Is having an opinion ‘noisome’?

Roger Protz – beer writer and editor of the Good Beer Guide – isn’t short of an opinion or two, which he frequently displays in his monthly column in What’s Brewing?. When I read his latest column in the April edition of CAMRA’s newspaper I had to suppress more than a chuckle at his closing paragraph. The piece was about one of the more major thorns currently stuck in the side of the Campaign – the lumbering gas-powered monstrosity of keg beer.

We’ve steered clear of the subject here at the BeerCast until now – there are many more eloquent articles on the whole cask vs keg debate around (an entire Session devoted to it, for example). Personally I tend to go with the flow (slight pun intended) and think it’s all a matter of horses for courses – I love cask, but not at the expense of keg – or bottle, can, plastic cup, Nordic drinking horn etc etc.

But something about Roger’s parting shot compelled me to post on the matter. His article revolved around the fact that CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in their 40th year of existence are now apparently ‘under fire’ for not embracing keg beer. Here’s a quote…

“Far from joining hands with CAMRA round the birthday cake, some craft brewers and beer writers have chosen this year of all years to attack the campaign for – and I almost have to suspend disbelief as I type these words – refusing to embrace keg beer.”

“At the risk of patronising them, many weren’t born or were too young to appreciate just how dire the beer scene was in the early 1970’s. The likes of Watney’s Red, Worthington E and Double Diamond were spreading like some dreadful bacillus across the country. Breweries were either closing or switching to keg production.”

“Today there are more than 700 breweries, four times as many as when the campaign was launched in 1971. Total beer volume may have declined, but choice and diversity have never been greater.”

Right – firstly I am a CAMRA member, enjoy reading the publications and going to the festivals – and as I was born in 1976 I have no recollection of Watney’s Red Barrel (always infamously mentioned as the nadir of British beer drinking). My first ‘real’ beer was cheap pints of Boddington’s in the only pub in Preston that would serve us – the Sherwood, just behind Fulwood ASDA (only time I was asked for ID – my 18th birthday).

I think we all agree that the current UK brewing industry is – Government interference notwithstanding – doing pretty well, considering the circumstances. Whether that’s all down to CAMRA or just that they were there at the beginning, I have no idea. But as more breweries arrive, the need for them to differentiate from each other increases. Coupled with the drinking public’s greater beer education, the demand for beer that isn’t just brown also increases – hence the rise in diversity.

Roger continues…

“And yet, in spite of these facts, CAMRA is being criticised for refusing to embrace keg beer. It seems scarcely credible, yet the question of CAMRA and keg raised its over-carbonated head at the annual SIBA conference in February. Some SIBA members are either making keg beer or are considering doing so and wanted to know what the Campaign’s attitude would be. My reply – and it was a personal one – was that if some brewers want to make keg they are perfectly free to do so but, given the current success of cask beer, I thought they would do better to concentrate on real ale.”

Fair enough here – Roger was asked what looks potentially like a leading question at the SIBA conference, and batted it back with a classic forward defensive. But these cask ale brewers who are experimenting with keg – because that’s how breweries innovate, through experimentation – are apparently out of bounds for asking CAMRA what their attitude was to this?

“The result – not so much from SIBA members but from a few beer writers on their blogs – is that CAMRA is a restrictive organisation and should rethink its attitude to keg. They should remove the blinkers from their eyes. The GBBF is the only major festival I know that serves beers from other countries and many of these products are not necessarily real ale by our definition. But, belt and braces, CAMRA is fundamentally about cask beer, a style that would have disappeared 40 years ago but for our collective effort. And some of the noisome bloggers would have little to write about if CAMRA hadn’t raised the banner for good beer. Keep the faith…”

And that’s how the article ends. Eh? Just who are these noisome bloggers? Roger sounds a little like Henry II there – I doubt anyone will rid him of the troublesome scribblers anytime soon. I know a bit about beer. I can appreciate what CAMRA stood for then, and what they stand for now. I can also appreciate that this stance hasn’t changed over the intervening 40yrs. Good for them – cask ale is British and is fantastic.

But – people like to drink kegged beer. Sorry Roger, but it’s true. And we like to write about it. I know producers like BrewDog are anathema to CAMRA (and Roger has had his run in with the Fraserburgh outfit in the past ) – but they, and others like them, make some great beer – irrespective of the method of dispense. Take a look at our last few posts – BrewDog (keg), Kernel (bottle), Thornbridge (cask), WEST (keg), Stewart (cask). This is the modern British brewing scene – whether you think that bloggers are noisome, loathsome or awesome, we’ll still be writing about it.

BeerCast #59 – IPA is Dead

Last month Fraserburgh’s BrewDog released a series of four India Pale Ales to showcase the wonderful versatility of hops. Being BrewDog, they called it IPA is Dead, and bottled the four base IPA’s after having kettle and then dry hopped each of them with a single variety. Bramling Cross, Nelson Sauvin, Sorachi Ace and Citra are the hops involved – each added to a beer with the same malt content – and all brewed to 7.5% and 75IBU. We got hold of a pack, and assembled our team to discuss whether this means the end for IPA’s – or just another beginning. On the panel this time are Richard, Shovels, Grooben, and (fast becoming a regular) Stuart. We also added a bonus beer for comparison – another single hopped IPA – Kernel India Pale Ale Citra (7.2%). Stand by for big scores, big discussions, and the best way of cleaning a lion’s cage…

1. IPA is Dead Bramling X (7.5%abv)
BrewDog, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.
330ml glass bottle

Hailing from the hop gardens of south-east England, Bramling Cross was developed at Wye College in 1927 by a Professor Salmon. The name comes from the Golding variety Bramling being crossed with a wild Manitoban hop from Canada. Giving strong spicy blackcurrant characters, it has a relatively low alpha acid content at 5-7%, meaning more need to be added to give a bitter effect. Commonly used for cask bitters, BrewDog avoided comparisons with the beer they love to hate by upping the hop load and calling the beer Bramling X.

What They Say
“Good old Bramling Cross is elegant, refined, assured, (boring) and understated. Understated that is unless you hop the living daylights out of a beer with it. This is Bramling Cross re-invented and re-imagined and shows just what can be done with English hops if you use enough of them.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Grooben – Grapefruity aroma, leafy autumnal undertones 8
Shovels – Quite an earthy hop, good but not blowing me away 7
Richard – Fruity, then more rich berry fruit as it warms 7
Stu – I love the fruitiness and I’d be happy with four of these 7

2. IPA is Dead Nelson Sauvin (7.5%abv)
BrewDog, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.
330ml glass bottle

Back in 2000, the New Zealand based Hort Research crossed two older NZ hop varieties at their base in the south island city of Nelson. Such was the grape-like flavour the new hop imparted, they called it Nelson Sauvin. White wine and crisp fruitiness are the order of the day here – BrewDog already use large amounts of Nelson Sauvin making one of their most popular core beers, 5am Saint

What They Say
“Nelson is a love it or hate it kinda hop. We are cool with that, if we wanted to keep everyone happy we would be brewing Fosters anyway. Sharp as a razor, this New Zealand hop slices its way through your taste buds and is brutally resinous, almost scraping the intense flavours of passion fruit along your poor tongue.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Shovels – Don’t get wine from this, but I do get lots of grapefruit 7
Grooben – A bastard lovechild of Trashy Blonde and 5AM Saint 6
Richard – The wineyness gives way to grapefruit, but it then gets too sweet, and grapefruity beers should be bitter
Stu – One or two sips is Ok, but it goes a bit far for me 5

3. IPA is Dead Sorachi Ace (7.5%abv)
BrewDog, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.
330ml glass bottle

Sorachi Ace is the wildcard and the joker of the hop pack rolled into one. Developed for Sapporo in Japan, it first came to real prominence elsewhere during the global hop shortage of 2007, when necessity meant other alternatives had to be explored. Why is it unusual? Some of the other UK bloggers who have sampled IPA is Dead have used the following terms to try and sum it up – soap, musky caramel, creamy butter, orange peel, herbal, undrinkable nettle-flavoured cat pee (is there a drinkable nettle cat pee?)…

What They Say
“A hop that tastes of bubble gum? Seriously? No, we did not believe it either. But it does! This is one unique, son of a bitch of a hop. Lemony, deep, musty with a smoothness which belies its power. This hop is lemony like a lemon who was angry earlier but is now tired because of all the rage.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Richard – Tastes like lemon cheesecake, every sip is nice and then not nice, it’s fascinatingly interesting 8
Grooben – Synthetic, perfumy, with the alcohol coming through 7
Shovels – I’m not sure I like it but I’m not sure I don’t like it 6
Stu – I wouldn’t sit down in front of the telly with it 4

4. IPA is Dead Citra (7.5%abv)
BrewDog, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.
330ml glass bottle

Finally Citra – definitely the hop du jour. Only developed three years ago – by the mighty Sierra Nevada (who know a thing or two about hops) – it was first presented at the 2008 World Brewing Congress. RateBeer has 63 beers on its rankings with the word Citra in the title (so that’s not including those that simply have it somewhere in the recipe). It has taken off in a big way – easy to see why with the pure Pacific US flavours, Citra imparts flavours of pretty much every zingy fruit you can think of.

What They Say
“The Pacific North West of America is home to the Citra hop. America is not just about cheer leaders, a silly version of football, elastic top jeans and cheeseburgers. They grow remarkable hops and Citra is a killer example of this, embodying all that is good about American hops and then some.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Stu – This is absolutely my style of beer, I love it 9
Shovels – Citrusy hops are great because they are so cleansing 8
Grooben – Limey overtones, the most full-on fruity of the four 8
Richard – From start to finish it’s straight up tropical fruit

5. Kernel IPA Citra (7.2%abv)
The Kernel Brewery, Bermondsey, London.
330ml glass bottle

Finally, we put the Kernel cat among the BrewDog pigeons by adding a bonus beer at the last minute. To compare directly with the previous beer, we sample Kernel’s single-hopped Citra IPA and note the differences. Brewing in south London, Evin O’Riordain has come up with some stunning beers over the last year and a half – see our Kernel showcase for a few of them. Will the Citra live up to the others?

What We Say
Richard – I think that’s the perfect IPA, it’s strong, perfectly balanced, is fantastic and I love it 10
Stu – Some sweetness but this is just that touch more refined
Shovels – Subtlety to it, the hops aren’t that overpowering
Grooben – Not quite the crazy tropical fruit, tastes balanced

– (clockwise from top left) Richard, Shovels, Stuart, Grooben

BeerCast panel verdict
Kernel IPA Citra (36½/40)
BrewDog IPA is Dead Citra (32½/40)
BrewDog IPA is Dead Bramling X (29/40)
BrewDog IPA is Dead Sorachi Ace (25/40)
BrewDog IPA is Dead Nelson Sauvin (23½/40)

  • Listen to the episode here: BeerCast #59 – IPA is Dead
  • Subscribe to the podcasts in iTunes or our Site Feed
  • Our next BeerCast podcast is another brewery showcase, as we sample the three beers produced by Warwickshire’s Purity Brewery. Stay tuned for that, and look for Kernel IPA Citra to possibly make a run all the way to our 2011 Beer of the Year show in December.

    Mikkeller vs Kernel – coffee IPA battle

    Mikkeller Koppi not pictured…

    One of the inevitable consequences of pushing the limits of conventional brewing is the blurring of boundaries. Styles are merged, blended or just ignored completely. New ingredients arrive by the dozen, are integrated into a dozen more different beers, and then potentially endless varieties of hops, malt and strains of yeast are involved. In short – these days anything goes.

    One of the must-brew styles of 2010 was the Black IPA – several hit the shelves over the course of last year. Experimentation is fantastic. Who’s to say that an India Pale Ale needs to be pale? Admittedly the clue is in the question, but then the rush of Cascadian Dark Ales provides a handy bracket for those concerned with semantics. Recently I managed to get hold of two examples (the only two on RateBeer – although there may be others) of a similarly oxymoronic style – the Coffee IPA.

    For years coffee has been the reserve of dark beers – lending that lovely astringent roasty bitterness to stouts, porters and big imperials. But why not stick some in an IPA? It’s no co-incidence that the two breweries who did just that are known for their unorthodox approach to brewing, and their willingness to experiment. But how do the beers compare to each other? Only one way to find out…

    Firstly we have the European challenger from the near-iconic Danish producer Mikkeller. Operated by one man – Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – brewing’s most celebrated cuckoo brewer (or gypsy-brewer as he calls himself) produces small runs of almost countless beers, working with the equipment of other breweries. Flitting from mash tun to mash tun gives him astonishing scope – last year Mikkeller released 76 beers.

    His coffee IPA is the wonderfully named Koppi Tomahawk x Guji Natural Coffee (6.9%) – which reveals both the hop used (Tomahawk) and the coffee (Ethiopian Guji). It has plenty of coffee on the nose – smelling like a cold coffee that has sat for a while. There’s less on the taste – it’s bitter rather than harsh, and the coffee start gradually gives way to the hops for the decent IPA-like finish.

    The other challenger doesn’t scrimp on the lettering either – Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA (6.5%) was released (co-incidentally) only a week or so after the Danish example. Also the labour of one man – affable Irishman Evin O’Riordain – we’ve featured London-based Kernel beers several times here on the BeerCast, and they never disappoint. Suke Quto are a coffee co-operative who also hail from the southern part of Ethiopia – so the results could be quite similar.

    It’s surprising then, that they aren’t. Kernel’s Coffee IPA is firstly much lighter in colour than the Mikkeller – hazy deep gold rather than dark brown – but more importantly it’s the complete reverse in terms of the taste profile. This one is IPA out of the blocks as the hops come charging out first, before midway through the coffee bitterness arrives and pushes aside the first load of flavours. It’s such an odd – and more defined – transition, but it really works.

    So which is better? Well, that’s a pretty tough choice – it’s fascinating that two ostensibly similar beers could be so different. The answer depends on whether you think Coffee IPA should highlight the first half of the term or the second. Without doubt the better IPA is the Kernel – the hops are present in the Danish beer, but only just at the end. However, this probably means that Mikkeller has the better coffee profile. Either way, they are both tremendous – proof that experimentation pays off, and that coffee beers needn’t be dark.

    We weren’t the only people to pair up these two new challengers – Rob at Hopzine also got hold of the Kernel beer. You can read (and watch) what he thought here.

    Beer duty to rise 7.5%

    How much will these cost in September?

    In today’s budget the Chancellor George Osborne announced that beer duty would rise in line with the controversial alcohol duty escalator. “I have no further changes to those measures put in place by the previous government,” he said – retaining the escalator introduced by the previous administration. Roughly speaking, it means duty on beer rises above and with the level of inflation – the figure is currently 2% above – so from midnight on Sunday beer duty will rise by 7.5%.

    UK brewers pay an eye-watering rate of taxation on their products compared with their colleagues in Europe – higher even than the Swedish. Since 2008, duty in this country has increased over 33%. Coupled with the increasing costs of raw materials for brewing, labour costs and petrol for deliveries this latest rise is only going to make it harder for British brewers. CAMRA released a Budget response stating that over a £1 of every pub-bought pint goes to the taxman.

    In December last year, we discussed the Government’s Review of Alcohol Taxation, where it was revealed that the 2011 budget would potentially see duty cut on beers under 2.8%abv and increased on beers over 7.5%abv. Ostensibly to cut down on ‘problem drinking’ – by raising taxes on a sector that constitutes less than 0.5% of British alcohol sales. This was today introduced into the budget by the Chancellor.

    So in September tax on beers over 7.5%abv will go up by a further 25%. Back in our December article we argued that this will have no real impact on ‘problem drinkers’, and that brushing aside the consumers of ‘niche, premium’ products that fall within this category as being ‘not very price sensitive because they already pay a high price’ was insulting.

    We are pledging now that for the whole month of September the BeerCast will only feature beer over 7.5%. Hopefully other bloggers will join us, as we give a boozy two-fingers to the taxman.

    All in all, not a good day to be a beer drinker (or producer).

    Lagerboy Speaks – Thornbridge Italia

    Lagerboy hasn’t had a runout for a while – he tends to spend the winter months hibernating to avoid the plethora of dark beers that appear once the days begin to lengthen. But seeing as the sun has started to peak out from behind the sleety Edinburgh clouds, he set out on a mission to find one of Britain’s newest golden fizzies. Thornbridge Italia (4.8%) has been out for a month or so – and is already winning rave reviews, so it seems like the perfect start to another year of sparkly treats for Lagerboy.

    Thornbridge are one of the prime movers and shakers of the current brewing scene, putting out some fantastic beer and routinely winning awards. Only last week Kipling won a Silver at the national SIBA contest, and Jaipur picked up a bronze at the inaugural SIBA Keg awards. Slightly less impressively – but not to us, of course – their Imperial Russian stout St Petersburg was named one of our best beers of 2010. I’m sure if we’d actually issued an award in physical form it would be nestling proudly on a mantelpiece somewhere in Bakewell.

    Lagerboy would never dare drink an Imperial Russian stout – Baltika would probably be the choice, should he ever find himself east of the Dneiper. Sticking to the lighter, gassier offerings has stood him in good stead in the past – and seeing as Italia was brewed by Thornbridge in collaboration with lagermaster Maurizio Folli of Birrificio Italiano, it was approached with high hopes. Containing Pilsner malt and Hallertau Northern Brewer, Perle and Spalter Select hops it looks every inch the classic pils – pouring a hazy but vibrant lemon yellow with a inch-high fluffy white head.

    The aromas of bitter hop and a slight crisp sweetness are very enticing, with a blast of citrus on the nose for good measure. On the palate there’s some spicy hop and a touch of earthiness, but the biggest impact comes from the citric lemon and lime flavours that erupt over the palate. Combined with an almost creamy mouthfeel, at halfway it reminds you of something like lemon cheesecake. The fruit continues on to the end, when a dry finish rounds off everything. Really very good indeed, if all of Lagerboy’s conquests are like this, 2011 looks like it could be a vintage year.

    BrewDog Edinburgh opens

    The latest addition to the growing BrewDog empire arrived quietly last night, with the laid-back opening of BrewDog Edinburgh. Following the original in Aberdeen, the second branded bar for the Fraserburgh operation opened with a very unBrewDog-like ‘soft’ launch – primarily to check everything worked before the official launch in a few days. The BeerCast were there to check it out of course, it being on our home patch – and a quiet Tuesday night turned into a marathon eleven-beer session. It’s what BrewDog would have wanted.

    Situated in the rough and tumble Cowgate the first impressions are that it’s smaller than I was expecting – and a good deal colder with the crazy aircon maxed out. It looks a treat with all the exposed pipes and reclaimed brickwork, very much the North American brewpub feel about it. BeerCaster MrB – who has also visited the Aberdeen bar – told me it’s very similar in layout and despite what I was saying, is actually larger than their flagship.

    There were a few opening night niggles – the card machines weren’t working, and some of the beers on the menu hadn’t arrived – but everything considered the launch went really smoothly. Speaking of the beer – there’s a lot of choice on offer. Five BrewDog beers on keg font, including the new Punk IPA and the Belgianified Punk Monk – plus three guest imperial stouts (more on them later) and a whole host of bottles.

    Laid out behind the bar – which is unadorned by any cask handpumps, of course – a selection of imported brews from the US, Europe and some select British brewers (such as the Kernel, which unfortunately hadn’t arrived as yet). Priced by the bottle – starting at £4 for a 330ml – some of them really weren’t cheap, the larger 22oz American beers will probably (depending on how scarce they are) set you back £8-£12. MrB picked up three beers and it cost him £30.

    I don’t think this is a real problem, however – these are all pretty rare beers not available in any other Edinburgh bar. BrewDog pride themselves on being different, and they have achieved this in spades here – so much so that they totally changed the way we drink. Usually in a round, one of the four of us goes to the bar and buys four pints. Last night, we were buying one drink and getting four glasses. It’s like having a tasting session, in a bar.

    The beers were awesome – in order, I managed to put away Mikkeller Vesterbo Kaffestout (on keg), Nogne Pale Ale, Nogne Red Horizon, Port Brewing Hop-15, Mikkeller Coffee IPA, Nogne Imperial Brown Ale, Mikkeller Spontankriek, Mikkeller 10, Three Floyds Jinxproof, Alesmith Yulesmith and Cantillon Vignerone. My goodness. I challenge anyone to have a better beer night than that yesterday in Edinburgh. It was like being at Craig Garvie’s house (except without the sci-fi artwork).

    The picks of that particular bunch were the pummelling Nogne Red Horizon – a 17% sake-yeast infused monster, Alesmith’s Christmas Double IPA which was magnificently hopped, and pretty much all of the Mikkeller beers (which is why we tried so many). Spontankriek was just fantastic, tongue-curlingly sour, but still so drinkable – and the 10 was like drinking a blend of tuck shop Fruit Salads. And the Cantillon – just lovely.

    So our verdict on the new BrewDog bar? They were after somewhere different, not wanting to copy the many great pubs Edinburgh already has. Well, they have certainly achieved it. It’ll get very busy because of size and location, so there won’t ever be a shortage of customers. The bar looks a treat, very much in keeping with the BrewDog ethos. Some will balk at the prices – but this, unfortunately, is the way these beers are going. You can get Punk IPA or 5AM Saint for £3.20 a pint, which is pretty standard these days. However, the bottled selection alone makes it worth the visit.