Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Q. When is a beer festival not a beer festival?

A. When it's a "convention" or a "calling".

I attended the recent Independent Manchester Beer Convention and Newcastle upon Tyne's Craft Beer Calling. Beer festivals in all but name.

I first visited a beer festival in the summer of 1986. I was nineteen. It was held in the Rydal suite of the Civic Hall (now snappily named "The Forum") in my hometown of Barrow-in-Furness. Back then I only just knew the difference between Theakston's Old Peculier and Timothy Taylor's Landlord. My memories of the occasion are dominated, not by the beer, but by the municipal gloom created by the venue. Concrete, strip lights and mid-century council architecture provided Warsaw Pact levels of joylessness.

I didn't let this event put me off. I was already enjoying beer too much to be put off by individual crappy experiences. I have of course been to countless beer festivals since then. Dull venues, surly stewards, glacial service, dull food and dull beer. The background murmur, to distract you from the awfulness of the experience, is "it's what's in the glass that matters."

Now that CAMRA's hegenomy hegemony on good beer has been challenged by the arrival of "Craft Beer", what happens but beer festivals become enjoyable and even a bit, well, festive and fun. Gone are the concrete municipal bunkers, the glacial service, the dull food and parochial beer selections. The new craft beer festivals aren't perfect but they are a giant leap forward.

Some hipsters contemplate beer, or tattoos, or something, at IMBC.
Brother Steve and I attended IMBC on the Friday afternoon trade session. Neither of us is terribly keen on daytime drinking. Nonetheless, we tried a variety of beers. The organisers thoughtfully provided highly tickable print-outs of the beer list - and provided dinky little branded ticking pencils. Top marks there IMBC! At this point, diligent citizen journalist bloggers would provide you with some information on the beers they tried. But as I chucked out my tick list, you'll have to make do with the highlight and the lowlight of the day.

Highlight - Kernal's 3.5% Sour Raspberry. Tart, refreshing, beautifully executed, not stupidly sour. Divine.

Lowlight - Keen to avoid IPAs and derivatives, I went for a 5% lager. I could tell you what it was, but that would be impolitic. Cardboard! It was extremely oxidised. Possibly the most oxidised beer I have ever had the misfortune to imbibe. I took it back. The twenty-something female server told me "Oh yes, that one has divided opinion. If you don't like it...". I explained that those who had liked this beer obviously didn't know their arses from their elbows, and that the question was not whether I like it, but whether or not such shiteley bad beer should continue to be served. I was offered another beer. Asked what I would like, I said "sell me something". The friendly bartender gave me a speech about some beer that involved a string of adjectives and descriptors like "Belgian", "barrel-aged", "Brett", "Imperial" etc. Contrary to my expectation of an example of enthusiastic but ham-fisted noob craft brewing, I found the resulting beer to be sublimely good. I would love to tell you what it was - but I chucked out my tick-sheet. The beer was as good as the nature of the service I had received - top marks IMBC!

Our afternoon at IMBC made us wish we had made the effort to get to an evening session. Although our overall impression was very positive, were not too chuffed to be turfed out at 5pm. "Right we've had your money, now piss off". This awkward afternoon session/evening session thing is a pain in the arse. Still, with four hours to kill before our pre-booked return train, we managed a couple of pints in the Marble Arch.

Craft Beer Calling in Newcastle was a very similar event. Presumably the organisers had watched the success of the two previous year's IMBCs. Or maybe, you just put an interesting beer selection (without pumpclip shitery) in an atmospheric building, provide friendly, knowledgable and enthusiastic staff, provide decent food and a good modern beer festival is what you get. 

CBC's beer selection was less about peacock beers, more about a rounded selection of beers in contemporary styles, brewed to a high standard. A selection from my brother's Out There Brewing Company appeared and we were pleased to see his "Laika" keg wheat beer sell out very quickly. A beer list was circulated as a PDF before the event but many festival-goers calling-attendees commented about a lack of beer information on the day. On The keg bar pumpclip images had been scanned and printed on A4 and posted on the back of the bar above the American-style array of taps. Legible and identifiable they weren't. Meanwhile a large screen in the main room displayed a repetitive slideshow of uninformative beer and brewery images. A beer information black mark there CBC. 

In the corner of the main hall there was a mini-nightclub. Decks, P.A. and snazzy lights. People known as DJs were advertised as appearing over the weekend. On the busy Friday night session, this was fine. The music ticked over in the background, largely confined to the corner. On the Saturday evening session the music was broadcast over extra speakers to the main part of the room. This was completely unnecessary and fucking intensely annoying as my tweets suggest.  

The music was dominated by extended versions of early nineties club favourites. I am a veteran of many nineties warehouse parties. I grew out of them. I guess the CBC organisers haven't. I am by no means a no-music zealot, but my dislike of having other peoples' witless choice of music inflicted on me is definitely zealous. By all means provide music, but please CBC, make it opt-in rather than compulsory.

Despite the grumbles above, IMBC and CBC get the Pickthall seal of approval. If pushed, I would declare CBC the winner, mainly because of its more rounded, grown-up beer selection (PDF here). After many years of trying to enjoy beer festivals, I think I have finally succeeded. 

Some CBC pictures:

The covered area at the back is the DJ arena, or something. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

New media for beer: Podcast

You may have noticed that I am no longer a prolific blogger. This doesn't mean I have ceased to be interested in beer. Nor does it mean I am not reading other blogs. The world of beer still fascinates me, you will be pleased to learn.

On the whole, we beer bloggers write for other beer bloggers. It takes time and effort to produce blogs. It also takes time and effort to fire up a browser and read blog posts. 

The modest effort required to look up and read blog posts I believe limits our audience. I believe a wider audience is available for us beyond blogging. We have plenty of insight and we can express ourselves pretty well, but on the whole we write for each other. If only our blogging efforts had some other means of delivery, I believe we could reach a wider audience. 

A common gripe amongst us beer people is that newspapers, television and radio give beer little coverage. If they do, it’s often negative, such as beer being associated with problematic town centre binge drinking. We know that craft beer is booming and that interest in good beer has probably never been greater. But a mainstream media paucity of beer coverage lets us down.

I'm certainly not the first person to think of it, but I think we need a podcast. A podcast, as a more passive medium, can reacher a wider number of people than blogs. A podcast, in mimicking radio, can go some way to filling the beer void in national broadcast media. It's win-win. But it will have to be a joint effort.

I've looked up existing beer podcasts and found them somewhat underwhelming. Opening bottles and chatting is something we all enjoy, but listening to other people do it isn't a whole load of fun. A podcast needs a more journalistic attitude.

As a dedicated Radio 4 listener the a good format was obvious: a "From Our Own Correspondent" for beer is exactly what we need. I've been doing a lot of research into all the magical things that are needed to make podcasts work: HTML, PHP, RSS and the like*. 

So here it is. 

The website isn't finished and I've yet to set up the RSS integration with iTunes, however the first episode is nearly ready. So far I have two features for the first episode: Des De Moor on German monastic brewing and me interviewing Dave "Hairy Biker" Myers. Because I like odd numbers (especially primes) I would like a third feature for the opening episode. This is where YOU step in and shout "I'll do something!" 

Have a look at your blog archive and dig something out. A piece of a thousand or so words should do it. You can find tips and instructions here on how to record and submit a piece. But please contact me on my new email address before hitting the record button.

Let's get this thing launched!

p.s. you can hear a preview of Des's piece here. Des has set the tone perfectly: if the idea of submitting something appeals to you, pay attention to Des's pace and diction - they're just right. 

p.p.s. follow me on my new Beerlines Twitter account.

* I'm already experienced in audio production – my hesitant musical offerings can be found hereIn a previous life I was in a band that actually recorded albums that people paid money for (well, not many people as it happened). 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Beer on the Telly

Here's a programme my Tivo picked up on one of the obscure channels nobody watches. 

I recorded it off my telly with my digital camera – just like when we used to record songs on cassette recorders with a microphone to the radio. (Note to younger readers: ask your parents what a cassette recorder is. They've probably got an old one in the loft.)


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Golden Pint Awards 2013

2013 has seen a change in my beer drinking habits. It may have been this episode in 2012 which changed my outlook, but I have turned into a mamil. I entered 2013 nearly two stones lighter and considerably fitter than I entered 2012. I have experienced a reduction in appetite for food and beer. Strangely, my beer tastes have also changed. The most conspicuous aspect of this change is that my tolerance for bitterness has reduced to such a degree that I find, for instance, IPAs almost unbearable. The corollary is that I have renewed my passion for the beers of Belgium, a country that has largely escaped the big-hop tyranny. I now crave delicacy, a characteristic sadly sometimes lacking in the marvellous new wave we call "Craft."

In the following I am not going to mention any beers from my home county of Cumbria. I know many of the brewers so I want to avoid any snipey comments about favouritism. 

I am also not going to mention any beers from my brother's brewery, Out There Brewing Companywhere I am occasional mash-tun digger-outerer. I am especially not going to mention his spectacular "Next Stop Mars" which is currently available in Newcastle's finest hostelries.

·         Best UK Cask Beer

Hmm, this is a bit of a head scratcher. I'll have to go for a particularly memorable single pint experience: Mordue Brewery's Workie Ticket as consumed at the GBBF.

·         Best UK Keg Beer

Magic Rock's "Circus of Sour."

·         Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

Camden Hell

·         Best Overseas Draught Beer

Birrificio Italiano's "Tipo Pils"

·         Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

Anchor "Breckle's Brown" tied with "Silly Saison" by Brasserie de Silly tied with "La Trappe Dubbel" - Bierbrouwerij De Koningshoeven.

·         Best Collaboration Brew

Sorry, no opinion.

·         Best Overall Beer

[watch this space]

·         Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

·         Best UK Brewery

[watch this space]

·         Best Overseas Brewery

Birrificio Italiano

·         Best New Brewery Opening 2013

[watch this space]

·         Pub/Bar of the Year

The Free Trade Inn, Newcastle upon Tyne.

·         Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

Pleased to Meet You, Newcastle upon Tyne. Proof that craft beer has mainstream appeal.

·         Beer Festival of the Year


·         Supermarket of the Year

·         Independent Retailer of the Year

I don't recall using any specialist beer retailer this year so I'll have to pass on this one.

·         Online Retailer of the Year

No opinion.

·         Best Beer Book or Magazine

CAMRA's "Beer" despite its propagandistic drum-banging.

·         Best Beer Blog or Website

·         Best Beer App

No opinion

·         Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

The brewing legend Pierre Van Klomp

·         Best Brewery Website/Social media

No Opinion

·         Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

Magic Rock's "Circus of Sour" with a packet of Monster Munch (I kid you not).

Finally, a special FUCK OFF to the IPA-addled craft wanker who sneered at my choice of Pilsner Urquell when serving me in a craft beer place I shan't name.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Fifteen Years Is A Long TIme in Beer

In the late nineties an old chum of mine was a brewer at Youngs (then still very much in Wandsworth). At the time we we're hanging out, drinking beer, as you do. I was also drinking second-hand brewing knowledge from my Heriot-Watt-educated pal. My old chum gave a Word document of off flavours and aromas from Youngs. 

The document has hung around on my various computers ever since. I was reading it again recently when number 13 shouted at me from the screen. Hop aroma is an off aroma! How times have changed.

(yes, I know it says "this is desirable...." but this is a document about off-flavours and aromas)

Associated terms
Common Causes
1. Sour
Acidic, Sharp, Lemon, Sour Milk, Vinegar
Beers are naturally acidic however, an excess of acid can lead to an undesirable flavour and mouthfeel.

NB. Beer may still be bright.
Mostly a problem on cask beers.  From raw materials, fermentation and bacterial infection in the presence of air.  The latter may be caused by:
1. Beer on dispense too long
2. Poor hygiene, dirty equipment
3. Beer sat in buckets being returned to casks.

2. Phenolic
Diacetyl, Cloves, Lactic, Wild Yeast
A variety of off-flavours may accompany this, but diacetyl is usually the most prominent.
Phenolics are a necessary flavour characteristic of some beers e.g. Wheat beers.
1. Produced by speciality yeasts used in wheat beers.
2. Produced as an off-flavour by wild yeast/bacterial infection in presence or absence of air.  Often accompanied by haze formation and can affect cask or keg beers.  The cause is usually poor cellarmanship.

3. Aldehyde
Apple, Grassy
High concentrations lead to off-flavours.
Bacterial infection (acetic bacteria) produces acetaldehyde as a by-product of metabolism of alcohol to vinegar (acetic acid).
4. Diacetyl
Buttery, Butterscotch, Modern Margarine, Milky, Vanilla
Off-flavour in Lagers, which are particularly susceptible, normally removed during maturation period.  ‘Cheap’ continental lagers may have high levels due to rapid processing in the brewery.  Higher levels are desirable in ales were diacetyl makes a positive contribution to flavour.
1 in 3 people tend to be sensitive to low levels of diacetyl.  Some may find it pleasant at relatively high levels.
1. Inadequate removal of diacetyl during maturation, however this will be detected at the brewery.
2. Formed by contaminant bacteria when hygiene standards are poor.  This is the most common cause and can usually be related to poor line cleaning, or not pulling beer through.  The first beer pulled through after standing overnight usually has a high level, where beer is in contact with air in the uncooled part of the system.  This is exacerbated by illuminated T-bars, as the beer is heated.

5. DMS
Cabbage, Cooked Veg., Sweetcorn, Seaweed, Tomato Sauce, Oniony, Strawberry Jam.
Desirable characteristic of most lagers, but an off-flavour in some beers. e.g. high levels are found deliberately in Stella Artois and Lowenbrau, but very low levels are found in Budweiser.
Formed from a malt derived precursor during beer production.  May also be produced by contaminant bacteria during fermentation.

6. Estery

Fruity, Banana, Peardrop (iso-amylacetate)
Beer is a delicate balance of esters.  The flavour depends on which esters are predominant, each contributing its own characteristics.
Many factors in brewing affect ester formation, especially yeast strain and type of fermentation vessel.  Handling in the pub is unlikely to affect the balance of esters.

7. Chlorophenolic
TCP, mouthwash type taste.  Often has a harsh after-bitterness.  Individual susceptibility to this flavour is highly variable.  Some may find it objectionable at even very low concentrations.
Taint from hypochlorite in cleaning fluid, especially if used too hot or left in the lines for long periods.  The fault could originate in the brewery but is normally associated with dispense.

8. Caustic
Biscuity, Detergent
May leave a burning sensation on the tongue.
Again, contamination by cleaning fluid if line cleaner is not rinsed sufficiently .  Lines should be checked for soapiness by rubbing the rinse water with the fingers, and the final flushing water smelled and tasted before beer is pulled through.

9. Oxidised
Cardboard, Stale, Bready, Biscuity
Mainly affects canned/bottled products and old kegged beers
Air/oxygen in package, coupled with high pasteurisation temperatures.  These stale flavours develop faster with high temperatures and with age, hence the importance of temperature controlled storage and stock rotation.

10. Sulphury (H2S)
Rotten Eggs, Sulphur
Imparts a desirable flavour at low concentrations and an off-flavour at high concentrations.
1.Brewing product.  Produced by yeast during fermentation and occasionally during maturation.
2. May be a product of bacterial infection due to poor hygiene standards.

11. Mercaptan
Oniony, Drains, Rotten Vegetables,
Natural part of a beers character which becomes an off-flavour when present in excessive quantities.
Formed by yeast during fermentation and also by yeast autolysis during maturation.

12. Lightstruck
Skunky, Sunstruck
Mercaptan has a very low flavour threshold, therefore, only very small amounts need be present in the beer to make it unpleasant.
Formed when beer is exposed to daylight or artificial light.  Therefore mainly a problem in beers packed in clear glass bottles, or pints of beer drunk in beer gardens during summer.  An exposure time of ten minutes on a sunny day can be enough to have a serious effect on beer flavour.
The flavour comes from modification of the hop compounds in the beer, therefore beers produced with specially modified hop products will not develop this flavour.

13. Hop Aroma
Hop aroma is not the same as Bitterness.  It does not impart any more bitterness to the beer, but gives a pleasant hoppy smell and taste.
Produced by addition of hops late during copper boil or by dry-hopping (addition of a hop pellet to cask).  This is desirable and forms a significant part of the beer character