Are big lager breweries in trouble? Everyone in the craft beer industry would like to think so, certainly – sales of Budweiser for example are still falling, even though they aren’t tanking by as much as they used to (which apparently is something to be celebrated in St Louis/Brazil/wherever) and is partly down to well-received Super Bowl advertising and increased bar trade in Russia. By the same token Heineken actually saw sales volume increase by 13% last year, which the Morning Advertiser equates to strong performance in sports sponsorship – such as the eye-watering $150m they splurged out to the Formula 1 Group midway though 2016. So maybe things are looking up for the multinational fizz-pushers. And yet, their age-old problem remains. Sales based on adverts and promotion don’t give stories to tell – so they have to go a long way to actually find one. Like Patagonia, for instance.
Heineken recently announced the UK launch of H41; their universally-found lager brewed with wild yeast. So far, so interesting – as somewhat explained in this error-strewn article in the Independent (‘Today [as] we know it [beer] has always had only three key ingredients; hops, barely, water – and yeast is a natural by-product of the combination of the three.’) the beer equates to the biggest diversion from Heineken’s recipe since their beginnings in 1864. Back in the summer by some co-incidence I was present for an explanatory talk on H41 given by the same Heineken employee who spoke to the Indy – master brewer Willem van Waesberghe. From what he said then, H41 does have a fascinating story, but it is not one that came anywhere close to that news article.
Willem – who is a highly entertaining speaker – started out by saying they refer to Heineken not as a craft beer but as one borne of craftsmanship. With two workers overseeing each 10,000HL brewing shift, he’s clearly enormously proud of the technology wielded in the Netherlands to create his beer, and enjoys the fact that Heineken is the only beer enjoyed in 192 countries (it would be a quiz question to guess the three or four where it must therefore not be). Other things I wrote down during his talk were the fact that Heineken is warm-lagered for seven days and then cold-lagered for a further fourteen, and that they consider it to contain only three ingredients – as the yeast is filtered out and not drunk by the consumer they refer to it as a ‘processing aid’ not an ingredient. This made the second half of his talk – entirely devoted to their new wild processing aid, slightly ironic.
Anyway, H41 has two interesting things going for it, as I see it. Heineken used naturally occurring South American yeast sequenced by biologist Diego Libkind of the National University of Comahue, Neuquén. Believed to be the ‘mother yeast’ of lager yeast this can be found in the wilds quietly living attached to the side of beech trees, and it took Professor Libkind three years to sequence and develop it. The first of those interesting titbits is that once Heineken realised its potential they funded the construction of an entire research institution for the Professor, in return for exclusive use of the sequenced yeast (aside from local breweries in the nearby town, who presumably brew beechwood-aged lagers in the St Louis style).
H41 may be a gimmick – but it is not one Heineken have considered lightly, at all. They liked it so much, they bought the scientist a laboratory. Once the petri-dishwork had been done it was on to the creation of the beer. For this, every single test brew with the yeast (Willem didn’t say how many there were) were brewed at 1,600HL in batch size – that’s over 280,000 pints – and every single one of them was then poured away. This kind of thing boggles the mind. Anyway, the second interesting fact about H41 – I’m just going to come out and say this – is that is actually tastes pretty good. Compared to the regular Heineken it’s night and day (the other bottle in the photo at the top of this post is their other recent ‘innovation’ Extra Vers, which is paper-sealed to prevent light-strike and shipped within two weeks to be fresh. It’s as bad as regular Heineken).
Fermented out at 11°C, H41 – which is named after the latitude of the mountain range where the yeast was discovered smells immediately like a Belgian Wit – massive amounts of cloves, which is pretty much unexpected and not at all unpleasant. It has a soft bitterness about it, and then a pretty intense dry finish with a bit more of the phenol on the aftertaste. It’s a bit like Hoegaarden crossed with Franziskaner Kristal Klar and topped up with Heineken. Although nicer than that sounds. Anyway, it surprised me. Willem then wondered aloud what style it might be – with the 4-Vinyl guaiacol being an off-flavour in lagers, and it not fitting the Belgian Blonde category, he proposed a new style – the Wild Lager. And seeing as the BJCP have everything else in their library, why not?
I’ve no idea how H41 will do – particularly as it’s going to be priced as a premium product – but it’s certainly the nicest lager I’ve ever had from Heineken (out of three, if you count Extra Vers as one of the other two). But the entire time Willem was talking a niggling thought kept poking away at the back of my mind – the low countries where Heineken are based are famed for the microflora that is used to give unique flavours into beers. Why not use Dutch or Belgian yeast for their Wild Lager? Why go to the ends of the earth and buy the work of a yeast expert? I guess the reason is the same as ever – these big lager concerns trade off many things, but having a genuine story to tell is never one of them.