They say…

Des de Moor
Best travel writing 2011: Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
"Essential reading if you are to use your pub time wisely" - Jeff Evans
"Very authoritative" - Tim Webb.
"One of the top beer writers in the UK" - Mark Dredge.
"A beer guru" - Popbitch.

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Walk London’s beer heritage in London Beer City week

Historic riverside pub the Dove in Hammersmith, on the Fuller's Country walk. Pic: Fuller's.

Historic riverside pub the Dove in Hammersmith, on the Fuller’s Country walk. Pic: Fuller’s.

I’m combining my walking and my beer interests to help celebrate the London beer renaissance during London Beer City week in August. I’ll be launching my new Beer Badge Guides project with two great walking tours taking in the capital’s rich brewery heritage and some great pubs as well as various historic and beautiful corners.

Porters, Peers and Pilgrims: a London brewery heritage walk

Saturday 9 August, 1030hrs

Join me for a fascinating walking tour of London’s brewery heritage and numerous other historic sites, through the City, Spitalfields and the East End, across Tower Bridge and along Bankside.

Discover the sites of Whitbread, the original Truman’s, the perfection of porter at St Katharine’s Dock, Courage on the riverside and Barclay Perkins by Shakespeare’s Globe, finishing at the celebrated George Inn, the Borough’s last historic coaching inn, near London Bridge and numerous other beer venues.

A leisurely walk of approximately five miles (8km) taking about three hours. Note this walk visits heritage sites, not working breweries. Charge: £10 per person.

Meet at Old Street Underground/National Rail station (downstairs by ticket hall), London EC1Y 1BE. Finishes at the George Inn, 77 Borough High Street SE1 1NH, near London Bridge station.

Ensure your place by booking an advance ticket.

The Thames Path and Fuller’s Country: a riverside pub and brewery walk

Thursday 14 August 2014, 1300hrs

A walk that combines the splendours of the Thames Path, including part of the famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race course, with the Fuller’s brewery and two fabulous Fuller’s pubs. From Putney we walk along the river then beside the Beverley Brook near the London Wetlands Centre to the well sited Red Lion at Barnes, then across Hammersmith Bridge to one of London’s loveliest riverside pubs, the Dove, finally passing the brewery itself with a chance to call in at the shop (a brewery tour may be available at an extra charge – to be confirmed).

A leisurely walk of approximately five miles (8km) taking about four hours including pub stops. Charge: £8 per person

Meet at Putney National Rail station, High Street, London SW15 1RT. Finishes at Turnham Green Underground station (District Line).

Ensure your place by booking an advance ticket.

London Beer City 9-16 August 2014.

London Beer City 9-16 August 2014.

London Beer City

London Beer City is a week-long, city-wide festival which will celebrate London’s beer renaissance, running from Saturday 9 to Saturday 16 August. There will be events at the best pubs, bars and breweries across the city, showcasing the finest beer from London, Britain and further afield. There’ll be mini-festivals, tap takeovers, dinners, tours and much more besides. See the London Beer City website for more, including the full schedule of events.

London Beer City takes place around CAMRA’s flagship event, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), one of the biggest events of its kind in the world, serving more than 900 British cask ales, ciders and perries and imported beers. GBBF runs from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 August at Olympia Exhibition Centre.

Not only that but the London Craft Beer Festival, launched last year, will run from Thursday 14 to Sunday 17 August at the Oval Space in Bethnal Green. 24 breweries from London, the UK , Europe and this year the USA will be pouring beers to fuel the imagination and delight the senses.

Truly a sensational summer of beer here in London!

 

London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars: The return

One of London's newest breweries in one of its oldest pubs: the Dragonfly brewery in Acton, W3.

One of London’s newest breweries in one of its oldest pubs: the Dragonfly brewery in Acton, W3.

Sometime in October 2010 I created a new folder on my laptop labelled ‘londonguide’, for everything connected to what eventually became the first edition of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars. Rather optimistically, I then created a single subfolder within the folder, labelled ’2011′. And so things stayed for several years, an apparently redundant extra layer of hierarchy, until a few weeks ago when it was finally joined by another labelled ’2015′.

There aren’t  many files in that new folder yet, but among them is an already large Excel spreadsheet which ultimately will generate the ‘Places to Drink’ section of the next edition of London’s Best Beer. Inside the spreadsheet is a tab named ‘Long list’.

The adjective is deserved. At the moment it contains 489 records of potential listings, and only a handful with updated details and reviews. Its predecessor never contained more than 300 or so.

I admit the file structure of my hard drive is of no great interest, but somewhere in these spreadsheets and documents is a pale reflection of an extraordinary story: the rebirth of London as a genuinely great beer city.

When CAMRA Books first suggested I create what was original mooted as a London pub guide back in the late summer of 2010, one of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity is that I felt there was a modest but significant new sense of excitement around beer and brewing in London.

“It’s a great time to do this,” I enthused at my editor. “Beer in London seems to be on the up for the first time in years.”

After the disappointingly brief flowering of Clapham’s pioneering Microbar in the early 2000s, another internationally-focused specialist beer bar, the Rake, had managed to flourish on Borough Market since 2006. Over the previous year or so, a few more venues had started finding interesting ways of presenting quality beer in a variety of styles to a broader audience than the traditional crowd of real ale drinkers and well-travelled geeks: places like Cask Pub and Kitchen (2009), the Southampton Arms (2009),  the Jolly Butchers (2010) and the Euston Tap (2010).

And with its longstanding smattering of good real ale pubss, Belgian- and German-themed bars, bottle shops and beer champions like the White Horse SW6, London’s claim to becoming a major beer destination was strengthening.

Perhaps even more significant were the new London breweries. We’d reached a nadir in 2006 with the departure of Young’s but suddenly there were a handful of vibrant young newbies brewing seriously well, often using approaches and styles that stretched the established boundaries of British microbrewing, like Brodie’s (2008), Camden Town (2010 in its current form), the Kernel (2009), Redemption (2010) and the more traditional but nonetheless determined and consistent Sambrook’s (2008).

Someone had even revived the legendary brand name Truman’s — as sported by the last big historic London independent to fall to a national takeover in the 1970s — although at first the beer was contract brewed outside the capital.

When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.

At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.

Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.

The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.

- See more at: http://desdemoor.co.uk/latest-guide-updates-show-londons-beer-culture-blossoming/#sthash.7TkzdDH5.dpuf

When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.

At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.

Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.

The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.

- See more at: http://desdemoor.co.uk/latest-guide-updates-show-londons-beer-culture-blossoming/#sthash.7TkzdDH5.dpuf

Yes, it was obvious that something was happening, but nobody could have predicted the scale of what was to follow. Consider the case of entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes, pioneer founder of the Cask. When the book went to press in April 2011, it was still his only pub. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, he opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues. Since then, five more branches have opened, four in London and one in Brighton.

The only Antic pub listed in the last edition was the Antelope in Tooting — now, despite a funding glitch last year, the company’s distinctively distressed and junk-bedecked drinking holes are sprouting up in every unlikely suburb, many of them free of tie and dispensing fine local beers. And this at a time when 18 pubs close every week across the UK.

Besides this and numerous other examples of independents and small chains, the impact on the big boys of this evident change in the marketplace is arguably even more symptomatic. Mitchells and Butlers is converting more and more pubs from tired old circuit drinking chains like O’Neill’s to its beer friendly Nicholson’s and Castle brands.

Meanwhile Greene King seems to be pretending it isn’t even a brewer, with numerous members of its extensive estate rejigged into ‘Metropolitan’ pubs stocked with guest casts and little evidence of their owner’s own products.

Then there’s London brewing. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. By the end of 2013 there were over 50, representing a quintupling of brewery numbers over a mere five years. I was keeping track of them all, but temporarily gave my attention to other things and now I’ve lost count, but there must be at least 60 by now.

For two years running, East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival has been able dedicate an entire bar to the products of a single London borough, Hackney, which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. OK, it stretches a point by including Hackney Wick, most of which is technically in Tower Hamlets, but if it didn’t it would miss the new Truman’s, now up and very much running on an industrial estate on Fish Island.

There have been some casualties. At least five breweries have opened and closed again since the last edition was published. And not everyone has been able to make a success of showcasing a great beer range everywhere: two significant and lamented departures this month were Ales and Tails in Twickenham and the Duchess of Cambridge between Shepherds Bush and Chiswick.

These are hints that the rapid expansion of the past few years is slowing, but all the signs are that, with a newly educated generation of discerning drinking underpinning its beer culture, London isn’t about to lose its status as a top beer destination anytime soon.

All this poses an acute challenge for your humble compiler. Given the scale of change, the new edition will largely be rewritten from scratch.

We don’t want it to grow in terms of page count, yet only 12 of the 252 places to drink in the last edition have closed or lost interest in beer (two or three more have changed ownership or name but kept the faith with St Arnold). Many current listings will simply have to go, then, not because they’ve fallen in standards, but simply because the more deserving cases have proliferated.

A rethink of the breweries section is unavoidable — I can’t possibly afford to treat everyone at the same length as I did in 2011. I’m also planning to squeeze in more on beer and food, and more on London brewery heritage.

You can help — I’m eager to hear your suggestions of new places to drink as well as general comments and feedback. But please look at the guidance notes first. See the London page for more details.

I’ll be tracking the progress of the new edition on my Twitter feed and on the new official Facebook fanpage. Please do have a look and Like it if you will.

I was pleased with the way the first edition turned out and delighted to win an award for it. I like to think that in a small way it contributed to boosting the interest in London beer. I’m determined to make its successor as good as it possibly can be, and an essential and indispensable guide to what’s once again one of the world’s great beer cities.

 

 

 

When the book went to press in April 2011, London entrepreneur and beer importer Martin Hayes had a single pub to his name – the groundbreaking specialist beer bar Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico. Just before the book finally appeared on the shelves in July, Martin opened the first Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, immediately raising the bar for London beer venues with its dazzling range of domestic and imported specialist beers in all formats. In a mere 18 months since, three more Crafts have opened, two in London (Angel and Brixton) and another in Brighton, and all appear to be flourishing.

At a time when 18 pubs close every week in the UK, the Craft story is only the most striking example of how an unprecedented growth of interest in “craft” and other specialist beer is happily pushing at least one significant sector of the licensed trade against the depressing trend, in London at least. The three Draft House branches listed in the book are now five, and several other top class independent beer outlets featured have gone forth and multiplied – the Bree Louise, Jolly Butchers, Pineapple and Southampton Arms have all added sister pubs.

Small pub chains – Butcher & Barrel, Convivial and, most notably, Antic – have seen the commercial wisdom in creating showcase beer outlets and upping the ante across their estates. Fashionable bar operators that ten years ago would not have ventured within a long beard’s reach of real ale, like Barworks, Fluid Movement and Lost, are embracing the new age of hops and malt. Even big national pubcos are boosting their beer credentials – Mitchells and Butlers’ beer friendly Castle and Nicholson’s chains continue to improve with even some branches of more mainstream high street bar brands like O’Neill’s being transferred to them.

The turnaround of brewing in London is even more dramatic. When published the Guide contained details of all 13 breweries then operating in Greater London. 18 months later that total has shot up to 36, with further launches imminent. East London and City CAMRA’s Pig’s Ear beer festival in December 2012 featured a Hackney bar, dedicated to the brewing products of a single London borough which until August 2011 had not witnessed commercial brewing within its boundaries since the 19th century. Now there are six, with one of the most eagerly awaited of the new projects soon to join them when Truman’s re-establishes itself in East London at its new site in Hackney Wick this spring.

- See more at: http://desdemoor.co.uk/latest-guide-updates-show-londons-beer-culture-blossoming/#sthash.7TkzdDH5.dpuf

The marvels of malt: tasting single malt beers

The beauty of barley. Pic: Valley Malt.

The beauty of barley. Pic: Valley Malt.

It’s often said that hops are the varietals of the beer world, an idea that many brewers have seized on with numerous single hop brews constructed to show off the individual characteristics of a specific variety, so dedicated connoisseurs can get to know their Citra from their Challenger. But while the new primacy of the hop in drinkers’ consciousness has been most welcome, the resinous cones are by no means the sole ingredient of beer.

Yeast, too, is worthy of attention beyond the current penchant for Belgian variants and Brettanomyces in certain sections of the craft brewing world. Grains, meanwhile, are very much the unsung hero, despite making up the bulk of the dry ingredients, fuelling the fermentation and providing the backbone of the flavour.

So I was particularly intrigued to spot a sensory workshop focused on ‘craft’ malt in the seminar programme at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver, Colorado, yesterday, even if it meant engaging my beer tasting faculties at the businesslike hour of 0900. The event was coordinated by the newly formed Craft Maltsters Guild, which began as a Google group in 2012 bringing together the growing number of speciality maltings that are springing up in the wake of the growth of craft brewing in North America. To qualify as a craft maltster, you need to be independently owned, source at least 50% of your ingredients locally and produce less than between five and 10,000 tonnes a year.

In preparation for this session, five maltsters collaborated with Christian Holbrook, a quality specialist at New Belgium in nearby Fort Collins, to create five beers showcasing different pale malts, plus a ‘control’ beer featuring that old stalwart of quality brewing, English Maris Otter pale malt. Christian brewed six beers on New Belgium’s pilot 10hl kit, all to the same very simple recipe.

Five of the beers were made with 200kg of a single pale malt mashed at 68°C, followed by a 75 minute boil with a modest 0.5kg of Oregon-grown Nugget hops, then fermented with New Belgium’s house ale yeast at 20°C. A sixth, gluten-free beer made with 100% millet needed a rather different treatment, but still featured the same quantity of grain and the same hop bill.

Six pale ales from different malts: left to right, Colorado, Grouse Millet, Frontenac, Riverbend, Valley, Maris Otter.

Six pale ales from different malts: left to right, Colorado, Grouse Millet, Frontenac, Riverbend, Valley, Maris Otter.

As soon as I got my nose over the first glass of beer I knew I was in for a sensory treat. I’ve got a sweet tooth, and love the fresh grainy sweetness of good malt. It’s always a delight to taste unfermented wort at a brewery – I treasure the memory of visiting Budvar in České Budějovice and sampling wort scooped fresh from the open lautering system as it gushed through a row of giant copper taps.

It’s a tendency I have to rein in when judging beers, as ‘wortiness’ is often a technical flaw, indicating a fermentation that hasn’t quite worked, leaving too much of the soothing breakfast cereal note of unfermented wort behind. Or it could be a stylistic issue if it isn’t balanced by sufficient hop character.

No such problem here as the beers were specifically brewed to showcase the flavour of the malt. But aside from the fact that all of them exhibited the expected fresh from the field graininess – you could almost smell the diesel fumes from the combine harvester – and cereal sweetness, the real surprise was how different they all were from each other.

The original gravity – the proportion of sugar extracted from the malt during mashing – varied slightly from beer to beer (for the technically minded, from 10.6° to 11.5° Plato, or 1043 to 1046, for the barley malt beers), while the alcohol content of the finished beers ranged from a gentle 3.4% to a rather more hefty 5.2% ABV. Hops provided a just detectable background burr of clean resins, with IBUs a very mild 16-21.

More obviously noticeable was the variation in colour. As you’d expect from 100% pale malt beers, most of them turned out an attractive golden-yellow, but ranged from a very delicate straw to a warm burnished gold that would just about pass for a lighter-coloured English bitter (in figures, that’s from 5.6 ERM/11 EBC to 9.4 ERM/18.5 EBC).

The millet beer was always going to be out on its own in flavour, and it looked different too, as the palest and most turbid entrant on the table. It was made with pale white proso millet malt from Grouse Malting and Roasting Company in Wellington, Colorado. The company specialises in gluten-free malts, and founder Twila Henley, who herself has a gluten-sensitive condition, introduced the beer.

Gluten-free brewing has made great progress in recent years and Twila is clearly making a major contribution to this, but for those of us fortunate enough to be gluten-tolerant, even the best of gluten-free beers are difficult to compare with their conventional counterparts. Grouse Pale Millet (4.5% ABV) had a porridgey, sweetish, slightly plastic-tinged and not especially pleasant aroma, though the palate was interestingly smooth and light, with a slightly tart acidity that balanced well, and a gentle hint of lemon in the finish.

The lightest of the barley beers was Valley Pale (3.4%), made with two-row Pinnacle spring barley harvested at Omora Farm in Canastota, New York, and malted at Valley Malt in Headley, Massachusetts, founded by Andrea and Christian Stanley as a specialist supplier of brewing grains grown in New England.

This pale yellow beer had a good bubbly white head, with a smooth, rich aroma of clean, slightly sugary grain. The palate was smooth and rather bland, with a very light finish that just revealed a hint of lemon barley water. You probably wouldn’t want to brew a commercial beer to this formulation with this malt – something true for most of them – but it would give a very clean, subtle cereal backdrop to a more complex recipe.

Frontenac Pale Ale (3.9%) was also notably mild in character, a pale yellow beer with a biscuity, creamy aroma. The graininess was very distinct but unassertive on the palate, again with a hint of lemon, and a subtle, drying finish.

The beer was created with pale malt from locally grown two-row organic Bentley barley supplied by Malterie Frontenac in Thetford Mines, Québec, an artisanal maltings founded in 2006 which champions malt as a “fruit du terroir ou le grain a tiré toute sa substance et son essence” (the product of a locality from which the grain has taken all its substance and its essence).

Appropriately, the ‘control’ beer stood midway in terms of character. Maris Otter (MO), the celebrated English variety of two-row winter barley, is still rated very highly among the world’s brewers as a precursor of top quality pale malt, and Simpsons is one of the best known of the UK’s remaining maltings, with plants in Essex, Norfolk and Northumberland.

Simpsons Maris Otter Pale (4.7%) was one of the stronger beers, and slightly darker than some, shading to an orange glow, with a very good sticky white head. A subtle grainy note and light esters were evident on a creamy aroma, while the light palate had a slightly brittle acidity alongside sweetness. Hops seemed more evident, interacting with husky grain, while the finish also had a light acidity and gentle underlying bitterness. The MO arguably did best of all in enabling the very quiet voice of the hops to make itself heard.

The last two beers demonstrated the depth of character that good malt can offer. Despite the neutrality of the overall recipe these beers were well worth drinking in their own right and might even be worth working up into commercial recipes, perhaps with a few tweaks – they were certainly streets ahead of the sort of timid, sweet, malt (and adjunct)-focused beer that sadly accounts for much of the mass market.

Glowing golden amber Colorado Pale (4.5%), made with Scarlett two-row spring barley malted at the Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa, was the darkest of the beers, perhaps a reflection of the low moisture content resulting from the blessedly dry climate in this part of the world. The highly persistent head was another indicator of quality, and the grainy, chaffy aroma seemed straight out of the barn.

A clean and very soft palate had some fascinating toasty, spicy notes and a hint of fruity acidity. The fruit and spice became more noticeable in a drying chaffy finish, with a late slightly musty note.

The most complex of the lot, and also the strongest, was Riverbend Pale (5.2%), made from a mix of six-row Thoroughbred and two-row Endeavour barley floor malted at Riverbend Malthouse, Asheville, North Carolina. Brent Manning and Brian Simpson started the company after noticing that craft brewers in their home state were importing malt from elsewhere rather than using locally grown grain. The ethically-minded company makes much of its environmental credentials, as well as paying good prices to its suppliers and a decent wage to its staff.

The paleness of the beer belied its impact. The sweetish aroma had an intriguing dusty note, and a very creamy palate was notably spicy, almost like a spiced biscuit, with a natural sweetness. Had I not known differently I might have suspected a handful of rye malt.

The cleansing swallow didn’t quite follow through, turning slightly thin with a hint of lemon, but what a showcase for traditional malt flavour. Brent sung the praises of traditional techniques, theorising that the envelope of carbon dioxide surrounding grains sitting on a maltings floor encourages subtly different characteristics compared to industrial methods where grains are continuously agitated as they dry.

Plaudits are due both to New Belgium and to the maltsters for this fascinating experiment which gave new insights into the flavour profile of beer. I found myself inwardly cheering Frontenac’s Bruno Vachon, who made an impassioned plea for more focus on malt character among brewers, telling delegates “you should be able to taste the grain.”

The Brewing of Brabo 5: Boiling Brabo

Brains Craft Brewery Brabo, a spéciale belge created by Des de Moor.

Brains Craft Brewery Brabo, a spéciale belge created by Des de Moor.

At the end of October 2013 I spent a very pleasant and interesting day at S A Brain in Cardiff, helping create my first ever collaboration beer, Brabo, on the Brains Craft Brewery. This piece, published in several parts, documents the experience in detail — you might find it interesting as an insight into the process of brewing, Brains brewery and the craft brewery project, and the origins of the spéciale belge style of Belgian pale ale. 

  1. Spent Grains (introduction)
  2. The Brains behind the operation (Background to the brewery)
  3. Very special Belgians (The style and developing the recipe)
  4. Mashing Brabo
  5. Boiling Brabo

Hops used for Brains’ regular beers – Challenger, Fuggles, Goldings – are ordered in big pockets but Bill Dobson, Brains head brewer, also keeps a mouthwatering selection of hops for the craft brewery in smaller packs.

Inside the hop store: a mouthwatering encyclopaedia of varieties.

Inside the hop store: a mouthwatering encyclopaedia of varieties.

The names on the packs and boxes read like an encyclopaedia of international varieties: Amarillo, Bramling Cross, Citra, Cluster, Galaxy, Hallertauer Hersbrucker, Mosaic, Nelson Sauvin, Pacifiica, Styrian Goldings, Summit among other. All are deployed as pellets – hops that have been dried, powdered and compressed.

There’s a school of thought holding that pellets produce generally less interesting and characterful results than the less processed whole leaf hops. Some unquestionably conscientious brewers contend, however, that it makes very little difference, and pellets are more convenient, take up less space and have a longer shelf life. Maintaining quite such a tempting pick ‘n’ mix in whole leaf form would be a lot more expensive and space-hungry.

Hop pellets, some of them destined for Brabo.

Hop pellets, some of them destined for Brabo.

Brains Craft Brewery is built primarily to handle hop pellets, with the filter in the base of the copper and the whirlpool beneath optimised for this form of hops. At a pinch it can be adapted to handle whole hops and even green hops – two years running, the craft brewery has produced a green hop beer, Green Dragon, including hops grown in the garden of the Tŷ Mawr pub in Lisvane. But Brabo will happily use pellets, which isn’t out of character for the style.

Using an industrial scales, I carefully measure the hops into two buckets: 2kg of East Kent Goldings for the first addition, and a mix of 1kg of Goldings and 1kg of Czech Žatec for the second.

The aromas produced by rubbing the pellets are vivid and almost palpably sensual – light lemon citrus with an undertone of earthiness from the Goldings, and an intensely dreamy waft of new mown hay from the Žatec.

Wort in the underback before it's pumped to the copper.

Wort in the underback before it’s pumped to the copper.

Meanwhile the gravity of the liquid from the mash tun has indeed crept up before winding down. Even after 1,200l of sparge liquor has flowed it’s still 1090, but it drops rapidly to 1060 after 1,700l and a mere 1016 after 2,100l.

Finally, after a good two and a half hours, the last of the wort is pumped into the copper: rather like a giant kettle but with a pump to circulate the contents so the sugars don’t caramelise on the element. At this stage, the best way of telling how much we’ve got is with a wooden dipstick – Bill says no one has ever come up with a better material for the purpose. It turns out we’ve collected 17 barrels (2,780l) at a comfortable original gravity of 1052.

The old ways are the best: measuring the wort in the copper with a dipstick.

The old ways are the best: measuring the wort in the copper with a dipstick.

Heating almost 3,000l of liquid to a boil takes time even with an efficient steam element, so there’s plenty of time for the arduous task of cleaning out the mash tun, as detailed in Part 1, and enjoying lunch while discussing the label copy with brand manager Ffion Jones.

She’s delighted with my name. “You’re the first one to come up with a good name straight away,” she says. “With most of them it’s taken forever.” Later that afternoon she’s already looking up the story of Brabo on Wikipedia.

At 1320hrs, our wort finally comes to the boil and, wearing some sturdy gauntlets to protect me from the rising steam, I throw the contents of the first bucket of hops into the copper. The next bucket follows 50 minutes later, for a final 10 minutes on the boil.

Adding hops brings multiple benefits – antibacterial compounds and antioxidants that make beer more resistant to spoilage, as well as the characteristic aromas and bitter flavours that work so miraculously well to bring the grainy, malty character of the base wort into balance.

Your author and co-brewer with a bucket recently empty for late hopping in the last 10 minutes of the boil.

Your author and co-brewer with a bucket recently empty for late hopping in the last 10 minutes of the boil.

But tapping those bitter flavours needs some effort. They originate in components of hop resin known as alpha acids (α-acids) which in their native state won’t dissolve in water. Heating them to high temperatures rearranges their molecular structure, making them soluble, a process known as ‘isomerisation’.

While the wort needs to boil for at least an hour to isomerise sufficient α-acids, this lengthy application of heat has a destructive effect on the essential oils that give hops their distinctive aroma, as these volatile compounds readily evaporate. Thus the late addition of additional hops ensures some of those delightful smells I experienced when crushing the pellets in my hand are captured in the finished product. Not that this is intended to be a hop-forward beer in either aroma or flavour, but subtlety is key.

The boiling stage has several other functions. It sterilises the wort, including neutralising any residual enzymes. In a process known as the ‘hot break’, boiling also precipitates out proteins which otherwise could make the beer hazy and give off flavours. These, and residual hob debris, settle as a powdery residue known as ‘trub’ – I can see it at the bottom of the copper once the liquid has finally drained away. A dose of carrageen (Irish moss) in the hop addition aids this process.

The next stage brings further excitement and exercise as the hopped wort makes its way to the fermentation stage by a rather tortuous route. Now there’s a new set of time critical demands.

The faster the wort is safely sealed in the fermentation vessel (FV) with the right yeast culture, the more likely the fermentation will go to plan, with no wild yeasts or other unwanted infections intruding. But its current temperature would simply kill the yeast, and allowing it to cool naturally would provide more hardy but less benign microorganisms with the opportunity to get in there first.

So the wort will now run through the big brewery’s maze of pipework and an additional set of devices across to the fermentation hall. To reach the hall, we have to go down one set of stairs, across a room and up another set of stairs. This is where the exercise comes in.

First we have to disconnect the pipe that will finally take the wort into the FV, then set everything else up in the fermentation hall, then return to the brewhouse to start pumping. Once the pump is running, we have 38 seconds to get back up to the fermentation hall and reconnect the final pipe. Bill’s mountain biking fitness comes in handy.

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Brains Craft Brewery’s own heat exchanger, efficiently cooling hot wort in no time.

As the wort leaves the copper, it first goes through a whirlpool, a sort of spin dryer for wort that uses centrifugal force to extract the last of the trub. Then, up in the fermentation hall, it runs through a heat exchanger. This is essentially a development of the system we used earlier to cool a sample for the saccharometer test, the flask with the double wall.

In the exchanger, watertight plates create narrow rectangular chambers, with hot wort and cold water flowing through alternate chambers. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, the energy in the wort is transferred to the water, which is returned to the brewery’s hot liquor supply.

The craft brewery has its own heat exchanger and it’s remarkably compact and efficient, cooling the wort from near-boiling to 16-17°C in next to no time. Opposite is the main brewery’s equivalent kit, a massive thing the size of two grand pianos on their sides – the differential is less to do with the volumes, more to do with the fact that the senior heat exchanger is now several decades old.

Set of a Cyberman prison? Inside one of the big squares in Brains' main brewery.

Set of a Cyberman prison? Inside one of the big squares in Brains’ main brewery.

And then there’s another surprise: in the line between the heat exchanger and the FV is a compressed oxygen supply, which hisses deafeningly as Bill switches it in. Oxygen, brewers will tell you, is the sworn enemy of good beer, as oxidation causes stale off flavours and encourages infections, unless we’re dealing with a long ageing strong beer where a bit of oxidation can make things interesting.

But yeast is an aerobic microorganism that needs oxygen to function. The wort will pick up some oxygen from the air as it splashes into the tank, but adding an extra dose of pure oxygen helps get fermentation off to a vigorous start.

Much less surprising is the fact that most of Brains’ output now ferments in contemporary cylindroconical vessels, though there are some traditional squares still in use. These are vast things topped by heavy lids with glass viewing ports: when empty, they look like steel lined cells in which some science fiction villain might imprison opponents.

Brains Craft Brewery's own fermentation vessels, two cylindroconicals and a square. Brabo is destined for the middle vessel.

Brains Craft Brewery’s own fermentation vessels, two cylindroconicals and a square. Brabo is destined for the middle vessel.

Eerier still is a whole unlit hall full of disused squares inherited from Bass but now surplus to capacity, a sudden zone of abandonment in such an obviously busy and well maintained place. Thinking back to the story of the ancient mash tun, I wonder if these, too, have been checked for skeletons recently.

The craft brewery has its own pair of cylindroconicals, and my cooled and oxygenated wort is now rapidly filling the second one, FV2. There’s a small square fermenter for the craft brewery too, but the cylindroconicals are more appropriate for my beer. Another dipstick reveals we’ve ended up with 2,613l, or 16 barrels – about what we were aiming for.

In the next door vessel, my competitor Glenn Payne’s Rye PA is fermenting merrily away with a healthy barm of yeast. Setting aside any fleeting thoughts of industrial sabotage, I turn my attention to the three flasks Bill has just brought through from the lab – all tall, narrow 11.4l Cornelius soft drinks kegs of the sort now popular with home brewers.

One of Bill’s colleagues has been nurturing our Ardennes yeast in these since it arrived a week or so before from the USA, as liquid yeast in a sealed pack with an internal nutrient system.

Our Ardennes yeast in its Cornelius kegs, ready for pitching.

Our Ardennes yeast in its Cornelius kegs, ready for pitching.

Bill attaches a length of rubber tubing to the first keg and I hold the other end, pointing it over the hatch at the top of the FV. The little tube is tiny in comparison to the tall vessel with its thousands of litres of wort, but it will shortly convey the microscopic organisms that will bring my Brabo to life. Over the next few days they’ll multiply by the billions, in the process breaking down all those sugars we’ve so painstakingly created into alcohol and carbon dioxide, hopefully resulting in a tasty and drinkable as well as mildly intoxicating beverage.

The energy liberated won’t quite power a small town, but it will raise the temperature of the liquid to a balmy 21°C for days on end. I’m trying to avoid thinking of insemination metaphors, but I can understand why our brewing forbears got all mystical about fermentation.

The pressure as Bill turns the valve catches me by surprise and some of the yeasty liquid splashes where it shouldn’t, but the rest cascades into the waiting wort. The next two kegs aren’t quite so lively and one has to be upended by hand. And so we close the lid of the FV and our task is done.

Now the real waiting begins. Although he’s never worked with this particular yeast strain before, Bill’s brewer’s sense is telling him not to expect any signs of life for a day or so. He turns out to be right again, but a few days later the yeasts will be working at vigorous pace. After that, Brabo will be racked into a conditioning tank to settle for a few days. And then…?

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As the wort drains from the mash tun, the residue of spent grains sticks to the sides.

Well, those quaint flow diagrams in old editions of the Good Beer Guide from which I gleaned my first knowledge of brewing always used to end with a moral parting of the ways. The way of goodliness led, of course, towards cask conditioning and the trusty pub handpump. But Brabo, I’m afraid, is largely heading the way of the devil.

Most will be cold filtered, but not pasteurised, and bottled or kegged – in line with many of the beers that inspired it, which are usually filtered but unpasteurised in the keg, and none the worse for it. But Bill will also fill and condition a few firkins, some of which are headed for a pub near me.

I’m intrigued to find out how the beer does in cask. A few years back, J D Wetherspoon occasionally tanked unfiltered De Koninck to Britain for casking so they could serve a ‘real ale’ version in their pubs. I never did get to try it, and reports were not wholly positive, but it was an interesting idea.

Before I leave, Bill shows me round the bits of the brewery I haven’t seen, including the craft brewery’s own small scale bottling and kegging plant with its hand operated machine for the smallest runs. This is actually the only regularly used packaging equipment in the brewery as Brains has outsourced all its packaging and logistics, most of it to Marston’s.

I wonder if the patriotic rugby fan cracking open a bottle of SA Gold in anticipation of settling down to watch Wales thrash England realises the beer he’s drinking has crossed the border twice.

I’m not expecting Brabo to be a world beating brew. There are far too many of those already, and I’d settle for something pleasantly drinkable, knowing I had an input into creating it. But no matter what the result, this whole day has been an education, and reinforced my already extensive admiration for brewers and their work.

But I forget. Now I’m a brewer too. At least just a little bit.

POSTCRIPT. Brabo was judged by an invited panel alongside six other beers made at Brains Craft Brewery in London on 5 December 2013. All the beers were then served at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner later in the day.

Brabo didn’t win – that honour went to Glenn Payne’s excellent Rye IPA, Rye Catcher. No rankings or runners-up were officially announced but I was told informally that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Many of the guests at the Beer Writers’ dinner commented favourably on the beer.

If you’d like to try Brabo on cask, visit the Dog and Bell, 118 Prince Street, London SE8 3JD on Friday 13 December when we’ll be opening one of the few casks. I’ll be there from 1900hrs to answer questions about the beer.

 

The Brewing of Brabo 4: Mashing Brabo

Best pale malt running into the hoppers at Brains, Cardiff.

Best pale malt running into the hoppers at Brains, Cardiff.

At the end of October 2013 I spent a very pleasant and interesting day at S A Brain in Cardiff, helping create my first ever collaboration beer, Brabo, on the Brains Craft Brewery. The resulting beer didn’t win the Brains competition for the year, but it’s received some very positive feedback.

This piece, which I’m publishing in several parts, documents the experience in detail — you might find it interesting as an insight into the process of brewing, Brains brewery and the craft brewery project, and the origins of the spéciale belge style of Belgian pale ale. This section on the process of mashing our beer was preceded by sections on developing the recipe, Brains brewery and its ‘craft’ offshoot and an introduction; a final section will cover the boil and getting the beer to fermentation.

You don’t need to have direct experience of brewing to understand that it’s a complicated and difficult process. Makers of wine, cider and perry no doubt face their own challenges, but at a basic level all they have to do is extract the sugar rich fruit juice, and allow it to ferment with yeasts that are conveniently already present on the skin of the fruit.

Brewers, in contrast, start from several stages back. Their chosen raw material, grain, is also rich in carbohydrate, but in the form of insoluble and unfermentable starch. Facilitating the chemical reactions that will convert this efficiently into a tasty meal for the yeast, while avoiding too many unwanted byproducts that would taint the end result, accounts for much of the challenge.

These days, this process has usually already started in the maltings, when the early stages of germination create the conditions for the release of sugars that, if nature took its course, would fuel the growing plant. Brewers have to complete this process, deploying hot water, or liquor as it’s known in the trade, to prompt the release of enzymes.

Grist mixed with hot liquor fills the mash tun as the brewing of Brabo gets underway.

Grist mixed with hot liquor fills the mash tun as the brewing of Brabo gets underway.

These naturally occurring chemical helpers then break the links between the chains of molecules in the starch to create something water can dissolve and yeast can metabolise.  It’s not surprising that many brewers have a scientific background, even if their hearts and palates are firmly in the arts.

Working through a brew day highlights the immense patience and impeccable timing needed to achieve this. Good brewing involves bouts of physical activity and long periods of waiting, for precisely the right time when precisely the right amount of water at precisely the right temperature acheives ‘saccharification’, as the breakdown into sugar is known.

Then there’s the lengthy boil necessary to ensure the appropriate levels of hop bitterness make it into the finished product. It’s also not surprising that brewers, present company included, are generally sociable types, filling the inevitable longueurs with easy conversation.

The thickness of the mash is evident from the way it sticks to this spade.

The thickness of the mash is evident from the way it sticks to this spade.

When I arrive at the brewery at my luxuriously late hour, one of head brewer Bill Dobson’s colleagues has already mixed and milled the ‘grist’ – the brewer’s term for the dry ingredients – and left it ready in the grist case above the mash tun. Bill himself has warmed the tun by flushing it with hot water, like a giant teapot. I’m reminded that in certain parts of England, making tea is known as ‘brewing’ or ‘mashing’.

Mashing, that all important soaking of the grist in hot liquor, is the first major stage of the brewing process, and I’ve seen it taking place before in other breweries, but I’ve never been there for ‘mashing in’, when grist and liquor first fill the tun.

Brains uses ‘town’s liquor’ drawn from the regular water supply, although there is a disused well on site. This is easily improved for brewing purposes by adding small amounts of minerals, so 800g of calcium chloride and 1.3kg of calcium sulphate have been sprinkled into the grist case too. The liquor is heated at a central point and piped around the plant along with cold liquor so both can be mixed at the vessel to achieve the right temperature.

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Not quite there yet: checking the temperature of the mash.

The ‘strike temperature’ – the temperature of the liquor as it strikes the grist – is the first of a number of crucial parameters: in this case, it’s 73°C. Bill first runs 170l of liquor into the tun, carefully checking the flow rate to ensure it’s at the optimum 55l per minute.

Once the plates at the bottom of the tun are safely covered with water, the grist case is opened. Both grist and liquor then mix in the pipe above to create a notably thick, porridge-like, sweet smelling slurry.

Even this relatively simple process takes patience and care: the mash must flow at the right rate and with the right consistency, so it flows evenly into the vessel without piling up into a heap. Occasionally Bill assists the flow with the lo-tech expediency of a few blows from a rubber mallet

Brabo will undergo a simple ‘infusion mash’ at a single temperature, traditional in British brewing and in some styles of Belgian brewing, including for the creation of old fashioned ales like ours. The mash tun itself isn’t heated, so depends on the heat of the added liquor and good insulation – the outside of the vessel stays remarkably cool.

It takes 20 minutes to fill the mash tun, and then we leave the mixture to stand for an hour at a temperature around 66°C. It’s a great opportunity for breakfast in the staff kitchen: toast with some of Bill’s own delicious homemade jam. Although he’s not a home brewer, he clearly can’t stop coaxing interesting chemical reactions from sugary liquids heated in large metal containers even in his spare time.

Additional hot liquor sparging the grains -- difficult to photograph thanks to the steam.

Additional hot liquor sparging the grains — difficult to photograph thanks to the steam.

Back in the brewhouse, I realise that fluid dynamics plays a role as well as chemistry. Like most people with more than a passing interest in brewing I could tell you that mashing is followed by sparging and then boiling, but what I never thought about until now is quite how much is involved in getting the sweet liquid from the mash tun – the unhopped wort,– into position for the boil.

Some larger brewhouses dedicate an entire specialised full sized vessel, the lauter tun, to this delicate process, but in typical small British breweries, as here, the mash tun and a few other bits and pieces do the trick.

Sparging involves spraying more hot water gently on top of the wort, and the mash tun is fitted with a rotating sprinkler arm for this purpose. The procedure rinses away as much fermentable material as possible from the grains and makes up the wort to the correct concentration of sugar, but what I’ve only just realised is that it also plays a role in moving the wort from one stage to the next.

Think about it for a minute. You have 450kg of grains suspended in 1,250l of hot liquid in a big metal container, and you now have to get that liquid out cleanly so that it can be boiled. Simple – you put a hole at the bottom of the container with a mesh filter so the liquid simply flows through, and then pump it to wherever you want it next.

The problem is those grains – currently they’re easy to deal with as they’re floating, but as the liquid drains away they’ll start to settle under gravity, and if it happens too fast they’ll form a practically impermeable plug that traps the liquid nearest the top in the tun.

Unhopped wort for Brains Brabo, like liquidised sweet cereal.

Unhopped wort for Brains Brabo, like liquidised sweet cereal.

The answer is to regulate the flow, and the sparging works to do this alongside the ‘underback’, the recycled keg mentioned earlier, which helps ensure a steady flow from below. The underback is fitted with an automatic detector which triggers a pump when the contents reaches a certain height, and the first clear wort begins to run into the next vessel, the copper.

Sparge liquor is usually hotter than the mash but not too hot that unwanted compounds like proteins and polyphenols start to seep out. The water currently spraying from the sprinkler at 15l a minute is heated to a steady 77°C.

It’s time to take our first sample, admire its rich amber colour and and sneak a quick taste. It’s not the first time I’ve tasted unhopped wort but there’s something even more enjoyable about trying some for a beer I have a hand in creating.

hydrometers

A selection of hydrometers (saccharometers) for beer and wine making. Pic: Stevenson Reeves Ltd.

I’ve got a sweet tooth, and it’s luxuriously sweet, but with that crispy, slightly drying cereal character coming through from the coloured malt. Beer judges and reviewers often mark finished beers down for a ‘worty’ note, usually a sign that the beer hasn’t fermented out properly and residual sugars are too apparent, though I secretly enjoy a touch of lingering liquidised breakfast cereal.

But there are more accurate ways than our taste buds of judging whether those enzymes are behaving as expected. We take our sample to a bench and sink round the corner, where Bill pours it into a double-walled copper flask, and runs cold water between inner and outer walls.

When the wort is cool enough, he pops in a hydrometer, or more precisely, a saccharometer: a glass instrument with a long, thin tube emerging from a bulbous weighted float. Sugar solution is denser than water, so the sweeter the liquid, the higher the tube will float, enabling us to read off the ‘specific gravity’ (also known as ‘relative density’) from a calibrated scale engraved into it.

It might sound trivial, but seeing this simple instrument bobbing about in my wort gives me a resonant moment. The saccharometer was one of the earliest scientific instruments adopted by brewers during the early expansion of industrial brewing in the 18th century, as they sought greater reliability and predictability for their growing brands.

One of brewing's earliest scientific instruments: the hydrometer tests the gravity of the first runnings of our wort.

One of brewing’s earliest scientific instruments: the hydrometer tests the gravity of the first runnings of our wort.

It was first used for brewing in 1770 and was soon afterwards deployed at Henry Thrale’s porter brewery on London’s Bankside, later Barclay Perkins, one of the most celebrated breweries of all time.

As Bill predicted, the instrument tells us the wort has a sugar content of around 8.5%, usually expressed by English speaking brewers in parts per thousand and notated as 1085. Assuming practically all this sugar was fermented into alcohol, a finished beer made from this liquid would finish up at around a hefty 8.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), rather stronger than we’re after for our everyday refresher.

Bill expects the next sample we take will be sweeter still, but as the sparge liquor trickles through, the gravity will drop towards our intended 1050.

As the slow process of filling the copper continues, we head for the place anyone with a passion for beer would look forward to visiting: the hop store.

Read about boiling with hops and the journey to the fermentation vessel in the next and final part.

The Brewing of Brabo 3: Very special Belgians

The wort for Brains Brabo ready for testing.

The wort for Brains Brabo ready for testing.

At the end of October 2013 I spent a very pleasant and interesting day at S A Brain in Cardiff, helping create my first ever collaboration beer, Brabo, on the Brains Craft Brewery. The resulting beer didn’t win the Brains competition for the year, but it’s received some very positive feedback. This piece, which I’m publishing in several parts, documents the experience in detail — you might find it interesting as an insight into the process of brewing, Brains brewery and the craft brewery project, and the origins of the spéciale belge style of Belgian pale ale. This section on how we developed a recipe for a Welsh-brewed spéciale belge was preceded by a background section on Brains brewery and its ‘craft’ offshoot and an introduction; later sections will cover the brewday itself.

A collaboration brew is a chance to create something out of the ordinary. Among my competitors, Pete Brown has gone for a dubbel, Glenn Payne for a rye IPA and Adrian Tierney-Jones for a saison full of C-hops.

Choosing an unassuming, straightforward style is probably tying one hand behind my back, though I’m comforted to note that Sophie Atherton, bless her, has made a similar decision – she’s brewed a classic Munich-style Märzen, and rather good it is too.

And my choice is at least a beer that’s rarely attempted in the UK, despite its obvious affinity to British brewing traditions. I want to brew a spéciale belge.

Never mind the Bolleke: one of the best known spéciales belges, Antwerp's De Koninck, in romantic mood.

“Just say bolleke“: one of the best known spéciales belges, Antwerp’s De Koninck, in romantic mood.

Spéciale belge is an everyday Belgian pale ale that could be described as like a British bitter but with a Belgian twist, at a moderate strength of no more than 5% ABV. The best examples are amber or copper in colour, with a similar biscuit malt character to a good bitter but typically less hoppy and with a fruity, spicy note from the yeast.

The classic example is De Koninck, which is to Antwerp what Guinness is to Dublin or, indeed, what Brains is to Cardiff. It’s served by default in a goblet-shaped glass known as a bolleke, which always raises titters among British English speakers but simply means ‘little ball’.

Beer hunter Michael Jackson loved De Koninck: on his first ever visit to Belgium he “lost an afternoon” drinking it in a backstreet Antwerp pub that he never managed to find again. I love it too, particularly as an indivisible part of the experience of my favourite Belgian city.

Like many aficionados, I head for Den Engel, the classic bruin café on the Grote Markt, renowned for the freshness of its beer, and enjoy a bolleke looking out on the astonishing 16th century stadhuis (city hall) with its mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles, and the fountain depicting Brabo lobbing a giant hand at the river. More of him later.

There are other examples. Palm from Steenhuffel is the best seller but I find it slightly bland and oversweet. Special De Ryck, from a small family brewer in Herzele, is a deliciously authentic example but hard to find, as is the similarly old fashioned Tonneke from Contreras. Zinnebir, from the excellent Zennebrouwerij/Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, is a poised and accomplished modern interpretation.

The similarity to English ales is not accidental. By the end of the 19th century, imports from the UK, as well as Germany and Bohemia, had become very popular among Belgian drinkers.

The domestic industry was not well placed to challenge this competition, as Belgian brewers rarely looked beyond local sales, producing idiosyncratic local and regional styles that were appreciated by drinkers used to them but were less than ideal material for building the sort of mass market that was already enriching brewers elsewhere.

The Exposition Universelle in Liège in 1905 where the results of the competition to create a national Belgian beer style were announced also marked the 75th anniversary of Belgian independence.

The Exposition Universelle in Liège in 1905 where the results of the competition to create a national Belgian beer style were announced also marked the 75th anniversary of Belgian independence.

In response to this, in 1904 the Unie van Belgische Brouwers (Union of Belgian Brewers, today known simply as Belgische Brouwers) organised a competition to create a new and contemporary beer that might build a following throughout Belgium. Doubtless there was also a more deeply ideological outcome in mind too – such a beer might contribute to a sense of shared national identity and unity in a nation state that was (and remains) an uncomfortable bracketing of disparate linguistic and cultural communities.

Entry guidelines were kept deliberately broad: the beer could be made using any ingredients or methods, so long as it had an original gravity of 4-5 Belgian degrees (1040-1050 original gravity) and cost 15-20 cents per glass.

The results were unveiled at the 1905 Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Liège. Out of 73 entries (including seven lagers and nine spontaneously fermented beers), the winner was Belge du Faleau from Brasserie Binard in Châtelineau, Hainaut – an easy drinking amber beer that stood out at a time when most domestic products were wheat beers or brown ales.

The brewery is long gone but its beer left a long legacy, as many other Belgian breweries gradually began to copy it, often appending the adjective belge to the results. De Koninck’s version was launched in 1913; Palm is a relative latecomer, from 1928.

Today’s examples are relatively few – the huge growth in popularity of pilsner-style beer following World War II devastated pale ales just as it did the wheaty, dark and wild beers those pale ales were originally intended to supersede. This trend didn’t reverse until the growth of interest in local, artisanal and speciality beers in the 1980s and 1990s.

The amber glow of Palm spéciale belge. Photo: Palm.

The amber glow of Palm spéciale belge. Photo: Palm.

Thankfully spéciale belge survives as a healthy niche product. It’s now recognised officially in Belgium as a streekprodukt (regional product) and there’s an application pending with the EU for Protected Geographical Indication status.

Recipes are generally simple: pale malt and a bit of Germanic-style coloured malt, a restrained dose of some relatively traditional and unassertive European hops, and a fruity but still relatively clean house ale yeast.

De Koninck is made just from pilsner and Vienna malts, Czech & Belgian Žatec (Saaz) hops, and the brewery’s own yeast culture, which is famously also sold by the shot at the brewery tap as a chaser for the beer. There are some more elaborate recipes listed on homebrewing sites, involving black malt and all kinds of other stuff, but Brains head brewer Bill Dobson and I have agreed to keep it simple.

I’m lucky, too, to have access to the advice of two of the world’s leading craft beer gurus, brewers and writers Stan Hieronymus and Randy Mosher, both fellow judges at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. We hold our conversation in the appropriate setting of the brewhouse at Great Divide, at a North American Guild of Beer Writers social event.

“Where are you brewing it?” asks Randy. “At Brains? Oh, just tell them to brew one of their regular bitters or pale ales but with a Belgian yeast.”

Barley malts used in Brains Craft Brewery Brabo: pale, Munich and caramalt.

Barley malts used in Brains Craft Brewery Brabo: pale, Munich and caramalt.

Is it really that simple? “Well, it would probably be more authentic to use German specialty malts rather than British ones. But try using East Kent Goldings as the single bittering hop. Lots of traditional Belgian brewers use Goldings.”

Stan agrees. “The hop rate should be low anyway, but you might think about using a classic European hop for a hint of aroma, like Saaz or Hallertauer. It has to be a Belgian yeast. If you can’t get one from one of the Belgian breweries, White Labs and Wyeast have some good ones.”

East Kent Goldings hop pellets destined for Brains Craft Brewery Brabo.

East Kent Goldings hop pellets destined for Brains Craft Brewery Brabo.

Following some email exchanges and some of Bill’s own research, he devises a final recipe. Ideally we’d use pilsner malt but we settle for ease on Brains’ regular stock of Simpsons Perle pale malt from the big silos in one corner of the brewery yard. We’ll use a mix of Weyermann Munich malt and caramalt to deepen the beer, Goldings as the bittering hop and a mixture of Goldings and Žatec as a late addition for aroma.

As to the vital choice of yeast, we consider White Labs’ appropriately titled Antwerp Ale Yeast, but Bill in the end picks Wyeast’s Belgian Ardennes strain (3522).

Here’s the grist bill for an initial mash with about 7.5 barrels (1250l) of liquor (water):

  • 300kg (66.7%) pale ale malt
  • 100kg (22.2%) Munich malt
  • 50kg (11.1%) caramalt

Following sparging, for a total wort volume of 17 barrels (2780hl), we’ll add:

  • 2kg East Kent Goldings as a bittering hop at the beginning of the boil
  • 1kg East Kent Goldings and 1kg Žatec as a late hop at the end of the boil

To get the right strength of around 5% ABV, we’re aiming for 2.5l of liquor for every 1kg of malt.

The Brabo fountain outside the Stadhuis on the Grote Markt in Antwerp, Belgium. Note the water-spouting severed hand.

The Brabo fountain outside the Stadhuis on the Grote Markt in Antwerp, Belgium. Note the water-spouting severed hand. Pic: Ph.Viny, Wikimedia Commons.

Oh, and then there’s the name. It crosses my mind to suggest Brains Bolleke, but I can see myself accused of bringing the industry into disrepute with schoolboy humour and shamefully vilified on Pump Clip Parade, the online rogues’ gallery of misadvised beer branding. So my mind goes back to that statue of Brabo on the Grote Markt in Antwerp, sculpted by Jef Lambeaux in 1887.

Low Countries folklore is full of stories of giants, or reuzen in Dutch, a particularly frightening notion in such a flat landscape. One such reus, by the unlikely name of Druon Antigoon, guarded the river Schelde at Antwerp, extorting tolls from people crossing the river. He was notorious for cutting off the hands of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, and throwing them into the water.

The giant was finally slain by a brave Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, who exacted poetic justice by cutting off and throwing away the giant’s own hand. Unreliable folk etymology attributes the name of the province and former duchy of Brabant to Brabo, and the name of the city to his deed – hand werpen in Dutch means to throw a hand, and sounds a bit like ‘Antwerpen’, the city’s Dutch name.

I doubt I will metaphorically slay my competitors, the giants of beer writing like Brown and Tierney-Jones, nor do I have any desire to amputate their writing hands and lob them in the Taf or the Thames. But Brabo still sounds a good name for a beer.

For more about the brewday itself, see the next part.

The Brewing of Brabo 2: The Brains behind the operation

Y ddraig goch welcomes you to Brains brewery in Cardiff.

Y ddraig goch welcomes you to Brains brewery in Cardiff.

At the end of October 2013 I spent a very pleasant and interesting day at S A Brain in Cardiff, helping create my first ever collaboration beer, Brabo, on the Brains Craft Brewery. This piece, which I’m publishing in several parts, documents the experience in detail — you might find it interesting as an insight into the process of brewing, Brains brewery and the craft brewery project, and the origins of the spéciale belge style of Belgian pale ale. This section on the Brains brewery and its ‘craft’ offshoot was preceded by an introduction; later sections will cover developing the recipe and the brewday itself.

Brains Craft Brewery is itself an interesting project, demonstrating one way Britain’s remaining stock of old established independent family brewers is responding to the changing market for speciality beer, and in particular the emergence of so-called ‘craft’ beer as a distinct product category.

Rather than simply stamp that slippery word on the same-old same-old, the Welsh brewer has taken the trouble not only to create an additional facility small enough to make experimentation economical, but actively sought to engage with opinion formers and consumers.

It’s a particularly striking departure as previously Brains’ image was rather staid and traditional. Founded in 1882, S A Brain & Co Ltd is still in the hands of descendants of the uncle and nephew team who developed the original brewery site on St Mary Street in Cardiff city centre. It’s been best known in the post-CAMRA era for two classic but very traditional cask ales – SA, a distinctive best bitter, and a mild simply designated Dark.

Its bread and butter beer was for decades its ordinary bitter, but this has recently been overtaken by dark bitter The Rev. James. Ironically this is a beer inherited from former arch rival Crown Buckley of Llanelli, which Brains bought out and closed down in 1998. Located in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium, the brewery is also known for a long and very successful link with Welsh rugby union and such is the demand for its beers during important matches that brewing schedules are planned around the national team’s fixtures calendar.

A brewery on a wet Welsh autumn morning. Brains, Cardiff, October 2013.

A brewery on a wet Welsh autumn morning. Brains, Cardiff, October 2013.

As one of only two surviving historic independents in Wales, Brains is a remarkable and persistent survivor in a country once swamped by national groups. In 2000 the family got the last laugh on another once bitter rival, Bass, as the iconic Burton brewer fell to Interbrew and Coors (now AB InBev and Molson Coors).

Abandoning its historic site for redevelopment as a retail complex at a time the Welsh capital was on the up following devolution, Brains snapped up Bass’s Cardiff facility, the old Hancock’s brewery, on the other side of the main railway line. This is a much larger site with a capacity well beyond the current demand for Brains’ own brands, so the company has developed a profitable second business in contract brewing, mainly on behalf of multinationals.

Now the craft brewery is diversifying the portfolio further. It happened thanks to a strong alliance between brewing and marketing – a relationship that doesn’t always run smoothly in bigger breweries, but in this case both sides were keen to tap the growing market for distinctive and unusual beers in a variety of styles.

As an old school vertically integrated brewer, Brains also had its own 270-strong pub estate with a ready market for seasonals and guest beers. The problem was that when the smallest batch you can brew is 150 barrels (245hl), experimenting is a risky business. So the case emerged for a smaller pilot plant, and luckily there was an obvious opportunity to create one.

Bill Dobson expertly flies the Brains Craft Brewery kit.

Bill Dobson expertly flies the Brains Craft Brewery kit. An ancient disused mash tun took up twice this space, and more on the floors below.

Right in the middle of the brewery was an old and crumbling cast iron mash tun, disused and sealed since Hancocks days. Head brewer Bill Dobson made the case not only for clearing the obstruction but creating space for a more nimble installation.

Getting rid of the tun was an involved business that eventually cost more than its replacement: like many vessels in the old Victorian tower brewery it penetrated through several floors and the girders on which it rested were packed with asbestos.

When the lid was finally removed the staff were hoping for a dramatic discovery, the skeleton of a drowned brewer, perhaps, or a few cases of ancient barley wine, but it turned out to be clean and empty. “Not even a dead rat,” recalls Bill.

The craft brewery now occupies exactly half the area taken up by the old vessel, but just on the uppermost floor of the main brewery building. Fabricated to Bill’s own specification in collaboration with George Thompson of Willis European near Derby, it’s a standard British-style microbrewery with two main vessels, a mash tun and a copper, with a brew length of 15 barrels (25hl). On the floor below is a small underback made from a converted keg.

Not a prop from a 1950s science fiction film but the underback at Brains Craft Brewery, made from an old keg.

Not a prop from a 1950s science fiction film but the underback at Brains Craft Brewery, made from an old keg.

The brewery stands right next to one of the full size 250 barrel (400hl) mash tuns used for brands like Brains Bitter and Rev. James, and, unusually for a brewery of these dimensions, is fully integrated with the main brewery systems and services, an advantage a big brewer has over a standalone microbrewery.

“If we’d built it in an outhouse off in a corner somewhere,” says Bill, “it would have needed its own heating and supplies, but here it can benefit from the same economies of scales as the rest of the operation.” So the copper is heated by steam pipes from Brains’ central supply, and the whole kit is plugged into the same pipework that moves essential liquids around the entire site.

Reinventing the brand: Brains Craft Brewery distinguishes itself from its parent. Pic: Brains.

Reinventing the brand: Brains Craft Brewery distinguishes itself from its parent. Pic: Brains.

The new kit was up and running early in 2012 and right from the beginning it operated under its own distinct Brains Craft Brewery brand. There’s a separate website and visual identity, presenting a quirky, light hearted, more cosmopolitan alternative to the main brand with its rather stern and decidedly Welsh ddraig goch (red dragon).

The beers produced have run the gamut of styles, with wheat beers, green hop ales, fruit beers, golden ales featuring oatmeal, black IPAs, honey beers inspired by traditional bragawd (bragget), saisons, tripels, imperial stouts and even a chocolate beer with added bacon.

Beer writers and bloggers are cultivated by inviting them to collaborate on beers for an annual competition, judged on the day of the British Guild of Beer Writers dinner and awards ceremony in December. Last year the theme was IPAs, and two beers from that batch have since graduated to the grownup brewery, though retain the Craft Brewery branding. These are Barry Island IPA, created with cult video blogger Simon Martin; and competition winner Boilermaker, a US-style IPA matured on oak chips infused with Penderyn single malt Welsh whisky, created with Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland.

This year I’ve made the list of invitees, charged with helping create a ‘continental’ style. There have been other collaborations too, including with Brains’ licensees and pub staff.

Bill Dobson taking a sample from the Brains Craft Brewery. Pic: Brains.

Bill Dobson taking a sample from the Brains Craft Brewery. Pic: Brains.

Bill’s enthusiasm is clearly a major driver. A keen cyclist and jam maker as well as a brewer, Bill found himself on surprisingly familiar ground when he moved to Cardiff. Trained as a chemical engineer, he went straight into a job at the old Ind Coope brewery in Burton upon Trent, then owned by Carlsberg-Tetley.

“When I graduated I was offered two jobs, one at Cadbury’s and one at Carlsberg, so I chose beer over chocolate,” he recalls. “Carlsberg owned the Firkin chain back then, so I got a chance to brew on small kits when they sent me out to the Firkins.”

When Carlsberg sold its Burton brewery to next door neighbour Bass in 1997, Bill transferred to the new owner. With the additional capacity at Burton, Bass decided its Cardiff plant, then used for the Worthington brands, was surplus to requirements, and Bill was one of the team sent to organise the transfer of production. In the end the Cardiff brewery remained open as Brains took it on, and a few years later Bill found himself back there as head brewer.

Now he’s lucky to have the best of both worlds – on the main brewery he’s mainly a manager, with a team of hands-on staff, while on the craft brewery he gets to do the cooking. And unlike his colleagues in the standalone microbrewery sector, he just has to concentrate on brewing, while all the other bothersome stuff that goes with running a commercial brewery – HR, logistics, marketing, finance – goes on elsewhere.

Read more about developing the recipe for my beer in the next part.

The Brewing of Brabo 1: Spent grains

Brains head brewer Bill Dobson (left) with the author in front of the Brains Craft Brewery, Cardiff, Wales.

Two hungry brewers: Brains head brewer Bill Dobson (left) with the author in front of the Brains Craft Brewery, Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Ffion Jones.

At the end of October 2013 I spent a very pleasant and interesting day at S A Brain in Cardiff, helping create my first ever collaboration beer, Brabo, on the Brains Craft Brewery. This piece, which I’m publishing in several parts, documents the experience in detail — you might find it interesting as an insight into the process of brewing, Brains brewery and the craft brewery project, and the origins of the spéciale belge style of Belgian pale ale. This introduction will be followed by sections on the brewery, developing the recipe and the brewday itself.

This is supposed to be a collaboration but I’m already feeling a little guilty for my lack of effort, if not quite surplus to requirements. All morning, sprightly head brewer Bill Dobson, has been bouncing around his pride and joy, the Brains Craft Brewery pilot kit, tweaking taps and levers here, checking temperatures there, coaxing into existence a beer that, a few weeks from now, will have my name on the label.

My only previous experience of brewing was a couple of Boots homebrew kits back in my teenage years, the greatest distinction of which was to produce the only booze left undrunk at the end of the party, outlasting even the oversweet artichoke liqueur someone had brought back from a Mediterranean package holiday. And I’ve often said that while I’m happy to write about beer, with so many fantastic brewers in the world, I’d rather leave the making of it to the experts, so no wonder I’m standing on the sidelines.

What it’s like when all the collaborators are actual brewers? Do they naturally fall into each other’s rhythm of temperature rests and hop additions? Or do they quarrel and get under each other’s feet, elbowing for control of valves and thermostats and sneaking in handfuls of hops behind each other’s backs?

I’d already suspected I was getting off lightly. I was steeling myself for the industry’s traditional early start, so was surprised when asked to present myself at the brewery gates at a relatively tardy 0800hrs. And then when out for a drink the night before we bumped into several of the S A Brain’s senior executives, including chairman John Rhys, who was due to brew on the craft brewery himself the following week.

“Eight o’clock?” he spluttered indignantly “They’re making me get there by seven.” Sure enough, Bill was in action long before I arrived, and already had the grist poised for mashing in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unengaged or bored – I contributed to the recipe and now I’m fascinated with every detail of the tortuously complicated process of extracting one of the world’s greatest drinks from a soup of breakfast cereal, hedgerow weeds and fungal spores.

I know this process. I’ve been able to recite the sequence of mash-sparge-boil-pitch-ferment-condition and talk knowledgeably about grist, liquor and wort since I first read the Good Beer Guide in the early 1980s, studying its quaint flow diagrams and brewery cutaways in faux Victorian style.

Spent grain destined for cattle feed waiting to be scraped out by hand at Brains Craft Brewery.

Spent grain destined for cattle feed waiting to be scraped out by hand at Brains Craft Brewery.

Since then I’ve visited lots of breweries and talked to lots of brewers. But I’ve never seen brewing in action from beginning to end, so this is a great opportunity, with all sorts of unexpected observations along the way. It’s just that I feel I’m letting Bill do all the work.

And then, with the wort safely heating in the copper, it’s time to clear out the mash tun. Now the liquid containing its precious fermentable sugars has been drained away, almost half a tonne of grain has sunk down into a steaming mass not far off the consistency of concrete.

Bill’s big grownup mash tuns nearby are equipped with mechanical paddles to scrape this stuff out but here in the craft brewery it has to be done by hand through a hatch at the bottom of the vessel. I’m handed a rake, while Bill wields an instrument that, though with a plastic blade, bears a remarkable resemblance to the eponymous spade adorning the logo of Munich’s historic Spaten brewery.

I don’t think I’ve done so much sustained physical labour for years. It takes a good 20 minutes to get the spent grain down a chute in the floor which leads to a conveyor belt beneath – eventually it’ll end up with every last scrap of carbohydrate extracted in the efficient stomachs of cattle.

Meanwhile we’re in need of carbohydrates ourselves, so Bill phones down to Ffion Jones, Brains’ assistant brand manager, to say we’re ready for lunch. “You’ve got two hungry brewers up here,” he says. I modestly suggest I’m not really entitled to that designation.

“Well,” says Bill, “you’ve scraped out your first mash tun. I’d say that makes you a brewer.”

Yes, I think proudly, pondering my complaining biceps. Perhaps it does.

Read the next part of this piece for more on the background to S A Brain and the Craft Brewery.

Murnau: Beer from the Blue Land

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962), Stillleben mit Vase, Flaschen und Zweigen eines Vogelbeerbaumes (Still life with vases, bottles and rowan branch), 1908/09. Did any of these vessels contain beer?

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962),
Stillleben mit Vase, Flaschen und Zweigen eines Vogelbeerbaumes (Still life with vases, bottles and rowan branch), 1908/09. Did any of these vessels contain beer?

When dedicated beer tourists descend on Bavaria, they tend to head north, for Bamberg and the bucolic Bierkellern of Upper Franconia, where the concentration of breweries per square kilometre is famously the densest in the world. But anywhere you go in this most beer friendly of German Länder, something of interest is never far away. Even the ubiquitous big Munich breweries, most now in the grip of multinationals, still turn out beers of at least passable standard.

Oberbayern, or Upper Bavaria, is the historic core of the former kingdom – Franconia, for all its fame, only became part of Bavaria in 1803. Oberbayern is a triangular area with Munich (München) at its centre, and it gets its name from its higher elevation. Around the state capital the countryside is relatively flat, but head south and it’s not long before the land starts rising and falling before clambering to the cracked and jagged heights of the Alps, where the mighty Zugspitze – Germany’s highest peak at 2,962m – guards the border with Austria.

This is the Bavaria of the tourist brochures, where the whitewashed walls of shallow roofed houses bear religious paintings and homilies in Gothic script, and the locals obligingly wear Lederhosen and felt hats stuck with feathers when popping out to the post office. Numerous lakes hide among the lower peaks of the Voralpen, creating jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas of placid blue waters and fertile flower meadows surrounded by rugged snow-capped peaks. The natural beauty is reason enough to visit, but the region is also known for its health spas and Kuren, and Germans are as likely to come to recuperate as to walk, cycle or gaze.

Sign at Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern, Germany.

Sign at Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern, Germany.

Murnau am Staffelsee is one of the region’s principal centres, originally a waypoint on the Roman road to the Brenner pass and now a pretty little town in an idyllic setting just above the lake known as the Staffelsee, with excellent rail connections. The local tourist board markets the town and its hinterland as das Blaue Land, the Blue Land, exploiting its connection to the early 20th century group of Expressionist artists known as der Blaue Reiter, the Blue Rider, led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Kandinsky’s partner and fellow artist Gabriele Münter lived in Murnau and her house is now a visitor attraction, while her work helps draw the crowds to the Schloßmuseum. Münter entertained numerous other arty notables here, including Paul Klee and Arnold Schoenberg, until driven out by the Nazis.

Back then, the town had nine breweries and brewpubs. As the century drew to a close, only wheat beer brewery Karg remained, though since 2000 brewing has been restored with great success at one of the old brewpubs, Griesbräu. Murnau is no Bamberg, but between them Karg and Griesbräu, each at different ends of the picturesque market street that bisects the town, well reward the beer explorer. Both in their own way demonstrate how Germany’s notoriously traditional and conservative brewing industry is subtly adapting to contemporary trends.

In a country where breweries regularly claim several centuries of tradition, Karg is a relative newcomer. It was opened in 1899 on the Lederergasse, in the shadow of the typically southern German St Nicholas church. Andreas Karg bought the brewery in 1912 and his grandson, Franz Schubert (no relation to the similarly named Austrian composer and songwriter, as far as I’m aware), has presided since 1977, following a stint at Kloster Andechs. In recent years, Franz has run the business jointly with his daughter Victoria.

Brauerei Karg, Lederergasse, Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern.

Brauerei Karg, Ledergasse, Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern.

Head down the Untermarkt, the southern part of the main drag, and you’ll find the Karg Bräustüberl or brewery tap at number 27. The view, with the mountains looming ahead, is very much as it looks on Karg’s labels, where it’s ringed with the blue and white checkers of the Bavarian flag. Lederergasse runs near parallel at this point and the brewery itself is just across the road at the back of the pub. It’s an unremarkable but not unattractive building with windows giving a view of the brewing vessels from the street, a compact and businesslike old-style town centre brewery, though with up to date and automated equipment.

Karg once brewed the full spectrum of Bavarian beer styles but in 1980 Franz decided to concentrate on warm fermenting wheat beers, and with notable success. Its lengthy stint as the town’s only brewer has given Karg a local cachet and a strong regional customer base, but it also ships its beer to the rest of Germany and other countries, including the UK and US, producing a total of 10,000hl a year. I’ve long thought of it as a producer of tasty and interesting minor classics in the traditional Weizenbier style, but recent developments indicate the brewery is willing to push that particular envelope and it’s likely to become even more interesting in future.

I didn’t pre-arrange a visit and called at a time when the Bräustüberl was closed for refurbishment following the retirement of a longstanding landlord. But poking around looking for off sales I bumped into Victoria Schubert herself, who somehow found time off from the pressures of the imminent reopening to chat for a while. By then it was too late in the day for a brewery tour – they normally operate for pre-booked groups on Tuesdays.

The Bavarian colours of Karg.

The Bavarian colours of Karg.

Victoria is an enthusiastic and energetic young woman with a broad background in the industry, a qualified beverage industry manager and a beer sommelier. She’s a former Londoner – Meantime was her local brewery when she lived in Greenwich and she’s impressed by their approach and their beers. The refurbished Bräustüberl, which reopened in mid-July, aims to stock international beers as well as Karg’s own brews, and to match them with food, both highly unusual practices in Germany. “Most people round here just drink the beer from Murnau or Munich,” she tells me. “But there are now sensational beers from around the world, and we want to help our customers discover them.”

This international awareness is also rubbing off on Karg’s own beers. A new pale wheat beer, Staffelsee-Gold, was launched last year to celebrate the centenary of family ownership. Despite reviving a brand name last used 60 years ago, this is a contemporary creation, describing itself as stark gehopt, strongly hopped. While it’s unlikely to challenge hopheads schooled on double IPAs, it’s strikingly assertive by local standards, and the hops used – notably English-grown Cascade – lend vivid floral and citrusy tones quite different from the subtle grassiness of more traditionally Germanic ‘noble’ varieties, adding further layers of complexity to the fruitiness of the Karg yeast. The combination has proved a winner with customers and the beer, originally a one-off special, is becoming a permanent addition to the range. Read tasting notes.

The lovely shaded courtyard at Griesbräu, Murnau.

The lovely shaded courtyard at Griesbräu, Murnau.

To find Murnau’s second brewing gem you need to turn your back reluctantly on the mountains and head in the opposite direction to reach Obermarkt 37. While the current brewery is a 21st century addition, the site can claim a history considerably longer than Karg’s. There’s been a hostelry here for centuries, and brewing since at least 1676. The old brewpub was built from distinctive gravelly stone, hence the name Griesbräu, from an old local word for gravel (Kies in modern German). That building was destroyed in a massive fire in 1835, along with most of the street, so the quaint mediaeval-style façades seen today are actually more recent rebuilds.

Griesbräu was rebuilt in its current sprawling form in 1836, and brewing continued until 1917 when the business was bought out by the Thomas brewery of Munich, later absorbed by Paulaner. Brewing ceased, though the building continued in use as a big pub and hotel. In 1922 the Gilg family took over the running of the place and in 1997 the latest generation, Michael Gilg and his wife Barbara, found themselves in charge.

Beer from the vaults. Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee.

Beer from the vaults. Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee.

Michael was then still in his early 20s, and the concept of business as usual didn’t make sense, for all that his inheritance was a local institution that counted Kandinsky and Münter among its former regulars. “By that time it was clear,” he recently told a local magazine, “that we had to modernise.” The complex included a big vaulted space used as a storeroom, but Michael saw the potential to convert it into a brewpub, preserving a traditional atmosphere alongside a modern brewery and more contemporary beers.

The reinvented Griesbräu opened in 2000 and very impressive it is too. Head through the coaching arch with its filigree metal sign to find yourself in a delightful courtyard beer garden insulated from the bustle of the street by those solid early 19th century buildings and the dappled shade of trees. Big picture windows in front of you reveal the brewhouse. The hotel, restaurant and lagering hall are off to the right but allow yourself to be lured by the gleam of copper into the pub.

The interior has bare brick walls and typically simple but sociable chunky wooden tables, its vaulted ceiling festooned with hops. It’s spacious and might be cavernous, but good design keeps it friendly and inviting as a place to linger. The natural elegance of the brick arches helps achieve an effect that’s pleasingly clean, simple and contemporary though gemütlich enough to tempt the more conservative locals to cram its wooden benches with their well-stuffed Lederhosen. A food buffet dispenses hearty local cuisine at very reasonable prices, with a surprisingly impressive array of vegetarian options alongside substantial chunks of poultry and meat, and bread made with spent grains.

Hearty -- and vegetarian -- fare at Griesbräu.

Hearty — and vegetarian — fare at Griesbräu.

The computer controlled 10hl kit springs to life two or three times a week. It’s a typical modern German microbrewery, with only two vessels, a mash tun/copper and a lauter tun, and a whirlpool in the cellar beneath. It produces three regular beers – a helles, a dunkles and a Weizenbier – plus a changing seasonal, served unpasteurised and unfiltered in the pub or to carry out in hand filled and labelled 1l Maurerflaschen (flip top bottles). All are impressive – the full bodied, perfumed helles is outstanding – but the brewery is also noteworthy in its realisation that it can no longer take the appreciation of the Bavarian beer drinker for granted.

Every month Michael Gilg gives Bierseminaren, introducing customers to brewing techniques and the varied flavours of his beers and rewarding them with a Bierkennerdiplom (Beer Expert Diploma). He’s also not afraid to stretch the locals’ accustomed tastes – this year’s summer seasonal, a golden wheat beer called Sommerfrische, came bursting with aromas of Amarillo and Citra hops. And if a beer seminar sounds forbiddingly academic, be reassured by Griesbräu’s strapline, “Wo´s Bier Spaß macht!” – Where beer is fun. Read tasting notes.

I’m grateful to Ramblers Worldwide Holidays for my Bavarian trip – you can read more about it in a future issue of BEER magazine.

Griesbräu Hell, Sommerfrisch and Werdenfelser Ur-Dunkel

Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern, Germany.

Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern, Germany.

ABV: 5.1%, 5% and 4.8%
Origin: Murnau am Staffelsee, Bayern, Germany
Website: www.griesbraeu.de

Griesbräu zum Murnau is a sprawling historic inn in Murnau, on the edge of the Bavarian Alps, that was once patronised by Blaue Reiter artists Vassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter. Like many such establishments it long boasted its own brewery, thus the name — which it continued to use even after one of the emerging Munich giants swallowed it up and shut down brewing in 1917.

Since 2000, it has lived up to its name once again: an in-house microbrewery was installed during a major refurbishment, and now produces some impressive beers to enjoy in a very attractive environment. Alongside wheat beer specialist Karg, it’s one of two breweries in Murnau, both of which I investigated on a recent visit: read more here.

I’m always heartened by a brewery that has obviously taken great care to get its standard everyday beer right, and Griesbräu is an excellent example. Helles, the soft, not too hoppy, pale lager that is the backbone of much south German beer culture, may not be the world’s most cutting edge and exciting style, but at its best it’s a perfect example of how beer can match seductive complexity with the power to refresh.

Griesbräu Helles

Griesbräu Helles

Griesbräu Hell hits the spot perfectly. It’s fermented for seven days, lagered for up to six weeks and, served unfiltered and unpasteurised fresh from the tank, it arrives a hazy deep blond with a thick and very fine whipped cream head. A fecund, lightly yeasty aroma has gentle citric notes and a spicy hop character.

The palate is beautifully soft and lightly marmaladey around the edges, with a relatively gentle carbonation allowing the appreciation of a complexity that also stretches to light peach tones and nutmeg. The finish is slightly plainer by comparison, with more citrus and spice, lightly chewy malt and slightly more assertive hop bitterness than you might expect. My glass held a full bodied and very well integrated beer that was skilfully made and matured to perfection.

Werdenfelser Ur-Dunkel, named after the wealthy mediaeval county that once covered the area and a now-rare breed of local cattle, is a worthy companion piece. A hazy deep amber beer with a light yellow head, it has rich cereal malt on the aroma underlying notes of dates and redcurrants.

Glasses on parade at Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee.

Glasses on parade at Griesbräu, Murnau am Staffelsee.

The palate is also sumptuously malty, with chocolate, figs and raisins, leading to a lightly tangy finish with a gentle hint of bittering roast layered with grassy hops. It’s another chewy and substantial brew.

Earlier I’d been down the road at Karg chatting to co-owner Victoria Schubert about a new beer with Cascade hops, so perhaps I should have been expecting to find Murnau’s other brewery exploring more exotic hop varieties too, but even so the whiff of the New World that emerged from my glass of summer seasonal Sommerfrische was a pleasant surprise. New for this year, it’s a slightly darker variant on the brewery’s regular wheat beer, warm amber in colour with a rich off-white head clinging to the glass.

A very herbal and fruity aroma has notes of tropical fruit, citrus and ripe apricots, with a slightly soapy perfume. The palate is intensely spicy and fruity, with more tropical fruit and very ripe stone fruit alongside sweet orange and lavender, locked together by a smooth malty base. The finish stops short of cloying with fruity overkill, leaving a lightly bitter and spicy trace against a fresh cereal backdrop.

Curiously nutty regular wheat beer Griesbräu Weisse is also well worth exploring — some fans rate it the brewery’s best but I found the other beers just pipped it at the post.