Sunday 22 May 2016

A Quarter Ton of Hops

Manchester Beer Week to be held in June, has many different and attractive features, but will be underpinned by the brewing of an official beer, MCR FOLD. This beer, brewed by headline sponsors, JW Lees is somewhat improbably a collaboration between Lees, traditional to its roots and Cloudwater, new kid on the block and not in the least traditional.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, nothing much actually.

 My good friend Beers Manchester (Jim) has given his take on the brewing of the beer and also, thankfully, the facts and figures. I recommend you read his blog in conjunction with this piece to get the full flavour of the day.  So, who was there?  Well me and Jim obviously, me as Lees CAMRA contact and Jim, because Connor Murphy whose brainchild Manchester Beer Week is, asked him to come along. Completing this little posse was Paul Jones, Co-Founder of Cloudwater and James Campbell, Head Brewer at Cloudwater, and an old pal of mine. Our merry little gang was completed by Lucy Lovell from the Manchester Evening News, no doubt to put a bit of professionalism into the subsequent writing.

We met at the brewery gate and as we all knew each other (except Lucy) it was a cheery re-union.  We were greeted warmly by Lees marketing people - who I know well, so one up to me - and hence to - the Brewery Cottage (Lees Hospitality Suite) for coffee and to meet the brewing team from Lees led by Michael Lees-Jones, a family member and Head Brewer and Paul Wood, Brewhouse Manager.  The day was explained and without much further ado it was off to the brewhouse to start the brew. Now a recurring feature of Lees brewery, the main parts of which date back to the 19th century is a surfeit of stairs. We tackled these with diminishing enthusiasm as the day went on as we scaled them for the umpteenth time, but first time, we were like rats up a pipe.  The brew liquor had been prepared for a brew of around 180 British Brewer's barrels or, if you like, about 52,000 pints.  The malt was automatically added and we watched as under the control of Brewhouse Deputy manager, John Gillibrand, the numbers clicked away until the correct amount was added.  Then that was that for a little while as the malt, steeping away, started its work.

So what then? Bacon and sausage butties and a couple of pints of course. Although the pump clip for the beer was displayed on a handpump in the bar, clearly it wasn't available yet, but no matter. Climbing stairs is thirsty work and while it's unusual, for me at least, to have had two pints before a quarter to ten in the morning, in the circumstances, it would have been rude not to.  Not that any of us needed much persuasion. Perhaps not unexpectedly the majority of us had cask conditioned Brewer's Dark -  Mild to you and me - and despite being a former Champion Mild of Britain, relatively rare, even in Lees tied estate.  There was much smacking of lips. Bloody good beer that. Luscious, fruity and moreish. The Cloudwater lads were impressed. William Lees-Jones the Managing Director of Lees joined us and the brewers merrily chatted away. That chatting was a recurring feature, with the brewing teams from both breweries talking process and kit. Brewers love talking about kit and there was huge cheery grins on all the faces.  This was no forced marriage or marriage of convenience. Smiling faces were the order of the day.

So what else? We had a very comprehensive and well appreciated tour of the brewery. We scaled the outside of the highest conical and viewed the brewery and Manchester from on high (except Jim who isn't keen on heights), we added hops - lots of hops - more hops than Lees had ever put in a brew - and ascended and descended stairs to view yeast propagation, cellars, kegging and cask lines until the brew was ready to be transferred from the whirlpool to the fermenting vessel.  Now this was where John and Paul W had major concerns. A quarter ton of hop pellets leaves a lot of solids and even with a whirlpool as powerful as the Lees one, the worry was this would clog a system designed for the more modest hopping regime of JW Lees.  Thankfully it didn't and the transfer continued like clockwork until near the end when the transfer piping did clog and hop debris was drawn into the water heat exchanger causing a gasket to blow.  This was met by complete professionalism from Lees Brewhouse team.   Unfazed they stopped the transfer and while we retreated to the in-trade sample cellar for a beer, they sorted it out by dismantling the clogged piping and blasting out the blockage. The glycol heat exchanger would be used for the next brew until the cold water gasket was repaired by the brewery engineer. No problem and no time at all taken. I think they actually enjoyed it, but a few barrels were lost in the process which was a shame, as demand for this beer will be overwhelming.

So the beer itself? Jointly designed by James Campbell, Paul Jones, Michael Lees-Jones and Paul Wood, the beer is an all malt brew, bittered with Goldings and a little of the other hop used, Olicana.  Then, added in the whirlpool at 80 degrees C to eliminate isomerisation, a quarter ton of Olicana, hopefully bringing aroma and flavour rather than the bitterness the hops would have produced if boiled.  The final beer will be 4.8%  and though described as auburn, looked likely to be more mid brown if the wort is anything to go by.

And that was that. We all look forward to tasting the finished beer. But just think of it. A quarter ton of hops. Take that craft beer.

Olicana is 6.9% alpha acid hop developed by Charles Faram. It was first used in a commercial brew by Ilkley Brewery who named it after the Roman name for the town.

It really was pleasing that the brewers all interacted so well. Questions flowed like a river from Cloudwater to Lees and I'd love to see the reverse happen. Who knows, but I also hope Lees have the taste for future collaborations.

I was also present when Lees last did a collab brew - with Brooklyn Brewery - and watched Garrett Oliver pour the worst sparkled pint ever in the Brewery Cottage.

Monday 16 May 2016

Very Light Mild

May is Mild Month according to CAMRA, so when I spotted one just coming on in the Regal Moon, I thought I'd give it a go.  Milds, these days at least, are dark. Right? Not so this one which was bang in the middle of in the golden ale ballpark and way off the usual dark brown to black.  It was, as John Torode might say, "a lovely, lovely thing." both to look at and to sup.

Naylor's hail from Yorkshire - Keighley in fact - and their beers are frequent visitors to the Regal Moon. Not hugely hoppy beers, but very well made and they usually have that elusive drinkability that many brewers haven't yet stumbled across.  Northern Mild was just such a beer. Malty and light bodied, it weighed in at 3.8% and was brewed, according to the brewery website, with Maris Otter malt, Crystal Malt and torrified wheat.  The crystal was thankfully well hidden and the beer itself was of the swoopable kind with the Maris Otter providing a deep biscuity lusciousness.

It was a shame I was driving, so one and a half pints was my lot. Recommended.

I do like a dark mild too, but haven't seen much of that locally recently, but the old boys in my local swear by Lees Dark Smooth.   

The beer was crystal clear. Just my crappy photo that gives it the haze and it looked even paler than the photo shows.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

New Attitude?

I spent most of yesterday editing (that means writing a lot of it) my local CAMRA Branch Magazine, so didn't get a chance to go out shopping. I decided though that I couldn't be bothered cooking, so a rare takeaway was called for. I'd been given a tip about a good local curry house I hadn't been to and knew that opposite it was a pub where I was advised on Sunday by one of its regulars, a new landlady had just taken over a few days ago.  Seems like a good opportunity to try a different curry shop out and say hello to the new people in the pub at the same time. As a long standing Branch Chairman, one of the things I do like to do when I can, is to keep in touch with the trade. It helps a lot. Both me and them too hopefully.

Curry duly ordered, I had 20 minutes while it was being cooked, I nipped over the road. The pub was empty apart from three locals in a far corner and me at the bar. There was one person behind the bar that I recognised from her bearing as much as anything else, as a barmaid of long standing - and three others - mother, daughter and son I'd guess from the resemblance -at the far side of the bar. They obviously weren't local but seemed to have a vague air of being in charge. They didn't look up as I came in.  My pint of bitter duly purchased I glanced around.  The locals were talking quietly as locals do, pausing only to borrow a pen from behind the bar.  The new team (for it was they) carried on doing what they were doing. I looked over hopefully, but nobody looked back. The beer was good. I ordered a half to top it up and the young lad served it tentatively, the barmaid having gone out for a smoke. He didn't know how to work the till. The new team confirmed.

A few minutes later as I was about to leave,  conversation (not including me I must clarify) started about how they could attract customers at the quiet time between five and eight.  It was about half seven by then. It fizzled out as I left, my shouted goodbye being thankfully returned. At least they spoke then.  I could have given them one tip. Talk to the bloody customers.  To not to talk to a sole customer standing at the bar on his own for 20 minutes when you took over just a few days ago, is more than a faux pas.  No matter who it was, you could have learned a lot.

When I started work in a pub many, many years ago the first thing the Boss said, was always say "Hello" and "Goodbye"  or equivalent - well he said a lot more than that - but these were a must.  He reasoned that the hello made people feel welcome and the goodbye made people feel appreciated. It made them look on the pub kindly and made them think "I'll go back". It is enduring logic and complete business sense. Now I don't want to be too hard on anyone new to the pub game, but you know, it is hard enough without making basic mistakes. Now you'll likely say " Why didn't you introduce yourself?" Well I could have of course, but it wasn't my place. If I'd been spoken to I would have and really it might have been a useful thing. I know the area the pub is in well and the pub too. A chance was missed.

So a plea to all licensees and bar staff. Just say "Hello" to customers. It can and does make all the difference.

I do mean "Hello" or similar. Saying "You all right there?" even with a raised inflection at the end, doesn't cut it.

The curry - cooked Bangladesh style - not English - chicken samber was pretty good. I'll be back, but will I have a pint in the pub? Of course. Second chances and all that.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Should Porter Be Sweet?

After attending CAMRA's Revitalisation meeting I needed, er, revitalising.  In the Crown and Kettle I spotted a porter. I was in the mood for dark beer, so ordered a pint. It was very sweet. "Hmm". Later in the Marble Arch I ordered a different porter, again a touch on the sweet side, so I tweeted that.  Beers incidentally were from local brewer, Squawk  and the other from Summer Wine, both great brewers I hasten to add. Nothing wrong with either as such, but just too sweet for me. Another "Hmm". I don't really like beers that are too sweet and wondered if porter should be. Now "should be" is a bit pejorative I suppose and when I tweeted about the sweetness, Squawk Brewing responded by saying "That's just how we brew it". Fair enough (up to a point) and if it sells that way, why not?

But should it be sweet? When you want to know anything about Porter, you really need to consult the oracle. Well in this case the oracle's blog. Here's what Ron Pattinson has to say. Basically if you look at the apparent attenuation of porters when porter really was a thing, it just couldn't have been as sweet as some of the examples around nowadays. Is there a genuine misunderstanding going on here or is it something else, namely the dividing line between what is perceived as fashionable these days - porter - and what isn't fashionable at least by its availability at drinking strength - stout? Of course, nowadays, brewers call it a stout or porter to suit themselves it seems, but the artificial dividing line can often be one that falls between the degree of blackness and the degree of roastiness, though Ron's myriad of tables suggest no such thing. If you do want to know the difference between porter and stout, see Ron.  As far as I can tell there isn't really any, at least in historical terms.

Talking to a new brewer, Ken Lynch from Serious Brewing in Rochdale, he reckons that there is a gap in the market. His first cask beer is a stout at a drinkable 4.5% and a lovely black bitter and roasty drop it is too.  He, like me, likes stout and often can't find one.  His beer - and I have witnessed it happen - flies off the bar.  My two recent collaborations have been dark bitter stouts and they too have sold so well they are repeated. So, not many bitter stouts around, but they are popular when available.

Are brewers missing a trick here?

The only issue in using Ron as a source is that there is information overload, but nowhere that I have found does he suggest that porters are sweet.  I am far too lazy though to read very single article, though I gave it a fair shot until my brain rebelled, all tabled out.

The poorness of modern Guinness also presents an opportunity for stout brewers I would suggest. The photo is a pint of Serious Moonlight Stout.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

Same New!

Barcelona we are told is an up and coming craft beer destination. And so it is. Craft beer bars are popping up everywhere and there is even a BrewDog and, gasp, a Mikkeller bar, more of which later. Fortunately for me my craft bar guidance was in the safe hands of our friends - let's call them Jack and Jill - who are very much taken with the craft beer scene generally and therefore had a list of craft beer destinations to tick off. Yes indeed, craft beer bar ticking is a thing - and why not?  It is certainly as valid as many other list ticking things and of course you get a drink of sorts, if not thrown in, at least guaranteed.

On our first full day, after a strenuous hot but pleasant walk up to the Olympic Stadium and some spectacular buildings and views, we needed liquid sustenance.   Now one thing about craft beer bars in a big city, is that unlike curry houses and the like that tend to huddle together, they seem to take perverse delight in being miles apart and thus needing public transport connections.* Fortunately Barcelona's Metro is a bit of a marvel, but it does mean spending rather a lot of valuable drinking time bashing track. Now up at the Olympic Stadium it was hot and sunny. Down by the sea shore in Barceloneta it was sunny and windy and the wind had a chill to it. We sat outside BlackLab Brewhouse, more out of bravado than common sense and perused the beer menu. There was a bit of a Stone Brewing theme going on and the house brewed beers were mostly in the pale ale genre. Sadly, no dark beers were available, so I tried El Predicador, El Cunado and Punto de Rocio and all were fine, if uninspiring. 20cl glasses were the standard measure and were reassuringly expensive.  It was an OK place and was rather nice inside, but I don't think in fairness we saw it at its best.

Over the next few days we went to a fair number more. Here's a brief run-down, though not in any particular order:

Biercab: A nice enough bar with a large number of beers shown on two screens so you can see what was what. Again dominated by Stone in both its US and Berlin incarnations. I also soon realised a theme that was going to be repeated, repeatedly, is that Barcelona Craft Beer Bars tend to feature a number of IPAs, a choice of Porters, Imperial Stouts and the odd oddity thrown in. Where you do get a pilsner it will likely be the worst tasting beer available. As E found out.

Garage Beer Co:  A slightly grungey and dim brewery tap. The equipment can be seen at the back and when we went there it was only us four and a couple who sat canoodling on a settee. The barman seemed to find us an intrusion and the beer was at best ordinary. For a more positive review I suggest you look here, but I really didn't like it at all and I suspect, apart from the joy of people watching - not the cannoodlers I emphasise - I doubt if I'd have liked it much more when full.

Mikkeller: Scandinavian chic, uncomfortable seating and eye popping prices. Not very big really and again as we called in fairly early, it was pretty deserted.  Most of the beers are from Mikkeller with one or two from elsewhere.  I think I tweeted that I was paying £10 a pint. It was probably more than that I think once you multiply it out. Beers well made but well expensive. Not my sort of place and as soulless as Dracula in his coffin, but maybe the place you'd take a posh lass to impress. Or then again, maybe not.

La Cervecita Nuestra De Cada Dia: Bottle shop and bar which I quite liked. One handpumped beer, reasonable prices and a bottle shop within. Slapdash service, but it was a pleasant place if you want to try more obscure Spanish beers at good prices or, indeed large Belgian bottles to share. OK it was just by our hotel, so that was a plus too.

 A Birra Dero:  Also known as the Barcelona Beer Institute, I wrote on Twitter that I seriously liked some of the beers, in particular ICA Green Pilsner.  Also known as the Barcelona Beer Institute. It was another fairly neat modern bar. But I liked it, so go there.

  Kaelderkold: Nice little Danish bar just of the Ramblas run by a very personable and chatty Danish guy. This was a likeable place with the usual choice of IPAs (various), Porters (ditto) and imports from all over. Along with Ale and Hop, probably the best balanced beer list of any I went to. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Homo Sibaris:  In a very nice local square a ten minute metro ride from the Ramblas. Small but perfectly formed, but if you have the weather to sit out on the square you get lots of spillover vibes from the seven or so other bars that surround it and provide atmosphere. Run by a very nice guy. For beer choice, see elsewhere. Same old really.

Ale and Hop: Did you know Barcelona has an Arc De Triomf? It does, it's bloody handsome and that's the metro stop for this back street boozer. Unlike many of its brethren, it was bustling and busy and I knew something better was afoot as the young crowd were mainly drinking pints.  That told me the the beer was both good and affordable. And it was, including two cask beers which I didn't buy, but had a taste of. Very balanced list of beers too, so fine really. A more neighbourhood bar vibe too which gave it a really good feel.  Recommended.

Now there may have been others, but I didn't write anything down as usual, as I was with friends and not as it were, on duty.  But one or two thoughts.  By and large it seems, craft beer bars in Barcelona have,  shall we say, an air of sameness about them. Nothing is hugely Spanish or indeed Catalan. You could be in any city in the world given the rather repetitive environment and the same old bearded staff and customers.  Customers of UK craft beer bars would fit in seamlessly. That isn't really a good thing for the likes of me, but I'm not the target audience. In my view it would be better to bring craft beer into a more local setting though I can see many difficulties in doing so. Beer lists were astonishingly similar, mostly on the really strong side. 

On the other hand,  though there was a chance to sample the offerings of various Spanish Breweries - or I should say, in most cases, Catalan Breweries - they are very picky about that with "Cat" being denoted on the beer boards for Catalan and "Esp" for beers from other parts of Spain. All seemed to have a go at American beer styles with varying degrees of success.  Prices did vary and there was an oddness about measure - I think Mikkeller and the A Birra Dero offer 18cl (just under a third of a pint) as standard, though most had 20cl.  So I guess that most beer was around €7 - €10 a pint, but some in Mikkeller for example, went quite beyond this, the cost being justified neither by the taste nor the experience.  It may well be that as the craft scene matures here - if it does - it will develop a more native feel. I do hope so.

This was probably the most craft beers bars I've been to over such a short time. It isn't really for me. I found the sameness of the beers depressing and the bars formulaic and expensive.  I did enjoy it as a one-off but as I walked between each thinking of another taste-alike IPA or Imperial Stout, I cast envious glances at the buzzing Spanish bars, traditionally decorated, exuding warmth, chatter, welcome and enticing tapas, just demanding to be sampled.

A lovely glass of swoopable Estrella wouldn't have hurt either.  Sipping just isn't me.

* There is a small crawl of Biercab, Garage and Mikkeller which is easily done by foot. 

I also quite liked  Fabrica Moritz, the oldest brewery in Barcelona, though the beers were pretty mainstream. It had nice kit to look at, was buzzy and cheerful, with a great shop attached. The picture here is from there.