Category: Yeast

| Beer, Brewing, Budweiser Budvar, Cantillon, Lager, Miracle Brew, Water, Yeast

Three Examples of Why Some Good Beers Cost More

One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?

The ‘special’ shelf in my cellar.

Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.

I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:

“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”

I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.

That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?

So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.

1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.

Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.

2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers

There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.

3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes

Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.

Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.

I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.

As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.

If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:

You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.

| Beer, Brewing, Harveys, Hops, Yeast

A Trip To Lewes Cathedral

Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes, Sussex, is as old school as they come. Sometimes, no matter how much you think you know about brewing, or how forward-looking you are in terms of what’s new in beer, you need to revisit a place like this to ground you and remind you what it’s all about.

We were in Lewes for a strategy day. Along with publisher Daniel Neilson and editor Adrian Tierney Jones, I’m now one third of Original Gravity magazine, the latest edition of which is just out. We got together a couple of weeks ago for a day or so to work out the future direction of the mag (clue: it’s really exciting). After a few beers the night before, the conversation loosened, and we got onto a bit of a riff I could clumsily title ‘Beers some people take for granted and others ignore completely because they’ve been here forever but if they were launched tomorrow by a hip new brewery you would totally lose your shit over how good they are.’

We came up with a pretty impressive list. Near the top was Harvey’s Best Bitter. I think we were excited because we knew that after our morning’s session, we had a tour of the brewery planned.

Harvey’s is an unusual brewery in that it’s smack in the middle of the town of Lewes, dominating the skyline. And it’s uncommonly beautiful to look at. It’s a Victorian ‘tower brewery’, where all the ingredients are hoisted up to the top floor, and then steadily make their way down through the various brewing vessels with the assistance of gravity. There are other Victorian tower breweries in town centres, but Wadworth in Devizes is the only other one that springs immediately to mind as such a compelling tourist attraction. Harvey’s has the edge on it: there’s a waiting list of two months here for brewery tours.

Miles Jenner – the third generation in a family of brewers – has been head brewer at Harvey’s since 1986, and joint Managing Director since 2000. His office, with its carefully painted door, is just opposite the main brewing copper. From the outside, with its coloured glass and gabled window, it looks like a small chapel in a Tudor Manor House.

The religious comparison doesn’t stop there.

“People often refer to the brewery as Lewes cathedral,” says Miles when we meet him in the brewery yard. “I changed the sign really to see if anyone would notice.”

Harvey’s was founded in 1790, and has been on this site since 1838. It’s been rebuilt and added to ever since, and there’s currently a lot of scaffolding and ladders around the place. It’s all done with an incredible attention to detail in preserving the feel of the original. It’s a lovely story, but the building is now Grade II listed. From an architectural point of view, so it should be. But for a live brewery, that occasionally needs to install new brewing or fermentation vessels – which are usually so big as to require a roof to be taken off or a wall dismantled to get them in – it’s a curse as well as a blessing.

That helps explain why even a lot of the new stuff at Harvey’s is quite old. Mash Tun number one looks like it belongs on the Nautilus. No matter what the agenda of the host, when you get to this room any group of visitors ignores everything else and stops to take photographs, trying to capture it’s deep sheen and industrial romance.

Eventually Miles drags us away and takes us through to the hop store. Harveys only ever uses whole leaf hops rather than pellets. It’s just proper. The hops are kept refrigerated by the hop merchants to preserve their freshness, and called into the brewery about a week before they’re needed. The brewery’s labelling system displays the name of the grower as well as the hop variety – Harvey’s isn’t far from the hop gardens of Kent and Sussex, and Miles likes to have close relationships with his growers.

Harvey’s mainly uses English hop varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings. In the age of the citrusy, tropical fruit delights of new world hops, these more conservative varieties often receive short shrift, being described as dull and twiggy. The Fuggles here are fresh and spicy, peppery with a hint of lemon meringue. If you can only make dull, twiggy beers with these hops, you’re either not buying from the right place, keeping them badly, or you’re not a very good brewer.

 

Those hops often end up in the old Harvey’s copper, which isn’t as old as it seems, and hasn’t been here for as long as you might think. When Miles opens the hatch towards the end of the boil, we brave scalding steam to see the drama inside and try to win an inhalation of that deep, spicy aroma.

Harvey’s still has open fermentation vessels, which means you can actually see the beer being made in the truest sense of the word. Different fermenters hold beer at different stages in its fermentation period. The yeasty head goes from brilliant white foam in the first to beige sludge in the older second, the scummy sides suggestive of the orgy of consumption and reproduction the yeast has enjoyed over the last couple of days.

All of this plays its part in making Harvey’s beers somehow better than others in their style. There’s just something more here, a slight wildness in the yeast – undetectable in the Best Bitter, but more pronounced in the Imperial Stout once its been aged for a few months. The quality of the hops. The experience of a head brewer who’s been in the job for over thirty years. the reverence this building inspires.

“There’s always speculation that we’re going to sell up and move, especially when there’s all this scaffolding around,” says Miles. “I mean we could. We could sell this place for an absolute fortune for redevelopment, and move to an industrial park outside town. But that would destroy everything that Harvey’s is about. So what would be the point?”

| 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.

| 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