I know. I know. not so much a blog as an archive of past thoughts. Still, I've just read over them again and I have to say they're still relevant today. Since launching in 2011, SVB has produced over fifty beers, and I can honestly say that while I'd be happy to brew any of those again, the quality and consistency of the current range is the best it's been.
The marketing-lead trend for craft beers continues apace, but I've continued to resist the urge to use the term 'craft'. Why? Well, largely because it seems to me that while the intent was noble (promoting locally-produced, artisan beers) the practice is that the big brands have jumped on the bandwagon, calling some or all of their range 'craft'. If the term is to have any cachet at all, it should be to differentiate the smaller producers (particularly) from the multinational-owned bigger breweries. SIBA's appropriation of the term, and a new logo to further clutter pump clips while not adding any real information, seems to me to be a further step in the devaluing of the values originally associated with craft brewing. It's entirely possible that I'm a) in a minority, b) deluded, or c) entirely wrong, but that;s how I feel.
Having said that, I am quite tempted to put a few kegs of IPA2017 out there and see if it works...
Over the past few years, I've also moved away from finings. For those that don't know, most cask beer is fined - that is, an additional product is put into the beer to clarify it for that crystal-clear beer that people apparently crave. The issue with finings is that by far the most common type is based on the processed and rehydrated swim bladders of certain fish. This attracts the yeast in suspension in the beer, clumps it together and drops it to the bottom of the cask. So, although there is little or no fish product in the beautifully clear pint you are drinking, it still means that fined beer (except where vegetable alternatives are used) cannot be deemed suitable for vegetarians. Additionally, it is another step away from trying to keep beer as a simple product produced from four ingredients (water, grain, hops and yeast). At the end of the day, it is a personal choice, but whether for vegan principles, or simply provenance, unfined is the way forward. It also prolongs the shelf-life of the beer, as one of the limiting factors is the effective longevity of the finings.
Finally, I'm glad to say that things are looking fairly rosy at the brewery at the moment. Recent releases, particularly Pendragon Porter and IPA2017 (must come up with a new name!) have gone down very well, and some old favourites such as Motueka and Pioneer Stout have returned. Now I just need to drop back through those last fifty beers and decide which one is ready for another outing...
Style Over Content?
The more observant among you will probably have noticed that our pump clips have recently changed. Those that haven’t, nip over to the ‘beers’ page and have a look.
The more pedantic among you will point out that they’re not called pump clips, but pump fronts, but as everyone else understands what pump clips are, that’s the term I’ll use.
Our new pump clips are only slightly bigger than the old ones, but display far more information than before. Possibly more than any other brewery. Almost certainly more than is strictly necessary, but the vital stuff (brewery, beer name, abv) is all prominent, so that only those interested need look at the rest.
We’ve always tried to be as informative as possible about the beers we brew. Apart from anything else, the customer has a right to know what they are imbibing. This new design adds to the information that we already publish on the website. We like it, and it appears from comments that other people do, too.
The only downside, if it is one, is that the pump clips are a bit serious. I don’t care. Beer should add to a pleasant evening, of course – it may even be the central reason for going out – but a dodgy pun or a badly-drawn cartoon on a pump clip does nothing to add to my idea of a good evening.
Adding a bit more information may get in the way of a great (or not-so-great) graphic to which the brewery is particularly attached. If this is the case, perhaps the brewery should think again. Two breweries within a few miles of me produce oversized pump clips (one with gorgeous graphics, the other with very poor graphics), but add practically no information in this huge expanse. This seems like a dreadful waste of space to me.
And how about the ‘big boys’? Look at a Doom Bar or Courage Best clip, or even a Greene King ‘IPA’ clip. Brewery, beer name, abv. Which hops? What colour? Taste? What should I expect when I drink it? At least I know the answer to that question from (excuse the pun) bitter experience.
Thanks to the Real Ale Almanac (last published, as far as I am aware, in 1999, I know that Courage Best uses (or at least used to use) Target hops for bittering, and Hallertau & Styrian hops for aroma. The official Wells website gives no further information, although it does amusingly split the word aftertaste into two, suggesting that the beer has a ‘bitter after taste’. Meanwhile, I am informed by the Greene King website that ‘IPA’ uses Challenger and First Gold hops. Good information on the internet, but the newly revamped pump clip design makes no mention of any ingredients. In fact, it is worse than the clip it replaces! Meanwhile, Coors, sorry, Sharp’s Brewery gives absolutely no information about the hops used in its ubiquitous Doom Bar. Plenty of flowery descriptions of flavours, and the derivation of the name, but nothing else.
I hope people will appreciate the openness and clarity of our new clips. I also hope that they will encourage others to follow suit. It shouldn’t be privileged information. It’s not like you’re asking for the recipe – just the ingredients. You’re being served a product which you will consume. You have every right to know how it has been produced.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
As someone blessed (or burdened) with the name Peter Cook, I am perhaps ideally placed to answer that question. It was the bane of my life as a child, largely because adults would almost universally say, with a knowing smile, "Peter Cook, eh? Where's Dud, then?" which was somewhat baffling to a ten-year-old with no knowledge of 1960's satirists. Nowadays, and fully aware of the great man's work, I am as eager as anyone to join in with choruses of "busty substances" and some of the more extreme Derek & Clive material, which I won't repeat here...
Of course, with the recent proliferation of 'celebrities', it's only a matter of time before every man, woman and child in the country shares their name with someone famous, but back then it was something I had to carry alone. Except, that is, for the other boy in my year also called Peter Cook. Apart from us, then, there was only one other notably familiar name, and that was Gordon Bennett, who no doubt suffered more than we did.
But what's all this got to do with beer? Very little, except for the naming of a recent brew. It's black, it's hoppy, and it's a bitter. It's not a stout - not enough chocolate. It's not a porter - no brown malt. These are parts of my definitions of styles, and I'm sticking to them. No. it's probably what some in the trade would call a Black IPA. I'm not calling it a Black IPA. The phrase makes no sense. The P in IPA means Pale, as discussed in an earlier blog, so to call something Black Indian Pale Ale is one oxymoron too far for me. Oxymoron, of course, would be a good name for it, but Otley Brewery have already used it, so I went for the rather prosaic Black Hoppy Bitter. This is in line with several other offerings. All my single-hop beers are named after the hop used, and previous IPAs have just been called IPA2012 or other equally imaginative names. I'm like that. I like names to make simple sense.
So why the flip, then, did I name a recent IPA 'Bralda Him' (with a circumflex over the i, which I haven't managed to find on this keyboard)? Who knows. It was an aberration. For those who don't know (and I realise that I'm opening myself to claims of unreconstructed hippiedom here) it was the name the hobbits used for the Brandywine river. That is, it's not really, because hobbits don't exist, and had no language for that very reason, but that's what Tolkien claimed in an appendix at the back of The Lord of the Rings. It means 'Heady Ale' in Hobbit. If Hobbit existed as a language, which, as we've already established, it doesn't. I'll get me coat.
Bralda Him has gone now. The last cask is off to a festival next week, and we're back to good old plain English. Newly racked is Single-Hop Admiral, another 4.3% golden beer, brewed with one hop. In this case, Admiral. But then, you'd guessed that from the name, hadn't you? Tomorrow's brew is a new version of Quintessential, which may at first appear to be less obvious, but which means 'five essences' and contains five hops, so it's pretty clear, really.
May Bank holiday is special for me. It's my daughter's birthday weekend, for one thing. She's a bit young to help with brewing, but takes a keen interest nonetheless.
Of course, it's also Reading Beer (and cider & perry) Festival weekend. I went along for one or two beers. I also ended up judging the CAMRA south-east final. Nine (or was it ten?) different styles of beer which had all made it through the CAMRA competition for one to be crowned champion of champions. These were split into two groups for semi-finals, with the best two from each going through to the last stage for the final decision. Of the semi-finalists I tasted, two were excellent, two very good, and one clearly had problems - a bit murky, and not tasting at its best. But this beer was clearly excellent last year, when the category winners were chosen in London. This demonstrates the lottery of beer competitions. If the cask sent for judging happens to have problems, your chances are scuppered. This is not necessarily the brewer's fault; the beer may need a bit more time to settle orfluctuations in temperature at an open-air festival like Reading may take their toll. Of course, it may just be a dodgy firkin. Sadly, the judges have to judge what's put in front of them.
The final, then, featured four beers of which there was one clear winner - Dark Star's American Pale Ale. Excellently hoppy and, as the name suggests, pale. Something to aspire to. For those who may be interested, there is a rather embarrassing video on youtube, which can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbKBdEbfyTE featuring me whittering on to camera. In my defence, I had drunk some beer. Not much, though. Not really enough, I admit, to truly form any defence...
As for the rest of the festival, I managed to get to a couple of sessions (failed to make the Sunday thanks to the seemingly never-ending engineering works on the railway), and the casks I collected after the event were gratifyingly empty. I tasted some excellent beers, some not so great, and met lots of friends and acquaintances, though not so many as in previously years, partly due, I think, to the introduction of sessions - it will be interesting to find out how this policy has affected the event. I made it home without incident and nursed only a slightly fuzzy head on one day. All in all, I'd call that a success.
Well, I've surpassed myself on the delay between blog entries! Hopeless. So, happy Hallowe'en, Christmas and New Year.
I had a bit of an odd December, when I was told (following a strange Sunday afternoon when I temporarily lost the ability to form a coherent sentence - not, for once, beer-related) that I had a damaged carotid artery that had caused a sort of mini-stroke. I was told not to drive for four weeks, which meant that I was unable to deliver over Christmas and well into January, which rather curtailed activities for a while. Huge thanks to the kind souls who helped me out over that period - I owe you all a few drinks.
Anyway, final scan results dependent, I'm now back to normal and ready to go. Latest brew is Hoppy Harrington (4.7%), which I haven't brewed since last January, but which went down well then, so hopefully will do so again. Slight change to the recipe this year, owing to availability of hops, but the same complex flavour profile as before. Truth be told, it was going to be Quintessential, which is the same recipe at 4.4%, but due to being a bit out of practice I, er, messed up a measurement. Still, it's a good beer, and will go down very nicely.
Coming up is the next in the Single-hop series, this time Wakatu, another New Zealand hop, then a UK single-hop using Pilgrim - a favourite of mine which I've previously used extensively in IPAs. It will be interesting to see how well it stands up in a single-hop beer, but I'm sure it will be delicious,
Festival season is just around the corner, and we're finally making our first appearance at Winchester Beer Festival - not sure why we were overlooked last year, but it's nice to have made it in this time. Reading beer Festival's not far away either. Talking of which, I must get on and finish off the separations for the logo so they can get on with making T-shirts. Must dash.Will try harder this year to put some more entries on here...
A hazy shade of pale
The discussion goes on in the ivory towers of SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers, formerly and more interestingly the Small and Independent Brewers’ Association). Does a bit of haze in beer really matter?
Haze comes in many forms. It can be a part of the beer’s natural appearance, as in wheat beer.a good thing. It can be a sign of an infected or ‘off’ beer. A bad thing. Then you have a protein haze. This is potentially removed with additional chemicals, and can alter the taste and mouth-feel of the beer. A slight protein haze, in my opinion has very little impact on the beer. It is not worth adulterating a natural product with more things to remove it. A yeast haze is a sign of the beer being under-fined, or unfined, and can usually be mostly or completely removed by allowing the beer to settle for a bit longer. Again, little negative effect on the beer. Usually. Finally, there’s the fabled ‘hop haze’, much beloved of brewers who don’t like to admit that perhaps they’ve slightly miscalculated at some point. Hop haze does exist, but a beer needs to be very hoppy before it’s noticeable. No doubt, someone will point out some other hazes. I’m happy to listen.
The point is that a slight haze (as long as it’s not microbial) is, for me, not an issue. It’s not an issue for anyone whose opinion I value, either. Clearly, I have a vested interest in this. Occasionally, some of my beers have been known to have a slight haze, but only once (that I know of) has it impaired the flavour. That cask was rapidly replaced.
The issue with SIBA is that appearance has an effect on scores in competition. The first category on a scorecard is appearance. The ideal is seen as absolute clarity (with a decent head on the beer). As this is the first criterion judged, it naturally has an impact on the rest of the judging process. This raises a concern. All SIBA judging is done ‘blind’. This terminology is incorrect. If judging were truly blind, then aroma and taste should carry precedence, and more weight, over appearance. To be fair, taste accounts for a higher percentage of points than any other single category, but as I said, the primacy of appearance taints, consciously or subconsciously, the rest of the process.
There has been a suggestion that a new category should be introduced. This would primarily cover unfined beers – a slowly growing movement to educate the public as to the attraction of not putting a solution of dried fish swim bladders in beer (less effective vegetarian alternatives are available). I’d love to be able to supply all of my beers unfined, but I know for a fact that the majority of pubs are unable or unwilling to lay the beer down for the additional period required to allow it to (mostly) clear naturally. The Pioneer Stout gets away with it because it’s so black you can’t see through it anyway. Some customers in a pub will refuse a pint with a haze – even before smelling and tasting it. These punters are misguided. It’s not their fault; they’ve been brainwashed over the years by the emphasis on the clarity of beer over and above all other considerations. For national breweries, the cost of additional research and additional chemicals is easily offset by a reduction in real ingredients – malt and, particularly, hops. I’m not tarring everyone with the same brush. Some big brewers produce good beers. Others, though, sell bland, brown, beautifully bright beers.
However, unless forced to by a lack of alternative, I don’t drink those beers. The rare occasions when I have to remind me why I normally avoid them. They’re just an inoffensive alcohol-transport medium. They allow people to get drunk relatively slowly and hold a big, manly glass in the pub. Each to their own, I suppose, but give me a hazy, hoppy beer over a clear pint of vaguely malty brown water any day of the week.
Moving on, it’s the Sherfield Beer Festival on 22nd September (see link on the home page). We’ll have some beers there, along with many other local breweries plus a few from further afield, including Art Brew, Otley, Purple Moose, Sarah Hughes and XT. Plus a load of ciders, a hog roast and lots of live music: £5 entrance (including glass) and only £2.50 a pint. Come along and say hello.
I’ve also become a twit, which I believe should be the correct term for someone who tweets on twitter. You can follow my occasional blurtings on @svbrew. Might be interesting. Might Not.
I mentioned Sarah Hughes Brewery. I met the brewer (shamefully I’ve forgotten his name) at the Charles Farm hop walk in Herefordshire this week. Lovely bloke. I’ll take him up on the offer to visit the brewery next time I’m in the area. The hop walk is a good day out, with an excellent lunch and some interesting speakers plus, of course, a walk around the hop farm (hence the name). A plea by Alison Clapper (@Britishhops) to use more British hops was particularly well-received. A single-hop Pioneer may well make an appearance soon. I brought back some green hops to put in a new beer, brewed on Thursday. I’ve never used green hops before, so if the beer is slightly hazy, I’ll know what to say. Don’t worry, it’s a hop haze…
Festivals, London, Bottling and Craft...
And so, it’s nearly August. Finally, we had a few days of sunshine – a bit too late to save some of the myriad festivals due to take place in July, but better than nothing. There are plenty more happening before now and October – notably for us, Fleet Lions in August, Sherfield on Loddon and Hatchwarren in September, and Ascot and Basingstoke in October. We’ll also be popping up at various random festivals further afield, but we often don’t know about these until someone tells us they’ve had a pint. So, if you get to sample a SVB brew somewhere, let us know.
Last week, we delivered to several pubs in London, which was fun, apart from queuing for over an hour to get across Tower Bridge. Look out for beers at the Wenlock Arms, the Grape and Grain, the Magpie and Crown, The Trafalgar and the Red Lion in Isleworth, as well as the Bell at Waltham St Lawrence and the Prince of Wales in Farnborough. Good pubs all, and hopefully the beers will go down well. Several of these pubs have deep drops. For those who don’t know about these, you’re basically dropping a cask down about eight or ten feet onto a big pad (called various names in different places: pigs, blobbies etc). This can be a bit of a heart-stopping moment as the casks often bounce to one side or another at the bottom, and there’s a moment when you think it’s going to explode. This is actually quite a rare occurrence, although many years ago I was at the other end when a metal cask split. Very messy.
We managed to get to London the day before the Olympic restrictions came into force but as it was a hot, sunny day, the open-top buses were out in convoy which slowed everything up a bit. Talking of the Olympics, I checked out the sponsorship restrictions and you’ll be relieved to hear that IPA2012 and Southern Gold are absolutely fine. A few other brewers seem to have sailed a bit closer to the wind, but hopefully common sense will prevail and there will be no silly prosecutions. It was interesting to note that a specific example used in the guidance notes was that of a brewery sending out posters and flyers to pubs stating “watch the Olympics live here” with the brewery logo on the same poster. So, to make things clear, I haven’t sent out any posters or flyers, but would thoroughly recommend drinking Sherfield Village beers while watching the Olympics. Not that we’re associated with the Olympics in any way. I’d recommend drinking SVB beers while watching raindrops running down the pub window, too. You could even have a bet on which one reaches the window sill first.
The latest brew of Pioneer Stout is now casked up and ready to go, and there a still a few casks of the rest of the current range in the cold room, although quite a few are reserved for festivals, so I’m going to have to get brewing more to keep up. The next batch of New Zealand hops will be arriving next week, so some more single-hop beers are due soon, plus at least one strong special and the return of the Brown Porter. Then, in September, I’ll be picking up some fresh hops for a one-off green hop brew. Charles Faram organise an annual ‘hop walk’ in the first week of September, which is a good excuse for a bunch of brewers to take the day off and swap notes. We also get to walk around a hop farm, which is always interesting, and there’s a free lunch, too! If you know any brewers, you’ll know they love a free lunch. And a free beer, if you’re offering.
We’ve bottled a couple of casks to test the process, and things are looking good so far. Any beers we bottle will be bottle-conditioned, unfined and unfiltered, which means they’re vegan-friendly and will keep for ages. I’m testing them at regular intervals, which is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. We’re going for a traditional label. We briefly considered something a bit more radical, but decided against it. That decision may be up for review next year. The advantage of being a small-scale brewer is that we can make these sorts of changes relatively quickly.
The craft versus micro debate continues. My concern is that the term is likely to become completely meaningless within a few months as some seriously big brewers jump on the bandwagon. As I previously said, I don’t object to being associated with the term but am not about to start shouting about it. Recent debates have centred around the fact that any beer brewed to a ‘crafted recipe’ should be considered to be a craft beer. This is clearly ridiculous as all beers are brewed to a recipe, and the word ‘crafted’ in this context just means ‘created’. Perhaps we should be called creative brewers. Perhaps not. The whole thing begins to look like a Pythonesque struggle between the People’s Front of Judaea and the Judaean People’s Front. Not to mention the Popular Front. Splitters.
Finally, there’s been a bit of correspondence in CAMRA’s monthly paper ‘What’s Brewing’ from various people complaining about the proliferation of golden beers in recent years, bemoaning the demise of ‘traditional’ British brown bitters. I make no apology for brewing quite a few golden beers myself. There’s a simple reason for this – I don’t particularly enjoy traditional British brown beers. I prefer the taste of hops to the taste of malt, and too many brown bitters are overly malty for me, particularly in the summer months. I was at a local pub last week and tried three different brown 4% beers (from perfectly good brewers, I hasten to add) and could barely discern the difference between them. Perhaps my taste buds aren’t as refined as some other people’s. A phrase often used for these is ‘well balanced’, which seems to me to imply that neither the malt nor the hops dominate. Well, sorry, but I like the hops to shine through – as mentioned in various places in the beer notes (and probably the blog) on this website. I also prefer a drier beer to a sweet one, so that’s what I brew. But beer is a wide church, with room for everyone’s taste and if you want a maltier beer you still have plenty of choice. Of course, Brown Porter and Pioneer Stout are full of malty character. And lots of hops.
And the rain it raineth every day
As I write this, the rain has actually decided to stop for a few minutes. Weird. I’d just about got used to the idea that it was never going to be sunny again. Well, I say I’d got used to it, but to be honest each new bout of monsoon was driving me mad. There is apparently some light at the end of the tunnel, but given that weather forecasters are unable to forecast weather accurately much beyond a couple of days, I’ll believe it when I see it.
This constant rain is a bugger in many ways. Not only has it led to the cancellation of numerous events and beer festivals (including the SIBA SE beer competition at Tonbridge – two 150-mile round trips to deliver and collect unopened casks) but it’s had a serious impact on the number of people going out to the pub – who wants to sit in a beer garden in these conditions? From the point of view of a brewer, this is a problem. Pubs don’t want to stock up on beer when they know that their business is likely to be seriously down on expected levels. Outdoor festivals will have already have incurred major expenses and the inconvenience of a supplier is, understandably, not high on their list of priorities.
Perhaps more importantly, farmers are worried. Potatoes are rotting in the fields, sun-hungry crops like rape and maize are way behind where they should be and, here’s the important bit, barley is not doing well either. This will have an effect on the quantity and quality of grain available for malting later this year and into 2013. I know there’s nothing we can do about the weather and in the words of a former boss ‘you shouldn’t worry about what you can’t change’ but it’s not going to make things any easier in the next twelve months. The impact of this weather will be felt long after it’s finally a memory for most people. Of course, I’m writing this from the selfish point of view of a brewer, but pretty much any product that’s based on arable crops will be more pricey to produce next year.
Anyway, what’s been happening at Sherfield Village Brewery recently? Funny you should ask, because I was just about to tell you. We’ve been quite busy brewing, as it happens. As previously mentioned, the New Zealand hop crop has finally hit the UK, and it’s pretty much sold out already. We managed to get hold of enough to keep us going for a while, so look out for Green bullet, Pacific Jade, Motueka and Riwaka single-hop brews in the next few weeks. Green Bullet has gone into the Maidenhead Inn in Basingstoke this week, as well as to old favourites the Nag’s Head and Alehouse in Reading. I’ve also just brewed a 4% golden beer with a combination of Green Bullet and Pacific Jade, tentatively named ‘Southern Gold’. This will make its debut at a friend’s wedding at the end of the month – congratulations to Tom Cook.
Derby beer festival has just finished, with three SVB beers available (Pioneer Stout, IPA2012 and Nelson Sauvin) and we have a beer in at the Hooky Beerfest, too. Next week, we’re making a first foray into London. Well, not strictly true – a few beers have been spotted in various capital hostelries, but this will be the first beer run into the big smoke. I’m looking forward to it, although the joys of driving around London in a van a week before the Olympics do fill me with a slight dread. We’ll see. It might go really smoothly.
Lastly, we’re finally going to get some beer into bottles. I’ve been testing out a few beers over recent months, and they all seem to have worked pretty well. These will all be unpasteurised, unfiltered and unfined (so suitable for vegetarians) and bottle-conditioned. The first batch will be ready in early August – just in time for that glorious summer that’s just around the corner…
It’s been a while. Again. Sorry about that. To be honest, I didn’t realise that people were actually reading it, but I’ve had a few ask me when the next barrage of blurb was going to appear. Well, here it is.
I hit my thumb with a hammer while casking up the other day. It bloody hurt. Blood everywhere (though none made it into the beer, you’ll be relieved to hear). Blue plasters aplenty and a surgical glove later, I finished off the last two casks – a triple-hopped golden special for a local charity which makes its debut in Eversley on Saturday – more about that later, assuming it goes down well – it certainly tasted pretty good straight out of the fermenter.
It’s surprising how much a sore thumb curtails your activities. It’s nearly healed now, but for the first couple of days every time I bent it I winced, and on a walk with the family my daughter seemed to grab it every time she held my hand. I’m ashamed to say that I was less than charitable when she did it for the fourth or fifth time…
Anyway, beer. That’s what this is supposed to be about, isn’t it? The new crop of New Zealand hops has finally been released, so yesterday I welcomed back an old friend – Green Bullet, a wonderfully citrus-heavy hop. Next in line is Pacific Jade, then Motueka and Riwaka (a new one for me, but it’s closely related to Motueka, so I’m looking forward to it). It seems that breweries across the country have cottoned on to the wonderful flavours and aromas of New Zealand hops – the hop merchant was very cagey about how many bags of hops I was likely to be able to get hold of, with numerous reservations being taken already. I’m going to have to stock up to try to make sure I have enough to keep up with demand.
Tastes are changing. Yes, bland still sells – my previous post isn’t instantly out of date – but it appears that people are starting to appreciate the huge range of flavours available from ‘exotic’ hops. This isn’t an entirely new thing, of course, but the rate of change seems to be increasing, led by so-called ‘craft’ breweries.
I’m not sure about the increasing number of names for what we do. It all used to be breweries. Micro-brewery, as a term, is a relatively new coinage, and recently ‘craft brewing’ is the favoured expression. It’s not a bad one, really, but it does lead to divisions. It conjures up cottage industry, to me. As such, I would be happy to be called a ‘craft brewer’, but the term is applied willy-nilly to brewers who make something slightly different to the mainstream. Brew Dog is perhaps the most famous. They make interesting beers, heavily hopped and definitely ‘crafted’, but at their size, is ‘craft brewery’ an apt phrase? They’re certainly not a micro-brewery any more, along with many others who have outgrown that name. But can they still be called a craft brewery?
I tend to see things in Venn diagrams.We’re all breweries. Within that circle, there are multi-nationals, nationals and regionals. Inside regionals are large breweries (50-barrels and over) and small breweries (20-barrels plus) as well as micro-breweries. I think you cease to be a micro at 20 barrels, but that’s just my opinion. Some breweries of almost any size could be considered to be craft breweries but, as already mentioned, the connotations of the word ‘craft’ seem to me to exclude larger breweries, so in my imaginary Venn diagram, the intersection with size is almost exclusively micro-breweries (not that all of them would consider themselves or be considered by others to be craft breweries, while some small breweries, and perhaps a few large regionals would like to appropriate the term).
Not that it really matters. I’d just say that other things considered to be craft are generally hand-made, not controlled by computer and automated, not backed by corporate buy-out and the associated ethos. This, of course, raises a dilemma. If you call yourself a craft brewery, and business goes so well that you are forced to expand, and you still make the same sort of beers you have always made, you’d probably resent being expelled from the club. The additional income would probably go some way to disperse that resentment, however.
I haven’t embraced the phrase. I don’t call myself a craft brewer, I don’t call SVB a craft brewery, but I don’t object if others people choose to. But all my beers are hand-crafted, with the use of a couple of pumps, a thermostat, some saccharometers and thermometers and no other automation. I suppose to be truly hand-crafted, a brewery would have to dispense with most of that. In the past, temperature was measured by hand, with the correct liquor temperature for the mash judged by the fact that it was too hot to rest your hand in, which I am glad to say is no longer the case. A bashed thumb is one thing, but scalded fingers resulting from every brew would be a step too far.
I was having a chat recently with a fellow brewer. “Bland sells,” he told me. I know he’s right. Look at Greene King IPA, Courage Best, even Doombar (a perfectly pleasant pint, but too sweet for my liking – I have a suspicion that, as with Macdonald’s burger buns, the sweetness is what makes you want to have another one). Given this, it’s obvious what the brewer should do, from a commercial point of view. Brew bland beer. Don’t add too many hops. Stop the fermenting process early enough to leave plenty of addictive sweetness. Don’t scare the horses.
I have a fundamental issue with this. I don’t like bland beers. I like beers that challenge my tastebuds. I’d prefer to have a pint of something that leaves me wondering whether I should have another one and how did the brewer manage to produce that effect, not just one that enables me to chuck another pint of brown, gently inebriating liquid down my throat while I whitter on about inconsequential nonsense with my mates. Although there is a time and a place for that, too, I suppose.
At Reading Beer Festival, I had a couple of bland beers. I was drawn in, disgracefully, by the names. I won’t name the beers – largely because, despite the fact that I was swayed by puns, I have since forgotten what they were. I probably marked them in the beer notes but, true to form, I managed to lose at least two copies of the programme. In the end (by day two) I had reverted to type. I sought out beers from breweries that I know will provide me with a challenge or at least a reliably tasty pint. Arbor, Art Brew, Brodies, Bristol Beer Factory, Flowerpots, Steel City, Thornbridge, to name just a few. These guys know how to brew with flavour. They are the breweries I would aim to emulate. I’m still learning…
I’m currently reading Stuart Maconie’s homage to the North of England, ‘Pies and Prejudice’. While I wouldn’t go so far as the blurb on the cover: ‘An heir to Alan Bennett’, or even ‘The new Bill Bryson’ (Bryson is the blandest travel writer I’ve ever read), I have found it a compelling read, partly because Maconie is a lover of real ale. Talking about modern art, but easily transferrable to beer, Maconie writes:
“…museums are now so terrified of being elitist, so desperate to be ‘inclusive’, that they have to avoid the unspeakable truth, namely that modern art isn’t for everyone. Neither is John Coltrane or Bartok or the ghost stories of Robert Aickman or peaty Laphroaig whisky or English Mustard. That’s why they’re so special and fabulous. Let’s not patronise the public by wet-nursing them like this. A lot of great art is tough and elitist. But we’re grown-ups. We can take it.”
Replace the word ‘museums’ with ‘breweries’ and ‘art’ with ‘beer’. Add to the list Art Brew’s Spanked Monkey, Arbor’s Alpha Ale, Thornbridge’s Jaipur, hopefully SVB’s Hoppy Harrington. ‘Try them, you might not like them’ should be the marketing tagline. We’re grown-ups. We can take it.
Now, having said all that, I have brewed a Jubilee Beer (LXR). It will mainly be available at Sherfield on Loddon’s somewhat over-ambitious suite of events celebrating the Queen’s 60th year in her job. For this particular brew, I don’t want to scare the horses. Sales of beer will help raise money for the upkeep of the village hall, a splendid venue which houses (among other things) the annual Sherfield on Loddon Beer Festival – date for your diary, 22nd September, showcasing nearly forty real ales, mostly local, but a few from further afield, plus a good range of ciders. Plug over, but see the homepage for a link...
The big problem with sticking to the principle of brewing interesting beers is that there is a limited market for them. I accept that some people will never be swayed. I do brew some beers which hopefully appeal to a wider audience. But the beers I’m proudest of are those which result in people coming up to me in the pub and shaking my hand, or sending me an appreciative email. These tend to be the single-hop New Zealand beers – Pacific Jade, Nelson Sauvin, Green Bullet, Motueka – which showcase these amazing hops and definitely cannot be accused of blandness. The new harvest from the antipodes is due in soon, and I can’t wait. I’ll be buying up as much as I can to make sure I don’t run out again – I’m down to my last 5kg of Nelson Sauvin and it feels almost like a bereavement.
I further accept that sometimes beers are just not good enough. This is often the fault of the brewer, sometimes the fault of the pub or festival failing to look after the beer properly. It’s largely about conditioning. Real ale is cask-conditioned (I’m not about to get on to ‘keg craft beer’ here – maybe another day). This means that it needs some time in the cask before supply. It ideally needs a few days in the pub cellar before tapping and a further period of secondary fermentation at cellar temperature before being served to the customer. Some pubs, for various reasons, are either unwilling or unable to do this. It’s a shame, but there you go. Once it’s left the brewery, it’s out of the brewer’s control. Not an excuse, but I usually give a beer another go in another pub before making a final decision – with my own beers as well as those from other breweries. There are a few breweries (no names, no pack drill) whose beers I will probably not try again, but they keep selling, so someone must like them.
So, while accepting that ‘bland sells’, I respectfully respond that mild cheddar, chicken tikka masala, One Direction, The X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, and bloody Coldplay all sell, but who cares? Give me Stilton, lamb dansak, T.Rex, anything but another talent show or reality programme featuring ‘celebrities’ and, well, almost anyone but Coldplay. To quote Attila the Stockbroker, ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks, I’m sticking with the Clash’.
Happy Birthday to us...
Yes, we're a year old. That is, it's a year since the first brew. Obviously, there was a certain amount of planning before that. The sharper-eyed reader will notice that the website has been updated, too...
So, what have we learned in the last twelve months?
1. Obviously, that there's only so much time you can devote to updating a self- indulgent blog.
2. Every pub is different. 'Well, d'uh!' I hear you say (assuming you're a youngish person. If not, I suspect 'No shit, Sherlock' or 'You don't say' will be nearer the mark) and of course, you're right. But what I mean is that the same beer can taste (and sometimes look) quite different from one pub to another. I'd always known this, I suppose, but when it's your own beer, you notice even more.
3. For every negative, there's at least one positive. Huge thanks to all who've been in contact when they've enjoyed a pint. Just this week, I had an email from someone who enjoyed a pint of Nelson Sauvin at Macclesfield Beer Festival - which brings us to...
4. It's amazing how far beer travels. We only deliver locally, but we do have a distributor who takes a few casks a month up North. Once it leaves the brewery, we don't really know where it will end up, but there have been confirmed sightings in Jersey, Manchester and Newcastle to name but three.
5. Brewing is better than not brewing. Making beer is, at it's simplest, just cooking. Take a few ingredients, prepare them, mix them, boil them, serve them. But it's more than that. The whole process of brewing is immersive. The smell of the mash and the boil, the feel of the hops in your hands - and their smell, too - right down to the knockout whiff of the fermenting vessel when you take too deep a breath when checking the process is going well. At every stage there is something almost magical about brewing. It's very easy to eulogise, so I'll shut up before your eyes glaze over.
6. There is a LOT of cleaning.
7. The hardest part is selling. Some people are born salesman, some are not. I'm in the latter camp. If anyone fancies a job selling beer, let me know. I'll probably bite your hand off!
8. Brewers are basically nice people. Most of them are happy to stop and chat, show you round their premises, offer help and advice. Some aren't, but we won't talk about them.
All in all, it's been an interesting twelve months. Plenty of plans for the coming year, including bottling, which will happen some time in the next couple of months. We'll be brewing lots more interesting beers, with bucket-loads of exotic hops, and getting to as many festivals as we possibly can. And maybe even writing something interesting here...
What's in a name?
The recent furore over Slaters' Top Totty being served at the houses of parliament at first made me sigh and mutter obscenities under my breath. Top Totty has been around for many years and has never hit the headlines before. It's hit my palate a few times, resulting in a 'mmmm... nice' reaction. It's a good beer. Or it certainly was the last time I drank it. As something of a libertarian when it comes to vulgarities (those who know me will vouch for this), the name Top Totty didn't offend me at all - it was memorable and little more. Of course, I am not a female lady of the feminine gender, so I wouldn't be offended, but there are many worse things to be called than 'totty', I'd have thought. However, it appears that I am wrong. Not for the first time. Ho hum. The mild outrage over the name has certainly done wonders for sales of the beer, though. Perhaps I should call my next brew 'Ugly Bint' and see what happens...
Then again, perhaps not. Still, it made me think about beer names. I was having a Rye Smile in the Nags' Head in Reading, It's a beer brewed by Saltaire and it's a fairly clever name. It raises a wry smile. It's not all that original - a quick trawl of the internet shows that the Village Bakery used it in a marketing campaign, and the Telegraph used it at least twice in articles from 2001 and 2004, each time no doubt causing sub-editors to pat themselves on the back and take an early lunch.
I brewed a beer last year called Cutting Response, The excuse was that I brewed it with a friend called Chris Cutting, but I could have called it anything. I just liked the idea of customers asking the bar staff for a cutting response, and getting one. (Note to comedy pedants: I know. If I'd called it Innuendo, a female customer could have asked for an Innuendo and the barman could have given her one.) It would be nice if a pub somewhere could have a whole bar of beers with double meaning names, although I suspect the staff would have to work very short shifts due to 'comedy' overload.
One of my favourite beers, when I was a callow and careless youth, was Wychwood's Dog's Bollocks. A name so English, so unsubtle, that it would never have made it into the Member's Bar (oo-er) in the first place. The beer wasn't too subtle, either - strong, sweet and capable of bringing down a hippopotamus - but I enjoyed it. Until one evening when I had a few too many and saw the error of my ways, at least.
The image of real ale isn't really helped by joke names, though. They appeal to a sector of the beer drinking public, but they put at least as many off trying those particular beers, and I'm sure they discourage a fair few from trying any real ale in the first place. I'm pretty sure that many of these names are dreamt up late at night and regretted at leisure. In a previous life as co-editor of the now-defunct Reading fanzine 'the Whiff', a fellow editor and I came up with a front page headline of 'Barrymore Sucked My Cock' - a spoof story about popular entertainer Michael Barrymore breaking into a hen house and putting a rooster's head in his mouth. Some members of the public laughed, some grimaced, and a tiny minority told the police and we had to stop selling. Very silly. But we lived and learned, and never used the word 'sucked' in a headline again. For this reason, I decided against calling my Christmas beer 'Santa's Bulging Sack' and went for the prosaic 'Christmas Beer' instead.
Aha - I hear you cry - but what about 'Threesome' - that's one of yours, isn't it? Well yes, it is. I suspect that will never make it to Parliament either. In fact, the thought of Betty Boothroyd or Norman Tebbitt going up to the bar and asking for a threesome rather makes me wonder whether I hadn't really thought it through.
Worse, though, in my opinion, is the misleading use of names prevalent among some of the bigger brewers. The biggest offenders produce beers called 'IPA' which are often nothing of the sort. Now, there's a lot of nonsense talked about the original IPAs brewed for export to India. The fact is that these were often no stronger than domestic beers, but the modern interpretation is that they were fairly heavily hopped and relatively dry, as well, of course, as being pale. A sweet, mid brown sub-4% beer really has no business being labelled 'IPA'. Similarly, I had a couple of pints of Young's London Porter recently. It was black, I'll give it that, but not really a porter. Just a sweetish black drink. Blindfolded, I'd have guessed it was flat Coke. But each to their own, I suppose.
I appear to have waffled on a bit. What am I going to do to contribute my own little bit to restoring sanity to beer names? Well, the single hop beers will continue to use the hop name - coming up this year will be 'Pacific Jade'. 'Riwaka' and one or two others. I'm intending to create an American style IPA, which will probably be called 'American IPA' as well as a beer using hops from 5 continents as a nod to the PE in Streatham, whcih I'll probably call 'Pangaea'. Finally a strong beer with some flavourings, yet to be decided, which I'm planning to name 'Caveat Emptor'. Beer names don't have to be silly. There's nothing wrong with clarity.
Mind you, the more I think about it, I might just brew that 'Ugly Bint'...
New Year, New Beer...
Well, soon. First off, a few old favourites. Threesome continues to do well, being one of a handful of beers available at only 3%. Hoppy Harrington is back, because I like it. Lots of hops, from three continents, make for a heady 4.7% brew. Pioneer Stout is another favourite of mine, and gets plenty of good feedback, so that's next in the mash.
The first new beer will be Solo Pacific Jade, using the same method as Motueka and Green Bullet - i.e. no distracting malt combinations but loads of a single hop. After that, we'll see what we can find and come up with some new beers. The basic theme? Hops, hops and then some more hops. Green Bullet, Brown Porter and IPA will probably return in March.
I've taken the decision to give Foursight and Pewter Suitor a rest for the time being. While they've done OK, they're not strictly speaking to my taste, and what's the point of brewing something you think's just 'OK'?
This isn't necessarily the ideal route to some pubs. Many are a bit wary of scaring the horses, and tend to stick to beers that they know will sell well to your average bitter drinker. That's not to say that they necessarily drink 'average bitters', rather that they lean towards what is often optimistically described as 'well-balanced'. If you want to taste the hops, 'well-balanced' is a few steps down the wish list. However, there are plenty of good free houses and more adventurous tied premises which will take a chance on a more (horrible jargon alert!) boutique craft beer.
I'm currently in the middle of the dreaded winter hiatus - no-one's got any money to spend following Christmas and pubs have to be a bit more circumspect about how much stock they hold. It's nop good having a cellar full of beer when there are no punters to drink it. However, festival season is fast approaching and there are plenty of advance orders and queries so some March/April things should be back on an even keel. This might mean I still have a few weeks in which I could spout some more nonsense on this page. We shall see...
The best possible taste ...
Another month, another hectic period with no time for ramblings (except the radio 4 programme with Caire Balding aka Ray Mears). Plenty of excuses spring to mind, but I won't trouble you with those.
Beer judges. Funny beasts. The usual image is of earnest beardies holding glasses up to the light and sucking beer through puckered lips, and to be fair there are plenty of this archetype around. I'd never done 'proper' judging before, contenting myself with making lofty (or more often slurred) pronouncements about the latest brews in my local. However, as a member of SIBA, you get invited to join the judging panel at various regional competitions and I rashly agreed to judge at the Midlands region competition at Nottingham's Robin Hood festival.
Arrived promptly and stood around for half an hour while tables were made ready. This was something of a logistical nightmare as about a hundred of us were crammed into a corner of a marquee. The tables were laden with empty glasses, bottles of water and Jacob's Cream Crackers (for palate-cleansing between beers). Finally, we were seated. My table-mates were a fellow brewer and three female ladies of the feminine persuasion. Not a beard in sight. The first beers soon appeared, and we examined, sipped and savoured a total of nine different strong bitters.
Not knowing the precise ABV, the name of the beer or even the brewery is a strangely disorienting experience. It's a good one, though. Shorn of your prejudices about certain breweries or styles of beer, and unswayed by the pump clip's design or the beer's name, you have to rely on your senses.
First up, appearance. My particular bugbear in a pub - I tend to drink with my mouth. If it tastes good and smells good, it's fine by me. A bit of haze in the beer doesn't bother me a jot. But this is a competition, and ten points are up for grabs. Of the nine beers, I think only one got ten points, but I wouldn't have refused any of them in a pub.
Second, aroma. I think you should be able to smell some hops, and in stronger beers, like the ones we were tasting, plenty of malty character. Hit and miss in this category. Another ten points available. Scores much more variable than in the first.
Third, the big one - and worth a maximum of twenty points - TASTE. Of course, flavour is the singlemost important factor so has to be weighted more heavily, but here's the main issue with beer competitions. Taste is subjective. I like a hoppy beer, and will mark those highly. Others prefer maltiness, and will go for a beer that passes me by. This is why I never buy books like 'A Million and One Beers You Must Try Before You're Dead', written by some distinguished beardy with too much time on his hands. I try as many different beers as I am able to, at the pub or festival I'm visiting. Unless my beer's on sale in which case I do tend to have at least a couple for quality control...
Back to the competition. Flavours denounced or appplauded, we move on to aftertaste - again subjective, and an odd one to consider as a judge. A lingering bitterness, I feel, is the desired aftertaste, but too lingering and - even with the cream crackers - it will affect your taste buds for the next beer. In this round, aftertastes varied from this ideal to creoste to toilet duck.
Finally, we're asked to judge on saleability. All personal tastes put aside, will this beer sell at and to your average local. Blander, well-balanced, bright beers do well in this category.
It's all a bit odd, but I can't think how it could be improved, short of involving the brewers a bit more. Beers are served up in jugs, having been poured from a cask some distance away, and at a fair pace. By the time they hit our glasses, they are no longer in cask condition, and some look like they may have been judged a few hours before they hit their prime. It's a bit of a lottery in some respects.
I have a break for an hour and a half while the second round takes place, then it's back to the tent for the semi-finals. Fewer tables, now, fewer beardies, and only six beers to try. Mind you, they're all strong beers (6%+). Four are good, one's reasonable and one is appalling. When I suggest that it smells like 'wet dog' I'm informed that's not quite it. 'Wet dog that's soiled itself?' I venture. Laughs and agreement. However, this beer made it through the first round, so someone liked it. Taste. It's a funny old thing.
I came away from Nottingham thinking that while beer judging was fun and served a purpose, it was basically all down to personal tastes and therefore I should never be disheartened if my beers failed to win a prize. It's all bollocks, really. I said as much to various friends. I went so far as saying that I didn't care if I never won anything as long as I got good feedback from customers.
Then Brown Porter went and got awarded third (equal) at Hampshire Octoberfest. Suddenly. I was all in favour of competitions. Oh, yes. They're a valuable marker, and prove you're doing something right. They're independent and reliable. They're great.
But someone, somewhere still thinks it tastes like wet dog...
I wasn't planning for it to be quite this long between entries,,,
The main excuse for this disgraceful tardiness is the Sherfield on Loddon Beer Festival, which took rather a lot of time to put together. Was it worth it? Definitely. We had upwards of 700 visitors during the day, got through 37 casks of beer (including 9 from SVB) and 7 ciders. The weather was kind, the bands were excellent, and our superb volunteers on the day meant that the whole thing went of more or less without a hitch.
The only disappointment from my point of view was that the Hindsight was just not servable. To be fair, it was hoping for a bit too much given that it was pushing five months old, but it would have been nice to have one final outing for the first ever brew. Never mind. I've added a few photos here. On the plus side, all the others sold out.
It's coming towards a relatively quiet period for beer festivals now. Having said that, there are still a few around, and we'll be at Nottingham, Wantage, Oxford, Woolston and Basingstoke in the next month or so.
Beer festivals are a bit strange in some ways. Once your beer is delivered into the hands of the organisers, you have very little control over how they appear to the punter. Some festivals have cooling, some (like ours) don't. some need pumpclips, others don't. Beers may be arranged by Brewery, Strength or colour, and it's pot luck as to whether yours ends up in a good position - a particular issue if your marketing budget is as tiny as ours - and how well it will be looked after.
We chose to rack by brewery name then ABV, which seems to work and be the most widespread method. The beers in the middle tend to sell a bit quicker because, for all the effort put in to providing tasting notes and pointers, it is often the case that customers wander to the middle of the racking and select something which takes their fancy at that moment. In our case, the beers which still had a few drops left at the end of evening were at either end of the racking , with brewery names beginning 'A' or 'W'. Having said that, we had almost no wastage, so no problem really. If the weather had been against us, and fewer drinkers had turned up, that may have been more of an issue. The lesson to new breweries is, perhaps, to come up with a name in the middle of the alphabet?
I also came up with a beer selector - image here - which seemed to work quite well. Don't recall seeing it anywhere else, but I could be mistaken. If you've seen something similar in the past, let me know and I'll acknowledge any involuntary plagiarism!
The first organising committee meeting for next year's festival will be in a couple of weeks, but for the time being, I can put all that behind me and concentrate on making some more beer. Maybe I'll write something about that next time...
I’ve been advised by a friend in marketing (and she should know, surely?) that a blog would be a marvellous thing to do ‘raise profile’, ‘provoke brand awareness’ and ‘cement relationships’, so why the hell not. Well, perhaps because of those three mumbo-jumboisms, but never mind. I’ve decided to bite the bullet and give it a go.
Because of the nature of the SVB website, these posts may be sporadic – the site is yer basic html, and has no fancy interfaces for instant updates – it’s all ftp this, user name that, password the other. Still. Could be vaguely interesting and informative.
First of all, I suppose I should introduce myself to the vast number of bored interwebbers who may stumble across this at some point. My name’s Peter Cook. However, I usually say Pete Cook, just to avoid the crashingly dull responses of ‘Oh, where’s Dud, then’ and so on. In the past (or back in the day as the yoot would have it) I’ve been a graphic designer, a buyer, a dustman, a labourer, a driver, an (impressively short-lived and unsuccessful) accountant, a supply-chain professional (don’t ask), a fanzine editor and a vinyl DJ. The last one still continues, sporadically.
After a couple of redundancies, I decided to set up something that no-one could sack me from, what with me being the boss and everything, and a brewery seemed the logical choice. Well, perhaps not logical, but at least achievable and enjoyable. So here we are.
Of course, that doesn’t really tell the whole story, but I’m sure that I’ll get around to that at some point.
For the time being, I’d just like to explain why there are so many beers listed on the website. It’s basically a function of the fact that I like lots of different types of beers and I want to try making as many as I can. I also like hops. Hops are the essence of beer. You may disagree. You don’t even need my permission, to be honest. But that’s what I think. The problem is, there are loads of different hops out there. They can be added at any point in the beer-making process and impart different characteristics at each stage. There are technical reasons for this, all to do with chemicals and things, but I’m not going to bore you with these. Suffice to say that an addition of hops early in the boil will release different compounds to one added later. That’s the science bit. The maths bit is that there are therefore endless combinations of hops and timings and all will produce a different beer.
Now, some breweries will come up with a few recipes and decide to stick with them. This is fine. Others will take this core range, and add monthly or season specials. Also fine. Others still will produce some standards, say a 4.5% bitter, a 3% session ale and a 5% stout, and then brew lots of potentially more eccentric and/or interesting beers as well. Well spotted. That’s us (and a worthy band of fellow brewers).
It’s occurred to me that this has turned into less a blog than a diatribe, so I’ll finish now, apart from to say that a porter, a brown ale and a Christmas ale are already on the cards, so that list is only going to get longer…