Category Archives: American Beer

Sixpoint cans arrive in all UK Wetherspoons’

Spoint

“Eh? Whut is it then?” asks the old boy, stooped at the bar in a queue for his Tennent’s, on being offered a tray of small beery tasters. He picks one at random and knocks back the shot glass, grimacing like a seventeen year-old enduring their first slug of tequila. After handing the small glass back, he turns to the bar without a word, waving his battered fiver at the bar staff…

This week, everyone’s favourite high-street pub chain Wetherspoons went all-in with canned beer from the American craft brewer Sixpoint, launching three of their range in every ‘spoons in the country; all 900+ of them. In a truly colossal deal, Wetherspoons will import 355ml cans of Sixpoint Sweet Action (5.4%), The Crisp (5.2%), and Bengali Tiger (6.4%), and exclusively feature them in their pubs – alongside Brooklyn Lager, Goose Island IPA and BrewDog Punk IPA (all in bottles).

Yesterday, I headed down to one of the half-dozen Wetherspoons in Edinburgh (not counting the airport branches), and managed to speak with Sixpoint brewer Heather McReynolds, who had been flown in for a whistle-stop promotional tour. I really do mean whistle-stop, too – over the course of a single day, she was whisked between each of their pubs in town, before heading to Glasgow (today) to do the same. I asked her if she’d even seen the castle. “Hey guys, have I seen the castle?”, she asked, to a chorus of Yes’s.

At the same time as our conversation, others were taking place, in sync, in Liverpool, Birmingham, London and Cardiff – simultaneous launches in real-time. As impressive as the beers are, the astonishing component of this is the sheer logistics involved; Heather didn’t know exactly (being at the sharp end of the brewing process, rather than the organisational end), but she told me Sixpoint are shipping a container a week across the Atlantic, Captain Phillips-style,* with an entire team of people concentrating on it.

*“Quick, man the Budweiser hoses! There’s a pirate skiff to starboard!”

I’m wondering if Wetherspoons will trial the beers, and see how they do, before deciding on whether to make this a long-term arrangement. I’m pretty sure the three bottled beers in the Craft promotion will fly out; cans – as much as I love them – are a different proposition. I asked the bar manager what he thought – he said they should do well, but as his best-selling canned product is Irn Bru, he’d have to wait and see.

I think that’s definitely the take-home message – long-term success can only be evaluated down the line. Time will tell as to whether patrons of Wetherspoons will switch to canned beer – or ‘nano-kegs’, as they are being gratingly referred to. Priced at £2.49 a can in Scotland, they are also introducing stemmed glassware to match; “We’ll lose so many of these,” said the bar manager “they’ll just walk.” The beers are two for a fiver in England, or £2.89 each down there – Scottish multi-buy laws preclude this kind of thing (thanks Dean, for pointing that out).

With that, the Spoons guys politely got everyone ready, and Heather was shuttled off to the next pub – I joked with her it must be like being on a tour of North Korea, only with casino-style carpets. Wetherspoons have invested an awful lot in trying to do something different here – Sixpoint have too – and although it might take a while to build up steam, I think people will go for the cans, eventually. But as an alternative for those in the know; never as a replacement for Tennent’s…



Edit – I should say the beers were good, but my tastebuds were out due to a pint of Make it Rain, the 5% new-world hopped cask pale that Heather had brewed at Adnams – which is one of the best beers I’ve had for some time…

Born On dates – buyer beware

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Picture the scene. A young, upwardly mobile beer-curious flouncer parades into their local bottle shop in the mood to try something a little different. They quickly kill the sounds of Macklemore leaking into their Beats, and take a wander over to the shelf with imported, fancy-looking bottles of US craft beer. So much choice. After taking a few sneaky Instagrams, they pick up the meanest-sounding beer on which their Jägerbombed eyes alight – Great Divide Hercules Double IPA. By the Son of Zeus! It looks the business. It has a ‘born-on’ date, too – exacting information on when this beer was calved. So, they hand over a fiver, chuck it in the Crumpler, and saunter off, into the dusky evening.

Getting home, they flip the keys noisily into the Coors Light ashtray by the door, tug the Beats down to around the neck, and whistle through to the kitchen. Following a cursory nod to the flatmate – what is that fucking thing he’s making? It smells like composted leather – they reach up for the glass-holding cupboard, stare accusingly at the flatmate when it is revealed to be empty, and run a stolen pub glass under the tap. Five draws-worth of searching later, a bottle opener is procured – craft beer is too good to be heeled open against the counter top, after all – and away we go. Hercules. A twelve-labour hop bomb.

But nothing.

Perplexed, our hero looks again at the bottle. ‘An elixir fit for the Gods’? ‘Huge amounts of piney, floral, citrus’? Eh? No, that’s not it at all. It’s muddily sweet, slick like a smear of thick-cut Seville across a piece of toast. Honeysuckle. Bees would like this – wasps even more so, whining their way into the glass like moths to a porchlight. So why doesn’t it taste ‘hoppy’? Where’s the pine? Hmm. There’s a ‘born-on’ date, though. Like those tubes of squeezy ketchup that tell you, to the second, when it was produced. It says March the 25th 2013. So, ten months ago. Is that it?



I remember the trip I took around the Harviestoun Brewery, back in February 2013 (not long before that particular batch of Hercules rolled off the production line at the Denver brewpub). There, amongst many other things, head brewer Stuart Cail laid into the forced widening of Best Before dates on beer, and raised the suggestion of beer-makers here adopting the US-format:

“Most beer is built to be drunk young. Budweiser’s Born On dates were the best thing they ever did. The rest of the industry missed a trick not getting on the back of that. Instead, we have best before dates for supermarkets. When I started, it was three months – then six, nine, twelve, eighteen – soon they’ll be wanting two year shelf life. You’re talking higher filtration, bigger pasteurisation – you’re buggering the beer, basically.”

I don’t know if any UK breweries actually do use ‘born-on’ dates; let me know in the comments if there are any that do. All UK breweries are bound, by law, to display a Best Before date on a beer if it is less that 10.0%abv (according to this article on BB dates from Dave Bailey). That doesn’t mean they can’t also add a ‘born-on’ date as well, which effectively renders the beer as a vintage, with a quantifiable ‘this beer was made then’ notification. In 2012, back in the States, Stone Brewing Co added a new twist to the date concept, by releasing ‘Enjoy By IPA‘, complete with a twenty-point font ‘use-by’ date on the front, leaving nothing to ambiguity.

In an effort to keep the heavily-hopped beer as zesty and fresh as possible, Stone managed this ‘use-by’ idea by lumping a seven-day distribution collar on the Enjoy By IPA, and then a strict four week shelf-life. This ensured punters in the three markets where the beer arrived had a sudsy scramble to pick some up in time. Once that label-displayed limit was reached, all unsold beer was immediately taken off the shelf, and sent back to the distributors. A gimmick, of course, but like the best ones, rippled through with an interesting experiment.

The problem our Beats-wearing, co-habiting beer fan has though, is that as these heavy-hitting US craft beers are imported, and open a new group of drinkers to the possibilities of beer, some of them are bound to be let down by ‘born-on’ booze. The shipping times from the States, the lag in getting the beer to market here, and the shelving all take a toll. As does, ironically enough, the sheer number of stablemates arriving over here. With ever-increasing numbers of US craft beer on our bottle shelves, some will remain near the back, time inexorably lengthening from their birthday. You can’t drink them all.

Having a ‘born-on’ date pushes the ball into the buyers’ court. It becomes a personal decision, standing there in the shop, calculating the natural degradation of hop oil over time, versus the price of the beer and the likelihood of enjoyment. It turns beer-buying into algebra. And that’s for people that are half-aware of what the passing of the months does to hop-forward beers. For others, those equations won’t even leave the notepad. Beer fans talk about craft beer sales ravaging the likes of Budweiser, but by borrowing Bud’s ‘born-on’ ideal, ‘buyer-beware’ enters the craft lexicon.



In researching this post, I stumbled across this marvellous exchange on Yahoo Answers, sparked by a concerned drinker named Jordan, who asked the question “I’ve just drunk a five year out of date bottled lager, will there be side effects?” . He was reassured that yes, he would actually die; but not from the beer.

Ruination IPA redux; reasons to re-boot?

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A couple of weeks ago, this article appeared on the American beer news website BeerPulse, regarding a release issued from California’s Stone Brewing Company. Stone intend to increase the abv on Ruination IPA from 7.7% to 8.2%, a decision explained by their co-founder, Greg Koch:-

We brewed some batches at the slightly higher ABV and our in-house tasting sessions told us that we liked the beer just a little bit more. The additional intensity is a modest modification, but it’s our preference in a side-by-side analysis. Thus, the change! Almost nothing should ever be so sacred that you won’t consider tweaks that result in improvements.

We’ll start offering the new higher ABV recipe in bottles once we get all the necessary paperwork cleared with all the state governmental agencies (a process which, interestingly enough, tends to make one want a beer with a slightly higher ABV).

This got me thinking – in particular the comment about nothing should be sacred. As I see it, there are four potential reasons why a brewer might want to amend the recipe, and therefore the abv, of a beer. To me, Stone are saying that it’s the first one below, but I wonder if any of the others have made their way into the reckoning?

The desire to improve
Brewers are an experimental lot, by and large – after all, it’s how some of the best beers come about. I imagine many beer-makers exist in a state of continual flux, never being entirely satisfied with their core range. I’ll bet there are plenty out there who have drifted off whilst transferring the wort, and found themselves wondering if Chinook would work that bit better. Or others whose mind has wandered when spraying peracetic, and ended up sterilising the brewery cat because they were mentally weighing the pros and cons of a handful of hibiscus and lemon peel. Maybe the Stone brewers had that very same itch; the niggle of an amended malt bill that only a recipe re-jig could scratch.

Peers catching up
Stone, founded in 1996, were one of the forerunners of highly-hopped US craft beer that I ever saw in the UK. We featured Ruination IPA back in 2009, as part of BeerCast #36 – and it ended up being crowned our Beer of the Year for that year (Greg Koch himself has never kept quiet about it). At the time, it really did knock our palates sideways. But how many Double/Imperial IPA’s have been released in the US since Ruination? Twenty thousand? Something like that, at least. Did the taste boffins at Stone start to think the grass is greenermore resinous elsewhere? As numerous new brewers arrive, citing the now-role model Stone as influences, maybe they felt the need to bring a little swagger back to Escondido.

Supply and demand
Another risk factor for long-running core beers is availability. I have no real idea of the nuances of Ruination, recipe-wise, but over time ingredients become harder to get, or don’t perform as expected. Over here, for instance, the hop components of BrewDog’s Punk IPA and Caledonian’s Deuchars IPA (two very different final products, obviously) have both changed over the years, more than once. Both were, at least, as a result of ingredients not working out – Deuchars was amended when a crop of their noble hops didn’t perform (if I remember correctly), and Punk has changed a few times based on the malt bill. It could be that the powerhouse that is (or was) Ruination either wasn’t punching as expected, or the ratios of hops weren’t as they were. This brings me to the final potential influential factor…

Financial reasons
We live in tough times, and accepting the mantra repeated by Greg that nothing is sacred, when poor harvests or increasing distribution costs start to bite, sometimes a recipe change is inevitable to protect margins. Of course, virtually without exception this results in a decrease in abv; we’re currently in the midst of a swath of macro-lagers reducing their alcohol content, as the big boys feel the pinch. But, a small brewer may well want to amend the recipe to free up money for other projects, or to brighten the picture, financially. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who had to resort to that, if those were the reasons. I can’t imagine Stone would tweak Ruination IPA to save money, only for the abv to increase. Unless that’s the kind of mixed-up world that exists in Southern California.

From my entirely distant perch, so far out of the loop that a dozen Hail Mary’s would fall short, I postulate that the reasons Ruination IPA is gaining a 0.5% nudge are mostly number 1 with a small bit of number 2. And not only am I saying that there’s nothing wrong with tinkering if your competitors are multiplying, I’m saying that it’s a great thing. Be active. Don’t ever be satisfied. And before this post descends into a motivational poster any further, I’ll end it there. We’ll have to wait and see about ‘New Ruination’ – and when it arrives in town, put it to the only test that really matters.

Oliver’s lore

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For those who follow beer with more than a pleasingly simple, pub-based interest, often the people behind the product are as – if not more – interesting than the beer itself. Brewing is about experimentation, skill, precision, enjoyment and numerous other things – and once you start appreciating the stories behind the process, those people responsible for creating the beer pull into focus all the more. Garrett Oliver is just such a person – brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, esteemed author, competition judge and all-round authority on beer. As he gave the keynote speech at the recent European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, I thought some of his choicest quotes more than merited repeating here. Thanks to Zephyr Adventures for organising the Conference, and Garrett for flying across the Atlantic to partake…


“I moved to London and discovered beer. [You’d think…] “I’m not sure I like that, I’ll have another and find out!” In 1984 I went back to America, and there was nothing. We bought Budweiser when we had money, because at least it tasted like water. The other stuff tasted much worse. How do we go from a country like that to where we are now?”

“At Brooklyn, we invented collaborations – we were the first to do it, with Brakspear at Henley on Thames, in 1997. That just doesn’t happen elsewhere, that spirit. You don’t see Coke collaborating with Pepsi!”

“Beer ratings. Why would I want to know a rating of one of my beers from the public? I find it fascinating – some people want brewers to be artists and listen to you at the same time. You know what one of the definitions of an artist is? That they won’t listen to you. One brewer I knew, just starting off, had comments that his beers were subtle and balanced. I asked him ‘Why are you are looking at the ratings [in the first place]? Either 1. You hope for flattery, or 2. You’re looking for someone saying bad things [about your beer]. But will you then change it? If you would, go home and become a banker. If not, then why are you reading the ratings? Because you’re hoping for flattery. I love flattery, I mean, it works on me. But could you imagine if Bob Dylan had focus-grouped his albums? How crushed would you feel?”

“Even though we are doing great, the wine people own the general media; every major newspaper has a wine column. Would you ever see an acidity number, a tannin number, on the side of a bottle of wine? These are real numbers, and they would never put them on the bottle. Why? They don’t sound delicious. You need to call brewers out on this, if we’re talking in an alien language. IBU’s sound disgusting. Watch people tune out when they are mentioned. Brewers have to turn off that switch too, or they will talk about these things to normal people.”

“I still don’t know what craft beer means here [in the UK]. If a family owned brewery starts using Simcoe, are they craft? For me, the difference is relatively simple: is there a personal vision somewhere in what’s going on? If so, that’s craft brewing. Take Sierra Nevada – they are five times the size of Brooklyn, but have a hugely personal vision. Ken Grossman and his team engineer lots of things themselves. They built a machine that dropped Brett into each individual bottle so it wouldn’t have to be near the brewery. And some people say Sierra Nevada aren’t craft? Fuck you. If the name of your brewmaster is money, you ain’t craft.”

“When someone starts a brewery, they might do something beautiful, and they might not. Take into account whether they mean it. Wherever you are, you should try to encourage people to have, at least for their first, a local beer. The brewer who took a second mortgage on their house. That’s who you need to support. Defend local beer.”



This is the second brewer’s quote post in the series (which it may have become), the other is here – featuring Stuart Cail from Harviestoun

Sitdown or takeout?

Breukelen3

‘Choice.’ Is that the real other c-word? You can be as crafty as you like, but giving your customers as broad a range of reasons to shell out their money seems like an obvious move. Take – for the purposes of this blog post – bottle shops. Edinburgh is blessed with at least half a dozen fantastic examples, each with their own particular leanings. None, to my knowledge, offer something that I first saw on a recent trip to New York. There, the Breukelen Bier Merchants in Williamsburg gives you the opportunity to crack open your purchase there and then, or even sit down and have a beer.

With a range of around five hundred bottles, that alone would make Breukelen Bier Merchants a fixture for the local beer scene. However, the fact that they also offer sixteen keg beers on tap was something I hadn’t seen before in a bottle shop. Over in the US, growler sales are more ingrained in the drinking culture – and although they are available at some bars here (and off licences, which I will come back to), there’s not the same mentality with regard to their use in the UK. Growler stations such as New York State’s Consumers Beverages (which has been going since 1948) are a reasonably common way for Americans to get hold of beer.

I’ve written about growlers before – for this post, I was wondering about the other aspect of Breukelen Bier Merchants – the fact that you can sit down and have a beer there, or open up the bottle you’ve just bought. Would that work over here? Clearly, the licence issues would need to be resolved – but once you had the papers to cover on- and off-sales, would that system attract people? I asked a few of Edinburgh’s bottle shop owners – all seemed to think the principal could work – although most were guarded in whether they would like to actually offer it – “I wouldn’t want to be the first – it sounds bloody terrifying.” said one.

At least two of Edinburgh’s bottle shops already offer growler sales – the Beer Hive in Cannonmills being the first (and I believe Great Grog now have something similar). However, both are for takeaway purposes only. If each had a couple of tables and a few seats, would that persuade you to have a few beers there? Or is our drinking culture so different, so pub-centric, that there’s no need for that option to be there? Is Breukelen’s ‘craft beer shop and tasting room’ too American a concept for the UK market? Or, does their slogan hit home? “Drink a Draught or Bottle in the Shop, or Buy Some to Take With You; Your Choice”



NB – There may be some bottle shops in the UK that do offer on-sales, it’s just I’ve yet to cross their beery threshold. If you ever find yourself in Brooklyn, then head to Breukelen Bier Merchants, as they certainly do have an enormous range. Follow them on Twitter here

Brooklyn Brewery tour

Should you need an indication of the power of Twitter, then consider this. Two weeks ago, when using the medium to brag about an upcoming visit to New York, I expected only a few ‘you jammy sod’ replies (90% of Twitter being pompous self-promotion, after all).* What I didn’t expect was a reply suggesting I get in touch with Jimmy Valm, Production Manager at the Brooklyn Brewery, and arrange a look around their facility. Turns out, Jimmy cut his brewing teeth in Edinburgh, and although our paths didn’t cross while he was here, he was more than happy to show me and my long-suffering girlfriend around. So, thanks to Twitter (and @NuStu in particular), she ended up taking this fantastic photo of me approaching the Brooklyn Brewery.

* The other ten percent of Twitter content is roughly split between One Direction and hackers.

Situated in Williamsburg (a district so überhip, it makes Shoreditch look as cool as a retirement community in Hertfordshire) the brewery operates from a building that was previously a steel foundry. We met Jimmy in the offices upstairs, before heading down to the bar area to begin the tour. Lined with old posters and advertising campaigns, the walls act as a Brooklyn Brewery timeline – with pride of place being given over to Milton Glaser. Not one of the founders, Milton instead designed the ‘B’ logo (his most famed work being I ♥ NY). The Brooklyn B has to be one of the most instantly recognisable brewery symbols, and it was fascinating to see the initial sketches co-founder Steve Hindy sent over to Milton, trying to explain what he was after.

In 2010, the brewery had outgrown the foundry building, and needed to urgently acquire more real estate. As commercial property prices tumbled in the wake of the recession, Brooklyn were able to purchase surrounding warehouses and knock through into one enormous brewery. The $6m expansion enabled the company to continue growing, and came just at the right time. Today, the main building handles all of their large bottle releases and small batch series beers, with another warehouse over the road housing the distribution side of the business. All of their ‘core’ bottled beer – the regular-sized Brooklyn Lagers, and the like – are still contract brewed by FX Matt in Utica.

Contracting these bulk brews to upstate New York is still a necessary evil for the Brooklyn Brewery – they simply don’t have the capacity to produce everything at their home site, even with the expansion. Despite this, they really want to be a part of the local community. The tap room – which, surprisingly to me, is only open Friday-Sunday – gets phenomenal numbers of visitors (Jimmy told us that the queues begin outside half an hour before the doors open). They run a token system, so a small merchandise window near the entrance sees plenty of traffic, as people file through and exchange their money for plastic beer chips. With around ten taps, and a full fridge behind – every brewery should be able to have an on-site bar. I bet the staff love it – can you imagine finishing a day’s work in the office upstairs and heading down for a beer before going home?

Despite being a fully working brewery, the building has plenty of interesting, designer-y touches for visitors. For a while, they have asked people to donate old Brooklyn-area beer bottles for their display (of which, this photo is only a small part). Construction workers often uncover these embossed glass bottles when digging up old buildings, and then send them to the brewery. Before prohibition decimated the industry, there were dozens of small-scale, local breweries in the borough. It’s hard to see, but the bottle on the left has the Star of David stamped onto it, indicating it was from a turn of the century Jewish brewery. Now, the US craft beer revolution is in full swing, and Brooklyn has several breweries – but, sadly, will never have the variety of those older times.

Some of the ‘small’ fermenting vessels in place at the main doors of the facility. In October of this year, Brooklyn installed eight colossal 250 barrel fermenters (over twice the size of the ones pictured here). It was a mammoth operation, with engineers from Germany on-hand to supervise, and then install, the new equipment. That process is still ongoing, and they are scheduled to begin using the shiny gear over the next couple of weeks. Following the warehouse expansion, the new FV’s are the final part of the push to get brewery production up to as higher level as possible – 100,000 barrels a year. Those new tanks are simply huge – about 30ft tall – and seen close up, they dwarf everything else.

Jimmy pointing at the current brewing gear, with the original brewing kit behind us. The smallest set up – which is still pretty hefty – is used to create their Brewer’s Reserve series of beers, and other short run releases. The main kit is fully automated, with a series of monitors controlling every aspect. Having just spent a day brewing in Ayr, and climbing into the copper to scoop out spent hops with my bare hands – I can see the appeal of clearing everything with the push of a button. Evin O’Riordain* once told me that he would hate to become fully automated at the Kernel, as he’d lose that connection with the brewing process. But, after a while it simply becomes impractical to send someone into the tank with a shovel (even if they are a blogger, willing to do it for nothing).

*CLANG

Over the road, alongside all the packaging and distribution, is the barrel room. At the start of our tour, brewmaster Garrett Oliver wandered over to us – “You gotta show them the barrel room, Jimmy” he said, so over the road we went. The smell inside was amazing. Sweet, soft wood and whisky, tannin, molasses – it would make the perfect car air freshener. Brooklyn get almost all of their barrels from the Woodford Reserve distillery in Kentucky, and age their stronger beer – such as their Imperial Stout, Black Ops – in the whiskey barrels for several months. Some are also soured with Brett, and sit there, quietly absorbing and enhancing, while everything else goes on around.

Not surprisingly, that made us really want a beer – so, we locked up the barrel room, and headed back over the road to the bar. Garrett was there, having nonchalantly opened a bottle of Pliny the Elder for people to try. We had previously peeked inside the hop store, which doubles as his beer cellar – all kinds of dusty things were there, ready to be shared out. As good as Pliny is – and it is very good – the Brooklyn beers we then sampled were just as tasty, such as the wonderful 9% DIPA Brooklyn Blast, or the brand new Brewmaster’s Reserve release, There Will be Black (a 7.5% American Black Ale). Also, unexpectedly, we got to try Dial M for Mild – which is a style I never thought I’d be drinking in New York.

Other treats that we got to sample included their Weisse, which was soft and delicate, and the latest Brooklyn saison – Radius, which at 4.8% was similarly floral and light. Jimmy explained their philosophy, which is to get flavour into beers without making tastebud-pummelling hop bombs that many other American brewers produce. I’ve always thought that Brooklyn beers are all about the balance – even the 9% Blast was firm but not overstated, and tasted fantastic as a result. It was great to stand there and chat for a while, as the employees milled around, having a beer at the end of their shifts.

With that, we let Jimmy clock off after a day’s hard work, and headed out. As we were leaving, he suggested we cross over the road and visit the roof-top bar of a neighbouring boutique hotel. Just as he said, the views over to Manhattan were amazing, and we had a couple of Brooklyn EIPA’s in true style. The Brooklyn Brewery aren’t sitting on their laurels following the recent expansions and new tanks – next in line is an on-site restaurant for dining and food pairing lessons, with a planned roof-top bar of their own. Just before they signed the deal on the expanded premises, the possibility of having to relocate to New Jersey was a very real option. Everyone in Brooklyn should be glad they managed to stay where they are – as without them, Brooklyn would be a very different place.

Many thanks to Jimmy, Garrett and everyone at the Brooklyn Brewery for being so hospitable.