Category Archives: Beer and culture

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!

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– PS

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


DSC_0011
“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