Friday, 23 January 2015

Cultures within the beer culture

CULTURES WITHIN THE BEER CULTURE:

Years ago I noticed a label on a bottle of beer I bought in a supermarket. It was a little speech bubble that stated “CAMRA says this is real ale”. I was intrigued. The beer in question was a bottle of Hook Norton Double Stout and very satisfying it turned out to be. Up till that point I’d never heard of bottle conditioning. The label went on to explain that the beer was closer to cask as some yeast had been added to the bottom to start a secondary fermentation within – just as the yeast does in casks. It was, therefore, a living product. This information would lead me to invest in the excellent Good Bottled Beer Guide by Jeff Evans and to follow the developing culture of bottled beer in Britain and beyond.

Around that time bottled beer represented to me beer from breweries like Badger (Hall & Woodhouse), Shepherd Neame, Wells & Young (2 breweries that had just merged), Fullers, Greene King, Brakspears and Marstons. These are all longstanding – mostly Victorian breweries. Bottles like Badger Bitter, Bishop’s Finger, Bombadier and Pedigree I’d remembered seeing for decades on shop shelves or being brought back from the off license by my dad.

I also paid a visit to a pub that year called The Rake in Borough Market. A tall slim man with a longer than average goatee introduced me to two beers behind the bar – one was on cask and one was kegged. Both were from a brewery he’d recently started himself: The Kernel Brewery. I opted for the cask version as I assumed keg beer was always gassy and inferior and before I could sit down with it outside, he grabbed a bar towel and wiped the rain water off a seat so I could sit down – a true gent. The man was Evin O’Riordain and I like to think he not only started a brewing revolution in London (and later the world), but an associated beard revolution too.

That memory shines a light on the two other cultures I would come to follow: cask and keg. To me at the time, keg beer represented drinks like John Smiths, Tetleys and Boddingtons. Brewdog had started brewing some amazing keg beers in Aberdeenshire and Meantime Brewing had started bucking the insipidity trend in Greenwich but I had yet to discover either of their beers. Cask beer was certainly on the up and carried an overwhelmingly rural and coastal identity. Each had a bitter or best bitter. The city didn’t seem to get involved in this romanticism. The branding always evoked the British countryside and the thirst brought about by horse drawn ploughing or ship rigging.

You might counter that bottle, keg and cask aren’t really cultures, simply three methods of dispensation. They’re certainly that too. I’m just arguing that they’ve fostered their own communities. I don’t go so far as to say the three cultures don’t co-exist today within good pubs and bars or that you only throw your lot in with one crowd, but natural selection has driven a change in evolution and speciation is happening. Through a zoom lens and from a safe distance, I just want to observe how these emerging creatures thrive in their habitats.

BOTTLE CULTURE:

Bottled beer in the U.K has changed dramatically. The pint measure – Al Murray’s “beautiful British pint” – should be 568ml in metric but is usually 500ml or 550ml once it’s been transferred to bottle. An odd exception to this rule comes from lagers imported from the Czech Republic and Poland that specifically come in 568ml bottles. However this measure is being increasingly nudged aside and replaced by larger litre sharing bottles and smaller 330ml bottles. This used to puzzle me but now I’ve embraced this change and it’s worth trusting it. A pint is, after all, a large volume of liquid and only naturally suits low ABV drinks. It came about in Britain as the masses would down them in the local every evening. It was never meant to compliment food in the U.K, rather it WAS the food. What we have now are breweries that are very much aware of eachothers’ output both nationally and internationally and want to concentrate solely on the taste and experience.

Generally, alcohol volumes have gone up and measures gone down. Taking one enlightened nationality as a lead (in this subject at least), the Belgians understood the notion of small not meaning lesser long before it was accepted here. Modern brewers have stumbled upon something our Walloon and Flemish cousins have known for centuries: Beer should be about pleasure and not strict default measures. Increasingly, the beer that brewers want to put in their bottles is beer that should be sipped and savoured. This pushes the volume down and the drinking experience up. In my local bottle shop in St Albans – www.beershopstalbans.com –rows of 330 ml bottles contain imperial stouts, multiple hopped IPAs, wood matured beers, sours, tripels and my favourite style in the world (thanks again Belgium) – lambics. None of these beautiful concoctions belong in a pint glass. None of these heavenly liquids should be knocked back. The bigger bottles – acting like equivalents of wine bottles – are for sharing (I pause here to think of how many I’ve finished by myself). The Belgians have form in this again. The sharing bottle is sometimes a magnum of Chimay or Saison Dupont. 

There is another way beer belongs to the international community: The unprecedented phenomenon of social media. Video sharing and live sites such as YouTube Hangouts have thousands of ordinary people broadcasting their own opinions and reviews about beer online. Why not? I find it amazing that a reviewer in Devon might regularly hook up with his or her online mates in America, Norway, Canada, Italy or New Zealand to talk about what they’re drinking. I think it has spurred the increase of beers from those countries into our shops – both web and street premises – as the experience is shared. In Britain, there is now a growing trend for beer clubs that send out beers by post so that the recipients can share their views at an allotted time on Skype! A long range get-together! Again, I think it’s wonderful. Word gets about amazing new beers and the reviews filter out into the wider global bibosphere.

There is another sideline that’s grown mostly due to the diversity of bottled drinks – beer glasses. I know that beer tastes the same regardless of the glass it’s in with some conditions, knobs and whistles to that last statement, but if that’s your gripe then you’ve missed the point. It’s about presentation which means being pleasing to the eye and therefore belongs with pleasure - something we’re maybe getting better at. As we buy more and more foreign beers, so the sales of tulip, chalice, flute, tumbler glass etc go up.
The bottled beer crowd doesn’t have any particular look or demographic as far as I can see – probably because of its international nature. Those on social media will generally be younger but that’s about it. There’s no geographical restriction and a lot of the produce is bought online so it doesn’t matter where you live (actually there’s an exception – bad luck if you live in Canada as I understand it’s illegal to send alcohol by post). Despite the long rangedness of it, it’s potentially the most social culture. 

BOTTLE TASTING NOTE:

Buxton Brewery – Red Raspberry Rye Berliner Weisse (bottle conditioned 4.9 ABV):   
The tart raspberry overwhelms any pepper note that rye can impart but is tempered by the dry sourness of the Berliner Weisse. Conversely, the thick caramel body of the rye keeps checks any sharpness from the raspberry. A sweetness emerges like a fruit coulis on ice cream. 

Sours have become very popular


CASK CULTURE:

There are over 1200 breweries currently brewing in the U.K and the majority of beer brewed is real ale. It’s beer that leaves the brewery unfinished and is tapped at the point of sale with fermentation still occurring in the cask. This is a testament to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Countries across Europe have hundreds of food and drink traditions whereas in Britain the birth and demise of the industrial revolution may have been the reason for this nation normalizing tin and vacuum packed food. I feel that the only ingot preserved in our culinary treasure chest is cask ale. It’s a unique method and requires time and care when all else became speed, sterilization and convenience.

If it wasn’t for CAMRA, this section on cask might well have been an historical one instead of reflecting a healthy modern trend. Cask ale has pushed any self respecting licensee to know how to store, tap and treat beer – no simple task. It demands respect. This pride has also bolstered a culture where increasingly, the bar staff will offer you a taste first before you buy so you can confirm the quality yourself. This is a strong signal indeed. For many longstanding CAMRA members or just lovers of fine beer, the last decade has been the start of spring after decades of winter. Cask is everywhere now.

When cask ale is in good condition, the layers of malt, hop, carbonation and aroma throb like individually plucked strings. This conditioning comes about as yeast is still causing fermentation in the belly of the cask. Tiny micro-organisms are ingesting the sugars from the malt, excreting alcohol and creating carbon dioxide – the more consumer friendly sparkle or carbonation. Out of condition, real ale becomes something completely without character. It tastes used up, washed out like weak orange or sugary flat dregs. Once the cask is almost empty, other unwanted tastes can occur like cider vinegar. This is because the level has started to hit the finings – Isinglass is collagen from the swim bladder of a fish. Traditionally sturgeons were used but to safeguard their numbers nowadays breweries use cod instead. Finings are used to accelerate the beer dropping bright (clearing from sediment). Not all brewers use it – some are happy that there’s a bit of haze in the beer as are a lot of drinkers. In any case, drinking a mouthful of Isinglass is not pleasant.

Ideally a cask should be drunk within three days (there are many variables but it’s as good an average as any). The casks themselves are bed-tempered and need a lot of nurturing. They arrive like divas and will only be ready when they’re ready. They may require wet nappies to keep them cool and won’t want to be disturbed for at least a day. The act of pumping their contents up through a beer engine with the hand pump also requires physical exertion. You need to work for that pint.

Not long ago, you’d get a bitter or a best bitter. There’s no particular difference bar a bit of advertising. With many lagers, substitute the word best for the word premium and it’s the same thing. In quite a short time, rediscovered and reinvented IPAs have taken off and gone stratospheric, stouts have made a big comeback and been joined by porters. This is confusing and a point of contention. Stout was originally short for stout porter – meaning a stronger version of porter. In my experience, a lot of porters are stronger than the stout from the same brewery. Milds are trying to make a comeback. Pale ales are going strong and golden ales have appeared. Barley wines are again popular, rye ale is here and black IPAs have gate crashed the party and trampled roughshod over nomenclature (IPA is short for India Pale Ale – you then prefix that with the word black). French/Belgian style saisons are another beer that casks well. I list these different styles only to prove the rise in popularity and to make this point: gone are the days of gold, amber and black. The colours are certainly there but any preconception we once had about what each colour tasted of has been washed away in the deluge of beer styles. 

The cask culture is still not as innovative as the keg and bottle cultures have become. However, cask does hold a few aces that don’t fare well through their methods. Firstly - green hop beers. These are beers made by using hop flowers that have gone from the bine to the copper within 24 hours in order to make the freshest beer possible. It’s usually made in September when hops are at their ripest. The heads ooze virgin hop oils and can have wildly different characters. Mild is another style which does have some presence in bottles but is just too polite to be kegged. The last is the most misunderstood beer of present times: bitter.

I read that artisanal brewers in America sometimes branch into casking beer so the practice may one day reach other shores permanently. Personally I think it could flower in places like Brittany where there is a potential bud already. Also Holland and Scandinavia are potential candidates. The climates are similar to ours and the beer is cellar cool rather than refrigerated. I doubt lands with hotter climates would be quite so eager. Over the past few years Wetherspoons pubs have hosted international beer festivals whereby foreign brewers fly over to Britain to make their own recipes in our own homegrown breweries. I’ve really enjoyed these projects and think they deserve a mention here.

I'd just settle for a half
Bringing brewers together from across the pond...
                                                           

Demographically, drinkers of cask ale are generally male, middle aged and white. This isn’t a post modern or right –on barb. It simply reflects that CAMRA now goes back to the early 1970s and most of its faithful followers have aged with it. I will make a couple of little criticisms amongst the effusive praise – the cask ale crowd is overweight. The population of Britain is overweight anyway but if you think this observation is unfair than go to a real ale festival and see for yourself. Another sling that I only cast at a small minority because I’ve experienced it a few times – some are only comfortable mixing with people from their own background. It’s probably just a generation thing. I stress, though that the overwhelming majority are convivial with everybody.

The cask ale crowd is very sociable. Likely to initiate conversation with any fellow drinker, they like to trade all the gossip about local breweries and the health of pubs. A local pub closure is treated as a funeral. They fight for pubs to stay open. The punters and the pub staff all have names and this crowd is likely to know what they are. Community is important. There is a great love of wide brimmed hats, T-shirts from beer festivals and interesting sandal combinations. There is a lot of suspicion about craft keg but it should be remembered that these guys remember the siege of Watney’s red Barrel and the near extinction of cask beer. They’re also the folk that turned that around. If you’re a new brewer keen to become known and sell to the public – especially if you want to cask the beer, CAMRA is good to have around and will be planning a local branch daytrip to your brewery to help you get the word out and make the beer vanish in the best way possible.

Cask is also political. CAMRA is a campaign. It has activated members, licensees and beer lovers to lobby politicians. It has successfully influenced chancellors’ policies and is never short of volunteers when staging beer festivals. I’ve met people who volunteer as a full time job travelling miles across Britain, sleeping in tents, assembly halls and buses just to help set up and staff beer festivals. This is no exaggeration. The Great British Beer Festival fills out Olympia in Kensington each year – a vast space. Every single pint pulled, every stall manned, each (XXL) fluorescent steward bib worn is by an unpaid volunteer. The festivals operate equally from small scale affairs in individual pubs to town hall capacity events. They operate both urbanely and rurally.

CASK TASTING NOTE:

Elland Brewery 1872 Porter (cask 6.5 ABV):
The brawn of this ale is plain to see. It pours a pitch crimson (not black) with a thin mottled mocca head. A head like that tells you you’d better sip rather than quaff. Freshly ground coffee assaults the senses. It’s stifling like a steaming Turkish one served in a Yurt. The mouthfeel is glossy and silky. It’s a comforting wheat pillow. There is a dry hop backwash that absorbs the moisture. The taste is of the dark sponge chunks in a Battenberg cake and freeze dried coffee granules. It’s sublime. You feel you’ve sat through a dessert.

Very worthy of its gold medal status


KEG CULTURE:

Welcome to the mother of creation. Welcome also to beards and a culture that is overwhelmingly urban. Welcome mainly to north & south east London. Both the Kernel Brewery and Meantime Brewing deserved the mention they got at the start as they helped start a movement that catapulted keg beer out of the most tasteless pasteurized gas quagmire into what’s become something sumptuous, new and exciting.

I gave the demographic for cask ale drinkers earlier as a way of contrasting it with the craft keg crowd (archives have been written about the meaning of craft beer – we’re not going into it here. For the purpose of this article I’m over-generalizing craft to mean keg which is wrong but saves time). Though still mostly male, it’s much younger and diverse. People are slim, muscular or skinny and look like they immerse themselves in literature, pop culture, live music, organic food and tattoo art. I find the scene very welcoming. I’m accepted even though I can’t grow an impressive beard. I associate it with people getting together from mixed backgrounds. It’s open minded and eager – constantly looking for the next new taste. As such, it doesn’t really do tradition – this can be a major strength when it comes to brewing. It fuses things together – craft beer with what you might call craft food. The brewer from unit 23 in the industrial park might join forces with the Karachi mobile food van in unit 42 and do delicious things together.

There are some words and phrases umbilically linked with craft beer in the U.K – pop-up (meaning a bar or festival that pops up for a couple of days and then disappears), street food, collab (a beer brewed by two or more breweries in collaboration), charcuterie, fair trade and railway arch.
By the last term I’m specifically talking about a phenomenon in London. Mostly in Bermondsey but also in places like Hackney, Peckham and Islington. Over the past couple of years, breweries have opened up within a linear walking distance of each other in Bermondsey. Under the ever present glowering of the Shard skyscraper, you can start with a Pilsner at Fourpure in a business park, continue for a porter in Partizan Brewing under a railway arch, then for a cherry sour at Kernel under a second arch. Thence for a coffee IPA at Brew By Numbers under a third arch. Gird your loins and stagger to the bottle shop for a Belgian lambic under the fourth. Crawl to Anspach & Hobday who share the premises with Bullfinch Brewery in the fifth railway arch for a smoked brown and a rye beer. Finally, get carried to the sixth and (at the time of writing) final arch for a bitter at Southwark Brewing. There is a real energy going on in these breweries. The people that create the beer will likely be the people serving you. They’re fanatical – the best way to be. You’ll sit or throng in the shadows of gleaming coppers and under the rumble of trains heading to and from London Bridge Station. It’s magical.

Like bottle has become, we’re sticking with sipping beers rather than pint downing. If you thought keg beer was tasteless, you should try a half of an opaque 11.2 ABV Bourbon barrel-aged rye IPA and think again. It’s colder than cask beer put the taste punches right through it – sometimes to the point of pungency like eating through to the melon rind. The new craft brewers are excited about flavor in its raw state. This is why so many craft beers are so hop forward. Even though it’s just one of usually four ingredients, you get hops that bitter, hops for aroma, hops for taste and for aftertaste. A combination of selected hops might start with an orange/peach aroma. There may be an intense grapefruit taste while another hop dries the tip of the tongue. The last hop may pucker the palate after the swallow. It’s an art in its own right. This is not the whole story, however. It’s through keg that I’ve been introduced to sours and table beers – low ABV drinks that though lighter, still need the respect of slow savouring. It isn’t just about hops and strength. There are some downsides to the keg culture: You’ll notice the price. You’ll really need to not mind paying £7.95 for that punchy half I told you about earlier.

For a dyed in the wool modern craft beer connoisseur, a pint of nuanced cask ale might be an unattractive proposal. No immediate slap of gratification. Indeed, he or she might find it difficult to taste anything even though it’s there – there are after all soft pinks as well as blood reds in the flavor spectrum. The brewers of this beer are true gourmands enveloped in the joy of sensation, taste, colour and aroma. This is why it’s such a natural bedfellow with artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, burgers and other street food. I imagine the craft brewer with his or her eyes shut in indulgence. Like Miley Cyrus they sit naked but for Doc Martens and swing defiantly on that wrecking ball – smashing through the staid restraint of traditional British brewing. These are the new libertines that live for the pursuit of sensation and pleasure.

To give an example of the kind of beer that’s out there, on a recent visit to the Craft Beer Co in Covent Garden I sampled Evil Twin Luksus one – a beetroot sour, a Weird Beard/Northern Monk collab – Blueberry Saison (it sadly didn’t pour blue) and a Siren Craft Brew Haunted Dream – a pumpkin porter!

KEG TASTING NOTE:

Siren Craft Brew – Haunted Dream (keg 6.5 ABV):
Smells like red cherries that have been processed into a frozen dessert. It’s ink black – even held up to the light. A cool carbonated mouthful. There is 6am coffee and a torn (fruit)flesh sweetness. Makes me think of melon rind but it’s the pumpkin. There’s a dry Kirsch chocolate aftertaste.

The Craft Beer Co at Covent Garden


Personally I frequent all three of these cultures. The odd thing for me about good beer in the U.K is that the beer I’d drink in a pub is never the same as the beer I buy in bottles. Drinking in a pub is obviously about drinking in pints and the emphasis is on balanced subtlety made to last that volume. There can’t be too much alcohol and there needs to be plenty of body to sustain it along with conversation. 

By comparison, keg beer is usually in a half, third or even two thirds stemmed glass and it’s about being hit with a flavor and usually a higher ABV. It’s cooler in temperature and I tend to get less of an aroma compared to a like for like cask version but the things that are attempted in the name of brewing passion make it all worth it. 

There is a long running advert for Hobgoblin Beer by the Wychwood Brewery (now Marstons) featuring the hobgoblin demanding “What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?” I still see this image on T-shirts and for sale every time I go to the Great British Beer Festival run by CAMRA. Now, though, this question could be asked to drinkers of cask ale from a craft keg hobgoblin. “What’s the matter Caskboy?” CAMRA can ill afford not to endorse products whose selling point is the potency of the taste. CAMRA was formed by some young men who were fed up with bland gassy beer taking over the U.K. The keg beer I’ve talked about here bears no relation to that. It seems that the argument I hear now is that it’s not about taste but balance. 

Could the cask boys now be goaded by a craft keg goblin? I hope not


Real ale superiority has become an article of blind faith for some. There are, however, many in the consumer group that have opened their arms to craft keg. A bit like in the House of Commons, the leader has to be careful what they say because to sense the landscape has changed and let a long held ideology fall would be to incur the wrath of the backbenchers – the old guard - and the removal of the leader. Could The Great British Beer Festival come to include keg and stalls from Meantime, Brewdog, Camden or Kernel? I think there is some movement but it’s in small increments.

When I buy beer in bottles it changes again. I rarely want a draught bitter in a bottle – I want it on draught. Even bottle conditioned, it never seems to have the same condition. With bottles, I get to control the temperature, the glassware and the pour. I can savour the beer in a snifter glass, my face forming a hermetic seal with the glass bowl so I can inhale the perfume. I get to swirl it, agitate it and study the text and artwork on the bottle. 


The only genuine mark of quality to me is the personal experience you have with the beer. It goes beyond how it was made and even what it contains. Which sensations does the liquid open up in you? Like anything people are passionate about, splits and cultures are inevitable be it art, music, food or the subject of this article. Find the time to dip you bread in each culture because right now beer in this country is the best it’s ever been and the talent looks set to continue on this righteous ascent.