigo, with a persistent purple head. Tart funky nose, intense jammy aroma, violets. Fruity and tart on the tongue, big bursts of red fruit and funk in the finish. Symphonic, superb.

Bodegraven is such a sleepy, two-storey sleeper suburb of a commuter town that it's hard to believe there is anything going on here at all, let alone a dozen or more of the worlds hippest brewers in town pouring beer for a couple of thousand fans. Which makes it all the more thrilling to turn the corner on Overtocht to be confronted with the the mill, De Molen, in full sail, turning briskly in the breeze. My stomach actually lurches at the romance of it all.

Evil Twin Gooseberry Danbic (5%) - hazy pink (aged in red wine barrels) with a weirdly nutty nose. Faint hints of oloroso sherry (oxidation? age? barrels?). Tartly fruity (although could be any fruit), slightly acetic, oddly mousy finish. Interesting.

De Molen Nat & Droog (6.2%) - hazy orange - end of the keg. Massive hopsack and marmalade aroma. Big sweeetness on the palate, then spicy, then a bitterness that after a while develops an oddly chemical note to the hop character, which m'colleague The Beer Nut describes as beeing "too much like sucking hop pellets". Good, becoming odd later.

Soaking up the easy-easy nature of it all. You can wander round the brewery and look at everything, from the shiny stainless beer porn of the brewery itself, to the bottle store, to fresh-filled barrels, to the pallets upon pallets of Keykegs waiting to be filled. Mind gently boggles as it realises there are far to many beers to try.....

Jester King Petit Prince (2.5%) - hazy double-shine gold, appealing witbier/saison nose. Full carbonation, silky and smoothly drinkable, again on the palate a witbier/saison cross. Totally sessionable, and the sun has come out in agreement. Excellent

Jester King Buddha's Brew (4.7%) - cidery nose, slightly mealy and slick on the palate. Gently tart, slightly mousy, but hangs together nicely. Honey, lemon, dry cider in the finish. Good.