Category Archives: Beer and culture

Alternative altbier: Anspach and Hobday’s Oktoberfest range

By Liz Dodd

Oktoberfest. The smell of smokey sausages hangs in the air. People with lederhosen compare altbier and rauchbier. Meanwhile, a few metres away, double decker buses roar up and down Upper Street.

The annual German beer celebration is observed slightly differently in Islington, as we discovered earlier this month at local craft pub The Hop and Berry. Less dancing on tables, more ironic dominoes on table.

Here local (well, Bermondsey-based) brewers Anspach and Hobday are launching their six-strong range of German style beers. It’s just in time for Oktoberfest, and good news for anyone disappointed by the sudden closure of London’s official Oktoberfest allegedly due to inadequate staffing.

The brewery admits it’s taken some liberties. “We’ve bastardised some of it,” admits Paul Anspach who, true to his Germanic heritage, is wearing lederhosen. “In Germany, Oktoberfest is a family festival. We haven’t got helter skelter,” he points out, accurately.

He and Jack (Hobday) tell us they relished the chance to brew the six beers – a rauchbier, a hefeweizen, a Bavarian IPA, an altbier, a Berliner weiss and a golden rachbier. “It’s nice to make the classic styles. It was like going back to the recipe book,” Jack explains.

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I dove straight in with the 7 per cent golden rauch (it had been a tough week, alright?) It’s savoury and smokey, like a Rauch should be, and lifted by its hazy floral nose. Its cousin, the straight Rauchbier, had the same caramell-y smoke, with rolling coffee notes.

IMG_20150930_204340On to the Hefeweizen, which is creamy, herbal and deliciously smooth. Cut its vanilla-banana wheat notes by with the Berliner Weiss, a gloriously sour, refreshing fizz with groves of tropical fruit.

We finish with the Bavarian IPA, which is hoppy, bitter and very drinkable, and the altbier, which glows an amber red and tastes of smoke and toast. A great autumnal beer, and a great way to dip a toe into the great German tradition.

With just a couple of kegs of each left, it’s worth sorting a trip to the Anspach and Hobday brewery tap as soon as possible. Some of the most popular – like the Hefe, Alt and Rauch – might appear again as keg specials.

Blame John… and the rest of your marketing department

This morning Melissa Cole drew our attention to this new advertising campaign by Manchester-based brewery, JW Lees.

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Screengrab taken morning of 5/11/14

Where do I begin? The assumption that only men drink beer? That women are shrieking harridans who prevent men from going out for a drink with their friends? Or that men are untrustworthy louts who lie to get their own way? You get the picture.

When I see things like this, I seriously cannot believe that we still live in a world where enough people thought this was a decent enough idea to go ahead with it. The attempt to push it on social media with a hashtag is even more offensive. Let’s spread the casual sexism and give it some real exposure. Fantastic. I know you’ve been around since the early nineteenth century, JW Lees, but what century do you think it is now?!

What baffles me the most about sexism in beer marketing is that breweries continue to alienate potential female customers. Yes, we know that there are a lot of women beer drinkers (and indeed brewers, sommeliers and writers) who will merely roll their eyes at this and move on to their next pint, but I’m not talking about them. Marketing like this solidifies the incorrect stereotype that beer is a man’s drink, and many women will continue to live in ignorance of beer’s fabulousness if we don’t remove barriers to entry. Women bombarded by this kind of bullshit may never build the confidence to go up to the bar and ask for a pint, even if they wanted to.

I #BlameJohn, and whoever else came up with this shit idea.

– PS

I’m alright, Jack: ICIP’s favourite pumpkin beers for Halloween

I freaking love Halloween. Probably because, as a kid, it was the night in the year I was allowed to watch grown-up horror movies (well, Hammer’s Dracula and The Devil Rides Out) on repeat.

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Spin on a decade or so (sob), and my love for Halloween has manifest as a disproportionate love for oft-maligned pumpkin flavoured beer.

Unlike the ubiquitous pumpkin spiced latte, which is an abomination unto caffeine, bastardising yummy coffee flavours with syrup and (probably) nuclear goo, brewing good pumpkin beer takes skill. Malt and hops and spices have to work together to showcase the admittedly pretty uninteresting gourd.

This year PSB, long a phenomena in the US, seems to have kicked off (finally) in this country, with a number of breweries launching their contenders with boozy, fancy-dress bashes, attended by a disproportionate number of people dressed as Jedi. So with no further ado…

ICIP’s top tips for Halloween tipple (sorry):

Beavertown, Stingy Jack, 7.2% abv

IMG_20141022_205650With its layers of spicy cinnamon and sweet booziness, I’d marry Stingy Jack if I could. It’s also haunted, or cursed, or something, because it causes rows among my housemates the likes of which I have never seen, even with other beers this (comparatively) strong. Downfalls this year include the price – a hefty £6-6.50 for 660ml, and the fact that you can only buy it in 660ml bottles. That renders the 7%ish beer more a solid weekend drink and less some funky pumpkin spice for a schoolnight. That said, I’ve never, ever got halfway through a bottle and wished it was over.

Camden Town Brewery, Pumpkin Spiced Lager, 5.2% abv

IMG_20141030_191217Delicious. I’m not normally a lager drinker, and was blown away by how well the format suited pumpkin spice. Without the sweet richness of an ale, the cinamonny-nutmeg-ginger goodness has a chance to shine. For me, it redeemed lager, which I normally find a bit bland (I KNOW I KNOW, I’M SORRY). Light and deeply drinkable.

 

Brewdog, PumpkinHead, 5.1% abv

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Testament to the deliciousness of PumpkinHead is the fact that I drank four bottles of it in a row during a recent houseparty, and clearly enjoyed them too much to take any arty photographs. Instead here is me dressed as a pumpkin, holding a bottle in an unflattering photograph.

Spicey without the cloying sweetness of some pumpkin beers, this is a great session drink (look how happy I am!) It’s fresher and a bit more citrus-y, but still plenty of pumpkin and spice on the nose, and a satisfying caramel pour to match with your pumpkin wig.

Elysian Brewery, Night Owl Pumpkin Ale, 5.9% abv

IMG_20141030_201738Regular readers (well, anyone who read the last post) will know that I ransacked London for this beer, which is currently on at Wetherspoons as part of their International Ale Festival. And it was worth it, particularly at a hangover-triggering £3.20 per pint. Thick, sweet mouthfeel with a boozy lingering spicey taste, my sense from speaking to ‘spoons staff is that this will roll out properly over the Halloween weekend. Snap it up while it lasts.

London Fields Brewery, Pumpkin Ale, 6% abv & Gyle 666, 5.6% abv

IMG-20141031-WA0006Less pumpkin, more Terry’s Chocolate Orange, for some reason, in LFB’s lovely pumpkin beer. Yummy and boozy, if you get it at source it’s available on cask and keg. We tried both (of course); kegged is lighter, so you get more of the toffee-chocolate, casked is a fuller, traditional pumpkiny mouthfeel. Gyle 666 is an outrageously spicy brown ale, rich and nutty with a strong (and I mean strong!) chilli kick.

Wychwood, Pumpking, 3.8% abv

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I went off Wychwood after some questionable merchandising, then stumbled across this in my local Budgens (never seen it anywhere else). Yes, it’s much lighter than some of it’s stronger rivals, but it’s a really decent cheap alternative if you want something seasonal that won’t leave you under the table. A ruby ale, it doesn’t exactly reek of pumpkin spice, but it pours a tasty, earth-y, apricot glass.

Anchor, BigLeaf Maple Autumn Red, 6% abv

download_20141030_112027“Give me something I wouldn’t pick for myself”, I said to @dwylth, resident beergenius at Bottledog Kings X. He knows that I most enjoy things that taste of 1) hops, 2) hops, 3) coffee flavoured hops and 4) alcohol, so I was intrigued when he passed me an apparently maple syrup flavoured beer from a brewery that I normally associate with American pales. And it was in a small bottle (although this could be a perspective thing given it was sat in a basket alongside Stingy Jack). But oh, man, it was good. I’ve tried to avoid using the word caramel elsewhere in this roundup, because all caramel pales to insignificance next to this beer. Floral and undeniably maple-y, this is a lovely seasonal red ale if you get sick of all the spice.

– ED

Beer writing – past, present and future

20141023_152154As we approach Hook Norton Brewery in rural Oxfordshire, the Victorian tower brewery comes into view through the trees, its five storeys looming above us. We are here for a seminar jointly run by the British Guild of Beer Writers (BGBW) and the Brewery History Society on the topic of “beer writing – past, present and future”, and this historic setting of the 160-year-old brewery could not be more perfect.

Our education begins with an introduction to beer writing in the Victorian era by Dr James Sumner, who has recently published a book on the history of brewing science and technology between 1700-1880.

James informs us that although there were a few publications about beer prior to 1800, these tended to be few and far between. When cheap mass printing took off with the dawn of the industrial revolution, everything changed, and there was a much wider scope to print about a variety of topics. One organisation who took advantage of this new technology was the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a Whig-supporting organisation who created pamphlets to educate the increasing numbers of literate members of the public on a variety of subjects. This included the 1829 publication The Art of Brewing, and marked a point where it could no longer be assumed that the basics of brewing were common knowledge, especially for those living in a more urban environment. Another example of this came in 1851 when Percival Leigh – commissioned by none other than Charles Dickens to write for Household Words – wrote The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer. This light-hearted piece used a comic narrator, Mr Saunders, to subtly pass on information whilst not appearing to question the reader’s level of understanding:

“Now for the malt. What is malt? Not many of you, I suppose, are such Cockneys as not to know that malt is barley, steeped in water, laid out on a floor, let be there till it is just about to sprout, and then dried on a kiln, at a heat high or low, according to the colour you want it to be; pale, or amber, or brown.”

f4Another trend during the Victorian era was that of brewers and engineers writing to promote their inventions, and these took the form of very long, technical manuals such as William Tizard’s Theory and Practice of Brewing (1850) and Henry Stopes’ Malt and Malting (1885). There was a sense at this time of the professionals drawing together against outside forces such as taxation, the temperance movement and the “pure beer movement” which claimed that beer was a bad and potentially dangerous product. In 1852 Allsopp’s were forced to defend themselves in print against claims that their beer contained strychnine. In 1900 there was an arsenic poisoning epidemic in Manchester when brewers sugar bought from Bostock & Co sugar refiners turned out to be made from sulphuric acid containing the poison and this lead to further writings, including humorous cartoons in Punch.

James reminded us that at this time there was no real national distribution of beer – it was nothing like today where we can be anywhere in the country and drink the same product. So a lot of the writing focussed on overall quality and safety rather than specifics. We were still a world away from tasting notes or reviews.

Ray Anderson, President of the Brewery History Society, took the baton from James for his talk on beer writing between 1900 and 1960. Apparently a staggering 500 books on beer were published over this period, with over half of them focussing on pubs. Specialist journals also began to take off during this time, including trade titles such as Brewers Journal and Country Brewer’s Gazette, and also technical titles such as the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. So there was definitely an increase in the amount being written about beer.

Ray pointed out that the people really making a living from beer writing at this time were the consulting brewing chemists such as Edward Ralph Mortiz and Alfred Chaston Chapman. The arsenic poisonings of 1900 meant that brewers had to start analyzing their beer, so there was plenty of work for the chemists. They were prolific in their writing during this time, with Mortiz writing more than 40 scientific papers, and Chapman a staggering 120.

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Pubs were certainly the hot topic during this period. While a lot of urban pubs had degenerated into either “gin palaces or hovels”, country pubs were still written about and regularly appeared in idealised forms in literature. In an attempt to reform the pubs, in 1916 the government began the Carlisle Experiment, taking control of five breweries and a total of 363 pubs. They changed these dramatically, making them bigger, providing table service and food, gardens and sporting facilities such as bowling greens, and even pull ins to encourage more middle class customers to visit by car. There was a huge backlash against this, as many people found the “improved pubs” austere and lacking in personality. The Journal of the Institute of Brewing launched an attack in 1932 stating that many historic pubs were being torn down for rebuilding in the new Carlisle mould, destroying heritage. This led to a trend for writing sentimental nostalgia about the traditional English inn, such as Maurice Gorham’s The Local (1939). Publican’s memoirs also became popular during this time, both genuine and fictional, with John Fothegill’s Innkeeper’s Diary (1931) being one example.

Between the two World Wars, British beer was in a dreadful state. Compared to 1914’s beer, 1933’s brews were 23% lower in gravity, and had 20% less hops in them. Both breweries and pubs were run down and failing. This seemed to galvanise writing on what was going wrong with the product, such as John L Shimwell’s series of papers on brewing microbiology between 1935-39. He stated he wished to bring “order out of chaos”, and explained in scientific terms why beer went bad, and what to do about it.

Towards the end of the period we finally saw what we might be able to call the first real piece of beer writing as we know it now in the form of Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer (1956). Interest definitely seemed to have grown in the topic by this point, to the point where The Times ran a special edition about beer in 1958.

At this point Ray Newman, one half of blogging duo Boak & Bailey and co-author of the recently published Brew Britannia, picked up the reigns as we passed into our final period: 1960 to the present day. Here, Ray told us, the trend began to drift towards writing for popular audiences, with less technical information. Most writing was sponsored by the industry itself, and after a rough ride through the two world wars, there was a desire to raise beer’s profile with the public without encouraging anyone to be too critical of the product.

untitledIn 1963 the Chancellor removed the requirement for home brewers to have a license. This led to a dramatic increase in popularity for home brewing as people sought to make their own cheap beer at home, and there were a huge number of manuals published during this period. Some, like Ken Shale’s Brewing Better Beers (1967) boasted sales of over 250,000 copies on covers of subsequent editions, and went on to sell even more. There was also a sense during this time that the accountants at the breweries had too much control over what was available, so home brewing was seen as a rebel alternative.

The 1970s, of course, marked the birth of CAMRA, and sparked a revolution in the beer world, holding brewers to account and highlighting the closures of so many family-owned regional breweries and pubs. In 1974 CAMRA published the first edition of the Good Beer Guide, which of course is still published annually today. From the 1980s this began to include beer essays on the issues of the day, which provided a valuable outlet for beer writers who were struggling to get their voices heard elsewhere in print.

Another big turning point for beer writing came when Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer in 1977. It was the first time that someone had talked with authority about the taste and quality of beer and the first attempt to elevate beer to the status of wine. Many books throughout the 1980s mimicked Jackson’s style, and although there was nothing ground-breaking or particularly new, the community of beer writers had begun to grow. In 1988 the British Guild of Beer Writers formed, bringing with it a statement of intent – a demand that beer would be taken more seriously.

The 1990s saw a cultural shift as beer’s image continued to evolve. Laddish, blokey travelogues heavy with beer references had their moment of popularity as beer continued to raise its profile. After the millennium, interest had grown and list-based books such as Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die!, really took off. This style seemed to suit beer, and publishers quickly snapped up variations on the theme. They were light and engaging, with tasting notes which were brief enough not to alienate more casual drinkers. Pete Brown’s writing, starting with Man Walks Into a Pub in 2004, really nailed it in commercial terms, showing personality and humour could engage even those without a deep interest in beer. This really set the template for a lot of beer writing which has come since.

Across the pond in the USA, Garrett Oliver published The Brewmaster’s Table (2010), the first book on beer and food pairing. It was a sign that beer’s reputation was beginning to change, and in 2011 the drink was finally honoured with its very own Oxford Companion. Although many complained that it was full of inaccuracies, it was a sign or respect for the craft of brewing.

Ray wrapped up by pointing out that the renaissance of ebooks has been important for beer writers, as now there is less of a barrier to getting work out there – no reticent publishers. Beer blogging has also taken off in a big way, with many authors such as Pete Brown and Mark Dredge writing blogs as well as books.

Beer sommelier and broadcaster Marverine Cole took over at this juncture to ask whether beer is getting its fair share of voice in the media today. In her view, she said, a lot of people have stopped reading print media. Now the focus is on radio, TV and web content, and beer is not being sufficiently represented.

Marverine’s belief this that there is still a misconception that beer is loutish and uncouth whereas wine and spirits are more sophisticated. While the passion is obviously evident in the industry – there are huge numbers of events and festivals across the country – there is not enough pressure on the media to get that message across. She went on to share some insider tips on how she felt fellow writers and broadcasters could maximise beer’s coverage and begin to affect change in how it is perceived in the media.

historypinAfter a quick lunch break we return to hear from Nick Stanhope from HistoryPin, a new website where contributors can pin photos, videos and anecdotes on an online map to share history and foster intergenerational relationships. Nick said that in their work they’ve noticed how pubs have time and time again been focal points of communities, and that the loss of so many pubs over the past few decades has been a recurring theme in their research. They have recently been working with over 5,000 pictures rescued after the closure of the Charrington Brewery and investigating how the information can be used to help pubs reconnect with their lost history.

Our final activity for the day was a panel discussion on how we can ensure that beer writing has a postitive future. This featured all of the previous speakers and was chaired by BGBW Secretary and author, Adrian Tierney-Jones.

Adrian sparked off the discussion by ask pointing out that beer writing is a renaissance of sorts, incorporating many different subject areas such as travel, food and history. Ray Newman pointed out that there have not really been any breakthrough books on beer in past few years, and that much of the writing tends to be a variation on the same old material. He wondered whether we need to accept that it will never be a mainstream subject and just address the niche, or do we need to challenge ourselves as writers to come up with something new and refreshing, as Pete Brown did so successfully in the mid-2000s.

Marverine agreed with this point, saying that what we needed to do now was engage young people. The craft beer movement has introduced a whole new generation to beer, and what is needed now is for them to take on the mantle and try to put more pressure on the media to show that the interest is out there, and get more coverage. She pointed out that we have to start shifting our focus to digital mediums such as ebooks and the internet.

Adrian asked whether the panel thought that it was our role as beer writers to act as a cheerleader of sorts for beer, and educate the public. Marverine believed that it’s important to mix education with entertainment in order to remain engaging, and cited Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s Thinking Drinkers as a good example of this – mixing comedy and beer, and presenting something different.

Ray Anderson pointed out that it was very difficult to convert an enthusiasm for beer to actually reading about it. He had just returned from a trip to Berlin where he went to a bookshop and found a mere seven books on beer in the whole shop, despite being in the beer capital of Europe.

James said that in his experience as an academic working on the topics of brewing and beer, he found that people tended to be dismissive and treat it as a bit of a joke. It was only when he could show them the academic hooks and connections in history, industry, or science that they begin to be drawn in and begin to take it seriously. He believed that a key to gaining a larger audience was to get more academics on board to help give the subject more gravitas.

Nick agreed with the idea that beer has to be seen as inextricably linked to our history and society. He said that his experience with HistoryPin has shown that people don’t just want facts, but that stories, history and a narrative thread are powerful tools to engage people.

imagesAdrian pointed out that, like HistoryPin, digital appears to be the way forward, with apps such as Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London proving hugely popular. Ray Anderson agreed that he tends to go to Google before he goes to the bookshelf nowadays.

At this point the debate opened up to the floor, where one contributor pointed out that in the UK we have become “far too good at celebrating orthodoxy”. He believes that we celebrate beers that are of poor quality and that there is still a feeling that we push cask as being best when it is not always true. Ray Anderson agreed with this, saying that we now have as many breweries in the UK as we had in 1929, but it’s a similar situation – many are small and producing a substandard product.

Ray Newman said that it was certainly true that beer writers do not generally challenge the brewers on beer quality and have a tendency to keep writing light and positive, which could have contributed to this “celebration of orthodoxy”. Adrian acknowledged this but said that it is very difficult for beer writers to maintain independence. If breweries send them samples, it is hard for a writer who does not want to damage their relationship with that company to be critical of the product. Ray responded by saying that the Guild needs to push back collectively, and let the brewers know that they have to grow up and accept criticism. They could also be reminded that controversy breeds interest.

It was pointed out from the floor said that with the advent of beer blogging there is actually a huge amount being written about new beers and breweries, but it doesn’t seem to be influencing public interest all that much. Marverine said that we have to remember that quality varies a lot online, and this could be part of the reason why the movement has not been more influential.

Another contributor said that we are shying from controversy. If breweries invested more in their PR they could get more coverage in the media, like the wine industry, rather than relying on advertising. This could change beer’s image and also increase its profile.

20141023_152553After the debate we broke into groups to take the opportunity to tour the magnificent Victorian tower brewery. This remarkable building was powered by an enormous steam engine on the ground floor, installed in 1899 and still in use as recently as four years ago. This powered the machinery all the way up the tower and even provided heating for the brewery workers. While there have been many modern innovations over the years – including the abandonment of the vast copper flat cooler at the top of the building – the incredible Victorian machinery and architecture is still evident throughout.

After climbing up and down all those stairs, we retire to the Visitors’ Centre to enjoy a few well-earned glasses of some of Hook Norton’s offerings, including Old Hooky (4.6%) and Flagship (5.3%).

We thoroughly enjoyed the seminar and learned a huge amount – massive thanks to the BGBW and the Brewery History Society for organising it, the speakers for taking part and giving such informative talks and to Hook Norton for being such gracious hosts.

If you wish to visit Hook Norton Brewery you can find details of their tours on their website. You can also find information on the Brewery History Society and details on how to join online.

– PS

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How should CAMRA campaign? Group responds in ‘sexist leaflet’ row

  • Organisation offers apology over leaflets some deemed sexist and says it wants to work with young members on new campaign.

The beer drinkers’ club CAMRA has apologised for any offence caused by recruitment leaflets it circulated to universities, which featured images of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

More: Read our original story on the leaflets

Keith Spencer, CAMRA’s Director of Membership, said that the leaflets had been withdrawn. “CAMRA’s recent young membership campaign has been met with both positive and negative feedback since its launch a few weeks ago. However, as a number of people have informed us they find the imagery sexist and are offended by this campaign, CAMRA has decided to withdraw this material from circulation.

“CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused”

The campaign was discussed with young marketing professionals within CAMRA’s Young Membership Marketing Group, which is made up of men and women, and they supported this creative. However, CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused,” he said. “Now that CAMRA has decided to remove this campaign, it will work with CAMRA’s young membership to create a new campaign. If any CAMRA members would like to feed ideas into this campaign then please email marketing@camra.org.uk

– ED

CAMRA offers to pull ‘sexist and insulting’ recruitment leaflets, but young drinkers demand public apology

Young beer drinkers have expressed outrage at a “sexist and insulting” series of recruitment flyers CAMRA has distributed to universities across the country.

The flyers, which aim to recruit new members to the real ale society, feature pictures of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

A copy of the leaflet reproduced on a website petitioning CAMRA to withdraw it

A copy of the leaflet reproduced on a website petitioning CAMRA to withdraw it

They were sent to university real ale societies to be distributed at Freshers’ Fairs.

The CAMRA Young Members board expressed their disapproval when they were consulted before print, but said they had been ignored.

Rowan Molyneux, a young beer blogger, said that she originally thought the leaflets were a hoax.

“What sort of people do they want to attract? Slavering ‘lads’, drawn to the organisation because of the use of attractive women as window dressing?”

Members who contacted CAMRA to complain were “brushed off”, she added, and the organisation rejected claims that it was being sexist because it had women in its board.

CAMRA has offered to withdraw the leaflets, but young members have called for a full public apology to the university societies that acknowledges “the sexist nature of the flyers”, an apology to the Young Members Board and the creation of a transparent complaints process.

A petition calling for action from CAMRA currently has 77 signatories.

Samuel McNamara, of the York University Real Ale Society, said: “We welcome everyone as an equal participant. Women are not window dressing for a boys’ beer drinking club.”

Matt Jones, who has worked on the committee of a university ale and cider society, said: “This campaign, with its sexist imagery, perpetuates the image of beer drinkers of lewd, old men that we have worked so hard to get rid of. Ale is for everyone, regardless of their sex, sexuality, age, race, creed and background.”

ICIP has approached CAMRA for comment.

-ED

Reap what you sow – return to Stocks Farm

DSC_0111We can scarcely believe it’s been five months since we last visited Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to learn all about hops. Back then there was still a slight chill in the air, the apple trees in the orchards were mostly bare and the hop plants were tiny green shoots not even a foot high.

What a transformation.

The dark green of the apple trees are punctuated with thousands upon thousands of shiny red apples. In the distance, against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills, the hop yards are flourishing, the plants towering above the ground and creating shaded, almost mysterious passageways between the poles. The ground is littered with the lime green of stray hop flowers, and the air is pungent with that distinctive zing of grass, pine and tart fruits.

DSC_0104A decent crowd of interested locals of all ages has gathered in front of the beautiful farm house and old hop kiln to be greeted by Ali and Richard Capper, who have thrown their farm open to visitors for their first open day to increase awareness of the British hop industry. The afternoon kicks off with an introduction by Ali about the 200 years of hop-growing history on the farm and some basics about hops and their usage. We head off through the apple orchards – stopping to enjoy a Gala straight off the tree, which is just amazing – and come to the low trellis hop yards.

DSC_0187These are unique to the UK and a recent innovation designed to save labour on both tending for and harvesting the hops, as we reported earlier in the year. Down the hill, a large red machine is chugging through the rows. “The machine is picking both hop and leaf, and it’s being conveyed into a trailer in the row beside it,” says Ali. “The harvester is actually based on a blackcurrant picker.” Richard points out that the harvester is only used for one week a year, during which time it “has its guts thrashed out”. There is certainly a bustling atmosphere on the farm – you can feel the frenzy of activity. “People say ‘I’d like to grow some hops; it can’t be that difficult’,” he says, “and actually, the growing part isn’t that difficult, it’s the harvesting and drying that provides the challenges. All the hop growers in the area are picking at the same time, so there’s no spare capacity to loan out.”

Passing through the low trellis hops we come to the more recognisable tall hop yards with their tunnels of pendulous green flowers. Ali passes around some fresh flowers for the visitors to break open and sniff, taking in all those intoxicating aromas. There is something quite humbling about standing beneath these vast, lush plants, and you really feel a sense of the centuries of heritage and tradition of British hop growing.

DSC_0165“The life of a hop plant is indefinite,” Richard tells us. “I know of hop yards that are nearly 100 years old. Usually it’s when a market changes that cause you to dig them out and change the varieties.” Stocks Farm grows several types of hop, including newcomers like Endeavour, and more traditional varieties. “We have a contract with Fullers for all of our Target hops,” says Richard. “Because they are such a reputable brewery, others will follow their lead and that helps us keep some of the older varieties alive.”

DSC_0190We finally reach the bottom of the hill where we are about to meet the hop picking machine. When we visited the old hop kiln back in April, Ali showed us an original old-fashioned hop press, manufactured at the Bruff in Suckley. In the 1960s the same manufacturer made the hop picking machines which have since been exported all over the world, and Stocks Farm keeps it local by still using theirs today. “We love the Bruff because it’s a gentle way of picking the hops,” says Ali. “We decided to reinvest in it. Although it’s antiquated and old, it works! Basically, it’s a series of rollers, belts and blowing air, and it’s all about separating a heavier hop from a lighter leaf.”

We pass the unloading trailers and enter the huge barn which houses the Bruff. The noise is deafening as the machine chugs away, the hops being ferried up and down and around the vast space in a blur of conveyer belts, lifts and cogs. It’s like something out of Willie Wonka’s laboratory, but with hops.

DSC_0230 DSC_0235 DSC_0236 DSC_0261We follow the little flowers’ progress around the room until we climb the stairs up to the kilning area. Here workers are sliding enormous flat baskets of hops into giant furnaces, while huge piles of dried hops loom in the background. “The dry hops are tipped into piles to condition them for 24 hours,” explains Richard. “This allows them to take a bit of moisture back in, so they don’t go to dust. The challenge for the driers is to get the moisture just right: too wet and they get packed like a compost heap, too dry they could combust and you’d lose the whole kiln.”

DSC_0311DSC_0306On the way back downstairs we pass enormous hessian sacks which are stacked up to the ceiling. “The hops are a huge volume, they’re all air, so in order to pack them we need to press them,” Richard tells us. “We create 85kg packs, and when we’ve made the bale, we probe it to check the moisture. Every hop dries a different way, for example the Sovereign we’re doing now, are a light, fluffy cone, which will dry quite quickly. Some years, we’ll need 3 presses to get 85kg, last year because of the weather, they weighed heavy and we only needed two presses.”

DSC_0287As we leave the barn and begin the walk back up the hill, Richard reflects: “all of this kit is used just five weeks a year, and in that time we burn about £25-30k of diesel to dry the hops. Which is quite irritating because as soon as the brewer gets them he throws them in water again!”

As we enjoy tea and cake (apple, of course) on the lawn in front of the farmhouse, we look out across the valley and at the sea of green hop yards below us. It has been fascinating to be able to follow the journey of these hops from shoot to bale, and in doing so we think we have begun to understand the passion felt by the British hop farmers for the heritage and preservation of the industry. We certainly have a much greater appreciation for those British hop names when we read them on a bottle label or pump clip.

On our return journey we once again pass through picturesque Ledbury for a return trip to the Once Upon a Tree Three Counties Cider Shop we pick up, amongst other goodies, some hopped cider by Oliver’s. This, my friends, could be a dangerous new chapter…

– PS

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Malt: getting the grist

The Reinheitsgebot would have you believe that the raw ingredients needed to brew beer are very simple. On paper, it’s just water, barley, and hops (and yeast, they begrudgingly conceded in 1993). Basic raw materials transformed through the magical process of brewing into our beloved tipple of choice. Or so it seems.

After ICIP’s trip to Stocks Farm in April, we learned that the humble hop is anything but simple. There were lupulin glands, alpha acids and myrcene levels to learn about, extensive scientific breeding programmes being developed and multi-million pound hop picking machines chugging away beyond the hop yards. We were amazed by our own ignorance about what we thought was a simple component of the brewing process, and it made us wonder where else our knowledge fell short.

Enter the Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB), who kindly organised for us to tour Bairds Malt plant in Witham, Essex. This is the largest plant under the Bairds umbrella, producing nearly 50m tonnes of malt a year, mostly buying in barley from the “granary of England”, East Anglia. We meet with MAGB’s Executive Director Colin West, who is going to be our teacher and tour guide for the day. It soon becomes apparent that we have a lot to learn.

DSC_0002Giving us a bit of a background to the UK malt industry, Colin explains that we’re pretty unique for having the two big markets of beer and whisky: “whisky around the rest of the world is usually made from other things, whereas Scotch legally has to be made of malted barley, so it’s an important market.” Malting has historically been an active and productive industry in the UK, and the MAGB itself is around 180 years old. “When it was founded, every village and every town would have had a maltings or two, and the 1,800 members were only a fraction of the malting industry in the UK at the time,” says Colin. “There was a malt tax in place and the government were imposing more and more regulations, causing disruption to the production process, and the maltsters were pretty aggravated about this. It took them a while, but they managed to get rid of the malt tax by the early 1880s.”

While we are aware of the decline in British hop farming over the years, we are still surprised to hear that despite the recent beer boom, the malting industry has not grown in recent years. “The maltings sector in the UK is almost exactly the same size as when I joined the industry in 1976,” says Colin. “I remember in those days we grew 10m tonnes of barley in the UK, and 2m tonnes went for malting and the rest went for animal feed. Now we grow about 6m tonnes, 2m still goes for malting and a smaller amount goes to animal feed because they use wheat for that more now. There’s been rationalisation: smaller plants have closed, we’ve got fewer companies than we used to have, and we just haven’t expanded.”

But in the same way that Germany and the US have overtaken us in hop-growing, our continental cousins have been expanding rapidly in the grain business. “The two largest malting companies in the world are now French: over the last 40 years the French have grown between ten- and twenty-fold,” says Colin. “A lot of the grain trade marketing in France was run by farmer’s cooperatives, which were strong through CAP after the common market was formed in the 1950s. They realised that milling wheat into flour or malting barley were ways of adding value to the grain, so they took a long-term view and invested in malting capacity. They own companies all over the world now. I don’t think we could grow quite that big, but it’s a bit of an oddity that we’re exactly the same size after all this time.”

DSC_0003This seems strange when the brewing scene at least appears to be booming globally, but according to Colin total beer consumption is falling despite the proliferation of new breweries. And while cask ale is the winner – growing from 9% to 12% of the market – it’s the big name lagers that are noticing the drop off. He also points out “in some markets they use other materials. As an example, Budweiser in the states has 40% rice in it. Once you’ve got that rice in, and you’re a brand the consumer knows, you don’t change it back at that point. At that point, the customers know what they want.”

The maltings industry is having to adapt to accommodate the new breed of microbrewery, putting in packaging lines to produce 25kg sacks of product rather than sending off 29 ton lorries, and installing mills to provide grist for breweries who cannot mill their own malt. “What Bairds has done recently is set up an autonomous subsidiary, Brewers Select, which mills separately in order to service the craft market. It doesn’t change the way anyone services the big market, they just have to service the smaller guys too,” says Colin.

WIthout further ado, we’re thrown into the science bit. Colin starts us off with Beer 101: at the brewery, enzymes in the malt break down the starches into sugars, which the yeast uses to make booze. The barley’s job is to provide nutrients for fermentation. The reason we malt the barley is that in it’s raw state it doesn’t have the enzymes it needs.

We move on to a very complicated cross-section of a barley grain. This is a seed, and there is an embryo of a new barley plant inside as well as the endosperm, which is a food store which will feed the plant until it has leaves and can get energy from the sun.

In short, and avoiding a lot of jargon – the energy in the endosperm is mostly starch contained in rigid cell chambers. When the seed germinates the embryo sends out a signal asking to be fed, and enzymes are produced which break down the cell walls to release the starch and begin to convert the starch into sugar. This has to be kept in check because the maltster wants to deliver these starches and enzymes to the brewer, so the process cannot be allowed to go too far. This is why although you may see rootlets on barley when it is being malted, you never see any shoots. Indeed, in ye olde times the maltsters would sometimes judge whether the malt was ready by breaking open the grain and seeing how far the shoot had grown inside before making an appearance.

DSC_0017Basic knowledge acquired, we don hi-vis vests and hard hats and intrepidly set off to follow the grain’s journey around the site. We begin at the barley intake, where they do quality control on the incoming lorry-loads of barley. Gatekeeper Maggie explains: “I use an automated scoop to take a representative sample. I can check some things visually – I want to make sure it’s the right  variety and I want to make sure I’ve got malting barley and not another type of grain. I also look for a fungus called ergot, which is hallucinogenic, so we don’t want to see any of that in the barley!” She gleefully shows us a little pot of the offending substance, conspiratorially adding: “this is our personal supply!”

“If you see one piece of ergot you’ve got to reject the whole truck,” says Colin. “The maltsters have rejected about one load in 150.” This isn’t the only instant rejection, as Maggie explains: “There are insects that would damage the grain by eating away at the embryo inside, like weevils. which are tiny. If I find any one of those – alive, dead or a body part – it’s an instant reject. All would suggest there had been an infestation somewhere along the line.”

After this initial inspection, things get more technical, and Maggie has a proper mini lab in her office. “I look for moisture and nitrogen levels using the infrared machine. There’s also a machine which gives us a breakdown of how many whole corns, broken corns and extraneous material like husks there are. If it falls outside the parameters we take a bit of a claim against the cost, but if it’s way off, we start rejecting the lorries.” And there’s more… “That is a grain stain machine – we cut a corn in half to reveal the embryo and the machine stains it bright red. As it degrades or starts to grow, it becomes paler to the point of being white. If it’s white, it’s dead, so if you haven’t got a red embryo, we can’t do the malting process. We look for a 98% parameter on that and we reject on anything less.” It’s beginning to sound like some sort of barley X-Factor. “It is frustrating, and ultimately it’s the final customer, the beer drinker, that’s paying the extra transport cost for the rejected load,” says Maggie. “So if we can work with the merchants and farmers to make sure everything’s accepted, that suits us. It keeps the maltsters’ costs down which helps when the breweries are negotiating to get the malt price down. But we could be losing half of what comes in, we just happen to be extremely good at it!”

DSC_0009As we move towards the huge conical steepers, Colin points out Bairds’ water recycling plant. Bairds is only the second maltings site in the country to recycle its water. There have been problems with attempts to do this in the past with remnants of materials in the water used for steeping which meant that it could not be reused, but treatments have been developed to solve this issue. “The expectation is that processing waste water will become more expensive in the future,” says Colin, “so this will make a huge difference. All maltings use fresh, drinking quality water for the steeping. At Bairds they also use a barley washer to pre-steep and to get dust off the grain.”

It can take almost two hours to transfer a batch of grain into the giant steeping conicals. Bairds has six of these, each holding 35 tonnes of barley. The reason the capacity is split is to help spread the hydrostatic pressure on the grains more evenly to encourage it all to accept moisture and germinate. “Each batch is four thousand million grains of barley and the aim is to make sure each grain sees the same conditions as the next,” says Colin. “It’s impossible… but you try your best!”

DSC_0033When the barley goes into the steeper, it is usually at about 12% moisture. It is then covered in water, drained and covered again, and in between these wet periods it also has ‘air rests’ where it is allowed to breathe, absorb some of the moisture and begin its biochemical processes. Air is also bubbled through the water for a few minutes every half hour while the grain is steeping to keep it aerated. “When the maltster takes the batch out to steep, he’s looking to raise the moisture content to about 45%, that persuades the embryo that it’s been rained on and that it’s time to grow into a baby plant,” says Colin. This process takes two days. “By the end of those two days, the respiration rate has gone up quite a bit and each grain is generating heat from its own metabolism,” says Colin. “In bulk that’s quite a lot of heat, so it’s important the maltster can move that into an environment where he can accurately control the temperature.”

This marks the beginning of the second stage – germination. “In the germination vessel, the whole point is to keep in at a constant temperature,” says Colin. “If it was left in a steaming heap, it would go well above 60°C. So we both blow air through to keep the temperature down but we also keep up humidity so that it doesn’t dry out. The aim is to make the air 100% humid.”

DSC_0057Traditionally the malt would be spread in a thin layer on the floor and raked over by hand. Today the grain is still turned, two or three times a day, but it’s now done mechanically by a boom that sweeps around the circular vessel. “The goal is to make it flat,” Colin points out. “The resistance at 1m is different from that at 1.1m so you’ll get more air coming up and it’ll affect the grain differently. Obviously, as all the grain moves around, it’ll average out over the 4 days it’s in here.

From around of 3 days onwards, the rootlets realise there’s no extra nutrients out there, so they start thinking about withering.”

During the four days of germination the enzymes are produced, the cell walls begin to break down, and the malster has to stop the process at the right time. “There’s not much the maltster can do during this process to see how it’s going, so he’s relying on experience,” says Colin. “They are constantly testing the end product in the lab, so they can tweak the next batch to correct anything that didn’t go as well last time.”

DSC_0060Using a long cup on a pole, Colin fishes out some grains from both the two- and four-day-old batches of germinating barley. “If you pinch off the end of the corn to get rid of the embryo, then squeeze out the contents and rub it between your fingers, you can feel the texture,” he says, passing us a four-day-old grain. The contents comes out like toothpaste. “That’s perfect. That means the protein and cell wall are gone and what is left is pure starch.” We repeat the process on the younger grains, and the contents are much firmer. “It’s coming on, it’s just not quite as smooth. The maltster will do maybe six to ten corns from different places to get an idea,” Colin explains.

The final stage is kilning, which stops the germinating process. “We started with 210 tonnes of barley, we added 80-90 tonnes of water, and then in the kiln we’ll drive off the added water but also bring down the moisture content from 12% to 5%, so we’re evaporating around 100 tonnes of water!” says Colin as we enter the sweltering kiln. “It has to be a gentle drying process because the enzymes are temperature sensitive, even more so when there’s a lot of water around.”

DSC_0073Below the drying grain is a chamber about 6ft high which helps balance the pressure: “what you don’t want is the grain nearest the fan to get more airflow, so if the fan blows into a big area it equalises the pressure across the bed so the air comes up evenly,” says Colin. “So you start between 50-65°C, and because moisture is evaporating the grain is cooler than that, around 25°C. After about 12 hours of blowing the air through, the temperature in the grain starts to increase, but because the moisture has reduced to about 15%, the enzymes are more stable, so it’s safe to bring up the temperature.” Coloured malts can be made in the same kiln by upping the heat, and the maltster ends up with a grain with a moisture content of about 4-5%.

At this stage the little rootlets (or ‘culm’) on the grains drop off, and they are collected to be sold for animal feed. Astonishingly, they contain more protein than the original raw barley, and this is all extra income for the maltsters – very important given the huge outlay in energy costs. “Traditionally, everything was manual,” says Colin. “Shoveling, barrows, raking, water it with cans, feel it by hand… but now you could run this whole site with just a few people. It used to be labour was the second highest cost after barley, but now energy is far higher. It’s mostly heat, but it’s also electricity on driving the fans.”

DSC_0086The final stage of the malt’s journey is the roasting plant. “At Witham they have a roasting plant so they can roast in much smaller batches than in the kiln. That takes 210 tonnes of barley whereas the roaster takes just two.” Each type of malt gets a different treatment in the machines, which are based on the same technology used for roasting coffee. “You take white malt and then take the temperature up to about 180°C for brown malt and 220-230°C for chocolate and black malts. This makes it very dark and bitter,” explains Colin. “Colour is the critical control, and the guys here have got decades of experience. They take samples; and at the end of a darker roast they’ll be doing that every few minutes because the end point is critical. They’ll grind some into a flour and compare them against standardised samples which have been tested in the lab.”

The oddball is crystal malt, which is treated a bit differently. “You take green malt, direct from germination, and raise the temperature up to 65°C, which is the equivalent of the brewer mashing it. Each grain is its own mini mash vessel – it’s got a moisture, enzymes and starch in there, so when the enzymes break the starch down so you end up with a liquid package. It’s like liquid caramel inside. The temperature is increased up to about 130°C and the moisture is driven off, and that’s what gives you the lovely toffee character of the crystal malt.”

Our heads spinning from our quickfire introduction to the world of malting (and the ever pervading scent which is making us crave Horlicks and Maltesers), we remove our hard hats and decamp to The White Hart in Witham to enjoy malt in its most delicious form – a pint.

Just as after our hop farm visit, we’re amazed at how much history, technology and science has gone into this basic building block of our favourite drink. We’re glad we took the time to expand our knowledge – the next time we visit a brewery and they casually make reference to their mash tun, we’ll understand exactly what’s going on in there, why, and what all the work that had already gone into those little grains.

Now, someone, please… get me those Maltesers.

-PS

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Green fingers in Greenwich – Meantime establishes hop farm on the meridian

When someone says “hop farm”, it conjures up a certain mental image. Since our trip to the rolling green fields of Worcestershire to visit Stocks Farm in April, we think of acres of posts and wirework stretching away seemingly into infinity while birds chirp in the hedgerows and the Malverns loom in the distance. We do not think of the sound of a construction site, graffiti and the porcupine-like spectre of the O2.

London brewers Meantime have set out to change that.

DSC_0778ICIP has come to the launch event for the new Meantime hop farm, situated on the Greenwich Peninsula. The site is opposite Canary Wharf, behind the O2, and quite literally right on the Meridian Line – a green wooden plank running straight through the planters marks it out. As locations go, it’s pretty iconic.

DSC_0766This new venture has been developed since the success of Meantime’s “Hops in a Box” project last year, which cumulated in the production of 1,000 bottles of Hop City Porter – a beer made with hops grown across London. This year they’ve taken it a step further by setting up the first permanent hop farm in London for over 100 years.

“London is an exciting place to be a brewer right now. The variety of ingredients at our disposal is huge and it allows us to pack flavour into our beer,” says Rich Myers, Marketing Director at Meantime. “I hope that our hop farm will make more of the public aware of that fact. The beer we will create is about championing our Capital’s rich brewing heritage.”

The baby hops aren’t visible right now, buried somewhere under a sea of cheery marigolds, but we’re reliably informed that there are 48 plants growing on the plot. Keeping with the traditional English vibe, they are all Fuggles.

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“As soon as I saw the site, I knew I wanted to be involved,” says Kate Lonergan, Director at Blacheath Windowbox, the landscape company responsible for creating the hop farm. “I immediately saw the theatrical potential. I wanted to make it an installation, a beacon – a fun moment on The Thames path which had it’s own integrity and connection with it’s surroundings. I suppose I saw the possibilities, not the negatives.”

Despite Kate’s enthusiasm, there were some significant challenges to overcome. Firstly, she had never worked with hops before. “I contacted a number of hop specialists to chat about it,” she said. “Luckily hops are perennials and I work with them all the time!” Working alongside the Essentially Hops company from Kent, Kate’s team were able to set up the posts based on a commercial hop pole configuration, on a slightly smaller scale. They were also able to source authentic coir (natural fibre from coconut husks) and hop pegs.

DSC_0774The next challenge was the location. There’s a very good reason that the banks of the Thames are not already teeming with hop farms. “I knew we would have problems with wind due to the site’s proximity to the river, and the massive turbine at the O2 creates a wind vortex,” she explains. “So I suggested the triangular formation so the hops could protect themselves a bit, casting shadow and providing a wind break. I have had water support installed through root refreshers which kick in only when the plants are under stress through lack of surface water.”

The plants will need to be trained clockwise around the strings as they grow and carefully tended over the coming months. Meantime are hoping to harvest around 9lbs of hop buds from the site – enough for a 10 hectolitre batch of beer to be brewed this coming autumn.

Despite all the practical considerations of how to best grow the hops here on the Peninsula, Meantime have also worked hard on the look and feel of the site, to establish this as an “urban oasis”. Keeping a modern, urban vibe, the planters have been decorated with graffiti by the street artist Xenz. Kate says that the brewery weren’t sure about this idea at first, but that everyone has been delighted with the results. “I was so pleased Xenz included bees and butterflies in his design; the site is full of the critters thanks to the marigolds we planted and also the wild blackberries, hollyhocks and poppies growing around here. The marigolds should also hopefully deter pests!”

Nick Miller, Meantime's CEO

Nick Miller, Meantime’s CEO

Builders are hard at work just a few metres away, and it is clear that this is an early addition to what will be a huge regeneration in this area of Greenwich. “We owe a big thank you to Knight Dragon [company investing in the development], who we work with closely on the Peninsula,” says Nick Miller, Meantime’s CEO. “They work very closely with the community in Greenwich; we are the benefactors of that and we are extremely grateful for all their support.”

For the launch party, the brewery have rolled out the “Half Pint” – a van doubling as a portable bar – and have a BBQ on the go while drinkers sit on hay bales. They are serving up their latest brew, Californian Pale Ale (5.5%), a beer which takes its inspiration from American pale ales while still paying homage to the British styles which in turn influenced these US beers. It is made with both Slovenian Celeila and American Crystal hops, giving it a fruity and fresh nose, and uses East Anglian malt, which lends it a subtle sweet lift to balance the bitterness. The beer is delicious – light and fresh enough for a refreshing summer pint, but with enough flavour and complexity to satisfy our beer geekiness.

DSC_0776As the sun begins to sink behind the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the beer continues to flow, it is impossible not to be infected by Meantime’s obvious passion for their latest project. They are clearly hugely proud of their London roots and by their connection to Greenwich.

“This is probably the only hop farm directly on the Meridian,” says Nick. “We’re very proud of that. Our name is Meantime, and we are growing one of the most important raw materials of our beer on the meantime.”

ICIP is hoping to return to the hop farm to report on its progress, but in the meantime (!), you can visit Meantime’s Facebook page to see how the hops are getting on. You can also follow the progress of other keen hop growers across London on the #hopsinabox hashtag on Twitter.

DSC_0761– PS

 

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part two)

If you missed part one, which focusses on our boozy experiences in Denmark, read it here!schous

Beer pretty much slapped us in the face from the moment we got to Oslo, with excellent beer almost literally within grabbing distance: from our hotel window we could see the remains of the Schous Brewery just over the road. Founded in 1800 and closed down in 1981, this is still home to the Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri in an atmospheric cellar under what’s left of the old premises. After nearly having a heart-attack at the price of beer in Norway (even higher than in Denmark, as if it was possible), we tucked into a Joca Blonde (5.5%) and a “Female of the Species” Single Hop Nelson (5.1%), both delicious. It was interesting to see what was popular with beer fans over the North Sea, and we were surprised to see a couple of beers by ICIP favourite Thornbridge as well as Brewdog on the blackboard behind the bar.

Our next beer experience came courtesy of a random Twitter exchange from back in October 2013, when ICIP and Little Brother Brewery started following each other. At the time, we weren’t expecting to ever get the chance to visit them, so when we found out we’d be in town just a few weeks after they got their production license, making them the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo, everything fell neatly into place.

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We were welcomed to the microbrewery by co-owner Cameron Manson (the eponymous little brother – big bro Andrew is based in Brisbane, where they hope to expand to in the future). We don’t want to spoil too much, because we’re planning on dedicating a whole post to our trip to Little Brother, but it was clear from chatting to Cameron that the Oslo beer scene is flourishing just as much as it is back home in London, with new microbreweries popping up and plenty of experimentation: “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” he told us. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out.”

After our tour of the brewery we took the opportunity to ask for some local advice, and Cameron gamely drew us up a list of bars to sniff out for good beer. Fortuitously, one of them was very close to our hotel (what an excellent choice of accommodation this was turning out to be!). This was Cafe Sara, a pub full of trendy young things, friendly staff, some interesting offerings on the taps and a well-stocked beer fridge. It ended up being a messy night.

The damage:

Single Sara – Christianssand Brygghus and Cafe Sara collab (5.7%)
Pensjonisten – Bryggerhuset Veholt (5.8%)
Odin’s Tipple – Haandbryggeriet (11%)
Osen Lager – Tonga Gardsøl (6%)
Cassis Trippel – Nøgne Ø (9.5%)
Humlekanon – Haandbryggeriet (7.5%)

humlekanon nogneo

We’re not entirely sure how we got home.

We tried to lay off a bit for the next couple of days (visiting whole galleries of Edvard Munch is quite harrowing enough in itself without being hungover as well, thanks), but still managed a trip to another of Cameron’s recommendations: Smelteverket.

Situated in artisan food court Mathallen (think modern Nordic Borough Market and you’re getting warm), Smelteverket boasts “Norway’s longest bar”, with no less than twenty windows looking out over the Akerselva river. They also stock a range of Norwegian beers on tap and in bottles, and we had a try of a couple of beers by local brewery Grünerløkka (Løkka/crow White IPA, 6%, and Thorvalds Red Batch #17, 5.1%) and Haandbryggeriet (American Pale, 4.5%). We were very happy nursing these beauties until it was time to jet off to our final Scandi destination: we were Bergen-bound.

bryggenBergen is an absurdly beautiful place. As we stepped off the bus into Bryggen, we could hardly believe our eyes. The town is nestled between seven hills and seven fjords, and the busy harbour is lined with colourful, higgledy-piggledy wooden buildings.

Being that much further North than we’re used to, it was still light pretty far into the evening, which made the temptation to sit outside a bar with a beer and a blanket even more powerful. So we could hardly believe it when we realised that there was a very swish, very new-looking craft beer bar at the end of the road from our hotel.

7fjellWe were sold the moment we walked through the door at Una Bryggeri & Kjøkken, which was so new the builders were still drilling and hammering upstairs, and I had to use the men’s loo because the women’s wasn’t plumbed in yet. This trendy bar will be brewing its own stuff very soon, but in the meantime, we tucked into a Porter by Voss Bryggeri (7%) and a Walkendorff Amber Ale (6%) by the very local 7 Fjell Bryggeri.

It turns out that good beer is not at all hard to find in Bergen. We stumbled across Pingvinen (“Penguin”) in the sleepy backstreets, where we nearly collapsed under the weight of probably the freshest and most delicious prawn smørbrød in the world and glasses of Lervig Aktiebryggeri Hoppy Joe (4.7%). We also enjoyed a quiet drink in the quirky Kafe Kippers, set in an old sardine canning factory, where we tried Waldemars Mikrobryggeri Hveteøl (4.7%) and a Vossa Pale Ale (6%) by Voss.

But the real highlight of our trip was yet to come.

You can’t visit Bergen without going on some sort of excursion out into the nearby fjords. We had planned ahead and were booked into a day-long trip which would – hopefully – give us a taste of the incredible scenery Norway has to offer.

vergenWe would begin with one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world: from Bergen to Myrdal, in the mountains, where we would board the Flåmsbana. This special railway is the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe, and has been running since 1940. This would take us down from the snowy mountains and into the tiny village of Flåm, nestled at the end of the Aurlandsfjorden. There we would board a boat for an epic five and a half hour boat ride through the Sognefjord and back to Bergen.

While this was the cause for much excitement, we were not anticipating beer to play a part of this day. Unless we dropped back into Una after we got back, of course.

jumperAfter about 200 photos and much gawping, we arrived in Flåm. Just to  emphasise this: Flåm is tiny. Dwarfed by the comically huge cruise ships that park up in the fjord, it basically offers a few hotels, a slightly tired museum, a couple of sad cafes and several shops selling Scandinavian knitwear.

Oh, and a mind-blowing microbrewery and pub.

We thought we were hallucinating when we saw a sign for the “Ægir Brewery and Pub”, and definitely started to question our senses as we rounded the corner to see the Viking-esque wooden building, complete with dragons carved on the roof.

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My friends, it was a practically spiritual experience.

aegir6Inside, away from the chilly mountain air was a 9-metre floor-to-ceiling open fireplace with pelt-covered seating around it. The seats were made of roughly hewn tree stumps. The tap handles were made from antlers.

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I wanted to weep for joy. I began to curse the fact that I only had a hour and a half before I had to board a STUPID boat to go on a STUPID INCREDIBLE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME FJORD TOUR.

Founded in 2007 by Norwegian Aud Melås and American brewer Evan Lewis, the brewery has been steadily expanding over the last few years and has also opened a distillery. They won Norwegian Brewpub of the Year three years on the trot, and we’re not surprised.

aegir5We stayed as long as we physically could without missing our boat, sampling the following:

Ævenue (6% saison)
Sumbel Porter (4.7%)
Ægir IPA (6.5%)
Rallar Amber Ale (4.5%)

The range of beers on offer was fantastic – the brewery’s website lists styles as diverse as barley wine, Scotch ale, bock and blonde amongst its regular, year-round selection.

We found ourselves lured to the bottle shop even though we knew full well that our cases were already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles from Denmark. “I’ll just leave some clothes behind”, I insisted, clanking my way down the gangplank and onto the boat.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Checked out of our hotel, our Lonely Planets exhausted, and with just a couple of hours to go before we had to catch the bus to the airport, we bedded down back at Una. We finished our trip with 7 Fjell’s Svartediket Black IPA (7%) and a We Love Wheat Collaboration between Lervig and Nøgne Ø (7.9%). I reflected, as I supped my delicious, wallet-destroying Norwegian beer, that we were ending our holiday by doing exactly what we hadn’t really anticipated doing at the start of the trip – just kicking back with a couple of beers.

dutyfreeInspecting our boozy swag on our return to London (yes, we did buy more delicious beer in duty free), I marvelled at how beer had shaped our holiday, and how it had accented every high point. From our chance meeting with Arizona Wilderness in Mikkeller Bar and the mindblowing tasting menu at Nørrebro, through to the tour of Little Brother and our Ægir epiphany in Flåm, it truly had been a boozy Nordic saga; a real adventure.

The Scandinavian countries are often touted as the happiest in the world. Having checked out the beer, we think we understand why. Skål!

aegir8

– PS