Category Archives: Beer and culture

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part one)*

*Wanted to call this “Boozin’ with the Moomins”. Found out Moomins are Finnish. Did not visit Finland. For helvede!

Mr Pip and I aren’t really very good at holidays.

Well, more accurately, we’re not good at relaxing holidays. We’ve never done a beach holiday together, never visited a spa or willed away multiple hours in a café watching the locals. Our holidays are usually planned with almost military precision: armed with maps and Lonely Planets we storm our way through capital cities and tourist spots, leaving a string of museums, stately homes and art galleries in our wake. Our recent trip to Scandinavia is a case in point. We were there for ten days and managed to clock up, by our estimates, over 60 miles of walking (no mean feat given that one of those days was entirely sedentary on trains and boats in the Norwegian fjords).

While I’ll admit to being the driving force behind this, Mr Pip is very much the Lieutenant to my Captain. We make good travel companions because we enjoy a similar – unbalanced – mix of doing stuff and chilling out (i.e. sleeping off all that walking). I find just immersing myself in being somewhere completely “other” relaxing in itself – being able to leave all thoughts of work and the washing and the fact that the front door is sticking behind me.

Basically, what I’m getting at here is… I didn’t really factor beer into my holiday before we went. I wasn’t planning to sit in the bar all day. I thought about visiting Hamlet’s Castle and seeing some Viking boats and seeing the fjords, but despite beer being a massive part of my life, we only really got as far as booking a dinner at a brewery-cum-restaurant in Copenhagen for our anniversary before we whizzed off to Denmark.

And that’s what made the boozy wonder that was our Scandi trip all the more special.

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Our first taste of Scandi beer came in the form of a Tuborg Green (4.6%), sitting in the sun, with a plate of herrings next to the canal in Nyhavn, Copenhagen. You couldn’t get any more Danish if you tried. But this was exactly the type of beer experience I had been expecting – and not getting excited about. The beer was stock lager, the type of stuff I purposefully do not touch at home. I noticed that most of the restaurants and bars we looked into seemed to have the same, ominously green Tuborg and Carlsberg taps. “Oh well”, I thought, “I can deal with soft drinks and the occasional gin and tonic this holiday”.

Then Nørrebro Bryghus came out of nowhere and rocked our world.

norrebro glassSituated in what The Guardian once likened to “the Brixton of Copenhagen”, Nørrebro Bryghus is one of many trendy bars and restaurants popping up in this part of Denmark’s capital. Launched in 2003, the brewery has always had food and beer matching in its sights, marrying the rising popularity of both Scandi food and craft beer: “The brewhouse politely reminded the Nordic foodies something that Danish gastronomy seemed to have forgotten,” trumpeted their website, “that the best drink in combination with Nordic flavour is often the wonderful Nordic beer.” They also claim that they could very well be “the best beer restaurant in Scandinavia”, so we didn’t really think we could pass this one up (especially since we didn’t fancy taking out a second mortgage to eat at Noma).

Initially drawn in by their five-course tasting menu with matched beers, we arrived early for our reservation and started off with a drink in the downstairs bar. Set against a backdrop of the brewery itself, which is open for visitors’ inspection, the bar was bustling and cosy. The beer menu immediately got our hearts racing. American brown ale! Bock! Barley wine! We quickly began our descent into heavenly beery oblivion.

It was a night to remember.

norrebroglassesOur food and beer matched menu was exquisite; exactly what we had dreamed of when we had read about “New Nordic Cuisine”. It was so good, I accidentally ate all of my first course before I thought to take a photo. We also spent ages waxing lyrical to each other full-mouthed across the table about being served what literally appeared to be clouds made out of mustard.

The menu was as follows:

  • Cauliflower with mushroom purée and wild garlic paired with Çeske Böhmer Pilsner (5%)
  • Gravlax with hops, asparagus, nuts and mustard paired with New York Lager (5.2%)
  • Slow cooked beef chuck, potato purée and smoked jus paired with Ravnsborg Rød (5.5%)
  • 3 kinds of Danish cheese with sour sweet and crunchy “goodies” paired with Maharaja Double IPA (7.6%)
  • Lemon curd and wheat beer mousse with honey and oat crisps paired with Lemon Ale (3.5%)
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Our minds well and truly blown, we staggered back to our hotel ready to totally reassess Denmark’s beery offerings. As if by magic, our perception filters reset themselves. Yes, Tuborg and Carlsberg were ubiquitous. But we began to spot names like Nørrebro and Herslev Bryghus popping up on menus in restaurants, and even found bottles for sale in local supermarkets. We found a microbrewery, Bryggeriet Apollo, right in the heart of touristland, next to Tivoli, and an American diner offering a range of both local and international brews. Beer came back into focus for us, and before long we were google-mapping frantically in an attempt to find one of the Mikkeller bars.

“Gypsy” brewer Mikkeller (Mikkel Borg Bjergsø) doesn’t run a brewery in the strictest sense of the word, and has instead been traveling around brewing collaboration brews with other breweries since 2006. Initially created with friend Kristian Keller, hence the name, Mikkeller brews Noma’s house beer, exports to over 40 countries and has bars in San Francisco, Stockholm and Bangkok. A search for Mikkeller on Untappd now brings up a mind-boggling 700+ results. So you can see why we were keen to sniff out one of the bars in city where it all began.

mikkellerbar After a particularly long day of walking we ended up at the original Mikkeller Bar on Viktoriagade, thirsty and expecting great things. Tucked away in an area with a distinctly Shoreditch-y vibe, the bar was minimalist and trendy, and had a pleasingly massive blackboard listing 20 beers on tap, as well as a huge bottle menu.

mikkellerglass“Checking out the bar” inevitably ended up being three rounds and we tried Vesterbrown Ale (5%), Beer Geek Bacon (7.5% oatmeal stout), Vesterbro Wit (5%), Cream Ale (5%), Beer Geek Vanilla Shake (13%) and 10 (6.9%), between us – several unusual, all delicious. Thank goodness for relatively small craft beer portions.

We also had a mad social media moment in Mikkeller Bar – Mr Pip had a notification from Twitter informing him that several people he followed had started following Arizona Wilderness Brewing. He looked over to the bar to see brewers Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware, who were still in town after the previous weekend’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration. Before long we were engaged in happy, boozy conversation. Beer really is an international language, and its speakers are the friendliest in the world.

We had held off the inevitable visit to the Carlsberg Visitors Centre until our final day in Copenhagen. A little outside of the city centre, we kept finding excuses to put it off, and our beery epiphanies with the likes of Nørrebro Bryghus and Mikkeller weren’t making the prospect of free Carlsberg any more appealing.

carlsbergbottles1So we were pleasantly surprised by our very enjoyable visit to Carlsberg. Blighted by memories of sipping from lukewarm green cans at grotty university house parties, it was easy to forget that Carlsberg has a long and interesting history. The visitors centre is housed in the original brewery which dates right back to 1847, and guides you through the brewery’s story, from J.C. Jacobsen’s stagecoach journey from Munich with his precious brewing yeast stored in a hatbox, through to its takeover of Tuborg and climb to 4th largest brewery group in the world. The museum, spread through the historic buildings, is impressive, and supplemented by the largest collection of unopened beer bottles in the world… over 22,000 at last count. We thoroughly enjoyed looking out for familiar labels… and finding some interesting international versions of the Carlsberg brand. The centre also boasts working stables where their horses – now only used as “brand ambassadors” – are kept.

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When we saw that our ticket had included two free drinks, we have to admit we weren’t that enthused. I even considered passing up on the offer. But after a bit of a walk from the train station and a wander around the complex we quite fancied a drink, and we approached the bar with some trepidation. It was with pleasant surprise that we saw that there were a few more interesting beers on offer.

We took the opportunity to try a Tuborg Rød (4.3%), a seasonal dark lager only brewed in May each year. While this wasn’t exactly Mikkeller, it was substantially more flavourful than my dim memories of those green cans all those years ago. Perhaps I had been wrong to dismiss Carlsberg out of hand for all this time.

jacobsenThis feeling was cemented by our second freebie. On the recommendation of the bartender we went for the Jacobsen Original Dark Lager (5.8%), brewed to the oldest recipe in the Carlsberg archives, from 1854. Jacobsen is Carlsberg’s “upscale” arm, founded in 2005 and making some more varied styles such as wit and dubbel. We were impressed with the Dark Lager, and a little upset that their offerings only came in 750ml bottles in the shop (as our luggage was already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles by this point).

We had come a long way from our initial disappointing glass of Tuborg in Nyhavn. Denmark had shown itself to have plenty to offer in terms of beer, and we wished that we had done a bit more research before arriving. But time was against us, and Denmark’s cousin to the north, Norway, before us. Surely, we thought, Norway can’t top this.

We were wrong. So wrong. And you can find out just how wrong, in part two.

bottles1– PS

Top of the hops

As certified beer geeks, we thought we knew quite a bit about hops. We can take a good guess at what country’s hops have gone into a beer by giving it a good sniff. We can rattle off a list of varieties from Amarillo to Zythos. We saw some German hop yards from the Munich to Nuremberg train, once. ‘We’re practically experts’, we thought.

It turns out we were wrong.

“That is the lupulin gland in the base of the flower, and this contains the alpha acid, the beta acid and all the hop oils,” says Ali Capper, owner of Stocks Farm and Publicity Director of the British Hop Association. ICIP is staring at a cross section of a hop flower and feeling very, very ignorant. “Depending on what analysis you look at, you sometimes get 10-12 oils listed, but the key ones are myrcene, humulene and farnesene. There are over 400 hop oils.”

ICIP has left the familiar hustle and bustle of the capital and swapped it for rural Worcestershire. We’ve come to Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to meet with Ali, who has graciously offered to be our teacher for the day. And we are learning a lot.

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Ali has picked up on our current lack of knowledge and is thankfully starting us off with some basics about the world of hop growing. “Germany and America are about 35% of world hop production each,” she tells us. “The UK is only about 1.6%; we’re tiny. Australia and New Zealand together wouldn’t be as big as the UK.”

We’re stunned by this – we thought that Antipodean hops were all the rage. “Honestly, New Zealand is small – about 400 hectares,” Ali insists. “It makes a lot of noise; they’re just very good at marketing.” This is something that Ali believes the British are less good at – and she attaches a lot of weight to this when discussing the decline of the British hop industry. “We’ve forgotten how to talk about what we do. We’re typically British – we put them in the warehouse and hope somebody buys them. Literally. We haven’t been standing on the rooftops shouting about it like the New Zealanders have.”

DSC_0004From a peak of around 30,000 hectares in the late 19th century, hop farming in the UK has been shrinking progressively despite the recent boom in brewing, with only 1,000 hectares of hops growing today. This slow attrition of what was very much part of British heritage clearly struck a chord with Ali. “My husband’s father bought the farm in 1962, but this farm has farmed hops for at least 200 years,” she tells us as we sit out the rain with coffee in the farm kitchen. “A couple of years ago we had 100 acres of hops which were less than marginal. If you looked at the numbers, it was costing us money to grow and sell them. And my husband, who had farmed hops his whole life, was saying ‘we’re going to have to stop because we’re not making any money’. That’s a really big deal.” But Ali wasn’t going down without a fight. “I said: give me three years and I’ll see if I can turn this ship around.”

It was a worthy cause, but where do you start when attempting to revive an ailing industry? “I started thinking: what if I try to market British hops as a brand? What’s special about us?” says Ali, bringing her previous experience in marketing and advertising to the fore. “Well, firstly, 1.6% makes us a niche. In market terms we don’t need to worry about industrial scale brewers.”

With vastly larger hop-growing areas, the Germans and Americans have spent many years investing on their breeding programmes, developing varieties high in the all-important alpha acid. This is what lends the hops their bittering quality. “Historically, alpha has been a commodity, and industrial scale brewers have been buying it up,” says Ali. “Our highest alpha varieties were 14-16% alpha, whereas the US and Germany have varieties that are over 20%. It’s a numbers game. If their variety has 4-5% more alpha per kilo, you can’t compete.” But things have changed, and Ali believes that it’s all down to craft beer: “Craft brewing has changed the landscape, and that’s down to hop usage. To demonstrate that, consider that craft brewing now represents 8% of all US beer production. But it buys over 40% of the hops. Industrial-scale brewers want to use as few hops as possible.”

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With hop usage on the rise, and a growing demand for more range as brewers began to experiment, it was the perfect time to push British hops back onto the world stage. “I rang Dr Peter Derby, our hop breeder, and asked him to co-author a paper with me. The premise of the paper was ‘what makes British hops unique, scientifically?’. Because I could put any old marketing blurb on it. I wanted the facts,” says Ali. Their research threw up some fascinating results.

“What makes British hops entirely unique is our climate. It is maritime, but it is dull maritime,” Ali tells us. “There is even precipitation throughout the year – we’re the only hop growing area in the world which on the whole doesn’t irrigate. There are some exceptions in Kent on light sandy soil where they do, but the majority of our crop here in the UK isn’t irrigated.”

So what does this mean for the hops? Ali and Peter got an analytical analysis of several hop varieties grown in the UK, the US and in New Zealand, and compared the results. “The only part of the analysis that was different was myrcene, which is an indicator of monoterpenes… and they are an indicator for aroma intensity,” says Ali. “We have lower myrcene in hops grown in Britain, mostly because of sunlight levels. So a variety grown in the UK will have lower aroma intensity levels than the same hop grown in the USA or Australia.”

Oh. Well… that’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it? Does that mean that our hops are a bit… bland?

“No,” Ali says emphatically. “This is where it’s special. Lower myrcene means there’s more room for everything else. That’s a long list. It means that the hop flavour from a British hop is more complex because there’s more room for the other flavour indicators. The aromas have more range, more breadth and more depth.” Perhaps we’ve been blinded by the craze of mouth-puckeringly hoppy IPAs. “If you think what are we famous for in terms of world brewing, we’re known for very drinkable, sessionable beers – the reason why we can produce these is the breadth in our hops. One dimensional beers are great for one pint, but they don’t bring people back for another. American craft brewers are experimenting with British hops and the commercial reality that they can deliver session beers.”

logo-e1346773961375“So that’s the USP – delicate, complex aromas,” Ali concludes. With this identified, she set about shaking up the British Hop Association (previously The National Hop Association). In fact, the renaming was her own suggestion: “Our best visual mnemonic is the Union Jack, so I said we had to be the British Hop Association,” she explains. “They needed a website, one place where anybody – brewers in particular – can go for the correct information on British hops, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We needed to work with our merchants, to make marketing plans to get them to sell better on our behalf. And we needed to start standing on the rooftops and shouting about what is special about British hops.”

It is hugely impressive what Ali has achieved in the last two years. “There’s no big PR agency; there’s just me. When the media pick up the phone to speak to someone about British hops they’re amazed to be speaking to someone who farms, and that they can come to a farm. But I think that has helped a lot.”

The BHA is a group of growers who fund three main ventures: their breeding programme, crop protection lobbying and – more recently, under Ali’s tutelage – their marketing efforts. This new addition to their agenda is particularly important, she believes, as even well-seasoned brewing professionals don’t seem to know half as much about British hops as they think they do.

“There are over twenty British hops being grown commercially, but most experienced brewers have only brewed with a handful. None of them have tried them all. My challenge to the brewing industry was to go and try what’s on offer before you beat us up for what’s not available. And that has had a lot of traction.” She cites Admiral – recently experiencing a boost in popularity – as a prime example. “Suddenly everyone is talking about Admiral again. But it’s only because we started the dialogue. That’s our job as growers; to keep the dialogue up.”

Our introduction to the world of hops complete, and the rain finally clearing up outside, we head out to see the hop yards first hand. On our way we pass through some of the 100 acres of apple orchards also situated at Stocks Farm, currently displaying some bodacious blossom. Having seen some of the tall posts and wires from a distance at the top of the valley, we’re a bit confused when Ali comes to a halt in front of what looks like a scant hedgerow.

DSC_0024“We pioneered low trellis hop growing,” she explains. “With a high trellis hop, you have to string it by hand every year, and you have to tie the plants clockwise around the string. But with this system we would hope to get a 20-25 year life from the post and wirework and 7-10 year life on the net, because it’s UV light resistant. The plant is perennial and self-training. So it’s quite important from a labour perspective.” A further benefit of this system is that the hops can be harvested mechanically rather than the entire plant being taken away to have the flowers stripped from the bine. “Our hop picking machine is quite delicate. A lot of American machinery thrashes the hops. Because ours are seeded they are more delicate and more easily broken up.”

“This is quite special,” Ali says, crouching by the trellis. “This is Endeavour.” This hop was created by Peter Derby, the result of the BHA’s breeding programme. “One parent is Cascade and the other was a wild English male. So it has some of the same citrussy properties as Cascade but with a broader spectrum of blackcurranty, summer fruit type aromas. It’s a gorgeous hop.” With last year’s crop going almost exclusively to St Austell and Marstons, Ali says there will  be more available this year. “I am really excited by what the craft brewers will do with it – they didn’t really have access to it last year.”

As we stomp down the hillside we see the more familiar tall hop yards come into view. “You’ve got your post and your wirework, and that the top there are little hooks,” Ali points out. “In the ground we’ve got a metal peg, and in March we come through with a long pole with a hook on the end called a monkey and we use that to take the string onto the top hook, down onto the peg, up and down, by hand. Then the team come back and tie the hop clockwise – always clockwise, otherwise it falls off! Then we burn off what’s left on the ground to help the plant concentrate its growth upwards.” The time-saving benefits of the low trellis system are becoming more and more apparent. “If it’s windy in April and May they all fall off and you have to come back and do it again,” she says. “By July they’ll have hit the top, in August and September they put out their lateral growth, and then the hop. The flowering is triggered by the shortening of daylight length.”

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As we look through the web of strings disappearing into the distance, it strikes us that this is a lot of hop. Do they really have to harvest all this at once? Ali beckons us over to some rather sad, crispy looking plants in the next yard. “This is Target. And it looks like it’s dying! This is one of the last varieties that we harvest – we can’t do it all at once! In order to manage the staging of stringing and tying what we do with some of the varieties is burn them back chemically and then they regrow later. By that time we’re ready to tie them. Target is one of the later ones we harvest, usually early October, so it doesn’t need to get going yet, it’s still got some time.”

As we begin walking back up to the farmhouse, we’re reflecting on the amazing amount of (wo)man-power that goes into growing this special plant that we have taken so much for granted. It seems like a tough job in and of itself, even before you take into account the unpredictable weather we’ve had over the last few years in the UK, and also the threat of pests and disease. “I don’t know how you feel about pesticides; it’s a debate we can have, but it’s very difficult in our maritime climate to grow horticultural crops without some armoury of crop protection because we’ve got downy or powdery mildew and pests like aphids and red spider,” explains Ali. “Hops are a minor crop, so they get very little attention from chemical companies. It means our armoury of chemicals diminishes every year.”

We listen to horror stories of what sounds like the hop world equivalent to BSE or foot and mouth – verticillium wilt (it even sounds like a comic book villain): “It’s a disease borne on the soil, so it’s moved by boots from farm to farm. It kills the plant and once it gets into your soil, if you have a variety that is susceptible to it, it will continue to kill the plants if you replant,” Ali says. “There were some outbreaks in the 40s and 50s and since then work has been done to grow varieties that are wilt-resistant. But some varieties, like Fuggle, are not. So there are  fewer and fewer farms it can grow on. Often on a farm which hasn’t had wilt you’ll be asked to wear their boots, to park off the farm, so that there’s no chance that you can infect the land.” We look at our own footwear suspiciously, eyeing them for evil spores. “Wilt is a big contributor to the reason why British hops have declined,” Ali adds. “When we had it the Germans didn’t, and they were busy exporting. There was a time when the German and British growers were about the same, but they have grown as we have fallen behind.”

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Back at the farm, there’s just time to check out the old hop kiln before we have to leave. This is attached to the farmhouse – the previous owners obviously liked living dangerously – and is now mostly used for events and teaching. “You can imagine coal fires on the ground floor, pushing heat up by fans. The floors there were a wire mesh, so that would have been the kiln.” Ali points out an enormous contraption in the middle of the room. “That is an original hop press. It hasn’t been used since the 1970s, but it was engineered at the Bruff in Suckley. That is the engineering name of the most famous hop picking machine in the world. In New Zealand, Tasmania and in America you will find Bruff hop pickers. So it’s gone off all over the world, but it’s from Suckley.”DSC_0069

It’s this sort of history, and Ali’s passion for it, that make it clear why she fought so hard to revive the industry. “I am determined that we are not going to let this industry die. I am determined that we’re not going to have to replant 100 acres of hops. And fundamentally I am determined that we are going to be paid a sustainable return for what we’re growing – all British hop growers.” Ali isn’t naive about the challenges ahead. “It’s a huge job to do. But it’s about getting those clear messages out there about what makes us different, getting people excited about existing and new British hop varieties, and getting brewers to explore.”

DSC_0071Before we wave goodbye to the farm, Ali points us in the direction of nearby Ledbury for lunch, recommending a bottle shop run by a local cider producer who uses Stocks Farm’s apples. After almost being converted from beer to cider after sampling a few snifters of Worcestershire and Herefordshire’s finest, we notice some local beers for sale. There, front and centre, are bottles of Mayfields Brewery beers, proudly emblazoned with Ali’s ‘made with British hops’ logo.

Naturally, we take a few home with us… knowing that we would have a new appreciation for every complex, nuanced mouthful.

The British Hop Association website is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about hops, how they are grown and the history of hop growing in Britain.

You can see more pictures from our trip on our Facebook page

– PS

And all because the lady loves… beer

ICIP is feeling a little bit intimidated.

Sitting on our table alone are a beer sommelier, an owner of a successful gastropub, an editor of an industry magazine and a brewer. And they are all women.

“A group of us got together to try to regain our voice in the beer world,” says our MC for the afternoon, Annabel Smith, co-founder of Dea Latis. “We recognised that there were a lot of women working in the beer industry who didn’t have a united voice. That’s why we set up Dea Latis.”

Lisa Harlow, Annabel Smith and Ros Shiel, founders of Dea Latis

Lisa Harlow, Annabel Smith and Ros Shiel, founders of Dea Latis

It is clear that much has changed in the five years since Dea Latis was founded. As Annabel rattles through the list of of achievements made by women in the industry, many of these trailblazers sitting in the room with us, ICIP feels a massive swell of pride and empowerment.

Women hold the current positions of Chief Executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, Beer Sommelier of the Year, Brewer of the Year, BII Licensee of the Year and Director of Supply Chain at one of the biggest breweries in the UK. And that’s not all.

“We have two women in the room who brewed a beer for International Women’s Day. We had the first female beer inspector at Cask Marque. Broadcaster Marverine Cole founded Beer Beauty, bringing beer to the media. Jane Peyton and Melissa Cole are published authors of beer books,” Annabel continues. “Nearly 25% of CAMRA membership are women now. Considering that’s a membership of 160,000 members – that’s a huge number of women interested in and engaging with beer. We know from the latest Cask Report which was launched last September that there are 1.3m female regular cask ale drinkers in the UK. And yet it’s less than 100 years since we got the vote. I think to have done what we’ve done in the last 5 years – we’ve come a long, long way.”

Our heads are spinning with this seemingly unstoppable march of progress. But Annabel knows what we really turned up for.

“I can see you starting to think ‘“when will we get to the beer?’”

_0003975With a membership of over 200, Dea Latis runs regular events up and down the country to encourage women to discover and enjoy beer, and their beer and food matching events seem to be the most popular: “we found that one of the best ways to reach out to women is to match beer and foods; it completely changes the characteristics of the beer. We’ve done beer and chocolate, beer and breakfast, beer and cheese… perhaps most controversially we’ve done beer on its own!” says Annabel. “Beer works with chocolate in a way that wine can’t,” agrees her fellow Dea Latis founder, Ros Shiel.

We’re about to find out if they’re right as we are poured glasses of our first beer, Blue Moon, and handed out segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

Blue Moon is a Belgian-style witbier originally hailing from Colorado in the States and now part of the MillerCoors leviathan. It’s not a beer that ICIP would usually pick off the pumps, but we’re prepared to be swayed.

DSC_0037We get – predictably – orange notes on the nose, and the beer is sweet and incredibly mild for its 5.4% ABV. “The conception that all beer is bitter is blown out of the water with this beer,” Annabel notes. “While we obviously went for the pairing of the orange flavour in this and the chocolate, the light carbonation is also important. When you eat chocolate, it coats your tongue with a little layer of fat. The carbonation scrubs that away and cuts through it.”

We actually found that the beer mingled with the chocolate as we chewed and spread it all around our mouths even more, spreading the mellow orangey flavours. While it was tasty, we likened the match to the Chocolate Orange you got at Christmas and happily ate, but you probably wouldn’t have bought one yourself.

DSC_0038Beer number two is a different animal (sorry) – Tiger, brewed by Everards Brewery from Lancashire and clocking in at 4.2%. “It’s a bit darker than the Blue Moon and has a real burnished, gold colour to it. This is what I’d call a very ‘traditional’ beer, and it’s got a very good balance between bitterness and sweetness,” says Annabel. “Rather than overpower it, we’ve paired it with Green and Blacks Butterscotch Milk Chocolate.”

This offers something very different to our orange experience. The beer is rich and malty, and the toffee sweetness from this really compliments the butterscotch.

Annabel points out that the bitter cocoa pairs with the hops in beer, while the sugar in chocolate pairs with the sweetness of the malted barley. It might seem obvious, but we it hadn’t really struck us before. “There’s also a similar mouthfeel between the two, so they really complement each other,” she says.

DSC_0039This is especially apparent with our third match, which is a massive hit on our table. We are poured glasses of ink-black Thwaites’ Tavern Porter (4.7%), and asked to shout out what aromas we notice. A variety of replies from around the room include coffee, liquorice and cinder toffee.

“You notice when you taste it you get an almost drying feeling in your mouth,” says Annabel, and it certainly ends with a bitter, almost astringent hoppiness. “When we talked to the brewer she was adamant that she wanted to counteract that drying feeling with something very sweet.”

My god, was that feeling counteracted! We are passed around those old-fashioned chocolate cupcakes that you used to get as a kid before the Hummingbird Bakery-style boom – the flat-topped ones with a thick, hard layer of icing on top. ICIP is developing diabetes just looking at it.

“This should be a perfect example of the contrast between a dry bitter beer and an intensely sweet dessert,” says Annabel. “When we go out for a meal, especially to Italian restaurants, you get very sweet desserts, like tiramisu, and invariably you have coffee to go with it. The bitterness of an intense espresso balances out the sweetness of the sugary dessert. We’re trying to demonstrate the same principle here.”

The smokiness and richness of the porter mingled with the icing as it began to warm and melt in the mouth, bringing the sweetness down to an acceptable level. This match also benefited from the soft, crumbly texture of the cupcake, as some were struggling with the concept of matching a beverage to hard, brittle chunks of chocolate.

DSC_0040The next beer is a little bit special, and comes in a gorgeous wooden presentation box. “This is Shepherd Neame Generation Ale,” Annabel tells us. “Only 3,000 bottles of this beer were produced and it went through a 12-month aging process. It was brewed to commemorate five generations of Shepherd Neame as an independent family brewery, containing five classic malts and five hop varieties.” We can tell that what we’re swirling around our glass is a very special beer indeed. Coming at a 9%, the beer is brewed in the UK’s last remaining wooden mash tuns.

We get honey, dried fruit and nutty notes on the nose – and several people liken the aroma to Christmas cake. This carries through to the flavour, which has hints of molasses, cherries and other rich fruits. “It reminds me of my mum’s Christmas cake when she used to inject it with brandy,” agrees Annabel. “You get the warmth of the alcohol coming through.”

“The brewer wanted to match that dried fruit, so we’ve got Green and Black’s dark chocolate with Hazelnut & Currant.”

As we begin munching, the genius of this match soon becomes apparent. Despite the high ABV, the beer hasn’t too much of a lingering, alcoholic burn, and is quite soft in character. This gentle booziness mingles with the raisins, accentuating that Christmas cake or pudding association, but at the same time it really brings out the bitterness of the dark chocolate. We are in festive booze choccy heaven.

“Gosh, that’s made everyone go quiet!” Annabel laughs. Making the most of our momentary silence, she hits us with the bombshell that this amazing, limited edition, 9% beer in its beautiful presentation box, costs just £17.50. “I’m never going to be able to experience the most expensive bottle of wine in the world. I will never be able to afford a £20,000 bottle of wine. But I do know that in my lifetime I will be able to sample the best beers because it is so affordable,” Annabel says. ICIP already has their phone out and is trying to buy out the other 2,999 bottles.

DSC_0044 Our penultimate match throws us a bit of a curveball. It’s another strong and special beer, this time brewed by ICIP’s pals up in Southwold, Adnams. Solebay was first brewed in 2009 to celebrate 350 years of the historic brewery, and was inspired by strong Belgian styles. It comes in with a 10% ABV, and pours hazy and golden.

We get orange and ginger on the nose, and also some estery notes like banana and pear drops. There is a distinct sweetness to this beer, thanks of the addition of Demerara and Muscovado sugars. They also add a few sprigs of lavender, so there’s a floral note.

“There’s a lot going on in this beer,” says Annabel. “It’s sweet, because there’s a lot of residual sugar, and it has some citrus notes, so this was the first brewer to say they wanted to pair it with a white chocolate.”

We’re not sure about this. While ICIP has an entire cupboard dedicated to chocolate (really), we are big on the dark stuff, and haven’t really touched its pale cousin since we ate white choccy buttons as toddlers.

We were wrong. We were so wrong.

We are handed around Montezuma’s Peeling Amorous, which marries white chocolate with lemon and sour cherry. The bitter and sour fruits easily balance the very sweet and creamy chocolate.

“White chocolate has a higher fat content than milk and dark chocolate,” says Annabel. “But there is such a high carbonation in this beer that it cuts through the fattiness.” As well as taking the edge of the sweetness, stopping it from being too sickly, the citrus notes in the beer match the lemon in the chocolate. It is mind-blowingly good, and a complete surprise.

DSC_0048Just when we thought our day couldn’t get any better, someone puts a bottle of Liefmans Kriek in front of us. Now we’re just being spoiled.

“If any beer could demonstrate how versatile beer can be, this is the one,” says Annabel. Some of the tasters in the room are about to get acquainted with their first lambic. “It is fermented using wild yeast which gives it a slightly sour flavour. They use whole cherries – the stalks, the stones, the skins and the flesh. So you might get a slightly marzipan flavour which comes from the cherry stones – sweetness balanced with the sourness.”

Chocolate and cherry can’t fail. We know that already. But Dea Latis has pulled the rug out from under our feet by passing around some Thornton’s dark chocolate… with chilli.

The addition of the chilli is certainly subtle. At first, several ladies on our table think they’ve been given the wrong chocolate. But it’s a few seconds after you’ve eaten it that you get a gentle heat at the back of your throat.

“If you think about about, a lot of people put dark chocolate in meat chillies to take the edge off the heat and add a richness of flavour,” says Annabel. “We already know this flavour combination of the cherry and chocolate never fails – like Black Forest gâteau on the tongue. Let’s mix it up a bit with the addition of the chillies.”

This is a beautiful match. It turns into cherry truffle in your mouth, with a gentle heat lingering on your tongue. The tingle of the chilli plays off the sour fizz of the lambic and brings your palate alive.

Once our hosts have finally prized the beer and chocolate from our vice-like grip, we take a vote on our favourite match. The Liefmans Kriek and dark chilli chocolate is the runaway winner, although apparently the Adnams Solebay and white chocolate surprise entry comes a close second.

Having spent a whole afternoon being plied with deliciousness in some pretty inspiring company, we’re feeling hugely positive about women’s ever-growing role in the beer world.

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Jane Peyton

“There is a way to convert women to drinking beer, and it is for other women to talk to them about it,” says Jane Peyton, beer sommelier and beer writer. “Let them know that it’s a drink for everyone, and give them a really flavoursome beer – not that pale, insipid, blank, watery thing that the industry seems to think women want. It’s the complete opposite. It’s about giving them permission to try it – I know that sounds patronising, but it’s true.”

“What we find is that although brewers are waking up to the fact that a lot of women are drinking beer, and are doing their own women-oriented marketing, as an overall generic campaign we act as an adjunct to that – we want to add to it, not replace it,” says Ros.

“Out of all alcoholic drinks beer is the most female, ironically, even though it is marketed at men,” adds Jane. “Women invented beer. Yeast is female. The female part of the hop plant is used in brewing. Historically women were the brewers. All the deities of beer are female… so it is actually a drink for everybody.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

Thanks to Dea Latis for some of the photos used above.

Want more? Check out our interviews with Annabel Smith and Jane Peyton, as well as our coverage of the most recent Dea Latis breakfast.

_0003950– PS

I luv brew

Roses are cliched
This rubbish must stop
We’d rather a bottle
Of malt, yeast and hop

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am probably the single least romantic person in the world. Sentiment simply isn’t my style. Even on my wedding day, while Mr Pip sobbed his way through our vows I was quietly daydreaming about the forthcoming rump cap steak and triple-cooked chips we were having for lunch. That’s just the way I roll.

So I am not a born romantic, but it’s more than that. I am also deeply irritated by stock “romance”, and Valentine’s Day has become one big feminist hell for me. It perpetuates tired gender stereotypes, the standard fare of chocolates, red roses, dinner reservations and champagne now perpetuating the myth of the useless, disorganised man and demanding, hysterical woman.

Last year, Mr Pip was berated by his colleagues at work when they found out he hadn’t got me flowers for Valentine’s Day. But I would see nothing to celebrate in his blindly following the pack of other dead-eyed partners as they all ran to Marks and Spencers on their lunchbreak in the hope of still being able to find some roses at the last minute.

I have often joked in the past that the most romantic gift Mr Pip has ever bought me was a printer. While this is representative of our distinctly unslushy relationship, there is some context here – I was in the middle of writing my Master’s thesis, already in emotional breakdown territory and was finally tipped over the edge when my geriatric printer packed in. He disappeared into town and turned up on my doorstep with new printer in tow. Forget your swashbuckling Byronic moustache-twirler; this was my hero right here, and he was packing Hewlett Packard.

This, I feel, is the crux of the matter. Romance should not be a pre-conceived formula of flowers + heart-shaped chocolates x bottle of Cava. By definition, romance is pimping out that special connection you have with your beau, showing your appreciation by doing something that shows how well you know them.

So what if you don’t like flowers? What if you’re not that fussed about champagne? What if, like any sensible person, you love nothing more than a delicious beer? Wouldn’t it mean so much more if your partner broke with tradition and gave you something a little more thoughtful?

With this in mind, we asked a few of ICIP’s beery friends what brews they would love to receive as an unconventional Valentine’s Day gift.

AnnabelSmith“I’d like a bottle of Liefman’s Kriek – with a champagne cork – to go with all the lovely chocolate I would undoubtedly receive at the same time! Oh, and a branded Liefman’s glass to pour it into.” – Annabel Smith, Beer Sommelier and Cask Marque Training Manager

Jane-Peyton“I would happily accept the entire range from Ilkley Brewery and Brewster’s Brewing Company for Valentine’s Day!” – Jane Peyton, Beer Sommelier and Principal of School of Booze


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“It would probably be something along the lines of one of the beer maps from Popchartlab as they are all really cool and it’s easy to forget that there is a big wide world of beer out there. Not really beer but that is one thing I am not short of!” – Nigel Owen, landlord of the best pub in London, The Queen’s Head

Lisa_stairs2_cropped“I’d choose Marston’s Old Empire, a beautiful India Pale Ale recreated from original recipes from the 19th Century and at “proper” IPA strength at 5.7% ABV- and brewed long before the big hoppy IPAs started to come over from the USA. I’d also be very happy with a lovely bottle of Duvel. I first tasted it properly on a Beer Academy course on beer and food matching and have loved it ever since but at 8.5% ABV it’s not to be abused!” – Lisa Harlow, Beer PR Guru

DSC_0079“I think top of my list would be a mix of new and current British IPA style beers including Great Heck, Magic Rock, Ilkley, Weird Beard, Kirkstall, Thornbridge, Bristol Beer Factory… to name but a few! Far better and more fun that some flowers or chocolate. Could be dark or blonde but preferably a black IPA as I think this is a fabulous new beer category.” – Belinda Jennings, Master Brewer at Adnams

Cantillon Lou Pepe ♥” – @RowanMolyneux, fellow beer blogger http://rowanmolyneux.blogspot.co.uk/

HALCYON” – @femtobrewster, fellow beer blogger and award-winning home brewer http://cremasbeerodyssey.blogspot.co.uk/

And what about ICIP ourselves? Well, I’m glad you asked.

DSC_0068Ideally, Pip would like a trolley dash around Utobeer in Borough Market. Failing that, she would accept a crate of Kill Your Darlings by Thornbridge, the full range by Norwegian brewers Nøgne ø, something by Brew By Numbers and a pint of Arbor Ales’ Tasmanian Devil.

1526288_10100208695092394_1176024700_nD would like a delicious half of Siren’s Inflatable Cowboy Hat double IPA; a bottle of Beavertown’s Halloween brew, Stingy Jack; a Rodenbach Grand Cru; a super hoppy black IPA; a pint of Adnams‘ Ghost Ship by the sea in Southwold; an alka seltzer and two ibuprofen.

What beer would you like to receive for Valentine’s Day? Let us know on Twitter @icipints #vdaybeers and on Facebook.

– PS

Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder

Inspired by Macmillan Cancer Support’s “Sober October” campaign, ICIP has decided to use this opportunity to investigate the world of low- and non-alcoholic beers. In part one, we learned how low-alcohol beers are produced and who is making them, and in part two we discussed why they are not more widely available and how they could be better promoted.

In the final part of the Sober October series we bite the bullet and test fourteen low-alcohol beers…

DSC_0090There was a disastrous point at the beginning of this year when one half of ICIP decided to give up alcohol for Dry January, and then again for Lent, without realising there were just 13 days between the two.

What happened during those 13 days (and, if we’re honest, the last two weeks of Lent) is lost to the mists of alcohol-clouded time, but the whole experience swore one of your correspondents off abstemious months – and Becks Blue – for life.

But sometimes you’ve got to tackle your worst fears head on. Inspired by our Sober October features on low alcohol brews, ICIP decided to do one, definitive, world-encompassing taste test. We decided (bravely) to venture beyond Becks and low-alch Cobra. Apparently non-alcoholic beer is a big thing in the rest of Europe. We dreamt we might discover the beer-guzzling, hangover-suffering journalist’s Holy Grail: a non-alcoholic beer that smelt and tasted delicious; that we could chill and swig with pride at home or in the pub when we felt a bit fragile, a bit virtuous, or both.  

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Last weekend, windows shut tight against an October flash flood; our best chill-out playlist on; GTA V turned off so that we could concentrate; ICIP took the final step in our Sober October trilogy. We set out fourteen (FOURTEEN) of the most hotly-tipped low-alcohol and alcohol free beers money could buy, and we drank our way through all fourteen (FOURTEEN!!!!) of them.

Well, drank. Some we drank. Some were so ghastly we had to upend them into a nearby bucket. At low points during the tasting (of which there were many) we tried to contrive ways to make one another drink the contents of the bucket. Sometimes it was better than what was in the bottles.

Below is a full catalogue of our disappointment, but to sum up some of our major gripes:

  1. It is not OK to compensate for the lack of taste in your non-alch beer by making it undrinkably sweet. If we wanted something that tasted of melted chemicals and candy we’d get a Coke and have done with it.
  2. Beers that delivered on smell fell down peculiarly on taste. Perhaps because there’s no way to deliver the hoppy-taste-payload without alcohol?
  3. WHY DOES IT ALL SMELL LIKE SHREDDIES?

An honest look at our extensive research revealed that our estimation of the drink went up as the ABV went up. While not a surprise to anyone who knows us well, we were a little disappointed. It made us existential – and not in the cool, drunk way, because we were stone cold sober and extremely over-hydrated. Is our proclaimed love of hops, malt and toast really all a vehicle for sneaking alcohol into our drinks? Most of these drinks would collapse in front of a robust glass of Sprite, and at £2-4 a bottle, are non- and low-alch beers really worth splashing out? Let us know what you think.

Without further ado, and in ascending order:

DSC_0129Cheers Cerveja Preta
Portuguese
0.5%

Oh, Cheers Preta. You delivered so much with your sweet toffee colouring. One look at the label and BAM! Disqualified for using artificial colouring. This Preta was undrinkable-y sweet, which made the peculiarly bitter aftertaste even worse.

1/10

DSC_0115Veltins Alkohelfrei
German lager
0.5%

“A German lager! Germans make great lager! What could possibly go wrong?” we chortled confidently before cracking open a bottle filled of fizzy, tasteless water that still managed to smell like off-milk. NEXT.

1/10

DSC_0119Cheers Cerveja
Portuguese
0.5 %

After all that fizzy water you’d think we’d be grateful for another dose of Cheers’ appallingly sweet, scentless offering. In a different bottle. And a different colour. You’d be wrong.

1/10

DSC_0128Bavaria
Netherlands lager
0.0%

I suspect Bavaria – which is actually one of the more widely available non-alch beers – was responsible for impregnating my nose with the overpowering Shreddies-smell that pervaded the rest of the tasting. As this was better than sour milk, we were almost motivated to forgive Bavaria its overpowering, honeyed sweetness. Then we remembered we had about six litres of fizzy water left to go and got pissed off.

1/10

DSC_0134Holsten
German
0.0%

I suppose one benefit of tasting fourteen (FOURTEEN!!!) non-alcoholic beers in one afternoon is that your notes maintain the acidic, witty clarity they tend to lose after, say, fourteen halves of milk stout. Thus I can confidently say that this beer, which tasted of fizzy water and mineral, “looks like piss.”

1/10

DSC_0135Krombacher
German
0.5%

We fondly observed that this sour-nosed German offering tasted “like Coke”, which lack of sarcasm goes to show how early on it came in the onslaught of artificial sweetening.

1/10

DSC_0113Jever Fun
German lager
0.5%

“Fun?” we screamed. “Whose idea of fun is this?” Actually, to be fair, this reasonably robust lager – despite being astringent-ly bitter and ending in a big chalky, minerally collapse – did enough to lift the tasting from the 1/10 mark.

2/10

DSC_0121Sagres Zero
Spanish
0.3%

Like the ghost of beers you once loved, Sagres caramel-ed its way in sneakily with no discernable nose and no bitterness to pay-off the extreme sweetness.

2/10

DSC_0094Superbock “Preta”
Portuguese
0.5%

Once we’d overcome the violent flashbacks this Superbock brought on by calling itself “Preta” (see the first beer reviewed) and smelling like goddamn Shreddies, we almost enjoyed the malty sweetness of this Portuguese beer. “Almost like Becks Blue,” a phrase we used to use as an insult, is actually the kindest thing we’d written about a beer so far.

5/10

DSC_0122Bitburger Drive
German lager
0.05%

Bitburger nailing it down here by naming their beer after one of the few reasons you’d put yourself through drinking it. That said, a sour nose here gave way to some cake and vanilla notes, and an almost toasted flavour with a bitter aftertaste, which was the most exciting thing to have happened to our tastebuds in nearly an hour.

5/10

DSC_0116Superbock
Portuguese Pilsner
0.5%

Another reasonable offer from Superbock, which poured with a promisingly generous head and smelt of beer and NOT SHREDDIES. Pleasantly fizzy, with some citrus and floral notes, this beer let itself down by allegedly tasting of washing up liquid.

6/10

DSC_0137Brewdog “Nanny State”
Imperial Mild
0.5%

Hops! How we wept when we uncorked this beer. In fact, I got so excited writing this I initially typed “Hopes!”, which sort of sums up how we felt after a good, long whiff of the classic Brewdog smell.

But the danger of delivering so much on the nose is that you have to bring the party to the mouth, which this beer – much as we wanted it to – just didn’t.

 6/10

DSC_0096Clausthaler Classic
German lager pilsner
0.5%

Our favourite of the genuinely non-alcoholic beers, this beer promised little (no nose) but delivered much. The observation that it tasted of rosewater should probably be put down to the after-effects of one of ICIP’s recent trip to Morocco and her steady consumption, while there, of all the sweets.

7/10

DSC_0136Brewdog “How to Disappear Completely
“Fake fix double IPA”
2.8%

At 2.8%, How to Disappear Completely just scraped into what we considered to be low-alch beer. Brewdog’s very delicious Dead Pony Club, a lovely session ale, clocks in at just one per cent higher. And while we loved the hops – Centennial and Columbus – that bounded out of this beer, all citrus-y and toast-y, it – like Nanny State – didn’t really deliver on flavour. Which left us wondering where it really fits between Dead Pony Club (delicious) and water (free at a pub near you). Although, taste-wise, it did disappear completely. Chuckle.

8/10

DSC_0139Mikkeller “Drink’in the sun”
American style wheat
1.4%

Our favourite low-alch beer was also the last one we tried, which on this occasion you can’t put down to drunken exuberance (sadly). Fruity hops on the note and an authentic sweetness that wasn’t as artificial as some of the other beers we’d tried – this beer nudged it over H2D because it was an unexpected contender, and it managed to keep the ABV down.

And we were so thankful it was all over.

8/10

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DSC_0106– ED

Swotting up at the School of Booze

To celebrate the release of her two new books, Beer Sommelier Jane Peyton has collaborated with Brewsters Brewery to produce a special green-hopped beer. ICIP got their hands on the books and went along to the launch party to find out more.

DSC_0032Jane Peyton is a bit of an hero of ICIP’s. She’s one of just eight female Beer Sommeliers in the UK and has founded two alcohol-related events companies – School of Booze and Operalicious. She is also an author, after-dinner speaker, tasting tutor and occasional Fuller’s brewery tour guide. Summed up – she is our kind of lady. So we were very excited to find out she had not one but two books coming out this October.

DSC_0029Beer O’Clock: Craft, Cask and Culture (Summersdale, 2013) is a true celebration of beer, and an excellent addition to any beer drinker’s bookshelf. Jane’s passion is evident from the outset, describing beer as a “priceless gift to humanity, begetter of happiness, sociability and companionship”. She believes that beer, more than any other drink, brings people together, acting as an international language.

Her historical section on “beer’s early years” is fascinating, reporting that beer may have been produced as early as 7000BC. This section pays particular attention to the role of women throughout beer’s history, from early brewers to the female gods of beer such as Ninkasi (Sumerian), Ceres (Roman) and Mamasara (Peruvian).

Jane breaks down the brewing process into a summary easily understood by newcomers to beer. She takes time to explain the importance of each of the key ingredients – water, malt, hops and yeast – and also discusses the best way to taste beer to get the full benefit of aroma and flavour. One of our favourite chapters focuses on the health benefits of beer. High in antioxidants, B-vitamins, potassium and silicon, and offering protection from breast cancer, heart disease, gallstones and Parkinson’s, beer now seems an even more alluring option (in moderation!).

But the crowning glory of the book, as far as ICIP is concerned, is the whopping sixty pages dedicated to beer styles. This explains the characteristics of nearly seventy different beers, from Abbey to Witbier, and everything in between, also giving you examples of brands to try, recommended serving temperature, glassware and ideas for food matching. This section is so comprehensive that we wish we could carry it around with us everywhere (and given the neat design of the book, at a weeny 18x14cm, we probably could). It really is a beer-lover’s bible.

Jane’s second new book, School of Booze: An Insider’s Guide to Libations, Tipples and Brews (Summersdale, 2013) expands on some of the areas touched on in Beer O’Clock, but extends the scope to cover all alcoholic beverages. She traces the history of alcohol through Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, tells us why we get hangovers, where we get cork from, and explains the process behind everything you’d find behind a bar, from absinthe to wine. It is a dizzying trip, packed with enough trivia to make you popular down your local for a long time to come.

DSC_0026Beer O’Clock is dedicated to Sara Barton, founder of Brewster’s Brewery in Lincolnshire, and Jane and Sara collaborated to make an eponymous green-hopped beer for the launch party. For the uninitiated, when a beer is green-hopped fresh hops are used instead of the traditional dried ones (or pellets). This means that there is more oil left in the hops and more of their flavour is evident in the final product.

The beer obviously went down a storm in The Mad Bear and Bishop, the Fuller’s pub in Paddington station where the launch party was held. A whole firkin was sunk during the lunchtime session and ICIP was lucky to grab two halves before the pumps ran dry once again in the evening. The pub was heaving with beer fans – interestingly, predominantly female – snapping up signed copies of Jane’s new books while supping pints.

Beer O’Clock (4% ABV) is a golden ale, single-hopped with First Gold and made with three different malts. It has a sharp, citrus aroma, a hoppy hit balanced with a good level of bitterness. The result was a light, session ale with a pleasing astringent mouthfeel and decent body. ICIP overheard other drinkers getting marmalade on the nose – very appropriate for Paddington station!

For anyone wishing to try Beer O’Clock, The Rake in Borough Market will have some in on October 23rd – be quick, it is very exclusive and this will be your last chance.

– PS

Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part two)

Inspired by Macmillan Cancer Support’s “Sober October” campaign, ICIP has decided to use this opportunity to investigate the world of low- and non-alcoholic beers. If you missed part one, catch it here

In part two we look at the demand for these products and ask why they are not being better promoted in today’s health-conscious society.

afshopDuring ICIP’s research, we stumble across The Alcohol-Free Shop, a company based in Manchester selling non-alcoholic beers and wines. Their range is impressive… and international. There are beers from Germany, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and the Czech Republic. They’ve obviously found a bit of a niche market that isn’t being adequately supplied by the likes of Sainsbury’s and Tesco. We asked co-founder Christine Risby where the idea sprang from. “My husband [co-founder John Risby] is a recovering alcoholic. He had stopped drinking for about two years when he was fed up with being offered nothing but cola, lemonade or orange juice. He wanted to enjoy wine with his meals and enjoy a beer without returning to his old ways. We discovered that there were many alcohol-free wines and beers available across Europe but little available in the UK.”

Christine says that interest in alcohol-free options has definitely increased in recent years – and business is obviously doing well, as they were able to open a showroom to accompany the online shop last year. “People are more aware of the dangers of alcohol and more health conscious. A lot of people choose alcohol-free beers based on brand awareness but once they realise there are so many brands that they don’t know, they start experimenting more. Also, people come back from holidays abroad having enjoyed alcohol-free beers that are available in many bars in Germany, France, Holland and Spain and seek them out when they get home.”

ICIP is stunned by the range available at The Alcohol-Free Shop. We hadn’t even considered the possibility that you could make an alcohol-free stout or dark ale like Super Bock or Bernard Free. Does Christine think that supermarkets should be trying harder to offer consumers a bigger range? “People who go to supermarkets aren’t looking for alcohol-free beer,” she points out. ”On occasion they may buy a six pack for a guest who is driving. But every product has to earn its shelf space. If a product doesn’t move quickly, they are likely to drop it. Some supermarkets have tried selling a wider range of alcohol-free beers but have gone back to just one or two brand names. The difference about us is that the people who come to us are looking for alcohol-free drinks whereas most people who visit supermarkets are not.”

We tried to get some information from supermarkets about the demand for alcohol-free options, but had no response from Tesco or Asda. Sainsburys told us they couldn’t give us any figures but offered a statement: “Our 2020 commitment is to double the sales of lighter alcohol wines and reduce the average alcohol content in our own brand beers and wines.  We are certainly seeing a demand from our customers for lighter styles of wine and lower alcohol drinks so we will continue to use our buying and winemaking expertise to ensure we have beers and wines available that do not compromise on taste or quality.”

aconcern

It could be that we have a bit of a chicken and egg situation whereby demand is not going to increase substantially until a wider range of better quality products are available, but brewers are unlikely to experiment with quality low-alcohol beers if they don’t think they’ll sell. “Anyone who’s tried to buy low-alcohol beer in a pub in Britain will find that often there is only one brand available, it’s not necessarily the one you want,” says Alcohol Concern’s Andrew Misell. “I’ve occasionally wondered what an alcohol-free ale or stout tastes like, because if I want to drink alcohol-free beers I can only find alcohol-free lagers in my local pubs and supermarket. It’s a lot more normal on the continent to buy alcohol-free beer in a pub.”

“In Norway it’s mandatory for all places who sell alcohol to also offer a non-alcoholic beer/wine,” says Terje, 30, when we hit Reddit for some international input. “There’s a zero-tolerance for driving under the influence so it’s expected both by the state and fellow citizens that you stick to non-alcoholic beverages.” Hugh, 37, tells us there is a similar attitude in New Zealand: “The culture of peer pressure around alcohol is slowly changing. There’s a legal requirement for any on-premise licensed venue to carry something under 1%”. Surely this would be an strong first step – requiring all pubs to stock a low-alcohol option?

“Most pubs would say they do offer alcohol-free alternatives because they sell soft drinks such as orange juice and cola but that doesn’t really satisfy people who want a nice beer or glass of wine,” laments Christine. “Also most of their customers want alcohol and they don’t want to take up shelf space with a range of alcohol-free beers. I think pubs need to change their attitude. There’s not enough choice in pubs and staff too often make customers asking for alcohol-free beer feel embarrassed and unwelcome.”

“It’s not something we would say should be mandatory,” Andrew adds. “But for a number of years it has been compulsory under Home Office rules for pubs to provide water and I think that has made a difference. It always used to be a bit embarrassing to go to the bar and say “can I have a pint of water please, but now it is a lot easier.” It’s a start, at least. Now that the craft beer scene has really taken hold of the UK, higher-ABV beers are becoming more popular, and sometimes you need to take a break as a drinker to prevent your evening spiraling into oblivion. ICIP knows it has been grateful for being offered an Erdinger Alkoholfrei somewhere in the murky depths between a 7%+ offering from The Kernel and something evil by Flying Dog before now.

We have also considered the labelling of alcohol. A lot of fuss has been made in the past about including the number of units on alcohol packaging, and in June 2013 it was announced that the government is to roll out a standardised labeling system for food products. But nutritional information on booze is hard to find. “The legal position is that there is an exemption for beers, wines and spirits across the European Union. That is the result of lobbying by the big wine-producing countries who for whatever reason didn’t want that kind of labeling,” says Andrew.

It seems strange, at a time when we’re constantly being reminded that two thirds of the population in the UK is overweight or obese, that we’re not being given the information we need to make informed choices about the liquid calories we consume. “We’ve suggested in the past it should be considered. Consumers don’t understand a great deal about the number of calories in alcohol,” Andrew tells us. “Some drinkers graduate towards white spirits like vodka – they have a lower calorie count because they don’t have the sugars and carbohydrate you get in beer, but you get a much higher alcohol content.” He warns of the potential dangers of this: “People keen to lose weight might be drawn towards spirits, and obviously drinking spirits means you take on a number of units of alcohol quite quickly.” So there’s a risk that if labeling is not supported by the education of drinkers, it could actually lead people to be less responsible about their alcohol consumption – knocking back a few measures of 40% spirits instead of taking their time over a 4% pint.

deptofhealthWe tried to ask the Ministry of Health about their views, but the reply was predictably standard: “the Department agrees that alcohol is a major public health issue, and that a comprehensive strategy that covers information, prevention and treatment is essential in tackling it.” They had copy-pasted a swathe of blurb about all the money they have ring-fenced to fund “alcohol services” and “misuse prevention and treatment” but they were very vague about what any of this would entail.

So what’s the future of low-alcohol beer? Brewdog seem keen to continue experimenting: “We’re all about breaking boundaries and trying new things, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw us experimenting with some interesting takes on low ABVs for other styles in the future,” says brewer Charlotte Cook. Nøgne Ø seem determined to continue working on their low-alcohol stout, and lower percentage session ales are becoming more popular. Ultimately Christine believes that the best way to make progress is to continue to strive for quality: “It’s much better to show pubs that if they served decent alcohol-free beer then people would drink it.”

In the final installment of our Sober October series we will be taste-testing a selection of low- and non-alcoholic beers. 

– PS

Low alcohol beers – high and dry? (part one)

Assonance-loving charity Macmillan Cancer Support has proclaimed the tenth month of the year as “Sober October”, with fundraisers asking for sponsorship for a full 31 days of abstinence. ICIP has decided to use this opportunity to investigate the world of low- and non-alcoholic beers.

In part one we look at the lack of choice available at present and ask why these beers have such a bad reputation.

What first comes to mind when you think of an alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer? For ICIP it’s a sad, battered 4-pack of Cobra Zero on the supermarket shelf, those horrid little glass bottles of weak French lager our mum let us have when we were 14, or a disappointingly unrefreshing can of Bass Shandy. We’ll probably just have a coke, thanks.

“The biggest problem I have with alcohol-free beers is that they are so infrequently bought that even when you find a pack at the store it tends to be old, dusty and sometimes skunky.” – Dan, 30, USA

In an era where we are constantly being bombarded with healthy-living messages by the government, health professionals and the media, you’d think that guilt-free booze would be a hot little potato right now. Yet a quick peruse of the shelves in your local Sainsbury’s or Tesco will probably bring up the same few brands – Becks Blue, the aforementioned Cobra Zero, maybe Bavaria. There don’t seem to be many options readily available, and what there is seems pretty substandard. These products have a pretty poor reputation, and given the choice, most people would probably pick a soft drink.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is that low-alcohol beers just don’t pack a punch in the taste department. Let’s face it – most of them taste like fizzy water and bear little resemblance to their boozy cousins. So why is this? What is it about alcohol that makes beer taste so good?

“When you drink a beer that has alcohol in it, as soon as it hits your mouth it starts warming up,” explains Annabel Smith, Beer Sommelier and friend of ICIP. “Alcohol is volatile, and when it’s in your mouth some of it comes out of the beer solution. This will give rise to ester and fruity flavours, and maybe a bit of diacetyl, which smells and tastes a bit like butterscotch. When no alcohol (or very little alcohol) is present, you just don’t get these flavour sensations that we associate with ‘proper beer’. This may lead to some opinions that these beers are bland and tasteless.”

“I’d rather have just one or two normal strength beers than non-alcoholic, as they’re rarely good.  They’re pretty much like Christian rock music – I’ve nothing against it as a concept, but the end product is usually horrifyingly bad” – Jouni, 32, Finland

So maybe we can retrain our palates to appreciate lower-alcohol beers over time. After all, low-alcohol beers start off in exactly the same way as “real” beer.  “The beer is brewed in the normal way, and then the alcohol is removed by either distillation, freezing, or osmosis,” says Annabel. “Each method will affect the flavour in a different way. Osmosis is perhaps the best method of preserving the flavour of the original beer – but it’s also the most expensive method.”

The only craft brewery we can find making a well-publicised non-alcoholic beer is Scotland’s Brewdog. At 0.5% their Nanny State, an imperial mild, has been designed to shake up the trend for tasteless alcohol-free booze. “We use Pale Ale malt in Nanny State for the majority of the sugars, and then we bump up the malt bill with specialty malts like Rye, Crystal and Caramalt,” says Brewdog brewer Charlotte Cook. “These add flavour, colour and mouthfeel without increasing the Original Gravity of our wort too much. We also hop it to hell and back, which is pretty uncommon with low ABV beers!”

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It’s interesting that of all the big-name breweries it is Brewdog who are making a low-alcohol beer. The Scottish brewer has repeatedly hit the headlines for their uber-strong brews, including Tokyo* (18.2%), Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) and Sink the Bismark (41%). Although most of these are intended to be drunk in spirit measures and are seen as a new way to enjoy beer, the brewery certainly attracted a lot of negative press for these concoctions (a motion was even brought in the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to ban Tokyo*). So is this the only reason that Brewdog felt the need to make Nanny State – as yet another middle finger to the man?

“Initially, this was something that influenced brewing Nanny State, which is an extreme of low alcoholic beers,” admits Sarah Warman, Brewdog’s  Digital Marketing Manager. “We were proving a point and standing our ground, showing that flavour and complexity don’t have to be compromised by ABV, and that even a low ABV beer would be consumed in an appropriate fashion.” Charlotte defends the decision, pointing out the brewery is not just about high-percentage headline-stealers: “BrewDog really excels at brewing comparatively low ABV beers. Dead Pony Club (3.8%) and How to Disappear Completely (2.8%) are both great examples of this.”

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Nanny State has been phenomenally popular for a low-alcohol beer, both at home and abroad. “It has a massive audience considering its low ABV! It flies out of our online shop and bars when we have it in stock, and our international markets, particularly those in Scandinavia, really dig it,” says Sarah .”Because it offers a low ABV without scrimping on flavour and bitterness, it’s ideal if you want to stick with something relatively sober whilst enjoying a proper, flavoursome beer.”

“I think most non alcoholic beers taste so awful, so that I am reminded for every sip, that I am not drinking proper beer!” – Kjetil Jikiun, Nøgne Ø co-founder

Given Brewdog’s enthusiasm, ICIP is surprised that more breweries are not jumping on the bandwagon. Isn’t it a bit of an untapped market? “It’s not the easiest process to make a low ABV beer,” says Charlotte. “With such little alcohol flavour, you really have to work to balance the beer out well. There is still a negative image around it – to a lot of people, you’re not seen as fun if you’re not drinking, which is an unhealthy and unproductive attitude which needs to change. If people knew they could still have a great beer, and not get drunk, or take a break from higher ABV beers, then their popularity might increase.”

ImageA bit of speedy Googling reveals that low-alcohol beers are much more common in Europe. In Germany especially, most of the main breweries, such as Erdinger and Bitburger, offer an alcohol-free version. There also seems to be plenty of experimentation – for example, Danish brewer Mikkeller has produced a 1.9% hefeweizen, Drink’in the Sun, and Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø has been working on a non alcoholic ‘Inferial Stout’: “Inferial Stout is one of few unfiltered non-alcoholic beers (if not the only one) to go through a normal primary and secondary fermentation,” says co-founder of Nøgne Ø, Kjetil Jikiun. “We have made it once, as a prototype, but need to wait until we have a pasteurizer before we can regularly make and sell this product with an acceptable shelf life.”

So if the likes of Brewdog, Mikkeller and Nøgne Ø – all well-respected brewers – believe that it is possible to deliver on flavour despite the lack of alcohol, maybe it’s attitudes that need changing. What can we do to remove the stigma of drinking low-alcohol brews and stimulate demand? We’ll be looking into this in part two.

– PS

Two women, one blog, many beers.

One summer evening, over a pile of empty bottles, and the dregs of IPAs and porters and wheat beers, we decided: it was time us and beer got serious.

We were ready to commit.

But there were problems. Beer had to accept that we weren’t going to change.

Don’t get us wrong: beer and us have a great history. We remembered long Sunday drives with battered CAMRA guides in the glovebox; trying dad’s beer for the first time (and hating it); knocking back as many Kriek samples as we could on a school trip to Belgium. We put away pints of overpriced lager at festivals and crowdsurfed out of Placebo sets to pee; we got lime wedges stuck in Corona bottles in our university bars.

But then we graduated. We grew up, we moved to the Big Smoke, and we realised that we had to look after ourselves to get the most out of life. We embraced healthy living; we fell in love with sourcing unpronounceable ingredients for even more unpronounceable recipes, and with the buzz we got after a run or an isometric yoga session. But we didn’t want to say goodbye to beer. It was time beer worked for us. Beer had to fit into our new, grown up lives. Pint after pint of flavourless identi-lager – out of the question.

London’s craft beer renaissance could not have come at a better time.

We swapped hours quaffing weak ale for hours scrutinising beer menus. Beer became a world where drinking halves (or even thirds) was a smart strategy, not a killjoy. Supermarkets’ narrow slips of Wychwood ales gave way to shelves of own-brand single hop. You could grab a Punk IPA from Sainsbury’s Local. Beer became the focus of a whole new social scene – festivals and tap takeovers, pubs where the bar staff knew their stuff and wanted to share their passion, everyone trying each other’s drinks in the never-ending quest for something new, something exciting.

And we became beer evangelists. First to each other – trading labels in long wish lists – and then friends and family. The more evangelical we got, the more we noticed the harm done to lovely beer by decades of stereotype and assumption. Girls didn’t drink beer. The glasses were too masculine. It tasted weird. It made us fat.

We had a mission. We would wrestle the vodka-sodas; the white wine spritzers; the overpriced cocktails from the hands of our girl friends. We would tell them about beers so insanely hopped you felt like you were inhaling a field; so toasty you’d think you were drinking – well, toast; we would tell them about the caramel, the toffee, the cherries, the buttery biscuit, the spice and the smoke.

We’d tackle the sexism head on. Wanna fat-shame at your beer festival? Sure, but prepare to be shamed in return. Plan to use tired-old sexist cliché to sell your brew? Go for it – but we’ll expose you for selling out. We would cook with beer, analyse beer, run marathons with beer, do yoga with beer, and go on long walks for beer. We would prove that beer could be part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

And if, after all that, our girl friends were like: thanks, you raving alcoholic, but please restore to me my delicious piña colada, then that would be cool too, because feminism – and beer – is all about choice. But at least it would be a decision based on taste, not discrimination, or body anxiety, or worrying what a guy would think when you slammed down your empty pint glass and the dregs of your porter splattered on his trainers.

At least we would have tried. And we owed it to beer, and to all of the dynamic, creative, sistahs making it in an industry dominated by men. We owed to the notes of caramel and tobacco and biscuit that we’d discovered; we owed it to our mums and dads and those tiny sips of beer on childhood holidays. And, if all else failed, at least we would get to drink some cracking beers on our journey.

– ED/PS