Looking at the label of Brouwerij Kerkom‘s Bink Blond (5.5% ABV) inspires a smile, brought on by the promise of hops and history. There are certainly hops prominent here, but the history, in all its dray horse glory, is somewhat illusory since the world first got a taste of the beer in 1988. That said, beer has been brewed intermittently at Kerkom (Kerkom-bij-Sint Truiden, in Limburg, to be exact) for over a century, the label’s archaic ‘anno 1878′ adding to the sense of history.
For a building dated somewhere in excess of three hundred years, not much is known about the first two hundred. Perhaps a farm originally, with land concerns stretching farther than the hectare today. Then a place of hospitality along the road for weary horses and thirsty travellers. Certainly it was a cafe called La Renaissance immediately prior to its brewing story, when a medical student named Evarist Clerinx, in his final year, decided he wanted to brew beer, abandoned his studies, and bought the building. And there it stayed, in the Clerinx family, for three generations.
Brewing has not been without its problems. During the Great War the German occupation of Belgium saw the brewery’s closure, although it restarted production in 1920 under Clerinx’s son, Paul, and survived the next major war the world would throw at it. Paul’s son, Jean, took the reins in 1952 at a time when Alken, a local brewery famous for its Cristal lager, was gaining market share. The competition proved too much, with Jean halting production in 1968 and conceding to the adage that you should, if you can’t beat them, join them. Alken now — after a number of mergers, divestments, and acquisitions — finds itself as Alken-Maes, Belgium’s second largest brewer, although wholly owned by Heineken.
Jean’s retirement in 1988 brought about the revival of Brouwerij Kerkom. His passionate belief that everywhere should have a streekbier (local beer) saw his small brewery produce something for the Haspengouw region. Bink Blond was the result, a heavily hopped session beer (that’s session in the Belgian sense!) that, perhaps due to its farmhouse provenance, displays some characteristics of the saison.
Poured — and with surprisingly little sediment — its dark orange colour is crowned by a thick white head that retains some lacing as you make your way through. On the nose there’s a malty sweetness, some grass, and a trio of hinted fruits — orange, lemon, and a touch of peach. Low carbonation and a medium body make up the mouthfeel. Tastewise, it’s all malt, honey, and orange flavours rounded off with a rather strong and addictive bitterness. A very refreshing beer.
Although he created Bink Blond, Jean Clerinx would be the last of his family to brew it, succession planning in the modern world being what it is, and no children wishing to continue the story. After finding his successor in Marc Limet, a local beer enthusiast, the beers have continued from 1999 (Limet eventually bought the building in 2003) to now with new beers being added along the way. However, with Kerkom’s history of brewing pauses, the story has struck again due to European laws and their demands for modernisation, with the brews currently split between other breweries — Sint Jozef and the Proefbrouwerij — until the new brewing kit is installed sometime in 2014. Many things may be relatively new at Brouwerij Kerkom, but it still has its history to fall back on.
January 5, 2014 4 Comments
Although I may not be the best cook in the world, I do enjoy finding my way around the kitchen. There’s a huge groan as I task my already sagging shelves with further cookbooks — a burden akin to Atlas. There’s thick collections covering French, Indian, Thai, and Lebanese cuisines. There are books listing myriad recipes for the slow cooker; others highlighting the endless possibilities of the humble sponge. There’s not much room for celebrity chefs and their wares (photography heavy, recipe light) although the occasional book from them captures a theme that interests and inspires. Somehow a book of vegetarian recipes has even found its way into this melting pot.
While there are cuisines out there that bring particular foods to mind (the Indian curry, say, or the Chinese stir-fry) Belgian cuisine is arguably absent from our consciousness. We may think of waffles, mussels, and the classic Belgian frites served up with a dollop of mayonnaise, but what else? Sometimes jokingly characterised as French in style and German in quantity, Belgian cuisine has a style all its own, notably in the way that the cuisine has developed alongside the nation’s historic beer culture. One only has to watch The Burgundies of Belgium, the first episode from Michael Jackson‘s The Beer Hunter to see how food and beer are irrevocably entwined. In Belgium beer is not just an accompaniment but an ingredient.
While visiting Ghent in the summer of 2013, I couldn’t resist popping into a book shop and seeing what was available. It was the usual fare – books on meals, books on desserts, and the occasional cultural crossover by way of Jamie Oliver into Dutch. However, the book that jumped out at me was Ons Kookboek, a newly published hardback that, just shy of 1,000 pages, was a veritable bible of Flemish cuisine. First published in 1927 and with 158 pages it has grown both in size and also with the times. While there are recipes inside covering sauces, soups, cakes, and the like, the ones that invariably interest me are those using beer. Therefore, I hope to explore these recipes and put the results on here.
Flicking through Ons Kookboek (it translates as Our Cookbook, which I suppose precludes any Wallonian claim) I happened across a recipe for Antwerpse Husselpot. As the name suggests, it’s local to Antwerp and hussel, also a local term, means to toss around. The husselpot is therefore a hotchpotch of foods thrown together and cooked in beer. This particular recipe calls for ham hock, pork sausages, potatoes, onions, half a cabbage, and a local beer. Westmalle, Gouden Carolus, Duvel are all valid suggestion, but what better choice than that most local of beers to Antwerp, De Koninck?
The ingredients are: 200g ham hock; 4 pork sausages; 2 onions; 1 bottle of beer; 2 stock cubes; 750g potatoes; 1/2 Savoy cabbage; 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves; butter, salt, and pepper; and some mustard to serve.
Cut the ham hock into small cubes and season with salt, pepper, and the ground cloves. Cut the onion into rings. Peel and wash the potatoes, then cut into pieces. Cut the cabbage into thin strips. Bring a pot of water to the boil, poach the sausages for five minutes, retrieve them, and then dab dry. Heat the butter in a pan and then brown both the sausages and hock for ten minutes before adding the onions. Remove the sausages, cut into 2cm pieces, and then return to the pan. Pour in half of the beer (the rest goes to the chef!), and add both stock cubes and cabbage strips and cook on a low heat for twenty minutes. During those twenty minutes, bring a pot of lightly-salted water to the boil and simmer the potato pieces. Once done, add the potatoes to rest of the ingredients and shake it all together. Season with salt and pepper and serve with some mustard and, of course, a beer. Preferably the same as used in the cooking.
Given that it’s just a pot of ingredients thrown together, presenting it in any refined way is going to be an issue. So I didn’t bother. However, for colour more than anything, I served it in one of the cabbage leaves and let the husselpot spill out. Taste should be what matters, though, and it tasted great. Potatoes were soft and there was some salinity to the hock. The sweetness of the ground cloves came through and, underscoring it all, was a light fruitiness from the beer. As I moved between glass and fork, washing down each bite with some De Koninck, I could easily see myself making this again.
January 1, 2014 1 Comment
In the time between brewing a pumpkin ale at Brewdog Glasgow and actually getting it on draft at the bar, pumpkins are a couple of months out of season. Having asked about it repeatedly in the intervening months, there had been talk of it having been returned from the Fraserburgh brewery, and the occasional mention of how good it was tasting, even if the nutmeg was bullying much of the other notes. With it finally making its appearance in the bar, and for one night only, I felt I had to go along and see for myself how it turned out, even if to satisfy ever diminishing expectations.
There it was, chalked on the guest board, listed purely as a guest beer attributed to Brewdog and selling at £3 for a half pint. No mention of its novelty status, nor that it was brewed on the premises. Personally, I’d have called it Pumpk IPA, purely for the punnery; style be damned. However, the name chosen, by whatever means, was Cinderella’s Electric Soup (8.2%), at least providing a link to pumpkins and, given its one night only status, perhaps hinting it should be imbibed before midnight.
When poured, it looked darkish brown but it would have been a bit more difficult to get a better sense of the colour, the bar’s lighting being relatively subdued. Most noticeable was the thin head, hinting at the low carbonation present. On the nose it was strong on cinnamon and even stronger on cloves, all underpinned by a sweet maltiness. With the roasted pumpkin flesh used in the beer’s mash, I would have hoped for a bit of roastiness in there and there was something, though subtle and only detectable by a nose deep in the glass. However, the flattish mouthfeel that followed, accompanied by the unbalanced nature (the hop bitterness far outweighed the sweetness) made it difficult to enjoy. In the end, I sipped it only to justify the price.
In this story, it’s not the beer that matters, though. It’s not the first beer to be brewed in a Brewdog bar. The original Aberdeen bar saw a brewday produce Hoportunity Knocks and this event returned to that bar last month. However, the Aberdeen bar is more accessible to Brewdog’s brewers, therefore making it easier to get the beer there from the brewery (where they have to pitch the yeast). If Brewdog intends to do more of these live brewing events in its other bars around the UK, which is pretty much guaranteed, then a sense of immediacy would be appreciated. Back in October we were told that the beer would be ready in three weeks. To then take around four months to showcase it stretches the patience of those who participated. But then, this is Brewdog who have admitted themselves that they have recently had trouble getting deliveries to customers. So, in keeping with the Cinderella theme, perhaps it’s simply a case of if the shoe fits.
February 11, 2012 Leave a comment
Off the west coast of Scotland, just under an hour by ferry, is the Isle of Arran, a postcard perfect island nicknamed ‘Scotland in miniature’. It’s easy to understand why, with stunning sunrises and sunsets over its small range of mountains, golf courses, and castles. And it would not be a miniature Scotland without the presence of both a distillery and a brewery. However, it’s mid-November and the number of postcards sent to families worldwide are, like the daylight in winter, fast dwindling. This reduced tourism suggests a certain seasonality to the local businesses, and, this is evident in the numbers taking the scheduled tour of Arran Brewery: two, my companion and I.
It’s a short bus ride from the main town of Brodick to Cladach, with other tourist attractions en route. We pass the Heritage Museum, where visitors can learn about past traditions of farming and seafaring, and then the small businesses, such as Arran Aromatics and the Island Cheese Company, that drive the local economy today and, by virtue of their visitor centres, allow tourists to see their wares’ production. Disembarking from the bus leaves us standing on a narrow road, surrounded by trees. A nearby field allows a contemplative view of Goat Fell, the island’s largest mountain, and a brief walk away, following an offshoot from the road, there’s a path leading up to an enclave of small businesses, the brewery included.
On entering the brewery, there are no immediate signs we are in such a place. We are effectively entering through the gift shop. On one wall, the shelves are full of neatly organised bottles from the Arran range, both as single units or gift boxes. Elsewhere, for sale, there are T-shirts, beanies, other clothing, and other merchandise, all stamped with the brewery’s insignia. A rack of varied glasses runs down the centre of the store, the display enlivened by a mixed assortment of primary-coloured paper tucked inside, all the better to highlight the designs on the glass. Over by the pay counter, a young woman looks up from a mini photography studio and greets us. In the studio there’s a polystyrene head sporting one of the aforementioned beanies. She explains that she’s trying to take a photo for the website. The immediate chattiness is comforting and inviting, and a conversation ensues as we wait to see if anyone else turns up for the daily tour.
The tour starts just after two, and our guide is Veronica, who I later discover is the daughter of the brewery’s owner. We begin with a history of beer making on Arran, with the discovery of barley and wheat at the Machrie Moor stones suggesting a brewing imprint dating back 3,500 years. Then it’s on to the basics of beer — malted barley, hops, water — with the joke that, in Arran, there’s no shortage of the latter. Looking out the rain-specked window at the puddles from rainfalls past and the ominous grey sky threatening a fresh deluge, it’s never felt more true. From a few jars on the counter we are invited to taste a couple of malts, one wheat, one barley, and to sniff the stronger chocolate malts. There’s a couple of jars filled with hops, too; Styrian Goldings and Challenger, nicely pungent. The basics dispensed, we are invited to head through a hitherto unnoticed door, which takes us from the shop into the brewery proper.
It’s not the brewery proper, however, but a viewing gallery. A long corridor where non-guided visitors can look into the brewery and witness the brewing in action. The few chairs scattered around hint that this is at the visitor’s leisure. On the walls there are detailed signs describing the brewing process, with pertinent jargon capitalised and highlighted in red. Veronica follows, carrying a broomstick, and leads us into a dark corner. A passing worker is asked to turn on the lights, and the gradual illumination highlights an eco-friendly element. With the broomstick — or alestake, given the context it will be used — there’s another brewing history lesson, this time discussing a mix of the predominance of women in early brewing, King James VI and witchcraft, and ale taxes. These stories told, I wonder if there’s an implicit connection to be made with the brewster’s alestake (placed outside to indicate excess beer for sale), paying taxes on beer to belay fatal accusations of bewitching men, and the modern image of cackling witches riding into the sky on a mysteriously propelled broomstick. It’s an idea that has some purchase.
We move through the elements of the brewery, beginning with the hot liquor tun. On a raised level, at the back, and just identifiable from the viewing area, there’s the mash tun. And, just before us, there stands the large copper kettle. Moving on, we come to a row of rooms, each with a window looking in upon further stages of the brewing process. The first window shows us the fermentation room, where five open tanks currently sit empty. The next shows the cold room with a number of conditioning tanks. Pointing out a stray cask at the back of the room, Veronica takes time to explain how casks are racked and talks through the secondary fermentation process. At the last window, we get a view of the bottling plant, a surprisingly small affair. Veronica volunteers that, with one person doing both bottling and capping, they can expect to see only forty-four cases of twelve produced in a day. This is for the smaller beers in the range. A tanker also gets sent to Burton-on-Trent, where the larger Marston‘s handle the bottling of the flagship Arran Blonde, a gentle tipple that, back in 2002, was named winner in the SIBA Awards’ UK Bavarian-Style Wheat Beer category, chosen from a panel that included no less a name than Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson.
At one point Veronica mentions something that is unclear, referring to a ‘we’, and I enquire further. It turns out that she’s referring to the company that now owns Arran Brewery, having bought it out of administration three years before and engineered its growth. It occurs to me then that, in the introduction to the tour, the history was all about Arran and brewing rather than the brewery itself and I wonder if it would be pertinent to give an overview of the brewery’s past and how it has got to where it is today. As such, it was founded in 2000, by Richard and Elisabeth Roberts, on the notion that the island deserved its own brewery (because it already had a distillery), it soon racked up awards for its beers and grew its workforce to eleven. When the shadow of failure lengthened on the business, its new owners stepped in and, in overcoming whatever problems dogged it in the past, have grown the business and expanded the range. With this notable new beginning, however, the tour itself comes to an end and we’re led through a second door that returns us to the shop in order to continue with a tasting.
The woman that originally greeted us as we arrived is called Holly, and Veronica leaves us in her hands to taste the available beers. There are four handpump handles visible, decorated with the range’s pumpclips, but there appears to be no cask ale served here. The tasting is a bottle only affair. Not to worry, though, as it appears we’re in for a treat as one from each of the range is lined up, and Holly starts cracking the caps off and handing out plastic cups. She begins with the beer equivalent of the Pepsi Challenge, providing two cups and filling them with separate versions of Arran Blonde, one pasteurised, the other not, and inviting us to decide which we prefer. It feels like a subtle piece of market research, but I plump for the version I like best — more flavoursome, and finishes with a more pronounced, but not uncomfortable bitterness — and it’s no surprise to find this is the unpasteurised version. Their ABV at 5% is deceiving as they are surprisingly light.
We continue through the range, moving through Arran Ale and Arran Dark, the other two survivors from the original range, and I pass on a sampling of the Arran Sunset, having had a bottle entertain me on the ferry. They are nice beers, robust enough, but perhaps too inoffensive for my tastes. The Red Squirrel, on the other hand, greets my palate with a mellow wash of liquorice and toffee and a satisfying bitterness that leaves me wanting more. And more I get, this time in the form of Clyde Puffer, a relatively recent addition to the range. Named after the small boats that would have carried passengers and products between the islands, this stout is another winner, packing a nice coffee roastiness that’s not too bitter and perfectly drinkable. Another cup of this is poured, this time Holly sets it on a Guinness Surger and immediately a blast of ultrasonic waves stimulate the beer forcing it to become very creamy. In comparison to the original, it’s nice, but the coffee flavouring that so defines the beer is lost in the foam.
The drinks continue with a charge of Arran Milestone, named after the brewery celebrated its thousandth brew. It’s their highest ABV beer at 6%, and it comes with hints of citrus, caramel, and some spiciness. As a surprise, another bottle is cracked open, this time the 2011 Vintage of the Arran Milestone Special Reserve, bottled only the day before. Holly waxes lyrical about this one, saying that previous editions have been very much Marmite beers due to the high peaty flavourings earned from ageing in Bruichladdich Octomore whisky casks. This year’s vintage dispenses with the aforementioned cask and sees an Arran Distillery cask, that has supposedly held some Jack Daniels in its time, ageing the beer. The whisky flavourings are not too strong here, and there’s a nice butterscotch dimension working alongside the original Milestone.
Holly fills my cup again with more from the bottle of Clyde Puffer (in the end, I drink it all) and we talk casually about the business. Although she doesn’t brew, Veronica reveals she is a trained brewer. A young sales representative, who pops in and out of the shop on business, is training to brew also. Here, at Arran Brewery, everyone knows about the business and, when it has its busy moment, everyone is able to pitch in. At one point, head brewer Paul pops by the shop, his hand fatigued by the strains of signing and numbering the multiple labels that will wrap around this year’s Special Reserve bottles. In his quick visit I’m told the anecdote of how Clyde Puffer came to be, due to the demands to have a stout in the range, and the relief that the multiple barrels brewed were, to his surprise, and in typical Scottish positivity, “not bad”. Finally, there was good news round the corner, too. While island businesses will always have the extra cost of ferrying their goods to the mainland, with these costs reflected in the finished product, there’s a change coming that will see this reduced to something more competitive and, at a time when the brewery is seeking to distribute its beers nationwide, this surely is favourable in making their prices more competitive when selling their cask ale to pubs.
Eventually, there comes a time when I feel we’ve overstayed our welcome. Holly assures me no, as there’s still beer in the bottles — I expect there’s not when the tour sizes are larger — but we can see outside the day darkening already and there’s still other shops to visit. With our greatest thanks for the hospitality, above and beyond the four pounds pricetag, I make my purchases at the shop, including both 2010 and 2011 Special Reserves, and we make our way back down the hill to the road. Shopping done at the other local businesses, we head back to the ferry terminal. When it comes, we watch the island fade into the darkness. The memory of a great day out, however, remains.
November 20, 2011 2 Comments
Cerberus is, of course the three headed hound in Greek mythology that stood before the entrance to the Underworld preventing the dead from rejoining the living. Closer to home, and more grounded in reality, it’s also the name of a stout from Fox Brewery, the brewing arm of a brewpub in Heacham, Norfolk. However, in a blend of fact and fantasy, and like Hercules before me, I felt compelled to capture the bottle-conditioned hound that is Cerberus Stout (4.5%) alive.
Other than the brewery’s name, the beer’s name, and an off-the-shelf illustration of Cerberus, there’s not much to say on the packaging. No tasting notes, no suggested serving temperature, and, no hint of how, given that other beers in the stable — Heacham Gold, Branthill Best — take their name from their locale, this stout came to be named after the mythical beast, which is a shame, as I like to read about how beers get their names. With this lack of information, I can only presume that, given the aforementioned brewpub is called Fox & Hounds, that, if the brewery is the fox, then Cerberus represents the hounds. Additionally, I do like the image of the fox, tucked behind the beer’s name, as if hiding from the beast drawn below.
From the vigorous pour, it seems this beer embodies the characteristics of its namesake. As it hits the glass this beer throws up enough beige foam to cap three separate pints. It’s a very dark brown colour, letting little light through, and there’s an early aroma of berries, coupled with sweet toffee, both settling upon a background of coffee. Its texture is quite creamy, and coupled with a nice roastiness there’s a wave of sweet chocolate with a touch of smoke. The chocolate continues into the aftertaste, almost concealing a zingy fruit kick that is both welcome and, sadly, fleeting.
While I doubt I would seek out another bottle, I’m sure I would give it a second go were I to see it guesting somewhere on cask. It’s a pleasant beer, not overly remarkable, but brings enough complexity to ponder while drinking. However, I doubt it will ever be one of those beers that Styx in my mind.
November 15, 2011 Leave a comment
Every year, as winter approaches, weather forecasters depress us with tales of how this year is going to be the coldest winter yet. By all accounts, those who lived through the winter of 1963 may disagree, given that it’s seen as the chilliest winter the UK has seen in living memory. So chilly, in fact, that a temperature of -22°C was recorded in Scotland and, down London way, the Thames froze over. Between these two, in Northumberland, the village of Allendale would appear to have had its own fair share of the icy weather, given the backstory appearing on the label of Winter Dunkel (4.6%) by local brewer, Allendale Brewery:
“The winter of 1963 was particularly hard in Allendale, roads disappeared under snow drifts reaching 22 feet deep. When walking on the snow only the tops of the telegraph poles were visible, allowing the locals to navigate their way around the valley.”
Rather than the usual Allendale beers, the packaging of Winter Dunkel is different. Where others in the stable take nature as their inspiration — Wolf, Adder, Golden Plover — Winter Dunkel continues the idea of telegraph poles sticking from the snow. White sheets of snow sit below a featureless black sky, both divided only by a blur of shadowed trees. Between them juts a telegraph pole that stretches parallel to the brewery’s name, leading the locals to their local beer. The brewery’s name here, plays on the fact that it contains the word ale — putting the ale in Allendale? — and so this is highlighted in the text.
As the name suggests, Winter Dunkel is both a dark lager and a seasonal. This particular bottle was from last year’s batch, with the date on the bottle stating that it was a month off its shelf life. Poured, the beer is a dark chestnut colour and there’s a lively head that bubbles briefly before losing its vim and withering away. In the aroma there’s a hint of dark fruits, underscored with some caramel and a whiff of nuttiness, all of which are perfectively suggestive of the winter season. To taste, there’s a chocolate element here, coupled with that preliminary nuttiness, but it’s a little thin to really capture these flavours. When the finish comes, there’s a sharp, yet light, bitterness paired, as the beer warms, with the fruitiness first detected in the aroma.
Every year, as winter approaches, many breweries excite us with their dark, seasonal beers. Recipes may be tweaked and these improvements trumpeted; or an old friend takes to the stage once more, familiar as ever. Having only tried Allendale’s Winter Dunkel this once, it cannot fall into the latter category. However, with a sturdier backbone to support its flavours, I could certainly be tempted to drink it again. Perhaps a fresher batch will provide the stronger complexity promised by such a beer, but as we move into winter, I’m already snowed under with bottled beer, and there are no telegraph poles in sight to lead me back.
November 13, 2011 Leave a comment
It’s a rare day in Glasgow that doesn’t see rain. The sun is out, however it has little effect on the chilly breeze gently rocking the trees. In Glasgow Green, the longstanding public park marking the start of the city’s east end, there’s work underway to prepare for the evening’s firework display. Temporary structures rise up alongside the more longstanding features dotted around the area. Of these historical buildings, I’m here to visit Templeton On The Green, a grand 19th Century building modelled on the Doge’s palace in Venice that, when its carpet factory was at its peak, saw its product in the Taj Mahal and Whitehouse. While the carpet industry may have frayed over the 20th Century, and with it the affluence from the east end, tucked into this majestic building is West, a brewery, bar, and restaurant that offers the British beer scene something a little different and, more importantly, something special.
West is a Bavarian microbrewery, established in March 2006 by owner Petra Wetzel and then husband, Gordon Stewart. Its range of beers, led by flagship lager, St. Mungo, are brewed to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, making it unique in the United Kingdom. While the initial two years saw the West Brewing Company, as it was trading then, go into administration and bought out by Wetzel, the following years have seen the brewery gain in popularity both locally and further afield. It’s a far cry from the doomed appearance on BBC‘s Dragon’s Den, broadcast early 2005, where Wetzel and Stewart sought funding for their German dream and walked away without procuring investment from, as the programme might say, an influential business partner. Nowadays, with Stewart no longer involved in the business, West is going from strength to strength and is poised to grow considerably in the near future; great news for an industry in decline.
I’ve been to West many times before. Summers where the queue snakes out the building as thirsty drinkers wait to get their hands on Maßkruge for taking outside and, if the benches are too crowded, sitting on the grass. Winters where a bench is easier obtained as everyone is inside enjoying the festive warmth and bonhomie. During these visits there’s always the sweet tang of warm malt in the air, and it’s possible to look down, from a ledge in the bar, on two copper kettles. However, in all these visits, I’ve never taken the available brewery tour. But, West being a prime location from which to view the annual fireworks display on Glasgow Green, it made sense to make a day of it: a tour, some food and beers, and then venturing outside to watch the sky light up in a striking array of colours.
Acting as tour guide was Darius, a tall and thin young man sporting the first trimmings of Movember. Ensuring that all signed up parties were accounted for, he led us twenty-strong down into the bowels of the brewery. Back of the bar, couple of doors, and some stairs, and we were there, standing among a series of steel fermentation vessels. Here began the introduction to West and the the rapid delivery that ensued — a backstory eulogising Wetzel’s love of Scotland and mythologising her father’s disapproval of the native Scottish lager — suggested something learnt by rote rather than spoken of passionately and individually. The equipment used, all automated, was shipped from Germany and this sense of importation continued as the Reinheitsgebot featured in the obligatory history lesson for those unfamiliar with brewing. The artificial sense of the introduction is perhaps due to the need to recall a series of numbers and years for, these basics dispensed with, Darius’s delivery came across as more relaxed and nicely informal over the remainder of the tour.
It’s important to know where beer comes from and the non-specialised tours I’ve taken in the past specialise in this. West, here, is no exception. We have water, malted barley, and hops, with the yeast pitched later. The water is from Loch Katrine, the freshwater reservoir serving Glasgow’s taps. It’s a great soft water that lends itself well to brewing, we’re told, and, having lived off the water all my life, I’ve no argument here. Not everything comes so close to home, though, as the malts are imported from Germany. The malt store, a small side room laden with 25kg bags of various malts and a milling device is split into two sections — base and specialty malts — on a pallet each. Darius passes round a couple of handheld display cases showcasing an array of German malts in neat rows and also scoops a handful from some speciality bags and invites us to take a few grains and taste.
Standing amongst the malts is where it hits me how micro West actually is. The outside building, a temple of grandeur suggests a brewery mirroring this scale. While the remainder of the building is given over to offices, it’s silly of me to assume that the brewery is bigger than it is. Perhaps it’s the glimpse of copper kettles from the bar with stairs leading into once unknown depths now revealed. Or maybe it’s that I know Waitrose stocks bottled St. Mungo nationwide and, to meet such demand, it surely has to be bigger. Not when it’s contract brewed, of course, and I wonder why I hadn’t considered this before.
We move on to the next ingredient: hops. In a room off the main hall, with stairs leading up to the copper kettles, Darius first explains the concept of the mash tun and how, when the time comes to sparge, the automated machinery deals with the first runnings. Then, an imaginary wort assumed in the kettles, it’s time for the boil. Our guide passes round two glasses, one filled with whole hops and the other with pellets. Their role in bittering and aromatising the beer is explained and how adding the hops at different times during the boil affects the end product. With this, we are split into two groups and taken up a set of stairs to peer into the kettles. There’s no brew today, but captured in these vessels are the lingering scents of brews past and it excites most although a few casual tourists, screwing up their faces, don’t share in the appreciation.
After the boil, fermentation follows and we’re led back out to the fermentation vessels arranged sentry-like in two rows. Here the final necessity of making beer — the yeast — is added. So goes the explanation, coupled with the snippet that the strain used at West survives eight generations before being discarded for a fresher one. The tank we’re standing beside is storing a batch of West’s award-winning Hefeweizen, a delicious wheat beer that recently featured in a Shortlist article titled 20 Must Try Beers. The temperature in the tank is -1°C, and we’re treated to a sample, the liquid poured from a tap cheekily set between the legs of a cardboard Bavarian in lederhosen, as befits the stereotype, with pretzel in hand. It’s tasteless — not the beer! — but adds some character to what is an otherwise industrial setting.
Beyond brewing, there’s one last step to concern ourselves with, and that’s the kegging of the end product. As we’re led around the fermentation vessels to be view the machinery that assists in this task, there’s a host of West kegs arranged for delivery. Black in colour and branded with the distinctive West logo they are an eye-catching addition to the brewery’s image, even if they are likely to stay behind the scenes. The kegs we pass hint at a recent batch of King Tut’s Lager, specially brewed for local legendary music venue, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. All these kegs reinforce something Darius said at the beginning of his tour, about the automation of the brewery: just because it’s controlled by machinery doesn’t mean that there’s no manual work. Transporting these will be back-breaking work.
The tour at its end, we relocate upstairs to the bar and conclude with a tasting session. Darius makes five trips to the bar and returns each time carrying a tray of St. Mungo, Munich Red, Dunkel, Oktoberfest, and Hefeweizen, respectively. Here I find a new appreciation for Munich Red, a malty tipple with a good caramel flavour. If there’s a reason I’ve overlooked it, it’s because my preference is for the Dunkel, a five-malt concoction with a delicious chocolate backbone. The Oktoberfest, being a seasonal is one that I’ve not tried before, and it’s a decent affair, an off-orange colour sporting some fruity hop flavours. The difference between Hefeweizen at -1°C and at regular serving temperature is noticeable. While the early sample was full of the banana esters expected of a wheat beer, the cold locked away much of its secrets. Served properly, and it’s a smooth, sweet beer that takes its aromas into the taste.
As he’s handing round the samples, I ask Darius about the range of beers. This follows on from something he said while still down in the brewery, as regards the growth of West. While there’s no official announcement yet, the last couple of years have seen talk of such expansion. First there was a £2m investment, upped to £5m a year later, and latterly increased to £6.5m. Now it appears that the expansion is finally happening, with visitors being told to ‘watch this space’ over the next few months. My question looks into the potential of a wider range of German beers appearing more regularly. Obviously, with things as they are, meeting demand is the most important factor. Though, with a new brewery to satisfy that demand the current kit would remain to serve as a pilot plant for future, smaller batch brews. Rauchbier, I enquire, and the answer is it’s certainly something the brewers, given the opportunity, would relish making.
Once the crowd dispels, I sit down with a pint of St. Mungo and order a meal of beer-battered fish with chips, followed by a bowl of Hefeweizen ice cream in a berry compote. The table staff are chatty as they make their way around the tables collecting glasses and checking that customers are happy with their food. A Canadian barman asks if I enjoyed the tour and shares his surprise at how small he also found the microbrewery. As I relax with a Dunkel, the restaurant and bar begins to fill its late-afternoon bookings and custom picks up at the bar in anticipation of the fireworks. A little later, with the daylight vanishing and while there’s still space to be had, I venture outside with a Munich Red and wait for the show. When it comes, like the beer, it’s another dazzling display.
November 6, 2011 1 Comment
In British beer terms, Shepherd-Neame are one of the bigger players. To be fair, they’ve had a few hundred years to get to where they are. I’ve drank a couple of their beers in the past, especially liking the London Porter brewed as part of Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ range. Their Halloween seasonal, Spooks Ale, was one that I’d bypassed many a time in the local supermarket in the lead up to Halloween although, come the day itself, I felt a certain desire to have a themed beer.
And, for a themed beer, it’s a nice understated label and well presented with no garish seasonality like that of Wychwood’s Pumpking Ale. The Copperplate Gothic font suits the time of year and, coupled with the label’s parchment colour, is reminiscent of some old Victorian poster and the single blood spatter suggests something sinister. The label bills it as the “Official Ghost Brew for All Hallows”, a title it probably doesn’t have much competition for given that most Halloween themed beers are for, well, Halloween. Not the day after. And quite how its challenge to “drink if you dare” sits alongside the responsible drinking promotions of the Drink Aware ‘charity’, which it funds, is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, the gauntlet thrown down, I could only accept.
Once poured, it’s a dark reddish colour, nearing brown. The nose carries a strong and pleasant biscuity aroma, ably supported by a touch of both caramel and citrus. The initial swallow reveals nice roasted flavours, spiced with what tastes like cinnamon, and finishes nice and dry, quickly inviting another sip. However, it’s not long before the early promise subsides and the beer becomes a little generic, with the roastiness gone and only the tandem tastes of light spiciness and a more pronounced hop bitterness defining it. At 4.7%, Spooks Ale is certainly something that I could get through a few bottles of were the initial taste and smell persistent through the duration of the bottle. As they are not, it maintains its ghostly theme, being a beer haunted by the faint memory of first impressions.
November 1, 2011 Leave a comment
The US love affair with the pumpkin sees myriad pumpkin beers hit the market around this time each year. In the UK, the pumpkin that doesn’t find its way into a soup, seems little more than an accessory, carved one day and discarded the next. That day of course being Halloween. However, if any UK brewery was going to make a pumpkin beer, then its not a stretch to imagine Wychwood, with their myth-inspired branding, getting involved. Thus Pumpkin Ale sits alongside its permanent stablemate, Hobgoblin, already touted by the brewery as the ‘unnofficial’ beer of Halloween.
The bottle labelling makes use of a large pumpkin — an evil pumpkin, supposedly — carved in the style of a jack-o’-lantern. As the illustration suggests, it’s not just a carved pumpkin, but a live one. It fits well with Wychwood’s folk tale image, suggesting that, once the cap is removed, there’s a big, brutal, lively beer inside. When its poured, though, any such suggestions are soon dismissed.
Terracotta in colour, a decent fluffy head rises up in the glass with the increasing volume and settles down to almost nothing. It all looks rather flat and lifeless. On the nose, there’s a trace of toffee wrapped up in the stronger — though not greatly so — dark berry aroma. With neither being prominent, the beer isn’t as inviting as it could be with larger, defined scents. Backing up the berry, there’s more shallow fruitiness in the mouth and the caramel depth mentioned on the label by Jeff Drew, Wychwood’s head brewer, comes through as the beer warms. There’s a nice hop bitterness that bites, accompanied by a spicy note that I presume is the mace used to season the pumpkin, but these quickly vanish leaving a lingering spot of disconcerting sweetness that would become sickly sweet with an extra bottle or two.
With a second consideration of the labelling, I’m reminded that the purpose of carving pumpkins is to ward off evil spirits. I can only presume it to be a slight on my character for, were I to see Pumpkin Ale again, based on this tasting, I’d make my retreat. Not because it’s a bad beer, but because it’s neither bold nor brash. It’s a beer to be treated like pumpkins in the UK: drank one day, discarded the next.
October 31, 2011 Leave a comment
Since it opened in July, events have been an exciting element of Brewdog Glasgow‘s appeal. The one-off (so far) appearance of Brewdog’s Ghost Deer has been complemented with visits from two Californian breweries, Ballast Point and Stone Brewing. The latest event was the in-house brewing of a seasonal pumpkin ale – the result of a vote by pub punters – that would consume a Sunday afternoon. Brewing the beer were both Brewdog‘s Stewart Bowman and, over as part of an annual brewer exchange programme, Chris Sartori of Stone.
Due to start at two in the afternoon, the lacksadaisical approach to an event that had had almost a couple of weeks’ billing was evident. The pumpkins arrived half an hour in and twenty minutes shy of two hours, Bowman walked in carrying a bucket filled with jarred spices and kitchen utensils after what must have been a hasty trolley dash around the local Morrisons. Hops and malts, however, were already present following a visit to the Fraserburgh brewery before making the journey to Glasgow. And the Brew Magic system dominating the end of the bar had been prepared the day before.
When it does start, however, Bowman stands on the bar, asks for silence, and the many chats happening around the bar ebb away to allow him to invite everyone over to ask questions and help with the brewing of the one-off pumpkin ale. There’s an initial burst of interest as some people leave their seats to find out what the fuss is about, but they probably leave unenlightened as there’s not much to be witnessed from the initial mashing process as warm water saturates itself with the malts’ sugars. Thus a small band hang around to watch the process and ask questions of those involved.
The questions vary from what’s happening currently in the beer making process – mash, sparge, boil – to the make-up of regular Brewdog beers. It’s informative and interesting to get an honest insight into how the brewery works and to see how much influence business objectives have over the beer being production. When I ask about the shrinking ABV on Punk IPA — originally 6%, then 5.6%; now 5.4% (although still 5.6% bottled) — I’m told that it was, for a flagship beer, seen as a tad strong to find its place as a feasible player in the mainstream market.. As such it would appear that Punk IPA’s long term future is as a beer purposefully developing demand rather than satisfying it.
Other assorted details and anecdotes come out. Nanny State‘s fermentation lasts a mere twelve hours, apparently, and the problems of cleaning out tanks after batches of both Juniper Wheat and Hello, My Name Is Ingrid is highlighted. Even the smoke and mirrors story of how a batch of 77 Lager became Prototype 17 is laughed off, explaining why, when launched, it was being touted as a once and once only affair.
With all the talking going on, someone has to be keeping an eye on the brewing, and that responsibility has fallen to another Brewdog brewer, Graeme Wallace, who spends his time zipping around the set-up taking readings and twisting valves. From time to time he calls for assistance from the other brewers who spring into action.
Pumpkin ale, Bowman admits, is a first for him. However, with the lack of pumpkins and spices from the outset, it’s already clear there’s an element of winging it going on. One of the pumpkins returns from the oven, its edges browned, and a light billowing of smoke. It becomes part of the mash, tossed in with the three malts being used. Half a kilo of Amber and Crystal supplement a brew that’s going to be almost ninety per cent Golden Promise. Once the sparge is done, the hops come out in preparation for the boil. For bitterness, there’s a mix of Styrian Goldings and Columbus. Later, for aroma, there’s an addition of Simcoe alongside another roasted pumpkin, followed by a selection of spices chosen via a quick straw poll of those in attendance: cinnamon, cardamon pods, nutmeg, and cloves.
The boil completed, there’s a futher setback as the contraflow isn’t working so, in order to cool the wort, the brewers do it manually using some concoction of buckets, pipes, and ice. With this, the brewing demonstration also comes to an end as, we are told, they are unable to pitch the yeast on the premises. So, the pumpkin ale will be taken to the Fraserburgh brewery where it will ferment and, around three weeks later, put in a brief appearance at the bar where it was brewed.
In an intimate setting, the brewing process — for the passive participant, at least — is a rewarding experience. Being able to sample the different malts used, sniff the hops, and taste the sweet warm wort begins a cradle to grave approach that ends with the tasting of the finished beer. The brewers involved may not know how the beer will end up, and those that participated will look forward with anticipation to the day it arrives on draft. Until then, there’s plenty more beer for them to brew and the onlookers to sample.
October 30, 2011 1 Comment