Category: Craft Beer

| Barley, Craft Beer, Hops, Miracle Brew, Water, Yeast

Miracle Brew – and me – to hit North America!

My new beer book is published in the United States and Canada this week. And I’m going to be doing a short tour to promote it. 

My latest book, Miracle Brew, is a globetrotting adventure into the nature of beer. It’s a tale that grew in the telling, with some parts going back as far as ten years, coalescing into the idea for a book about the ingredients of beer back in late 2014.

Why a book about the ingredients of beer? Well, it’s a timely thing: recent research in the UK by the There’s A Beer For That campaign shows that only 22% of people know what beer is made of, which is odd given that it’s the third most popular drink on the planet.

So in response: Miracle Brew presents a complete natural history of beer and emphasizes the importance of place—or terroir—that each ingredient brings to the finished glass. I travelled from the vast hop gardens of the Yakima Valley in Washington State to Bamberg in the heart of Bavaria, where malt smoked over an open flame creates beer that tastes like liquid bacon. The book explores explores traditional malting techniques, the evolution of modern hop breeding, water chemistry, and the miraculous catalyst that is fermentation to show how craft beer brewing has become a part of the local food movement and is redefining how the world perceives beer.

There’s more information about the book, and reviews, here.

So I have a short but very busy promotional schedule as follows. If you’re in town, have any beer or cider tips for me, or want to interview me or chat about the book, just let me know!

Saturday 14th October to Tuesday 17th October – New York

I’ll be doing some interviews and podcasts, and on Monday 16th taking part in an event for the Legion of Osiris.

Wednesday 18th October – Somerville, Massachusetts

An evening event with Aeronaut Brewing.

Thursday 19th October – TBC

Friday 20th October -Brattleboro, Vermont

An evening event with Hermit Thrush Brewing.

Saturday 21st to Sunday 22nd October – Toronto

On the Saturday afternoon I’m delighted to be doing a book signing alongside friend and fellow author Stephen Beaumont at the magnificent Cask Days festival. Then on Sunday evening I’m doing an event with Henderson Brewing.

Monday 23rd to Tuesday 24th October – Boston

On the evening of Monday 23rd I’m doing an event with Harpoon Brewing, then kicking around Boston for the day before flying home on Tuesday night!

Madly excited about my first ever North American book tour. I’ll be adding more dates back home in the UK on my return.

| Beer, Craft Beer, Hops & Glory, IPA

A Quick Blog Post For IPA Day

If you really want to know why IPA was supposedly so strong and hoppy, look not to the breweries, but to India…

Today is apparently International Let’s Argue About The Mythology Of IPA Day.

One of the main points of contention about this much-mythologised style is whether or not it really was strong and hoppy, and if it was, why it was.

Wherever I’ve seen this point argued, it’s been exclusively to do with the nature of the beer itself: did it have to be strong and/or hoppy to survive the journey? What do the brewing records say?

Some eminent brewing historians have found evidence of low strength, relatively low-hopped IPAs making the journey, which is fascinating. But some commentators have then taken this as evidence that disproves the ‘myth’ that IPA was strong and hoppy.

But the logic of that is flawed: evidence of weaker, less hoppy proves that IPA did not have to be strong and hoppy. It does not disprove that strong, hoppy beers went to India.

In my research for my book Hops & Glory, I found requisition orders from the India Office from the 1870s which specified the gravity, hopping rate, size of barrel, even the width of the bung on the barrel, for both India Pale Ale and Porter. When we translated the specs into modern brewing, we had a beer that was around 8% ABV and had an insane amount of hops. When we recreated it with Everards Brewery, the volume of hops clogged up the kettle and the beer was green when it came out. It was so hoppy we had to new the same beer again without any hops, and blend to two to get a beer that was still damn hoppy. But what’s important to remember is that the alpha acid content – the potency of hops – is far higher now, far more concentrated, than it was then. You’d have had to had far greater physical quantities of hops in 1870 to get the bitterness from hops you get today.

Anyway, these requisitions prove that at least some IPA that went to India was very hoppy and very strong. But its presence against other less hoppy, weaker beers, proves that it did not have to be like this in order to survive the journey.

What does this tell us? Well, there’s only so much that looking at the production end of things can tell us. For further clues, we have to look at the consumption side. What did people in India want their beer to be like? Throughout the whole of brewing history, this is a question that is asked all too seldom.

Another contentious ‘myth’ is that IPA was brewed for the troops. For some reason, there’s a school of thought that it wasn’t. Certainly, it wasn’t the only think they drank. And yes, the civilians in India drank it too. But the big orders I saw for requisition were specifically for the he numbers of troops that were sent to India after the 1857 first war of Indian Independence (referred to by colonialists as the Indian Mutiny.)

Being a soldier in India was a life of short periods of extreme violence separated by long stretches of total boredom. The soldiers filled that boredom by drinking.

When Fanny Parkes went India on a ship full of soldiers in 1827, she came to know many of her fellow passengers and was shocked at how quickly many of them died. The average life expectancy of a soldier serving in Calcutta was just three months. Disease was a far bigger killer than combat, and much of it was caused by alcohol.

Beer couldn’t be brewed well in India, but a drink known as arak could be made simply by drawing off palm sap and letting it ferment in the hot sun. Arak drinking contests claimed the first European casualties in India when the Dutch and English spice traders got there. One binge could be fatal.

So, in order to keep soldiers alive, they had to be given alcohol that was strong and flavourful, like arak, but not fatal. IPA was strong because if it wasn’t, the boozy soldiers would have drunk arak instead.

As for hoppiness? The vivid hop characters we love today would have vanished from the beer after months on a hot ship. But the flavours changed. The locals used to say IPA ‘ripened’, and when it was ripe, they described it character as being like champagne. My sea-matured IPA certainly had that character to it – somewhere between what we think of as IPA and barley wine.

So – at least some IPA was strong and hoppy. It didn’t have to be. It was like that because that’s how people wanted it to be, so they drank it instead of the local gut rot.

| Barley, Beer, Books, Craft Beer, Hops, Miracle Brew, Water, Writing, Yeast

‘Miracle Brew’ is coming – at last!

My first book about beer since 2009 hits UK shelves next week – and North America later this year.
It’s been a long wait – nearly two and a half years – for those who pledged when I first announced that I was publishing my new beer book through crowd-funding publisher Unbound.
Ironically, from announcing the book and opening pledges to the date of publication, its taken about a year less than any of my first three beers books took to research and write. Books like these take you down a long and lonely road.
There was a degree of consternation over the decision to crowdfund a book. Did it mean I couldn’t get published in a traditional way? (No.) What do investors get? (A book, for the price of a book, with your name listed in the back.) Was it vanity publishing? (No – in many ways, it’s the opposite.) But quite quickly, enough people pledged – around 530 – so that Unbound could give it the green light.
Those who did pledge should be receiving their copies this week. (If that’s you, please tweet or post when you get it!) The book is also available to pre-order on Amazon,  and because Unbound have a distribution deal with Penguin Random House, it’ll be in bookshops just like any other book from Thursday 1st June.
I did have a few readers in North America complain about the shipping cost when they tried to pledge for the book – for some, it was more than the book itself. The good news there is that Chelsea Green, a publisher that has produced some of my favourite food and drink books, has just bought the North American rights to Miracle Brew and they’ll be publishing a slightly tweaked* edition in the autumn – sorry, fall – probably early October, and it looks like I’ll be doing an American publicity tour to support it! Maybe see you at the Great American Beer Festival.
I’m enormously proud of this book. In terms of tone and content, it picks up on elements of Man Walks into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, but also reflects the fact that I’m a decade older than when I wrote those books. The first was a history book about beer, the second a travel book about beer, and the third combined the two with a bit extra. Judged by the same standard, this is a science and nature book about beer, with a lot of travel and history, and plenty of extra, all thrown in. At 400 pages long it’s a chunky bastard – just like its author these days…
I daresay I’ll be writing more here about it soon.
* Because references to a cheeky Nando’s with the Archbishop of Banterbury still aren’t travelling that well.
Miracle Brew is published in the UK by Unbound on 1st June, hardback, RRP £16.99

 

| Advertising, BrewDog, Craft Beer, Marketing, The Business End

Why I can’t get too excited about BrewDog’s big ‘sell out’

The bad boys of brewing recently sold a 22% stake of their company to an investment firm. So?

First, I have a terrible confession to make. Remember when John Lydon made those butter ads? I’m afraid I was partly responsible for that.

It wasn’t my idea or anything like that, but in my role as a planner I was responsible for putting together the research among butter buyers to find out who the best celebrity would be to front the campaign. It was one of the last freelance planning jobs I did before being able to switch to writing and beer consultancy full time.

We tested Lydon against a bunch of other people, and he came out top among Britain’s housewives because they felt he was so uncompromising, he’d never just do an ad for the money – he’d only do it if he genuinely believed what he was saying.

In other words, he was the best person to do what we were paying him to do, because he would never do what we were paying him to do, so if he did that, it’s OK.

Predictably Lydon got some stick for ‘selling out’. Because this is Johnny Rotten we’re talking about, he didn’t give a shit. Where he deigned to give a response, he said that punk was always about grabbing the filthy lucre from the big guys, and that’s exactly what he was doing here.

(If you ever tire of arguing about the definition of craft beer, head over to music and have a go at defining punk. As I witnessed last year at an event to mark punk’s 40th anniversary, it makes craft beer look simple.)

So I’ve witnessed a similar situation before to the one this week where BrewDog announced they were selling a chunk of the company to TSG Investment Partners in San Francisco – the same people who also help finance Vitaminwater, popchips and US beer brand Pabst – and were greeted with cries of ‘sell out!’

I can’t get too excited one way or the other about this.

Firstly, it’s hardly surprising, is it? BrewDog has been on an astonishing growth spurt for ten years. It already has 44 bars around the world and exports to 55 countries, and has double or even triple digit growth every year. The company has always been about rapid expansion, and this is a logical next step, which, if it has any lesson at all, is that, as Martyn Cornell has written, crowdfunding can only get you so far.

Second, BrewDog is maturing. Being ‘punk’ makes perfect sense when you arrive and overturn all the tables in the temple of beer, but they’re ten years old now, and that’s ancient in craft beer years. Martin Dickie and James Watt are in their mid-thirties with young families, and they employ, at the last count, about 450 people. A couple of years ago they did a re-brand that ever so subtly made them look and feel more grown up, less brash.

Before
After

BrewDog stopped being ‘punk’ when they grew into a stable, successful business that supports hundreds of people’s livelihoods instead of putting their foot through the mash tun and throwing the fermenters into a swimming pool before overdosing on End of History in a seedy hotel room. Behind the image and the increasingly infrequent brash stunts, they employ marketers, PR people, accountants, HR managers as well as brewers who all know what they’re doing, because you can’t function as a large business if you don’t. That doesn’t sound very punk, does it?

Thirdly, James Watt individually still owns more of the company than the investment firm he’s sold a chunk of his business to. If you insist on going by the US definition of craft beer, the sold stake is less than the threshold that disqualifies BrewDog from being craft.

I doubt anyone can be truly surprised by this move. I’d be amazed if anyone was genuinely upset by it. I think any outcry is merely the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘I told you so.’

As this spoof makes clear, the one significant part of this is that BrewDog will find it increasingly difficult to get away with grandstanding ‘4 real’ behaviour. I’ve sensed a move away from this over the last few years anyway.

The punk attitude has helped BrewDog build an amazing brand that pays a lot of people’s wages and genuinely does encourage more people to enjoy great beer than would otherwise have been the case.

Punk is dead. But the punks won.

Okay, now you can tell me how the Sex Pistols were never really punk anyway.

| Beer, Beer tasting, Craft Beer

Tasting Beer: Some Thoughts and Reflections

Being faced with a flight of beers I had no desire to drink made me think philosophically for a bit, and wonder if there’s a different narrative to tasting and enjoying beer.

I love judging the Brussels Beer Challenge. It’s one of my favourite competitions, because it’s global in scope, but it happens in Belgium, which means the beers you’re tasting during judging sessions have to measure up to the beers you drink in a typical bar round the corner. Last year I had to judge 24 Belgian-style Tripels in the morning, and then we visited the Trappist brewery at Westmalle in the afternoon, and drank Westmalle Tripel and… well, it would be rude to the breweries entering the competition to complete that thought. Some of them tried really hard.

Last November, I was judging again in Brussels. You never know what category you’re going to get. You accept you’re going to get some that you’re not best friends with, but hope that it’ll balance out and that you’ll get some good ones. Sometimes – as I found with the Tripels the year before – getting a style you love can be a mixed blessing. But can it work the other way round? Can you find something wonderful in a category you think you hate?

At 9.15 that Saturday morning, I found out: 47 fruit beers were waiting to be sipped, savoured and scored.

These were not Berlinerweiss with added fruit, nor fruit IPAs nor krieks. These were beers where fruit (or fruit syrup, or concentrate) was the main flavour. I rarely, if ever, drink these beers. The whole table was trepidatious about the promised assault on our precious palates. How to judge them?

There were style guidelines, and in many competitions, judging to style is the most important point: you can find the best beer you’ve ever tasted in your life, but if it has more colour units or hop character or a lower or higher ABV than the guidelines say, you have to mark it down, so I always prefer the competitions that give some leeway as to whether it’s a good beer or not. But with a style I reject as a drinker, how should I judge its appeal beyond whether it was ‘to style’ or not?

In thinking this through, I started to think about how we taste and enjoy beer. The vast majority of people who drink beer don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s going on in the mouth, and that’s fine – beer is a social lubricant, and while you’re drinking it, most of your attention is focused elsewhere. Just like when you read half a page of a book and realise you haven’t taken it in because you’ve been thinking about something else, or there’s music playing and you can’t recall what the last few songs were because you were listening to your friend talking, there’s a big difference between sensory stimulus being picked up by your mouth, nose, eyes etc., and your brain actually paying any attention to it. When we taste beer, as opposed to drinking it, the biggest difference is not in the size or shape of the glass, the sniffing and swirling; it’s in the simple act of directing your attention to the beer itself rather than anything else.

I’ve seen many craft beer fans necking beers they’ve paid a lot of money for and which they profess a deep understanding of. There’s nothing wrong with that – even if you get stuck into the sensory impressions on the first couple of sips, you’d look a bit of a dick if you continued to focus on it throughout the entire glass, to the exclusion of everything else happening around you.

But sometimes, those of us who do love beer really do want to interrogate what’s going on with it, and not just when you’re judging. A huge chunk of beer writing consists of tasting notes of different beers. But here’s my problem, informed by reading Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, and by sitting with beer experts judging competitions: too often, tasting beer can descend into a pissing contest about who can pick up and identify what different elements are in the beer. Whether that’s correctly identifying the hops or malts used, or being able to ‘get’ notes of hibiscus, salted caramel, cuban cigars or whatever, I always worry that tasting notes along these lines are more about the taster than the beer. Here’s an example I picked at random, years ago, from Beer Advocate, to make the point:

 

“After swirling a bit I am getting some creosote, faint hop background, malt wort. Taste is bitter and dry, strong roasty presence, a bit like old coffee grounds. Finishes out with some astringency.”

If you’re into your beer these days, and you frequent sites like this, that probably makes a lot of sense to you. But what’s it doing, really? I honestly can’t tell from this description whether the taster actually likes the beer or not, and from this, I can’t be sure whether I would or not, either. Is identifying a series of disparate parts and impressions the same thing as describing a beer, or appreciating it?

I don’t think so.

Think about literature, about reading the introduction of a new character. When did you last read a description along the lines of “She was about five feet four, with mid-brown hair. She was caucasian, approximately thirty years of age, wearing a navy blue skirt and jacket over white blouse, finished with a Laura Ashley scarf and black shoes.”

This is what you get in a police report, not a piece of creative writing. It describes a person, but gives me no idea of who that person is, whether I would be interested in talking to her, or why I should be interested in meeting her. A good novelist can give you a brilliant picture of a real person without mentioning any of these details.

But I’m meant to be talking about tasting, not writing. The thing is, if we accept that this identity parade of flavour notes is what tasting beer is meant to be like, we feel pressured to simply spot as many and unusual constituent parts as we can rather than thinking about the whole.

Faced with my fruit beers, I realised this would be no good. Here’s a strawberry beer. “I’m getting strawberries.” OK, thanks. That would be it. But the thing is, in that tasting session, I tasted good strawberry beers (well, one) and bad. What was the difference between them?

The good one tasted like a beer that had strawberry flavour in it, rather than like strawberry soda. You could still tell it was beer. And the strawberry tasted of strawberry, rather than strawberry syrup. And the strawberry part and the beer part harmonised and felt like they belonged together.

By the end of the morning I’d enjoyed several of the beers, and I’d scribbled out some thoughts on how, if I’m in an analytical mood, I might get more from tasting beer than I do from the prevailing spot-the-flavour-note model.

APPEARANCE
In an age of cloudy craft beers, this is problematic, and we allocate it too many marks in beer competitions. Some truly revolting beers look clean, bright and sparkling, and score better than they should because of it. It’s also dependent on the context of the beer you’ve ordered. Does it look like you expected it to? Does it look like you want it to? Does it make you want to drink it?

AROMA
This is where we create the competition to see who can spot what, and wine is no different from beer. It’s also where any taster opens themselves up to accusations of pretentiousness.

It’s flawed to give aroma too much attention all the time, because humans actually get most of our aroma sensations from ‘retronasal olfaction,’ meaning you really get it when it’s in your mouth/when you’re swallowing, and it passes up to your nasal cavity from the back of your throat, and past your olfactory bulb as you breathe out through your nose.

Instead of thinking of this stage as an identity parade of flavour notes, what if you think of it as a courtship? Is there any aroma at all? If not, why not?

Despite the retronasal thing, this is a big indicator (though not a foolproof one) of the main event. Aroma should entice you. Does it put you off instead? Or does it make you want to plunge in? With some great and powerful beers, the aroma makes me want to carry on sniffing, almost forgetting to drink. On a few rare occasions, as with fresh coffee or freshly baked bread, the delivery may not even live up to the aroma’s promise. But overall, I’m looking for aroma to increase the anticipation and desire of drinking. However it might do that, if it isn’t doing it, it’s not working.

TASTE
Obviously, this is the main event. In the first second in which the beer enters your mouth, there’s an initial flash of flavour sensation, before your rational, analytical brain kicks in. Can you capture that and appreciate it? How does it make you feel? I’m increasingly of the opinion that to really get this, you should start by taking a generous swig rather than a dainty sip.

Once it develops, is there a journey across the palate? Does it develop as it moves around your mouth, or as it sits there, or is it just a quick flash of something that quickly disappears? Is it complex or one-dimensional?

Here, I then start to think about whether I’m actually enjoying the beer, and depending on your level of comfort with this kind of reflection, this is where we get either pretentious or we separate good from bad: Is there a point to this beer? What’s it trying to be, and does it succeed?

If it’s trying to be simple and direct and refreshing, does it do that job well or are there odd bits sticking out? (I’ve nothing against a clean, crisp lager, but if there are incongruent flavours due to poor technique or short lagering, they spoil what it’s trying to do.)

If it’s trying to be complex and rewarding, are all those constituent parts that beer-spotters love identifying so much working together or do they jar with each other? (I sometimes find complex craft beers to be a flabby collection of elements in search of an idea).

FINISH
Aftertaste is a sensory experience – partly due to that retronasal thing, partly because some beers linger. How do you feel once you’ve swallowed that first sip? Are you satisfied? Do you want to drink more? This is revealing – how many times do you not feel this to be the case, but you force it down anyway, because you’ve paid for it? How many flabby beers do you finish with grim determination? And how many times does the finishing buzz compel you to raise the glass again, to try to complete a circle, to nag away at the desire the beer has created?

By the time I got to the end of my flight of fruit beers, I’d enjoyed a few of them, and found the experience of tasting them – even the ones I didn’t like – to be thoughtful and revealing. And I had some thoughts that help me appreciate beer rather than just tasting it.

What do you think? How do you appreciate beer? Do you intellectualise it at all or just judge it by how quickly you finish a pint and how much you want to order another? Because after all that, when I look at a tasting flight in competitions, usually the easiest way of spotting my favourite is to look at which glass is nearly empty.

| Beer, Craft Beer

Stop the presses: the definition of craft beer

Yet again, I’m in the middle of writing a piece that addresses the idea that craft beer is ‘a meaningless term,’ that ‘craft beer’ doesn’t exist because it had no precise, technical definition.

To argue the point I’m making, I hauled out my massive copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to look at the definition of the word ‘craft.’ And lo and behold, just below the three different definitions of ‘craft’, the next entry is ‘craft beer’!

So according to the OED:

‘craft beer (also craft brew) noun (US) a beer with a distinctive flavour, produced and distributed in a particular region.’

I kinda like that. You may not. I think it gets to the point of what it’s all about. You may disagree with it, you may think it’s incomplete, you may think it misses the point. I really don’t care. Because craft beer has a strict tight, pithy definition, created by the people whose job it is to define what words mean. This is the definition of craft beer whether you like it or not. If you disagree, you might as well argue with the definitions of the words ‘cramp,’ ‘cranial,’ ‘crannog’ or ‘crap hat.’

This may not solve many of the issues in craft beer, but it does hopefully mean an end to the fatuous argument that the problem with craft beer is its lack of a strict definition. If you have a problem with craft beer, it’s probably not about the definition of the word, but about what you feeling being done to the concept.

By the way, my personal big-ass copy of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 2003, so (a) apologies to anyone for whom this is old news and (b) that means craft beer has had a definition all this time we’ve been arguing over whether it does to not. Tchoh!