The Oxford Companion to Beer

Today is the official UK release date of the Oxford Companion to Beer, the latest in a long-running series of intended reference materials on subjects from Aboriginal Art to World Sports. As anyone who has searched for beer-related gifts knows, there’s no shortage of books out there – particularly if shopping online. Many are about specific topics, and there are plenty of glossy, well-shot picturebooks of the ‘X beers to try before you Y’ variety.

The Oxford University Press has the cachet in this regard, to produce a one-stop, catch-all compendium of everything to do with the world’s favourite alcoholic beverage. With their pendulous new Oxford Companion to Beer, edited together by Brooklyn Brew Master Garrett Oliver, they have very much laid down the cornerstone in this regard (have I given enough of an impression of its size yet? With over 1,100 entries inside, the book is a meaty two inches thick).

Clearly, there’s no way it can be read through other than in a piecemeal fashion – dipped into at random, or consulted like an encyclopaedia. With an astonishing 166 contributors, this book is very much meant to be the definitive work on the subject. But there’s a problem. Collective works have an inherent danger – the book, and the reputations of the editor and publisher – stand or fall based on the copy filed by the other authors.

Putting my cards on the table straight away – clearly, I’m not a beer historian. I know about beer, I know what I like, and I know how to combine those two things in writing. As editor-in-chief of this website, I’m fully aware that anything written by the other BeerCasters will reflect on my reputation*. As such, I make sure to check all the facts on anything written by the others**. So for 1,100 entries, the wavy red lines on Garrett’s spellchecker must have been seared into his eyeballs.

Soon after OUP began sending review copies out – and many thanks to Kate at OUP for ours – the first few websites to feature the book gave it above average reviews. This was my initial opinion too – this thing feels right – it looks the business, it has numerous jargon-busting pages on the machinations of brewing, and the individual characteristics of different hops. The entries written by Garrett himself have that languid, wordy style of his – which is how I imagine he talks.

But then the historians got hold of the book. A few inconsistencies came to light; someone got the Anglo Saxon invasion of Britain in the wrong century or something – not a massive problem, really. Although the OUP crest is on the spine, this book very definitely has an American backbone. However, very soon the two beer historians I do rate highly – Martin Cornell and Ron Pattinson – really cast serious doubts, with Martin even questioning whether it’s a “Dreadful disaster”.

Simple inaccuracy is one thing, but the level of mistakes that Martin and Ron found in a few entries is pretty astonishing. Ron’s post on Old Ales savages the entry written by Horst Dornbusch by contradicting Horst’s statements with archive photographs of brewery ledgers. This is the unfortunate issue with the book – as a textbook on brewing fundamentals, it seems fine. But the sections that can be argued with are being questioned intently. Who to believe?

Well, – I tend to believe the guys who thumb through dusty records in municipal buildings. The question should really be ‘What to believe?’ A quick straw poll of BeerCasters in the pub last Friday (no writing from them required; guaranteed response) had an even split – either this is just academics nit-picking, and the general facts are good enough, or once you know something’s wrong, you can’t trust any of the rest of it.

The scope of the Oxford Companion to Beer was enormous – there’s nothing wrong with 1,100 entries on a subject. But if a few are shown to be wrong, for people like myself who (on certain subjects) don’t know what we don’t know, can it be taken as the ultimate resource? Should they have let Martin and Ron handle British beer history? The book would have been longer, but it might have been worth it.

*By the way guys, if any of you want to write anything – just let me know. I have no reputation to speak of.

**Again, this is all hypothetical

Great Northern Beer Festival Preview

Sadly, Doctor, I have a previous engagement to attend

We’re still in the midst of our strong beer protest month at the moment – but we’re going to waver very slightly for the next few paragraphs. This week sees the SIBA Great Northern Beer Festival take place in Manchester, and we’ll be there on Thursday and Friday – doing some judging, and drinking some beer. With that in mind, a session-strength preview post is needed to look at some of the good – not to mention new – things on offer.

Being a SIBA festival (run in association with Greater Manchester CAMRA) the majority of beers on offer will be well below the raised duty threshold. Having said that, the comprehensive beer list does include three entries over 7.5% – Cumbrian Croglin Vampire and Hardknott Queboid (both 8.0%), and Stringers Mutiny (9.3%) – we’ve sampled the Hardknott beer before, but will definitely try the other two if they appear during our time there.

We frequently bang on about festivals being a great chance to try something new – and this one does that in spades, being far from our tartan-decked homelands in the frozen north.* Having our hop-honed noses close to the grapevine (hopvine, surely) breweries such as Hawkshead, York, Daleside, Marble, Coniston and Dent have all featured on our BeerCasts at one time or another. But in a festival setting such as this, each will be bringing several of their range to try – e.g. Hawkshead NZPA (6.0%) and Coniston Infinity IPA (6.0%) – two must-try beers.

For me – and it may be the bloggerati gene talking here – it’s always the ultra-rare that jump off the beer list. Things from producers I’ve never heard of. In the same way as visitors from far afield to the Scottish Real Ale Festival head straight for something like Tin Pot Mango Pot (something even I’ve yet to experience), I’ll be after the likes of Hopstar Smokey Joe’s Black Beer (4%) and Milltown Slubber’s Gold (4.2%). Producers who bring only one beer – such as Old Bear Great Bear (3.9%) – are also compulsory in my book.

Other things I’m looking forward to include the beers from RedWillow and Offbeat breweries. The former have been winning rave reviews since ex-homebrewer Toby McKenzie took that brave step into production last year. The chipotle-infused Smokless (5.7%) sounds fantastic, as does his big IPA Ageless (7.2%). Offbeat were also founded in 2010, by Michelle Kelsall – who previously produced the wonderful Windie Goat beers in Ayrshire. Now re-branded in Crewe, hopefully they are just as good.

So plenty of things to look forward to – the festival takes place at the Ramada Picadilly in Manchester. Doors open at 4pm on Thursday the 27th, running until 10:30pm. It then opens 12pm-10:30pm Friday and Saturday. Entry is £3, which includes a £1 deposit on a tasting glass. We’ll be there on Thursday helping out with the SIBA judging, then all day Friday – including a special appearance with my bitter-loving father. Check back for reports on what happened just into the start of November. If you see me, come and say hi. Cheers!

*Even if I was born 35 miles from Manchester. As my dear old Nanna used to say – “Are you a Scotchman yet, Richie?”

SIBA’s GNBF Official website

BeerCast #64 – Big BeerCast

Note to self…remember to take photo before drinking the beer

If you’ve been following the BeerCast for the past couple of weeks, you’ll (hopefully) know we’ve been talking a great deal about a recent piece of Government legislation. On the 1st of October, the UK Treasury raised duty on all beer over 7.5% – ostensibly to tackle ‘problem drinking’. We’ve written several posts on why we feel this is a bad idea (here, here and here) – and so today we’re holding a protest podcast. Richard, Shovels and Grooben get together to sample four British beers over 7.5%, and debate the state of UK alcohol taxation (along with vikings, addictive coffee and why you can never lose a greyhound). The four strong beers we drink responsibly are:- Sinclair Orkney Skull Splitter (8.5%), Traquair House Jacobite Ale (8.0%), Thornbridge St Petersburg (7.7%), and BrewDog Abstrakt AB:06 (11.2%). Fight the power!

1. Orkney Skull Splitter
Sinclair Orkney Brewery, Quoyloo, Orkney Islands.
330ml glass bottle

Founded by Roger White in 1988, the award-winning Orkney brewery are another local producer who started in untypical surroundings – in this case an old school house in Sandwick. In June 2004 they merged with the Atlas Brewery of Kinlochleven, to form Highland and Islands Breweries – which in turn was taken over by the Sinclair Brewery Ltd in 2006. All the way back in January 2008, we sampled Orkney Dark Island as part of BeerCast #11. Drinkers in North America may know the brewery best for the very beer we’re sampling today – Skull Splitter is seemingly far more popular over the pond than back home.

What They Say
“Sophisticated, satiny smooth with a deceptively light character, it is a tribute to our colourful forbear Thorfinn Einarsson, the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Richard – Classic Skull Splitter aroma – sweet fruity caramel
Shovels – Not as syrupy as I remember, good balance
Grooben – I do like it but probably wouldn’t drink it much 6

2. Traquair Jacobite Ale
Traquair House Brewery, Innerleithen, Peeblesshire.
330ml glass bottle

Traquair House is an extremely impressive, and very old, country estate about an hour south of Edinburgh. Famed in Scottish history for it’s association with the Jacobites, it also contains a thriving microbrewery – which begun in the 18th Century, brewing for the estate workers. The 20th Laird of Traquair re-founded the brewery in 1965, and they specialise in Scottish styles – that are all rich, dark, and above all – strong.

What They Say
“Brewed to celebrate the anniversary of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion the ale proved to be so popular it has become a permanent addition to the range. Based on an eighteenth century recipe the ale is spiced with coriander which gives a remarkably fresh aftertaste.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Shovels – Spices linger at the end, needs a bit more body 7
Richard – Not as spicy as I was expecting, it’s a nice old ale7
Grooben – Doesn’t bash you around the head for an 8%er 7

3. St Petersburg
Thornbridge Brewery, Bakewell, Derbyshire.
500ml glass bottle

The first Thornbridge beer to make it onto one of our BeerCasts was their chestnut honey ale Bracia, back in BeerCast #61. A 10% powerhouse of flavour, we’re following that with another of their big hitters – the fantastic Russian Imperial Stout St Petersburg (7.7%). We already know it’s fantastic, as it was awarded one of our much-prized Best New Beer Awards for 2010. Doesn’t mean we can’t put in on a podcast…

What They Say
“Rich and dark with smoke, subtle peatiness and the power of the dark malts. Molasses and liquorice and chocolate goodness all wrapped up in a smooth, warming liquid.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Richard – Black, roasty, creamy, chocolatey, smoky, love it 9
Shovels – Lovely flavours – one of my favourite beers
Grooben – Doesn’t have any bitterness at the back of the palate you get with some strong stouts

4. Abstrakt AB:06
BrewDog, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.
375ml glass bottle

BrewDog are without doubt the most talked-about brewery in Scotland, with their charismatic press releases and wacky ideas. Not afraid to experiment, there’s no denying they always elicit strong opinions. What is often overlooked amidst all the hoo-hah is that they have only been going for just over three years. Their ‘concept beer brand’ Abstrakt is already on the 7th version (a whisky aged Scotch Ale), the original, AB:01, made it to our most recent Beer of the Year Show, and AB:04 (a coffee, cacao and chili Imperial Stout) might just be the best beer they’ve ever made. Can AB:06 cut it?

What They Say
“AB06 is a 11.5% Imperial Black IPA which has been triple dry hopped. This beer is savage; boasting more bitterness and more hops than any BrewDog creation to date, combining loads of awesome malts and monumental amounts of our favourite hops.” [Official Website]

What We Say
Shovels – You can definitely tell it’s dry hopped, love those hops
Richard – Very good beer, this could be a great regular
Grooben – Decent, but I expected it to be better 7

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

BeerCast panel verdict
Thornbridge St Petersburg 26/30
BrewDog Abstrakt AB:06 24/30
Sinclair Orkney Skullsplitter 21/30
Traquair House Jacobite Ale 21/30

  • Listen to the episode on Soundcloud here:

Please keep those comments and emails coming in, and check back in a couple of weeks for our next podcast. In the meantime, keep drinking those strong beers wherever you are. In the UK, you can sign this petition against the duty rise. For the BBC article on responsible drinking we discussed during this episode – click here. We’ll be continuing with our strong beer month right the way throughout October. Fight the power!

“I don’t want to be constrained”

All this month we are featuring beer over 7.5% to highlight the madness of the UK Treasury increasing duty on beer over that alcohol by volume. It’s extremely frustrating for drinkers to have to pay more for our favourite products when the reasons for raising prices seem so contrived. But for British brewers, it’s far more than a mere annoyance. Some of the UK’s most innovate breweries have recently commented on how the HSBD (High Strength Beer Duty) rise will affect them – such as Hardknott, Gadd’s, and Magic Rock.

In particular, one post that stood out was from Justin Hawke of Somerset’s Moor Beer Company. Established in 1996, since they were taken over by Justin and his partner Maryann in 2007 they have gone from strength to strength (if you’ll excuse the pun). Justin used experience gained in his native California, and from travels in Europe, to produce a range of beers for cask and bottle. He took time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about the HSBD. Fans of Moor’s strong beers – look away now…

Justin first explained his brewing ethos – to foster a bond between the producers of the local brewing ingredients, himself as the brewer, and the drinking public. When customers head to the farm shop near the brewery, they not only buy his products – these relationships benefit communities of producers, whether they are farmers, cheesemakers, or brewers. Wherever possible, Moor beers are unfined – he really seems to want to go about things the right way, and to educate drinkers on the choices they have at their local pub or bottle shop. This is one reason he’s so against the HSBD rise:-

“We make strong beer for sharing, we try and do interesting things. Of course our session-strength beers are important, but stronger beers have more scope. I don’t want to be constrained and compromised. People will still find cheap things to get from A to B if they want to drink – we aren’t competing with that.”

Justin had written in his post that they will be re-thinking all of Moor’s stronger beer as a direct result of the duty rise. Running through the list, we spoke about each one in turn:-

Old Freddy Walker 7.3% (cask) 7.5% (bottle)

“We just didn’t get enough guidance from the Government on exactly where the threshold would fall – we had a label run to produce – so we erred on the side of caution and are dropping it to 7.4%.”

Fusion 8.0%

“We won a Platinum medal at the 2011 Mondial de la Biere festival in Montreal – I’m showcasing Fusion again at this week’s Mondial festival in Strasbourg. But we’re not brewing it again at present.”

JJJ IPA 9.0% (cask) 9.5% (bottle)

“The current run in bottle shops at the moment will be the last for the UK – we’re suspending domestic production. We send between 90-95% of JJJ IPA to Europe, as there’s no duty payable for export.”

Imperial Stout [in the pipeline]

“We had been thinking about an imperial stout, somewhere in the mid-8% range. But we’re not going to be producing it now, and I don’t want to compromise by dropping the abv below 7.5%.”

So you want a definite outcome of the increased duty? There you go – one of Britain’s more forward leaning brewers is re-thinking all of their strong beers. The creativity involved in formulating these beers is something that can really help a brewer – and this duty rise has instantly taken the momentum out of Moor Beer Co. Not that they can’t – or won’t – still do well with their core range, but it’s easy to imagine how frustrating this is for Justin and his team.

The supreme irony in all of this is that he’s heading over to Europe to showcase a multi award-winning beer, in the full knowledge that he won’t be producing it again for a while.* Arguably their most favoured big beer – JJJ IPA – will be extremely rare to British drinkers, with the vast majority heading overseas for export. Beer fans over the Channel and the North Sea – count your blessings. Those closer to home, support Justin and his fellow brewers as much as possible, while you can…

*There is another reason for this – Fusion is barrel aged, and the current shortage of barrels means there’s very little storage space available. But at 8%, if they can produce another run, at the very least it will face a significant price increase.

Many thanks to Justin for taking the time to speak with us. You can visit Moor’s website here

RateBeer Roundup VI

RateBeerians (and distant cousins the BeerAdvocaters) are, by nature, a committed bunch. Seeking out the rare and unusual, ticking their way through all and sundry, and spending huge amounts of money on their hobby along the way. Current RateBeer kings Ungstrup and fonefan are battling over supremacy, having totalled 22,251 and 22,200 beers sampled, respectively.*

How much must this have cost them over the years? Well, if they buy beer in the UK – as surely they must – then their pastime is now more expensive than ever, thanks to the duty rise. So one way to highlight the nature of well-made, strong beer, is to host a tasting of just that – which explains why we gathered at Craig Garvie’s (7,399 and counting) for an over 7.5% beer night. Bring it on!

First up, Flowerpots Brandy Mount barley wine (8.2%). Given the high abv limit, we were expecting plenty of barley wines and imperial stouts – and this one was pretty true to style. Fruity, plenty of rich caramel, and quite sweet. We then notched up the other type with Black Sheep Imperial Russian Stout (8.5%), a new beer from the Masham concern. Very different to their usual releases, it reminded me of liquorice Christmas pudding.

New Glarus Unplugged Bourbon Barrel Bock appeared next – several of those words usually make me hesitant, but this one was actually alright. It smelled a bit cheesy, but the whisky tones were muted – probably by deliberate Brettanomyces infection, which tarted things up a little (pun intended). We’re assuming it was over the 7.5% threshold, there was no abv on the bottle.

This was something of a theme – not only do some American states not require an alcohol by volume to be listed on the bottle, apparently (email in, if otherwise) one particular state tells brewers not to list alcohol content on their labels. Is this the same US state that forbids off-sales in anything other than crates? Why buy one bottle of thick, dark-looking beer when you are required, by law, to purchase 24?

So we rolled unknowingly through Founders Nemesis 2009, Mayflower Brewing Imperial Stout, and Haverhill/The Tap Joshua Norton. The Nemesis was aged in maple syrup casks (note to brewer – please, no), the Mayflower tasted incredibly strong – well over double figures, I’d wager. The Joshua Norton was by far the pick – imperial stout flavours wrapped in layers of cocoa.

Time for the Europeans! There’s something about the Low Countries that have inspired liver-flayingly strong beer – and we polished off a few in good order. Dutch brewer Berghoeve were represented by a couple of 8% crackers – Hammer Schout and Verre Vriend (which sounds like something you’d say to your best mate after a few). Both were outstanding, particularly the tripel/saison crossover of the latter.

Back to the UK next with (inevitably if you’re drinking strong British beer) a couple of Kernels – the 9.1% Imperial Marzen, and 8.9% Big Brick Red Rye Ale. We’ll be doing another feature on the Kernel later on in our big beer month, so stay tuned. Both of these are as good as everything else Evin puts his hand to. We also tried two old Fullers Vintages – 2002 and 2006. The ’02 divided opinions, but I thought it had aged superbly.

The thing I love about these RateBeer tastings is that you fly through things. Before long, the next bottle was opened – de Struise’s monstrously brilliant Black Albert (13%). It doesn’t really click that just before we’d opened a beer that had been aging for nine years. Mind you, Black Albert will make you forget just about anything, it’s a fabulous sweet, roasty mocha stout.

We had a few more on the night, which concluded with another masterpiece from de Struise – Pannepot Gran Reserva (10%) – the 2005 vintage. Nineteen beers in all, every single one over 7.5%. Did any of us wake with a headache? Were we fighting in the streets? Apparently Shovels got up at 7am the next morning and went mountain biking, then played a round of golf! Beer over 7.5% is not the cause of society’s problems. Why tax it like it is?

* These figures will since have changed, both since I wrote this post, and since you started reading this sentence…

‘We chase the big flavours’

I’m not sure if native English-speakers are fully able to pronounce Nøgne Ø. I usually go for Nog-Knee Oh, which sounds about right. Founded in Grimstad in 2002 – a place name that sounds as if trolls should live under the bridges – Nøgne Ø quickly became heralded across Europe for their beer. This is in part due to the sheer variety of styles they produce, which rapidly built them a following amongst the beer geeks*, ensuring an almost cult-status.

However, the success of the brewery is mostly down to the hard work of co-founders Kjetil Jikiun and Gunnar Wiig – not to mention their ingenuity. The difficulties faced by the fledgling company were enormous. Local drinkers at that time knew very little about non-native beer styles – and as alcohol advertising is not allowed in Norway, Nøgne Ø had a major problem. As their website puts it – “…how can you sell products nobody has ever heard of in a market where it is banned to even inform [people] about the existence of these products?”.

With no facility, no money and no marketing, what they achieved is astonishing. Anybody thinking of setting up a brewery should read the fascinating Nøgne Ø story. After having rented a rundown garage, they found a 5,000 litre milk vat on a scrapheap and persuaded someone to cut it into three smaller tanks. Using home-made equipment to brew had it’s issues – “…whenever we used the brewkettle the whole brewery would smell like burning oil, and if the doors were not open it would be hard to breathe”.

Clearly, their early success was driven by the resourcefulness of Kjetil and Gunnar – and the people they brought in to help (often for free). Their more recent success in part hinges on their export rate – over 70% of what they produce ends up as far away as Japan, Australia and the USA. Recently we’ve noticed a sudden surge in Nøgne Ø beer appearing in the UK, which is fantastic. Previously an online order and a lengthy wait would be needed to get their distinctive Ø-branded bottles – but now there are three stockists in Edinburgh alone.

As a modern, relatively small-scale producer with numerous fans in the beer community, they are free to experiment more than others – and the results are frequently big and boozy (hence this feature appearing during our strong beer month). Their most famous offering is Dark Horizon, an annual 16% imperial stout (the first iteration of which contained half a ton of Demerara sugar).

I asked brewmaster Kjetil about his philosophy on strong beers such as this. “The majority of Nøgne Ø beers are strong because we are a reaction to bland 4.5% lagers,” he said. “We chase the big flavours. In a different scene we would probably have made different beers.” He fully praises British brewers for producing flavourful, session-strength beer, and acknowledges the difficulty in doing this – I get the feeling that if the Norwegian beer scene of 2002 had had numerous big-abv brewers, Nøgne Ø might have gone down a different road.

Having said this, Kjetil doesn’t see strong beer as being a problem issue. “In my opinion most strong beers have a stronger and more intense flavour. This will in turn make the drinker sip the beer more slowly. When it is really cold, you need something strong (and warming) to give comfort. When you load in lots of hops you need body to get good balance.” One beer that does this in spades is their strongest offering – Red Horizon (17%), brewed with no.7 yeast from the Masume sake concern in Nagano.

I’ve no idea what the first six are like, but this one does wonderful and frankly bizarre things to the beer. Fermented very slowly, to let the microbes do their thing as long as possible, Red Horizon is fruity and woody – then has a quite clearly sake grain aftertaste. It’s a classic example of a “Hang on…do I like this?” beer – several attempts at it are needed. Of course, by then your brain probably doesn’t care much, as you sit drinking happily, looking at the embossed tin that the beer comes in.

Nøgne Ø do magnificent things (not all of them over 7.5% – their 4.5% Brown Ale is very good, and Inferial is an alcohol-free imperial stout). The joy, however, really rests in the big-hitters. From a brewery that has seemingly defied all the odds, they truly are one of Europe’s real success stories.

*Some of whom also live under bridges

Kjetil emailed us soon after this post came out – according to him, the correct pronunciation of his brewery is Nugneh-Uh. Next up in our protest month of beer only over 7.5% – we’re releasing a special BeerCast as our panel gets to grips with four very different British beers over this abv. Expect fireworks!