Britannia brews with a little bit of help from the Irish

For St. Patrick’s Day, one may think it’s unusual to turn to the book Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. Yes, it covers the recent history of British beer industry and it’s a thoroughly engrossing read as well. However, the book’s subtitle is the “strange rebirth of British beer” and there are plenty of Irish connections throughout.

Many people would have heard of Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). This consumers’ movement has become a British institution in its own right. Few people may be aware that this organisation was conceived during a lad’s trip to Ireland back in March 1971. The idea for launching the “campaign” and early ideas for the acronym were discussed in and around St. James’ Gate. Eventually they settled on the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The inaugural meeting of CAMRA took place Kruger Kavanagh’s pub in Dunquin, Co. Kerry on 23 March 1971 “probably”. While the four holidaymakers were already concerned with the state of British beer, apparently Smithwick’s “offered a nightmarish vision of what might to come to pass back home”. Although apparently the lads were also concerned by the lack of Indian restaurants in Ireland at the time and it is possible that if the beer was better, they might have gone and founded the Campaign for Indian Restaurants instead.

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The revival of brewing in London has a significantly Irish tinge to it. People may be familiar with Evin O’Riordain who founded The Kernel Brewery and has been part of the revived interest in the more American-inspired offerings. However, the capital’s brewing revival can be traced back to Patrick Fitzpatrick, a son of Irish publicans who operated pubs in London and Dublin. In 1977, Fitzpatrick was to open Godson’s Brewery, with the name borrowed from his hop merchant. Perhaps it was canny business sense not to use a distinctly Irish name back in the late 1970s Britain. He made a point of brewing naturally and stating that he used no added sugar or adjuncts. By 1980, his beers were available in Amsterdam but “before long, everything that could go wrong for Fitzpatrick did”.

Evin O'Riordain's The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey has become a mecca for fans
Evin O’Riordain’s The Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey has become a mecca for fans

There’s a great section on the “pioneering” Belfast-native Brendan Dobbin. Rejected for a Guinness job, the Heriot-Watt educated brewer gained experience at Ringwood Brewery before moving to the new Antrim-based start-up Hilden Brewery in 1982. He firmly holds the view that he was the first microbrewer in Britain and Ireland to make lager. After a short stint with Hilden, Dobbin headed off to the US to discover new beer styles. Arriving too late for a brewing job, he worked with Campbell’s soup of all places. Nevertheless, he developed a knowledge of west coast hops, particularly Cascade and was to take this to Britain when he moved back in 1985. First, working back at Ringwood and then to opening his own brewery and pub in Manchester. The West Coast Brewery was located in the King’s Arms Hotel in a fairly rough area that bordered the Moss Side.

By the time Dobbin had opened the pub and brewery, he had already been experimenting for years with new world hops from as far away as New Zealand. This was cutting-edge stuff. He also had a knack for making clones. His clone for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale won prizes and the silver it took at the 1989 Great British Beer Festival brought Dobbin’s work to the attention (for the wrong reasons) of Ken Grossman and his Chico-based company. Dobbin renamed his beer Yakima Grande Pale Ale. While noted for his use of new and innovative hop varieties, Dobbin was “scornful” of ‘hop heads’ because “hops aren’t the only flavour in beer…So, no hops aren’t everything”.

The ex-King's Arms source: Gazza Prescott  http://hopcraftbrewing.blogspot.ie/2013_10_01_archive.html
The ex-King’s Arms source: Gazza Prescott http://hopcraftbrewing.blogspot.ie/2013_10_01_archive.html

By 1995, Dobbin decided he had enough of running the brewery and operating the pub in pre-urban regeneration and a little to mad for ‘Madchester’. He shut the brewery down and then focused for a while on installing brew-kits for the Firkin chain of brewpubs. He also consulted in Ireland for Clare’s Biddy Early Brewery as well as brewpubs Messrs Maguires and the Porterhouse in Temple Bar. One slight omission in this book is the role that the Porterhouse played in the London beer scene. When it opened in Covent Garden back in 2000, it was only the second specialist beer pub after Mark Dorber’s phenomenal White Horse (learnt from the book that the pub had an unwelcome nickname, “The Sloany Pony”)in Parson’s Green. Dobbin can be found down in Bandon, Co Cork as a quasi-hermit/banana grower. He recently was involved in installing the kit into yet another brewpub, this time for the Cotton Ball in Mayfield in Cork.

Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton, popularly known for having “his face permanently contorted into a look of disgust and boredom”, makes an interesting appearance in the book. Mayo-born and Sligo-schooled Peyton became a beer importer in Britain during the 1980s and even held the exclusive UK rights for Sapparo. Before becoming a restauranteur, he also operated a number of clubs around London.

Oliver Peyton in front of the fermenters at Mash, Great Portland Street, London (1999) Source: National Portrait Gallery
Oliver Peyton in front of the fermenters at Mash, Great Portland Street, London (1999) Source: National Portrait Gallery

In 1996 he opened Mash and Air in Manchester, a venture that combined two different dining experiences and a microbrewery. He hired Alistair Hook, who would go and found Meantime Brewery, as head brewer. Lunch menus while pricey had a brewery tour and beer tasting thrown-in. Apparently the high prices “alienated more traditional beer enthusiasts” as did the did the styles brewed. According to Peyton, they were “nothing like the kind of one-dimensional British beers there were then”. This gastro-brewery concept was once thought to have the potential to expand like Belgo (remember that?) but it stopped at two locations. The Manchester operation ceased trading in 2000 and while the Great Portland Street restaurant is still going, Peyton’s no longer involved and brewing halted in 2007. However, the book hints that we may not have seen the last of his involvement in the beer scene and he may make a return as part of his burgeoning culinary empire.

It would be hard to write a book about British brewing today without mentioning Fergus Fitzgerald from Limerick, who’s head brewer at Adnams. He pops up in the book during a section on the uneasy relationship between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’. Adnams are long noted for real ale but have been taking on-board (they love their nautical references) some trends some may commonly associate with the ‘craft beer’ camp but they ignore the fact that breweries like Adnams were craft before craft. On their Innovation brand, he says: “Fair enough, it’s been ‘pimpled’ now, and has more horsepower, some shine new banners and has been fitted with a ‘banging’ sound system so you can hear it coming, but it’s still the same wagon”.

Limerick-native Fergus Fitzgerald is the Head Brewer of Adnams Source: Adnams
Limerick-native Fergus Fitzgerald is the Head Brewer of Adnams Source: Adnams

This book traces the revival of British beer from the early days of tie-wearing members of the Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood to CAMRA to the rise of pubcos and Thatcher’s de-regulation of the pub industry. It takes in the faces and places of breweries started in the last forty years, including those counter-revolutionaries to real ale. At each step, there’s seems to be an Irish hand. There could be more as this book is peppered with names such as Sean Franklin, James Lynch, Roger McBride etc. It’s possible they have Irish roots too. Dave Bailey also gets a mention and he practically deserves a passport for the number of appearances he’s made at Irish festivals and Hardknott’s collaboration with Waterford’s Metalman Brewery.

Ultimately, it’s an enjoyable read and is written in a style that makes you feel part of the journey. It’s a skill that many history writers lack. You can also check out their musings on their blog: http://boakandbailey.com/

A project to catch drinkers on the hop

Guinness is at it again. Following up on last September’s kickoff, hitting Irish outlets in October, a new beer has been released as part of the Brewers Project. The new beer’s a departure from the porter and stout category. They’ve even leaped outside completely.

Hop House 13 is a lager. I have heard plenty of chatter on how the brewer doesn’t like such beers but persevered for the sake of making a decent but different take on the style. At 4.1%, the folk in St. James’ Gate are attempting to compete in the lager category against old and new offerings by other macro breweries and even those they brew under licence. It’s certainly priced that way. If it eats into craft beer sales (if being sold in the same pub), I’m sure they’ll take that too.

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To cover all bases, not only is this aimed at the lager drinker it also is trying to cash in on the “cool” drinker. The one who may want to appear fashionable because he or she has heard of something called “hop”. To make it even easier and perhaps a more attractive proposition Guinness has gone and put it smack bang into the name of the beer. This is the “Fr Trendy” of beers.

Hop House 13 pours a clear golden colour. So a big tick for that. Little perceptible hop aroma. There’s citrus and apricot in tasting so I’m told. I got the subtle citrus flavours but it had more of a red berry than apricot taste for me. However, I tried this after judging a beer competition and my palate was fairly shot.

I have tried this beer on two separate occasions. It could prove popular as the weather gets better. Already countless “sure there’s a grand stretch in the evening” comments can be heard. It could pass muster for fans of summer ale as there’s a teaspoon of bitterness in the beer. It’s a little thin and watery but overall not a bad attempt.

The “crafty” Brewers Project appears to be picking up momentum. Hop House 13 will be featuring in bars across the island but not in all of them. It’ll be a similar rollout to Dublin Porter. The Brewers Project is clearly becoming a brand, label (or call it what you will) in its own right.

I’m just waiting for the day when I might overhear a drinker remark that “13” refers to the types of hops in the beer. For the record, there’s only three: mosaic, topaz and galaxy.

You could have worse beers than this but you could certainly have better. This is where it fits in. Could be better, could be worse.

Pipeline politics of the good kind

I know a few people who used to slag me off about “pipeline politics” and the like but what has just been announced in Brugge (or Bruges if you’re that way inclined) is an interesting development. Those familiar with the city or a certain movie for that matter know that its medieval majesty does not lend it easier to get around by vehicle. This makes transportation of good into, around and out of the city difficult. So De Halve Maan, the only brewery operating within the city walls, has come up with a novel solution: a beer pipeline.

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Funded by De Halve Maan itself, a 1.8-mile polyethylene underground pipeline will transport 6,000 litres of beer every hour between the brewery and its bottling facility located on the outskirts of the city. The journey is expected to take 15 to 20 minutes. The local council has backed this initiative as it will remove trucks from the city streets, easing congestion and carbon emissions, whilst ensuring production will still occur at the brewery site that attracts over 100,000 visitors per annum. Also, not having to contribute financially to the project is a significant bonus.

Could this happen in Dublin for instance? Think about the issues Guinness have transporting its products from St. James Gate right across the centre of city to Dublin Port. The famous barges are gone and trucks are the order of the day. A lot of movement takes place at night but it’s an expensive process and obviously not the most environmentally-efficient one (Guinness does have an ambitious green strategy).

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The brewery’s solution is to use the Luas track (which runs to the entrance of the port) track during the night. This would require a small piece of track running from the brewery to join the line at Seán Heuston Bridge and a new track running from the entrance of the port to the dock. Guinness would provide the investment. However, the plan needs the backing of Dublin City Council and no doubt others such as the National Transport Authority. Sadly, due to the nature of our local government system it’s difficult to get ambitious and creative plans off the ground.

It’s amazing to think that it’s easier to get things to happen in a UNESCO World Heritage Site like Brugge.

Hey porter, hey porter

October sees the two new Guinness products being sold in Ireland. Officially launched at the beginning of September, the Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter have been available to purchase in the UK for an entire month. I was invited along with a handful of other bloggers to take a peek inside Guinness’ Pilot Brewery and be one of the first people to try the two new offerings but have waited until now to post about them. The reason being not only did bottles hit the shelves this week but so too did the draught version of the Dublin Porter in selected pubs.

The preview evening was hosted by Nick Curtis-Davis the Head of Innovation for Guinness, along with ‎Pilot Plant Manager Luis Ortega and Master Brewer Gearóid Cahill. Marketed under the Brewers Project, the beers mark a new departure for the company because they’ve adopted the “freedom to fail” approach to innovation. They took a conscious decision that no market research be taken prior to releasing these beers. There’s apparently no plan or future roadmap for the series.

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Critics were early to accuse them of copying the likes Shepherd’s Neame in releasing historic recreations. However, the Brewers Project is not a case of “beer archaeology” because of the extremely limited appeal this would have. The beers are “influenced” by historic recipes, not historic recreations. Take for instance West Indies Porter, it is inspired by brewery logs of 1801 for the first purpose-brewed export porter, using twice the amount of hops, by Guinness. The original recipe itself has evolved over time into Foreign Extra Stout. The 1796 reference on the Dublin Porter relates to the fact that year was the earliest record of porter being written down in the company diaries.

When Guinness lends its brand to new products people are quick to remember high profile failures. Breó anyone? Guinness drinkers have proven to be remarkably brand resilient over the years even treating the likes of Foreign Extra Stout with suspicion. So why re-attempt this now? The explanation lies in the explosion of craft beer and the role it has played in educating the consumer and reviving the interest in beer. It doesn’t pretend to be craft. These products aren’t aimed at the beer enthusiasts (they’ll try it once and tick it off the list) but rather an acknowledgement to the fact that some drinkers are now more likely to stray into the unknown and try something new. This benefits the overall beer market as it helps grow potential consumers for craft products. Part of the battle is always trying to get people to try new things.

So what are they like? First, up was the Dublin Porter (3.8% abv) that pours a dark mahogany colour. There’s roast coffee notes on the nose. It drinks dry with a little chewiness. For me it felt as if it was a tad over-carbonated. There’s a wee kick of bitterness in the finish.

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This week I got to try the draught version of the Dublin Porter. It was interesting that they opted to serve this via CO2 and not with the assistance of nitrogen. This clearly differentiates it from draught Guinness and lacks the smoothness people have come to expect. This is no bad thing and helps to pick up on the various flavours and textures within the beer. I got more chocolate than coffee on the nose and on tasting but giving way to a dry nuttiness on the finish. The head dissipates fairly quickly and the beer itself comes across a fairly light in body. I would love to think that drinkers after becoming familiar with this on draught would reach for the excellent Dark Arts Porter by Trouble Brewing as time goes on.

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Finally, the West Indies Porter at 6% abv is available in bottles only. It’s a beer that people will draw immediate comparisons with Foreign Extra Stout. Perhaps this is a little unfair. The beer pours dark brown and its aroma is reminiscent of a milky coffee that subdues notes of roasted coffee. There’s a slight chocolate hit on first taste. It’s initially creamy with vanilla sweetness but succumbs to a chewy bitterness on the finish.

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For me, these beers aren’t remarkable in the way Guinness Special Export is. They’re grand and were interesting to try in a been-there, done-that sort of way but that’s not the point. These beers are not aimed at drinkers like me and nor should they be. Their importance can be in helping convince people loyal to a brand to try one or two variants. Hopefully, some of them will go on to discover the exciting beers available out there in a way that O’Shea’s Traditional Irish Stout (aka Carlow Brewing Company) in Aldi has done. Only time will tell.