Category: Essays and Aphorisms


Container Wars

Have you ever noticed that we, the human race that is, tend to be a tribal bunch? Frankly, as statements go I would hope that to be pretty uncontroversial, yet give it time and I’m sure two sides would emerge – dug into their entrenched positions and arguing the hell out of it. Even odder the tribalism seems to be almost fractal, at every level you have smaller and smaller tribes breaking out.

Drinkers vs. Not Drinkers. Wine vs. Whisky vs. Beer. Craft Beer vs. Real Ale. Hops vs. Malt. So on and so on.

So, beer containers. They make a difference. Kegs, Casks, Cans and Bottles, plus probably others, but I’m keeping it simple(ish) here. However, for all of the fact I called this article “Container Wars” (Mainly as a geek reference to the upcoming “Combiner Wars” comics. Because I am a geek) I’d rather this not be war, more an examination of the benefits of each type.

Now I’m not a brewer, so this won’t be from the brewers side, more a set of views of someone who has drunk a hell of a lot of beers. Just a look at what seems to work better in each style – as always I happily invite feedback from people better informed than I. By necessity these sets will go by generalisations, for nearly every one I can find exceptions, but there do seem to be trends.

Casks

The old favourite, cask ale, most often hand pumped or served under gravity. For a long time cask ale was my main go to for quality ale. Well I say cask ale, cask lager is a thing, if not an overly common one. However for the most part cask and real ale are used synonymously so that is what I will be concentrating on here.

The most obvious thing with cask ales is that they have no added carbonation, and are served at cellar temperature at the coldest. Because of this I find they tend to work better with more restrained hop levels, and more malt. This isn’t hard and fast, but cask ale seems very good at having flavours last and linger on, due to texture, lack of carbonation and warmth. Hops give great flavour but large amounts tend to get sticky in a way that the other types don’t and so can wear out their welcome quicker.

The main advantage I find with cask ales is the merging of flavours, cask ales tend to allow the flavours to mix together, the malt and the hops merge when used well, each aspect influencing the others. It is a great way of holding beers that are made to be well integrated and benefit from the complexity you can get from that.

Another unique aspect is the feel, a hand pulled cask ale of any type does not feel like any other kind of beer. There can be very natural characteristics to it, a slight sourness to a bitter, slight sulphur, organic elements. In a lot of the newer style beers these can seem out of place, but used well they can create a rustic feel or can be used for contrast to the other main elements.

For these reasons, the oft maligned bitters and brown ales find a natural home, there can be a slight sourness to a bitter to make it refreshing, or a very natural blending of flavours to a brown ale which cannot be easily achieved in other ways. Even style originally foreign to the storage method, such as German inspired wheat beers can find new expressions when made with cask in mind, allowing for the extra thickness and merged flavours to create Anglo German hybrids. It is the oft overlooked choice in the new wave of brewing, but there are a lot of tricks up its sleeve. It is possibly the hardest to use though – I have seen a lot of foreign beer styles made for cask with no idea of how they will alter, resulting in lacklustre beers that seem pale imitations rather than inspired new twists. Also, cask ales need to be stored carefully, served when just right, and used quickly before they go off – at every point there is a lot that can go wrong, and cask ale with a yeast infection excessive acidity seems an ever present risk in bars without the knowledge on how to handle them.

Kegs

For years the maligned cousin of cask, now keg is standing up on its own two feet here in the UK, inspired by the USA craft beers the keg has become the beloved choice of much of the new wave of brewing in the past few years.

Kegs tend to produce sharper clearer defined flavours, there is little of the merging that you see with cask, instead each element seems to stand by itself. This can be great for where you want each element to stand alone, but not if you want the elements to complement each other more closely. Most tellingly this can be seen with hop bitterness – in the same beer tried side by side from cask and keg, the keg beer will often seem a brasher hop punch. With stouts and dark ales the chocolate and coffee notes will be clearer. This is not to say that keg ales cannot be complex, far from it, but there is less intermingling between elements, you can often sense where the malt ends and the hops begins far more easily.

As indicated before, the chilled character and carbonation often allows keg ales to play with bigger flavours that would become overwhelming in cask. This is part of the reason, I feel, why IPA beers are so popular in keg. That and they rock. Of course keg beers play a big part around the world, and a lot of beers styles around the world are native to keg and so find that as their natural habitat.

While I am concentrating on ales here, and while cask lager is a thing, I would be remiss in not pointing out that for most of the world keg is the native home of lagers – that the carbonation works to make the crisp refreshing beers that have far more flavours that the bland mass market examples back home are shamed by. Experience in Prague tells me similarly that the bottled and keg lagers show very different characteristics, which deserve to be examined, but I do not feel qualified to do so at this point. Also, while non pasturised and unfiltered beers is required for casks ales, some keg ales also can non pasturised and unfiltered, and generally are superior like that – though I have not done enough exact comparisons to say exactly what differences are, just that they tend to be cloudier and fuller flavoured.

While not as complex to keep as casks, kegs have their own quirks. Carbonation is one such issue, many pubs that are unused to craft ales seem to over carbonate their beers, resulting in Fosters like soda stream effects. In American various pubs even boasted about the exact gas mix in their carbonation – not something I could speak on myself, but you can tell a distinct difference between a well carbonated and overly carbonated beer.

Container Wars 2

Bottles

Bottles, or as I call it – 90% of the home drinking selection (though probably not market which I’m guessing may be dominated by cans). Real ale in a bottle is a thing here in the UK, and of the two take home containers I’m guessing only bottles could handle that. I would guess it is do to the fermentation in the bottle, which would not work well in a canned container. As of such the bottle market is the place to be for your real ales you would otherwise encounter in casks.

However they are definitely not just cask ales – for better and worse. Let’s face it, Trappist ales, Hefeweissens, Lambics and IPAs all come bottled, some with bottle fermentation, some without.

I think that opportunity for secondary fermentation is possibly its biggest advantage though, unique to bottles, and bottles can also be sized up – with larger bottles allegedly being better for some long term cellaring. Bottles do seem to be the go to for beers to be aged.

What happens to a beer when bottled depends on what it would otherwise be – real ale styled seem to come through smoother than their cask brothers, which can benefit some ales – they tend to have that smooth intermingled flavours, but just a touch better defined, and a lot of the beers with a wide range of hops and malts in the ingredients seem more easy to express in the bottled versions, where the cask versions can seem muddy as they try and mix too many elements. Bristol Beer Factory’s Vintage Ales are a good example of this – the wide range of elements used really don’t come through in cask, but are much better defined in bottle, without losing the ability of malt and hops to merge and benefit each other. Bottles do lose that unique feel and flavours that seem to come with cask though.

Beers that would come from keg instead tend to lose that freshness, but at the trade off of controlled carbonation levels. In each case it seems to be a compromise between the parent containers. I would say that keg oriented beers in bottles seem to differ less than their cask counterparts, hewing more closely to the parent container.

Even this is a very incomplete description. Bottled trappist ales often have secondary fermentation while I presume the keg versions do not, the trends of the UK beer scene does not map well to the wider world. However it is the beer scene within which I am most familiar, so I hope you will forgive the somewhat UKcentric view of this piece. Perhaps after more beer travelling I may return with more views of the fine beers from around the world and how they compare.

Cans

Cans were, for a long time, considered lowest of the low. Real ales that got mutilated for cans were nearly always crap. The canned lager availability was also poor. So we thought cans were the issue, not the beer that was in them.

We were, of course, wrong.

Cans have turned out as the take home younger sibling of the keg era, the recyclable metal container of the craft beer wave. The keg is therefore most definitely the closest cousin for flavour comparisons. They have similar more distinct clear elements, as of all the containers I’m guessing this would handle fermentation in the container worse. I’m not sure it is currently possible with cans. I could be wrong, but I feel their entirely sealed nature would be a pressure nightmare for additional fermentation. However this sealed nature is also cans advantage. No light, less ways for the beer to spoil. Hopped beers are preserved very crisply in cans, which is what has made them beloved of the craft scene.

So IPAs, APAs and the like come out very similarly to kegs with the can diversions, very crisp hops, very clear defined flavours. Stouts and the like don’t seem that different, and possibly psychosomaticly the bottle versions seem to be more complex. Pale beers seem to be the cans friends and their raison d’etre. They are, however, the least well examined so far of the four so I have a lot to learn on them.

Growler

You may notice I am studiously ignoring growlers up to this point, but before I go they do deserve a slight mention. Just starting to show up on the UK for the past few years, they have been a solid entry in the USA for a long time. The thing is, for flavour, they seem the weakest entry to me. As soon as they are filled you have a risk of air contact (newer technology seems to be working on this issue) – If you drink over the next few days it should not be an issue, but in every case, you are taking keg or cask beer and adding an additional element of potential infection. On the other hand they are the only way to get those beers home with you, so they have a place – but you will never get an equivalent or better experience than a fresh pulled pint.

Final Thoughts

No you can’t carry beer in thoughts. Yet. I am working on it. Though there is an argument that the beer only truly exists in our mind, so maybe, anyway I digress. Any thoughts? I’m sure many of us have had different experiences, and those of you with a bit more hands experience on the production side can add a lot. let me know what you think, and until next time…

– Enjoy your beer!

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 Back In Japan!: The Japan Drinking  Scene.

So Japan and beer. Not words that you tend to see together in the international press. In fact from conversations I have had, a lot of Japan doesn’t seem to know they have a growing craft beer scene. Now Japan and Whisky, the world has got its head around that. After quite a few awards you would have to work very hard not to notice it. Their local beer however is still a well-kept secret for the most part.

That is however changing.  So here we have, based on my short visits, an outsider’s view on the Japan drinking scene.  For any locals of Japan who read this, feel free to correct any mistakes I make. This is based purely on what I saw during my travels and I claim no great expertise.

The first thing that seems odd to an outsider is the opening times. In the UK the lunchtime pint is a thing of tradition, going around America I found places serving at ten in the morning and the refrain, “Its five o clock somewhere!”.  In Japan most craft beer bars didn’t seem to open until 17:00/18:00 hours. On the other hand they did then run to obscenely early o clock in the morning, so it is a trade-off.  You will find some bars, usually brew pubs, doing a short lunch open, but for the most part I would advise to keep bar drink hunting to the night and plan to other things in the day.  You will be in Japan therefore I will presume that this will not be in any way difficult. Continue reading

To share a short tale told at the pub recently.

A tourist, believed to be American, overheard in a pub in Britain declaring

“You have to try this; it’s the best drink ever. It is like a mix between lager and Guinness – it’s called John Smiths”

I don’t know if I should laugh or weep.

EDIT: I’ve run into a few variants of this tale recently, which makes me wonder if it is an urban legend I fell for. I guess, like many things marked “You Can’t Make This Up”, it turns out to be..well…made up. Ah well.

Drastic Beer News!

I knew it! I just knew it. Due to increased cost on beer and pressure to keep abv’s low a beer has had to reduce from 3.8% ABV to 3.6% abv while rising the cost by 2 and a half pence. This is terrible, the effects of mad liberals pressure that make energy cost go up and nanny stating and totalitarianism beer duty. It’s political correctness gone mad!.

http://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/bitter-taste-drinkers-beer-watered-073135532.html

Oh hold on, sorry, it’s just John Smiths. False alarm everyone. I mistakenly thought we should give a shit. My bad.

Minimum Price
It’s that time again. The time the press has to decide between demonization of the drinking youth, or cries of nanny state and tax grubbing governments. Actually, usually they don’t have to choose, contradictory opinions that should cause significant amounts of cognitive dissidence are the norm in a hell of a lot of papers. If they can cause outrage then consistency is an optional extra.

So what am I talking about? The proposed introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol in drink in most of the UK. I say most as Scotland with it’s devolved powers has already put forth a 50 pence per unit minimum price. It’s being held up at time of writing (1), but is further ahead than the rest of the UK’s proposed 45 pence minimum.

Now there are a lot of people claiming this can, or can’t work because of many reasons. That minimum price won’t deter drinkers, in a similar fashion to the fact that high cigarette costs are not deterring smokers, that it’s just another tax for the government, that it will boost the quality beer of beer. A lot of claims, very little evidence being given for most.

So what is the evidence then? In an unusual step for what is normally an opinion piece I’m going to be doing a quick trawl of the net for the evidence and see what I can find.
Continue reading

America. Or more precisely the USA. Possibly the most wrongly maligned beer country in the mind of the general populace and one of the most sought after beer scenes by aficionados. The land where prohibition took place, and one of the largest craft beer scenes in the world. 50 states, each at least the size of Britain and with at least as much cultural variance between them as between Britain’s member countries. How do you even start talking about that?

Well first I’m going to pour a pint. Not because I want a pint. Ok, not just because I want a pint, but also it’s the first interesting difference. The USA pint is smaller. 568ml for UK compared to 473ml for USA.

Which explains why you lot in the USA are all lightweights who think you can drink more than you really can.

I jest.

Mostly.

Continue reading

Drinking in the Shadow of the Five Rings

The Great British Beer Festival. Usually the highlight of the year for London beer drinkers, where they would congregate at Earls Court. This year, well someone decided to run some small piddling athletics thing called the Olympics in there so we got shunted over to the Olympia.

Seriously I’m fairly sure there are more people who have a pint once a week than there are people who do exercise one a week. That’s all I’m saying.

Continue reading

You know your priorities are wrong when you see a sign saying “Licensed Sex Shop” in Soho and think “Oh good, that means they have a bar!”

Essays and Aphorisms: Shenanigans

Now you may get the impression from my writing that I am a very serious respectable journalist. Actually, that’s fairly unlikely, especially after the beer/sex act joke. Anyway, just in case anyone has made that mistake somehow I thought I would share some oddities from recent nights out.

It had been a quite fun night so far, my random writings and photo taking had resulted in a nice chat with the locals about what I was doing, and I had been making some recommendations of good whisky to try.

Then my good friend Dylan noticed they had something new.  Some weird Jeremiah Weed drinks. Now one was kinda ginger and root beer styled and the other Sour Mash kinda bourbon styled. I was wary, and those many whisky bottles on the wall kept catching my eye. However I am nothing if not open to experimentation. So my tasting note done I decided to join them in sharing two bottles of these new beverages between us.

Dylan and Will started on the ginger one, and made vague appreciative noises.

Huh, now that’s a phrase that looks wrong out of context.

Anyway.  I tried the Sour Mash one, reasoning it had a least a passing wave to my preferred style.
For feck sake why do I do these things?

It was as if someone had taken the vaguest whiff if bourbon and drowned it in water. If I wanted to ruin perfectly good spirits I can do that myself without having to get a fancy jam jar looking glass to do it with.  Shortly after my two amigos decided that the ginger one wasn’t actually all that either, something I could have told them a long time beforehand.  Then Dylan, very reasonably bowed out of drinking more than the small sample he had tried. With the reason being that he was the driver, leading to the following exchange

“God damn it, you ordered these pieces of shit and now you bow out?”

“Well yeah I’m driving”

“Ok. You have a good point. And we hate you for it”

“Well you wouldn’t want us to crash and die in a ball of flame”

“Yes, but only because that’s not the way we want you to die” “We have a list, a long one”

(DISCLAIMER: Despite the preceding piss take, we agree completely with Dylans choice and respect his decision. Drink driving is fucking stupid. Don’t do it. Seriously)

This was then followed by an example at the bar of exactly how bloody posh Bath is. A couple had come in and ordered Jagermeister Bombs, which if you are lucky enough to not know, is Red Bull with a shot glass of Jagermeister dropped in. By which I mean dropped in while still in the shot glass.

However this is Bath, so we couldn’t have that, no indeedy. Instead they dropped a shot glass of Woods 100 Old Navy Rum into a glass of Red Bull instead.  A concoction rapidly called The Bath Bomb, or The Bath Dambuster instead.

All with the Star Inn’s amused bartender looking on and joining the fun.

Anyway, then I ordered a measure of Dalmore 15. The silliness didn’t stop, but at least I had quality whisky to enjoy it with.

So why am I writing all this? Because it’s easy on a night out to get lost in the wonderful whisky and great beer and forget – booze is great, but it’s the people that make it special.

Here’s to all you out there. Share a glass with me would you?

As is often said, brevity is the soul of wit. Thus I must complement the bartender of Brigantes Bar at York, who, when asked for a pint of John Smiths replied

 

“We don’t serve that shite here”

 

A true beer philosopher and bar hero. If any readers are from York, please raise a glass to this man.

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