Pint of the usual?

by Greg Richards

In this age rich with new breweries and more guest beers than the most devoted beer-hunter can keep up with, there are still plenty of drinkers that prefer to stick to “a pint of the usual”. Many go for trusted brands, established beers that have been around as long as they can remember. But how many of these beers are actually the same brews they used to be?

Look at Bass, a beer that many pub-goers will recognise. The Bass red triangle was the first trademark to be registered in the UK. While it still appears on the pump-clip, what’s going on behind the label has changed drastically. The brewery was set up in Burton-upon-Trent in 1777 by William Bass and, by 1877, it was the largest in the world, with an annual output of one million barrels.

In the early 20th century , Bass acquired a number of other breweries and their pubs. The Strugglers Inn used to be tied to the Bass estate and, when the current landlady Anna took over, Bass was a permanent fixture. Now it only appears about once a week. “It’s a nice drink but not the beer it was,” according to the landlady.

In 2000, Bass brewing operations were bought by Interbrew (now AB InBev), the company behind Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser. While Bass is still brewed in Burton-upon-Trent, it’s now produced by Marston’s and is currently a 4.4% ABV beer, having previously been brewed to 4% and 4.3%. Where a barrel used to have to settle in the pub cellar for over a week prior to serving, it can now be ready in two and half days. Some would say that’s progress, but such changes can’t happen without altering the beer itself. Continue reading “Pint of the usual?”

Beginner’s Guide to Lincoln Beer Festival

by Steve Renshaw

With Lincoln Beer Festival only a week away, Steve Renshaw answers questions from first-timers.

Isn’t a beer festival just old men sitting round drinking warm beer?
Certainly not – we get a really good mix of customers. Of course, this includes beer aficionados, but we also get workers popping in for a few pints at the end of their shift, clubbers starting off their night with us, visitors to the city, and plenty of students. And our bar manager won’t forgive me if I don’t tackle the warm-beer issue. Real ale is best served between 11oC and 13oC, so you can fully appreciate the flavours. We have the equipment to ensure that we keep it at just the right temperature.

But I don’t like beer.
There are hundreds of brewers across the UK producing thousands of distinctive ales, so perhaps it’s just that you haven’t found the right one yet. We’ve got over a hundred, so this is your chance to try some different ones. And the beauty of the festival is that you can buy a third of a pint, which allows you to appreciate the different styles and flavours without getting the worse for wear. We’ve also got some really unusual foreign beers to try. And if you really can’t find a beer that’s to your taste, we’ve some fantastic, farm-produced cider and perry.

So what is real ale?
In the early 1970s, CAMRA coined the term “real ale” to make it easy for people to differentiate between the bland keg beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat. Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which keg beers can never provide. Continue reading “Beginner’s Guide to Lincoln Beer Festival”

If you want flavour, try a real ale

by Steve Renshaw

I’m sure the Batemans’ Biscuit Barrel Beers (featured in the Echo on 20th March) will divide opinions among drinkers. But whether they like them or not, pubgoers will certainly have a view. And that’s the great thing about real ale these days – there’s so much to talk about.

There are more breweries in the UK than at any time in the last 70 years and they are producing thousands of different ales. The many microbrewers have rejuvenated the industry through innovation and experimentation. It’s common for pubs to have a choice of different and ever-changing ales on offer, meeting the demand from drinkers for exciting flavours.

So how do brewers manage to produce all these different flavours? Amazingly, it’s just with two basic ingredients, malt and hops. There are some speciality beers with added ingredients, but let’s just stick to the basics.

Malt is cereal grain, usually barley, that has been soaked in water and allowed to germinate. During germination, the starch in the seeds is converted into sugar, which the yeast feeds on to produce alcohol during the brewing process. The germination is halted by heating in a kiln. Depending on the length of time in the kiln, the malt can range from pale to almost black.

Pale malt imparts a sweet, biscuity flavour to beer, amber malt gives a toffee taste, and dark malt is responsible for hints of coffee and chocolate.

Hops provide the bitterness to balance the malty sweetness and also enhance the aroma. Today’s brewers can choose from a vast range of hops from across the world. These impart flavours including fruit (citrus, tropical, apple, berry fruits), floral, spices, nuts, honey and vanilla.

In order to try out a variety of flavours, I went along to the Forum during Wetherspoon’s recent real ale festival. Reading through the tasting notes for the fifty beers that were available during the two-week period, I counted fifty-two different hop varieties. And the descriptions included phrases such as “apricot and grapefruit aromas”, “zesty, citrus undertones”, “light biscuit body”, and “hints of peppery spice”.

These sound more like descriptions of wines, rather than beers. I selected a tasting tray of three different thirds to see if I could recognise any of the aromas and flavours.

And what about the beers?

Batemans Oatmeal Biscuit (3.6% ABV) is a light-coloured beer brewed with malted barley and oats, raw cane sugar and two hop varieties. It should have a “distinctive biscuit flavour” and “crisp sweetness”. I detected a strong almond aroma that made it difficult to pick out any other flavours. A bit too sweet for my taste.

Daleside Sea Fever (4.5% ABV) is a golden ale brewed with two new-world hop varieties. I was on the look-out for “aromas of pine, tropical and berry fruits” and “a richness of flavour which culminates in a refreshing, soft bitter finish”. I certainly noted a sweet, fruity aroma. The flavour was beautifully balanced between the hops and malt and, yes, the aftertaste was of lingering bitterness. Very moreish!

Titanic Iron Curtain (6.0% ABV) is brewed in the style of a traditional imperial Russian stout. The description mentioned “a deep, rich, burnt flavour which complements the biscuit malt character, balanced by large quantities of hops”. The burnt coffee aromas and flavours of dark malts are easy to detect. I could taste a plummy fruit flavour in there too. Mmm!

If you want to explore the different flavours in real ale, come along to the Lincoln Beer Festival. It’s in the Drill Hall from 22nd to 24th May.

New Look Batemans

by Steve Renshaw

If you’ve been in your local Batemans’ pub recently, you’ll have noticed that something has changed. The Wainfleet-based family brewer is celebrating its 140th anniversary with a rebranding. The first thing you notice is the new, contemporary design for the XB and XXXB pump clips. There’s also a new pump clip for the award-winning Salem Porter.

However, the rebranding isn’t just about style. The substance comes from the fact that Batemans has extended the fermentation and maturation time for its beers to give them an even more satisfying body and flavour. And they are adding new beers to their portfolio. The classic Dark Mild has been replaced by Black & White, with a pump clip to match XB and XXXB.

They are continuing to produce specialist, limited-release beers. Last year, they introduced their Bohemian Brews infused with flavours such as Belgian chocolate, orange peel, coffee beans, cinnamon and hazelnuts.  And this year, they are brewing Biscuit Barrel Beers, which combine the flavours of classic biscuits with the traditional brewing recipes. Beer and biscuits share many common raw materials such as barley, oats, malt and cane sugar, and these beers will feature subtle biscuit flavours.

There’s even a new bottled beer that is claimed to be a completely unique beer experience. Black Pepper Ale is a strong pale ale to which drinkers can add some ground Asian black pepper from an attached sachet, to enhance the flavour.

Stuart Bateman, managing director of Batemans Brewery, said: “This year marks a momentous occasion for us as we celebrate our 140th anniversary. In recognition of this achievement, we’ve evolved our branding, and also introduced a range of new beers which demonstrate the heritage and expertise of our brewery while offering tastes and flavours that are incredibly modern. We’re extremely proud of these new beers, and hope our customers and fans enjoy them.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the rebranding is the new strapline on the brewery’s logo. “Good honest ales” has been replaced with “Craft brewers since 1874”. I’ve written about craft beers in this column before, and it’s still a hugely contentious issue among brewers and drinkers.

The term “craft beer” has been coined by young, trendy brewers to describe their beer, whether it is dispensed from a cask or a keg. One of the most prominent examples is Brew Dog Brewery in Aberdeenshire. On their website, Brew Dog give the following definition of craft beer: “For us the distinction should be as simple as beer brewed for taste versus beer brewed for volume. Regardless of dispense style of production method, craft beer is beer brewed for taste.”

Batemans is fighting back against this new wave by defining craft beers as beers that come from a craft brewery. That is, a brewery run by the fourth generation, on the same site for over 140 years, using the same traditional brewing techniques, where many of those working at the brewery have done so for over 30 years, having had their craft passed down to them from father to son.

This is hardly a snappy definition, but it reflects the passion that directors Stuart and Jacqui Bateman have for the business. It was their great grandfather, George, who sold his farm in the village of Friskney in 1874 and rented a small brewery in Wainfleet.

And what about the beer? Black & White (3.6% ABV) is a dark, rich and creamy mild packed with biscuit, nut and fruit flavours. Renowned beer writer, Roger Protz, has described it as “a sensation”.

To find out more about the Campaign for Real Ale in Lincoln, visit www.lincolncamra.org.uk

National Winter Ales Festival

by Steve Renshaw

There’s great anticipation among local real ale enthusiasts as one of CAMRA’s flagship beer festivals comes to the East Midlands. The four-day National Winter Ales Festival opens in The Roundhouse in Derby on Wednesday 19th February.

The Roundhouse is the world’s first and oldest-surviving circular engine shed. It was originally developed in 1839 by four rival rail companies, including North Midland Railway for whom George Stephenson and his son Robert were engineers. Following a £48 million renovation, it has been returned to its former glory with original features restored and complemented by dazzling new artworks. The stunning Grade II* listed building re-opened as a venue for corporate events in late 2009.

Drinkers will be able to choose from more than 350 real ales from across the UK, together with ciders, perries and continental beers. As the festival’s name suggests, the emphasis is on winter beer styles. This covers old ales, strong milds, porters, stouts and barley wines. The very best example will be crowned Champion Winter Beer of Britain.

Although most real ale drinkers will be familiar with the other styles, old ale is rarely seen on the bar. It recalls the type of beer brewed before the Industrial Revolution, which was stored for months or even years in unlined wooden vessels known as tuns. The beer would pick up some lactic sourness as a result of wild yeasts and tannins in the wood. The style has re-emerged in recent years, due primarily to the fame of Theakston’s Old Peculiar.

Winter ales are usually much more complex in terms of depth of colour, flavour and smell than regular bitters and golden ales. Colours range from chestnut to tar-black. Delicious flavours can include Christmas cake richness, dark chocolate, black treacle, rich coffee or spicy fruits. With strengths above 5% ABV, you can expect a warming alcohol feel in the mouth and throat. Just the thing for dispelling winter chills.

From medieval times, ale was heated and spiced to produce a winter drink. Posset, made from hot ale mixed with milk, sugar and spices, was popular until the 19th century.

Another British tradition, which lasted into 1800s, was to float spiced toast on the surface of hot ale.

However, the popularity of hot ale drinks declined with the rise of hopped beer, as this reacts badly to being heated. Instead, drinkers sought out stronger, sweeter dark beers in the winter months. One of the most popular of these was Bass No. 1, which was first produced in Burton upon Trent in 1854. It was the first beer to be marketed as a barley wine and, on an early advertising poster, was called the “Best Winter Drink”.

In the 1960s, dark beers rapidly fell out of favour as keg bitter and lager rose in popularity. However, in recent years, smaller craft brewers in Britain have rekindled an interest in the various winter ale styles. Microbrewers are seeking out old recipes or putting their own take on the traditional beers.

One local example is the 8 Sail Brewery, which is located adjacent to Heckington’s unique windmill. Brewers Tony Pygott and Steve Doane produce a number of dark ales and heritage beers. We had the chance to chat to Tony and Steve and try their beers at a recent meet-the-brewer evening in the Forum.

And what about the beer? 8 Sail Black Widow (5.5% ABV) is a strong, dark ruby mild in the style of a Victorian ale. Dark malt and liquorice flavours dominate in this smooth-drinking winter classic.

For full details of CAMRA’s National Winter Ales Festival, visit nwaf.org.uk

Pubs and the economy

by Steve Renshaw

Over the last six months, CAMRA has been highlighting the importance of the community pub. In July, we pointed out the amazing amount of charitable fundraising done by pubs. And then, in October, we focused on how people use pubs to celebrate landmarks in their lives.

This month, we’re looking at the contribution pubs make to the economy. Pubs employ over half a million people, and the pub and beer industry adds £19 billion each year to the UK economy.

However, the pub trade remains very precarious. January is traditionally a very quiet period for the industry and there will be many businesses that go to the wall during the month. CAMRA has issued promotional packs to around 7,000 pubs across the country to encourage customers to support their local at this time of year.

At a national level, CAMRA continues to press parliament to protect and support pubs. One of the issues at the top of the agenda is the reform of the large pub companies’ beer tie. This is the system that requires tenants to buy their beer from the pubco, often at grossly inflated prices. It’s a topic I’ve covered previously in this column, but now we’ve got an interesting case study in Lincoln.

The Vine Inn on Newland Street West was owned by Punch Taverns. Over the last few years, between periods of closure, it limped along with temporary landlords running the place. Smooth-flow bitter and standard lagers were the main beers stocked, with real ale only occasionally available. Given the changing demographics in that area of the city, it’s not surprising that an old-style, street-corner boozer struggled to make a profit when the landlord had to pay inflated prices for his stock.

Saddled with massive debts, Punch Taverns have disposed of over 1,100 of their pubs since August 2011. So it’s no surprise that they were happy to sell the Vine when Lewis De-la-Hey, backed by his father Nigel, made an offer.

The fabric of the pub was very neglected but, following extensive works, it now has a fresh, contemporary look. And, as reported in the Echo, it re-opened in early December with the new name of West End Tap.

Building up a customer base may well turn out to be more of a challenge than refurbishing the fabric of the pub. Lewis is certainly aiming at a very different market. There are five handpumps on the bar with an ever-changing range of real ales, including ones from local microbreweries. Premium keg beers from global brewers are available from dispensers on the bar, while the four taps built into the wall are reserved for more interesting Belgian and US craft beers. A good selection of international bottled beers is also available.

Although the pub has no trade kitchen, there are plans to offer cold platters of locally-sourced food. The pub also supports the local economy with the employment of four young people as bar staff.

I’ve visited the pub a couple of time now, and it’s a really pleasant place to have a drink. Lincoln CAMRA wishes Lewis every success in his venture. Being free of tie certainly gives him a much better chance of making a go of it.

And what about the beer? On my recent visit, there were no local beers so I went for a pint of Hophead (3.8% ABV) from Dark Star Brewery in Sussex. It’s a pale golden ale with a fruity, hoppy aroma. As the name suggests, it has a bitter taste with citrus hints. An excellent session beer.

Don’t go dry this January, support your local pub instead.