Thursday, 29 September 2016

Oktoberfest visitors are ripped off more than ever, says consumer group

The venerable Munich-based beer consumer group Verein gegen betrügerisches Einschenken e.V. (Association Against Fraudulent Bier-Pouring) has once again hit out at the scandal of short pours at the city’s famous Oktoberfest beer festival.

The litre of beer at the festival, at between EUR10.40 and EUR10.70, is already significantly more expensive than elsewhere in Munich, and costs nearly twice as much as a Maß in the countryside. Drinkers always complain about the extortionate price, of course, but you might think that for the money you’d at least get a full litre in your glass. Not a chance, for the Wiesn is also notorious for short measures.

For many years the VGBE has carried out its own “People’s Pour Check” (Volksschankkontrolle) at the Oktoberfest. This year 40 volunteers bought 67 beers in the 13 big festival tents. The results showed that drinkers were being robbed of an average of 15% of the beer they’d paid for, with the average “litre” containing just 850ml of beer. In 2013 the average Maß was “only” 10% short.

The worst offender was the “Schützenfestzelt” tent, where the average glass contained only 770ml – stealing EUR2.40 worth of beer from the customer.

The VGBE estimates that over the course of the festival the short measure amounts to over six million Euro worth of beer which drinkers never receive in their steins.

The group accused the city’s trading standards authorities of failing in their duty, as they claimsto carry out their own checks, but never publish the results.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

“Nobody asks for a chalice here”

Picture from the Facebook group “Wij willen dat de Stella-ribbeltjesglazen blijven”

Like many large, lumbering brewing corporations, ABInBev appears to care little for its own heritage, save for those parts of it currently deemed useful for marketing purposes.

The latest wheeze from InBev’s marketing department is to abolish the classic Belgian Stella Artois glass – a simple branded tumbler with fluting at the base. The Belgian media reports that the brewery will now only supply a plain boerkje tumbler and the notorious “chalice” as used for Stella in other countries.

Not that I drink much Stella, but this makes me a bit sad. The ribbeltje glass reminds me of a time when Belgian cafés were perhaps more down-to-earth than they are now. When I first visited Belgium a typical café would have only one draught beer, Stella (or Jupiler, Primus or Maes), with all the more interesting specialities in bottles.

It was also usually the cheapest. As is widely known, despite the brewer’s attempt to punt it in other countries as a “reassuringly expensive” premium beer, in Belgium Stella is the bog standard café beer, with a basic, proletarian glass to match. This, of course, is precisely why the marketers hate the glass so much. It’s not chic enough for their pretensions.

InBev has been trying to introduce the ridiculous blingy chalice in Belgium for a good few years, in the interest of a globally identical brand, but has met with resistance from consumers, who think it’s a load of bloody nonsense, and say so. A barman in Leuven is quoted as saying “Nobody asks for a chalice here. Maybe that is different abroad, but here Stella is an ordinary people’s drink and they like it in a ribbeltje or a boerke.”

Now, in a massive two fingers to Stella’s own home town, the chalice is going to be forced on them whether they want it or not.

Other marketers have poked fun at Stella’s pretension in the past

Friday, 5 August 2016

Keep the faith

Busy bar at Jason’s memorial night

We said goodbye to Jason Lyons last Thursday.

Jason, of the State Bar in Glasgow, passed away on Saturday 11 June after a sudden brain haemorrhage the day before. After the initial shock, the staff organised a memorial night last week. Rightfully, the pub was absolutely packed with regulars and friends raising a glass in Jason’s memory. It was not a sombre occasion, either: there was a live band, and punters could even get an imitation of Jason’s trademark mutton-chop sideburns painted on their faces.

Drinkers queue to get into the State
Jason was a natural publican. Even when the pub was busy – and it often was – Jason could find time to say hello. It was largely due to him that the State rose to be one of the top real ale pubs in the city, winning the local CAMRA branch’s Glasgow Pub of the Year award in three out of the past four years.

Jason got to know the regulars, found out the kind of beer they liked to drink, and heavily pushed the cask business, adding more handpumps and introducing new microbreweries to the pub. The State is now particularly renowned for selling the Oakham Ales favourite Green Devil, which has its own dedicated Glasgow legion of fans.

Oakham had sent staff up to Thursday’s charity night in Jason’s memory, and more local breweries were well represented too.

Next to real ale, Jason loved cycling and Northern Soul, and thus “keep the faith” became the pub’s unofficial motto, appearing on adverts and promotional items – like the pint glasses for this year’s Glasgow Real Ale Festival. Sadly, Jason never got to drink from one.

The Brewer & the Barman: The Making of Fyne State from Urbancroft Films on Vimeo.
Ever wondered how real ale is brewed? We take an in-depth look into the brewing process of Fyne State; a Fyne Ales and State Bar collaboration beer.

Just over a year ago Jason went up to Fyne Ales to help brew a special beer, and local videographer Urbancroft made a film about it. I am so glad this video was made, because it captures Jason at his best. I cannot begin to explain how much I and others will miss him.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Shilling the rubes

Glasgow has had a chequered past with regards to brewpubs. There’s a long list of failures through the 1980s and 90s – only the venerable Clockwork survives from those days – but in more recent years things seem to be looking up. Even West, which now appears to be doing very well, had a difficult patch early on when the beer was pretty poor. Even then I hoped they would get through it, because another failure might well have put anyone off the idea of trying it in Glasgow again.

Since then, of course, we have gained Drygate, which has just celebrated its second birthday, and it is already hard to imagine it not being there. Yet when I look at the number of breweries in Glasgow proper, now five, I think there is still room for more. An inspiring thought is that Portland, Oregon has the same population as Glasgow.

The latest addition to the scene is the new Shilling Brewing Co in West Regent St, which bills itself as the first brewpub in the city centre, which I suppose is technically true, with West and Drygate being in the East End and the Clockwork on the south side. The company behind Shilling, Glendola Leisure, is best known for bringing us the Oirish-themed “fun pub” Waxy O’Connor’s, so some beer aficionados were sceptical at first.

Now nobody would call Glendola cutting-edge innovators. What they are good at is identifying a trend and then building well-funded businesses around them, buying in expertise where they need to. And it seems to work: Waxy O’Connor’s is still going strong decades after the fad for Oirish pubs peaked, and Gordon St Coffee is, as far as I am aware, as well regarded as any of the independent coffee places. Companies such as this moving in is a sign of a maturing sector.

The new head brewer at Shilling is Declan McCaffrey, formerly of the Clockwork Brewing Co on the South Side. Declan has made a noticeable improvement in the Clockwork’s beer in the time he’s been there, but having seen the extremely cramped brewhouse, I understand the attraction of brewing on much shinier equipment in the city centre (José Luis Bravo is moving from Arran Brewery to replace Declan at the Clockwork). Former cocktail barman Chris Nicol joins Declan as second brewer.

Oddly enough, the Shilling is not brewing any beers called 80 shilling or similar. The first beers announced are relentlessly modern: Unicorn IPA, a pale ’n’ hoppy effort called The Steamie (in honour of Dorothy Paul, apparently), and Glasgow Red (rather than 80 bob or heavy). I have no objection to this but find it a little odd to then choose such an old-school name. Declan is also bringing his trademark nettle beer, made with locally foraged weeds from Queens Park.

The copper-clad brewery is right behind the bar. From there the beer will be pumped into fermentation tanks in the basement of the building, and when it is ready, back up to the serving tanks mounted high above the bar. Most of the beer is dispensed by gas, but is unfiltered and unpasteurised. Shilling is also going the extra distance by producing and serving some cask-conditioned ale.

I’m not passing any judgement on the beers yet, as they are likely to change: as the brewing kit was only installed in the last week in May, the bar is opening with beer brewed at Drygate (I get a certain feeling of deja vu here, as I remember Drygate themselves having to do exactly the same thing at opening). The red ale is pleasant enough, fudgy with a bitter edge to it; the IPA is deep gold, harshly bitter and watery, the blonde is straw-yellow, harshly bitter and watery. On the other hand, the nettle saison is a pungent, almost overpoweringly fruity 6.2% beast.

I am sure the beers will improve once the brewery is actually in operation – the first real Shilling beers were only brewed in the week after opening. They are already getting the other aspects right – the bar is elegantly designed, with thought obviously going into every detail from the stylish typography of the menus to the rather odd backlit beer taps that for some reason are designed to resemble a spirit safe.

The staff too are friendly, polite and chatty and actually seem to know something about the beer they are selling, which is sadly still something worth mentioning. Even the pricing is not extortionate for the city centre, though it is not really in competition with the bar across the street that offers Tennent’s for £2.

It seems the burger craze is finally receding and being replaced by a pizza craze, for as well as the brewing kit, Shilling also features a pizza oven churning out pizzas for the punters. In these food-led days, what seems remarkable is that there is no food other than the pizzas. The pizza is pretty good too. We shall need to wait and see how the beer shapes up.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Now this is a festival

For the first time in several years, I went to the Paisley Beer Festival on opening night yesterday as a punter rather than a volunteer, and had a great time.

A few festivals ago the Scottish brewing scene had grown to such an extent that the Scottish bar moved into the bigger hall, swapping places with the English bar. This year this system was also found too much of a constraint and the festival now sprawls over two halls downstairs and two large function rooms upstairs, to say nothing of the hundreds of people standing and sitting in the corridors.

When I started going to CAMRA festivals the beer quality was often variable. I’ve drunk, and served, more pints than I care to think about of terribly flat beer, that I would have handed straight back if I’d been served them in a pub.

Punters should be able to expect to get good beer at a CAMRA festival, run by the people who put themselves up as the guardians of real ale. If CAMRA sell them a flat, warm pint, they will leave thinking that real ale is supposed to be like that, and choose something else to drink instead.

Nowadays, I don’t know what has changed behind the scenes, but the beer seems to be in much better condition and nice and cool.

I don’t scoop much any more. Put some Harveys on the bar and I’m happy. The beer orderer seems to share my taste, with many English classics on the bars – Batham’s, Harvey’s, Sarah Hughes – alongside the new wave from Glasgow’s Up Front or Newcastle Yorkshire’s Brass Castle. I could quite happily have supped far beyond my capacity without even referring to the programme. Mind you, having draught Schlenkerla available tends to do that. In fact, Paisley was so good that, although there is much more to be said, I’m off for another session while it’s on, instead of sitting at home writing any more of this!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Hate to piss on your chips, but North Hop is just not worth the money

Having seen the ticket prices for North Hop, a one-day “craft beer, gin, cider festival“ currently beginning a series of events across Scotland, I was inclined at first not to bother with it. You can call me a cheapskate if you want, but I think being £20 out of pocket before you’ve had a single sip of beer is pretty poor value for money.

It’s even significantly more expensive than the highest-priced session at IndyMan, which itself got some stick for being pricey, but at least does offer the spectacular Manchester Victoria Baths as a venue. The Assembly Rooms, despite its expensive refurbishment, is more like a provincial concert hall. After the refurb, hire charges were hiked dramatically, so it’s probably not possible to match the £6 that CAMRA used to charge for a bigger festival in the same venue. I understand that – but three times as much?

Speaking of CAMRA, one of the bugbears at their festivals is often the need to get into the venue several days in advance, so that the cask beer can be delivered and allowed to settle. I am told this is not the case at North Hop, with brewers allowed in at 9am and expected to pour beer at noon. Several brewers, perhaps wisely under the circumstances, chose to bring only keg beer.

It’s a brave brewery that chooses a logo in hot pink, but that certainly makes the new Edinburgh Beer Factory stand out. Their pale lager, Paolozzi, didn’t impress me greatly when I had it in bottle a few months ago, but I’ve been waiting to give the draught version a chance. It’s got a pleasant straw-yellow colour and nice maltiness reminiscent of a nice Bavarian Helles, though not as rich and bready. Not a challenging beer – they tell me that’s not their aim either – and I mentally file it in the category “would happily drink in an airport, or if free”. That’s a little harsh, as it’s certainly better than the Peroni, Menabrea and so on that it’s setting out to compete with.

Right next door, there’s more lager from West, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Party Pilsner is a tweak on the earlier Feierabend, with Hallertauer Blanc hops and Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria used in the whirlpool. It’s tastier than Paolozzi, but also less clean, with a tad of butter and a slight peanut note that comes from God knows where. Scotland is still definitely lager land, with multiple vendors trying to fill the perceived niche for “craft” lager: hence why every Scottish brewery is craft now. Stewart Brewing also have a new lager, Franz, easier to drink than their earlier Pilsen. I like Franz best of the three.

Drygate have the annoying habit of recycling old beer names for new beers. I was extremely confused to see a limited edition Forelsket on sale, as this is the original name for the beer, part of their core cask range, which is now called Pale Duke. It turns out that it’s a new beer entirely. I hate the smell of dope, but I am rather fond of the American hops that give beer a so-called “dank” aroma which is said to be similar to dope. The new Forelsket is redolent of them. It smells like a tenement landing on West Princes Street on the Sunday morning after a house party.

Forelsket is the work of Drygate brewer Jake Griffin, who has now set up his own brand, Up Front. He’s on his own stand at the opposite end of the hall, having his first ever festival outing with his new beer, Ishmael IPA and Ahab stout. Not all the early customer feedback is positive: one punter asks how strong the beers are, and upon being told they are both 6 per cent, turns and walks away without a word. Jake is phlegmatic about this: “We don’t want to be for everyone,” he says, “we want to stand out from the crowd.”

Soon after I arrive for the afternoon session, some dreary rock band takes the stage and plays at such deafening volume that it’s impossible to order a beer, never mind chat to the exhibitors.

Not that many other brewers are represented: Fallen, currently darlings of pale-n-hoppy enthusiasts; Tempest, SixºNorth, Williams, Wooha, and Glasgow’s Drygate and West. I’d have expected to see Harviestoun and Innis & Gunn here, and the absence of Brewdog is unusual, given it’s the kind of PR-led event that’s a perfect match for their PR-led business. Stewart and Windswept are kind of hidden away in the corner. Wooha, by the looks of things are still bottling all their beers. The solitary cider vendor, as far I can see, is Thistly Cross. If you’d turned up hoping for a cider festival, you’d be out of luck and pretty angry, I imagine.

North Hop is nice enough as far as it goes. It’s not a new breed of luxury festivals, as you might surmise from the cost of admission (unless the bales of straw people are expected to sit on are made of gold, perhaps). It isn’t particularly luxurious, it isn’t particularly big, the beers on offer are not particularly rare. The beer I have is par for the course for a festival: some good, some not so good. Prices are acceptable for beer and I did have a very nice scotch egg, which was actually worth the £4 I spent on it.

However, looking at the ecstatic tweets by people who did have a good time and discovered new beers and foodstuffs, I can’t help thinking they must not get out very much. Perhaps that’s the niche of North Hop: bringing a slight tinge of hipsterification to the well-heeled but ignorant Herald-reading middle classes, without requiring them to actually visit the hipster parts of town.

But I just can’t get over the inflated ticket price, which seems unjustifiable when comparable festivals offer much the same for much less money. 

If style is what you’re after, you could certainly have a very nice afternoon drinking excellent beer in some of Edinburgh’s magnificent pubs just for what North Hop charges for admission. Which is what I recommend you do instead. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Two whales walk into a bar…

When I wrote about Chris Lewis’ long-awaited commercial beer a few weeks ago, I would have liked to mention another new project too, but it was still under wraps. Now it isn’t: the other half of the Zombier team, Jake Griffin, has now also launched his own beer.

Up Front Brewing is the name of the new project and the name is not an accident: eschewing the trend for crowdfunding, Jake is setting his stall out for organic growth and not being in debt to anyone.

I should mention that I have known Jake for five or six years now, so am not completely unbiased. He is an impressively energetic and driven man – not content with finishing his PhD while working as a brewer at Fyne Ales and then Drygate, he continued to homebrew, filling his Glasgow flat with demijohn after demijohn of experimental beers.

Up Front’s first two beers are an IPA called Ishmael and an American stout called Ahab – a literary reference which is over my head to be quite frank. Both were launched at Inn Deep in Glasgow last Thursday and at the North Hop festival in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Both are 6% and Jake has jumped feet first onto the can bandwagon. The artwork on the cans and font badges is by renowned artist Stanley Donwood, featuring stark black and white imagery.

The beer is brewed at Drygate, where Jake usually spends his days making their Gladeye IPA and Bearface Lager. I imagine choosing a brewery to produce Up Front’s beer must have been a fairly easy decision. If you can contract your brewing out to, well, yourself, why go elsewhere? Jake has a clear advantage over most “cuckoo” brewers in that he gets to work on a familiar kit, as it’s the same one he uses for his day job.

Ishmael is a modern IPA with all that that implies, bitter, pungently hoppy and on the murky side. It seems to have more sophisticated hopping than some, dank and fruity at the same time, yet for me is still missing the touch of magic that makes you want another. However, it’s certainly quite as good as plenty of other IPAs that people rave about, and I expect it will do just fine in the market.

Ahab is a more distinctive beer in its own right. If Jake hadn’t told me it was an American Stout I wouldn’t have categorised it as such; those roasty, dry-hopped things usually just make me think someone has dumped hops in my morning coffee. Ahab has big roastiness and cereal character. I think I can taste oats but forgot to ask whether it contains any. There is a nice thin dark chocolate note, similar but not quite the same as the dry cocoa of Zombier, and as you drink it a distinct black cherry flavour develops, finishing with cake and muesli and Black Forest gateau all at the same time. I might be on the floor after two pints of this but I’d remember it.

Monday, 1 February 2016

It was a dark and stormy night

I tell you, it’s getting harder to keep up with the beer scene in this city. On Friday I found myself braving the cold wind and rain – Storm Gertrude had just passed, apparently not causing as much damage as feared – to cram in three different beer launches.

Since summer Grunting Growler (whom I last mentioned here) has been in residence at Peckham’s off-licence shop in Hyndland. Boss Jehad Hatu has paused only slightly to pick up a “Beer Hero” award from the Scottish Bartenders’ Network in October. When I call in there is actually a queue waiting to have growlers filled.

Grunting Growler had its first very own beer for sale – a 4.1% fruity Berliner Weisse entitled “Popping My Cherry”. The beer was brewed with Jehad by Jonathan Hamilton of the Hanging Bat, who has since departed to join Beavertown in London.

It opens with fresh cherry ice-cream flavour and a nice slightly yoghurty, very slightly stomachy acidity. Not nearly sour enough to be a true Berliner but pleasant enough. If it hadn’t been good, though, the other beers on offer were a splendid mix: Camden unfiltered Hells (which still looked reasonably clear), Vocation Pride & Joy for those still obsessed with hops, Almasty milk stout, all of which I’d be happy to drink.

Chris Lewis of Dead End Brew Machine was
coaxed into saying a few words, mostly about
zombie films
On the other side of the university, west end design agency O Street (who are actually in Bank Street, not Otago Street as you might assume) were hosting one of their informal Beer Times events. This particular one was a bit special, as this evening revolved around the beer itself. Award-winning homebrewer Chris Lewis has finally been persuaded – after much coaxing from Hippo Beers boss Derek Hoy and O Street themselves – to launch his first commercial beer, under the name Dead End Brew Machine. It’s going to be a passion fruit IPA, brewed (like so many these days) at Drygate, and should be out by mid-March.

Drinkers who remember Chris as half of the team which created Zombier back in 2012 will already be drooling. Those who are lucky enough to have tasted Chris’s homebrews are even more excited. On the night some sample bottles of prototypes were going around. An IPA was tasty but didn’t stand out from the oceans of very similar beers already on the market. Chris’s house smoked porter, on the other hand, is sensationally good, rich, smooth and rather elegant.

Some very new brewers seem to have a rather high opinion of themselves, and the actual beer is often disappointing. Chris has the opposite problem, in that he is far too modest. Typically he will thrust a glass into your hand, slightly shamefacedly mumbling something like “I made this beer, I don’t know if it’s any good man, what do you think?” Then you taste the beer and it’s like nectar. This is quite endearing, but Dead End Brew Machine may need to adopt a more aggressive approach commercially.

Nearer the city centre, in the State Bar, which recently won the local CAMRA branch’s Glasgow Pub of the Year for the second year in a row, a Fyne Ales tap takeover saw the pub even busier than normal for a Friday night. The reason for the shindig is to launch ticket sales of the brewery’s summer festival, FyneFest (see here and here and here…) After a quiet first couple of years, FyneFest now sells out every year, so I’m not quite sure why the ticket sales still need promotion. Mind you, as one of the brewery staff tells me, when you work on a farm it’s nice to have a night out in the big city once in a while. And they have new beers to sell, so why not?

There are two spanking new beers here: Great Pacific Hop Patch, an oily, sweet IPA, presumably with New World hops as the name implies, with the slight heaviness common to most of Fyne’s stronger beers, and a lychee-fruity and bitter finish. Sunryse Boulevard, with rye and, I am told, Sorachi Ace hops, is lighter-bodied and easier drinking, with slight notes of coconut and cocoa, but these are subordinated to big, crisp, white-bread doorstep toastiness – I confess I have no idea where that comes from. But as usual, it’s the Jarl and Avalanche that the thirsty punters finish off first.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s only rock ’n’ roll but I like it

Head brewer Rich is driving a fork-lift when I arrive. Perhaps this is self-selection bias, but all the brewers I meet in New York are big Anglophiles. At Singlecut Brewsmiths in Astoria, Queens, they are big cask beer fans too, and make a lot of it. They opened in 2012 and have already expanded once. They also have outstanding graphic design and beers with weird names, and it’s the first brewery tap I have seen with a drumkit on a mezzanine level. A large collection of vinyl LPs is behind the bar. The dust and humidity in a working brewery can’t be all that good for them, I muse. But the brewery is music-themed: live music is a big part of the taproom’s draw, and all the tap handles are shaped like guitar necks.

The first beer I try is an English pale ale called Keith, after Keith Richards, I gather. Served on nitro, it’s made with East Kent Goldings, Styrians and Target and tastes very fresh and slightly citric.

It would be wrong to treat Singlecut as a tribute band, as it were. There’s a lot of experimentation here too. Shine on Summer Sour Lagrrr is a sour lager, amazingly enough, which has spent a whole year in a dedicated souring tank. A beer called Kim is a hibiscus sour lager, which is basically a Berliner Weisse grist fermented with a lager yeast and then moved to the souring tank. Why bother with the slow, time-intensive lager fermentation for beers like this, I ask. Just to mix it up a bit, is the reply, and to have a unique twist on things. The technique seems to produce a nice beer, fruity and malty at the same time, though this is oddly reminiscent of Froot Loops cereal. There’s some sour cherryade and yoghurt flavours in there too, a milky salty lassi of a beer.

One wall of the brewery is stacked with wooden casks. These are rum casks rather than the more common bourbon casks. It’s usually a stout that goes into these, but at the moment there’s a rum aged lager, sweetish with only a light rum character – it’s the 14th fill of the cask.

Heavy Boots of Lead, made with 2-row, crystal and Munich, is like a chocolate brownie in a glass. There’s no other way to describe it, that’s what it tastes like, a fantastic beer.

Possibly the finest beer I taste in New York is the super-fresh 19-33 lager. No funny business in this one, just a straight up superbly made pilsner. A hint of sulphur and soft but intense bitterness from Saaz and Hallertauer Blanc hops. This is another one worth carrying across the Atlantic and that’s how I ended up drinking a growler of it in a field at Fyne Ales’ festival back in Scotland. Jay at Flagship was right, New York is lager town.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Girl, I wanna take you to a cheese bar

New York’s venerable cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese Store in Greenwich Village took a new leap a couple of years ago by opening a cheese bar a few doors down the street.

Not quite a ploughman’s, this is a selection of three cheeses with paired beers. Grimm IPA (which I know nothing about except that it comes from Brooklyn) is citric, perfumey and slightly sweaty; looks like apple juice, light-bodied, medium to bitter finish.

Something that can perhaps only exist in Vermont, Beanery Brewing is a company which sells exclusively coffee beers. Their Beanery IPA, brewed at Smuttynose, has only light coffee flavour but a vanilla-ey, sherberty lightness.

Other Half IPA (not sure exactly which one, as they have tons of IPAs) has tropical fruit and resin. Sorry, no cheese tasting notes except to note that this type of resiny IPA tends to do well against any washed-rind cheese.