In Praise of Light Beer

No, silly, I don’t mean that kind of light beer, the “lite” sort of stuff. Rather, I come to sing the praises of simple 4% alcohol ale, what Lew Bryson has been championing as session beer and others have been alternately glorifying and vilifying.

Even more precisely, and at the same time more generally, I want to talk about the pint of Harviestoun Natural Blonde I enjoyed at the Tennents Bar in Glasgow just a shade over a week ago.

Before I begin, however, I should mention a couple of things. First off, what I remember of that fine pint of cask-conditioned ale is precisely that, what I remember. I had just come from a rather large dinner at an Indian restaurant and as such my palate was in less than fine fettle, so no written notes were made. And secondly, although I believe that the Summer Blonde to indeed be a very lovely ale, in this instance I see it as more a composite of many such ales on cask in pubs across the United Kingdom.

Now, back to that pint. It was, as its name suggests, blonde of hue. It had a bracing and refreshing, even stomach-settling, twang of American hops in its aroma and flavour, hops I later discovered – thanks to Harviestoun’s annoyingly slow-moving website – to be Cascades, although I would have guessed as much. It had a lightness of character that suited it equally to the consumption of several pints over the course of an afternoon or evening and the slaking of a pepper-and-salt-induced after-dinner thirst.

It was, in summation, the ideal beer for the moment. And for me, it proved several pints points.

First and most obvious of these is that it is entirely possible to make great-tasting, characterful beer at 4% alcohol by volume. Hell, it’s possible to do so at even lower levels of strength, although it probably gets quite tricky below, say, 3.2% or so. This is not to say that such beers are the be-all and end-all, or that they are what I want to drink all the time, but I’m happier knowing that they do exist.

(I knew this before, of course, from many trips to the U.K. and more than a few pints and half-litres of lower strength ales and lagers, but it’s nice to have that moment of pure clarity from time to time.)

Point number two is that British brewers tend to use American hops in cask-conditioned ales more effectively than do American brewers. This only makes sense, as they have more experience with creating cask-conditioned beers of all stripes, but it also reinforces the relative novelty of such ales on North American shores and their – again, relative – newness to brewers on this side of the proverbial pond. Nothing wrong with keg beers, says I, or the fact that it serves many North American ales much better than does cask.

Finally, and on a very much related note, the Natural Blonde reminded me that Cascade and other C-hop varieties work so well over here in part because of the quenching nature of their citrusy character. A well-Cascade-hopped ale can be a most a refreshing animal, whether poured from the keg or cask, and when the temperature soars well above normal Scottish or Yorkshire summer levels, or the three-pepper-symbol curry was the choice for dinner, that quality is very much appreciated.

Meantime Brewing Steps Up

London’s Meantime Brewing has always struck me as a forward thinking organization. Even before I met brewer-founder Alastair Hook at the company’s Old Brewery in Greenwich – which is not to say their old brewery, out of which they were in the process of moving, but their then-new Old Brewery brewpub-restaurant – last year, I could tell this wasn’t your average British brewery. For starters, there were the bottles, sleek and obviously designed with restaurant sales at least somewhat in mind, and then the fact they brewed – gasp! – lagers, as well as cask and filtered ales.

Once I met and had the opportunity to chat at length with Hook, I became even more convinced. Here was an English brewer who recognizes the value in cask-conditioned ale, but also – sorry CAMRA – understands that there is beer life beyond the cask, including keg and bottled brews. And now, according to this press release, Hook & company have decided that in addition to brewing fine ales and lagers, it might not be such a bad idea to sell them, too.

(If you’re too lazy to click through to the announcement, it’s about Meantime having hired as their new CEO an ex-SABMiller marketing guy named Nick Miller. Miller, as Martyn Cornell explains over here, is the man responsible for the incredible success experienced in the U.K. of late by the Italian lager, Peroni, which Cornell reports has grown 29% in the twelve month period ending in April, 2010.)

I fear this appointment will send many in England to the barricades, fearful of “big brewery creep” in the craft sector, but I can’t help but feel it is a fine and intelligent move on Meantime’s part. Hook has never wanted his beers to languish as niche brands, and frankly most of them are far too good to be consigned to such a fate. Miller knows how to sell beer, even unremarkable, image-driven beer like Peroni, and seems to believe in the brand. The fit would appear ideal.

“I Only Eat Grilled Food…”

Ludicrous statement, that headline, isn’t it? I mean, why on earth would someone eschew boiled, fried, broiled, braised, roasted or raw food of any sort in deference to grilled fare? That would imply that the form of preparation is more important than the flavour of the food, wouldn’t it?

Welcome to the world of cask ale enthusiasts. Or at least some of them.

On the heels of the latest Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) controversy detailed in the story below, many, many bloggers and commentators have waded in with their views, from Martyn and his close to 100 comments (!) to Young Dredge to Tandleman to the Reluctant Scooper and even Mr. McL. By far to my mind the most extraordinary comment, however, is the following from a self-described “Prize winning brewer and beer blogger” named Ed:

And as a beer blogger that loves cask beer above all else I happen to think that good beer and form of beer are inextricably linked.

Which led to the headline above. As I have stated previously ad nauseum, I enjoy good cask-conditioned ale as much as the next guy, but I’ve also tasted my fair share of both good and bad cask ale, and good and bad bottled beer, keg beer, canned beer, kellerbier, bottle-conditioned beer, etc. For me, it’s all about how it tastes in my glass, not how it came to be there. To think otherwise would be, well, akin to only eating grilled food.

Is This the Future for MolsonCoors?

I received a press release first thing this morning announcing that MolsonCoors UK has purchased Sharp’s, a significant and generally well-regarded brewer of cask ale in the southwest of England. Doom Bar, Sharp’s main brand and the best-selling cask ale in the southwest and Wales – not to mention purportedly the fastest growing cask brand in the Greater London area – is a reasonably tasty and approachable, if none too exceptional, beer, well-suited to entry-level cask ale drinkers.

That’s all the insight I’m going to presume top offer on that front. For more info, check out Pete Brown’s blog or, I’m sure, those of any number of U.K.-based beer bloggers. (I’m betting that even ATJ will feel compelled to chime in eventually.)

Instead, what I’d like to focus on is how this fits into the MolsonCoors mix, and how it might affect craft brewing in the U.S., perhaps sooner rather than later.

  • Fact: MolsonCoors acquired one of Ontario’s most venerated craft brewers, Creemore Springs, a couple of years ago, and has had success with it since.
  • Fact: Through its Creemore division, MolsonCoors recently bought Canada’s pioneering craft brewery, Granville Island. The jury is still out on that one.
  • Fact: The large brewery Frankenstein known as MillerCoors in the U.S. has witnessed significant growth of its Blue Moon line of craft-styled beers over the past few years.
  • Fact: MolsonCoors in the U.K. has shown no small degree of commitment to, and experience no small degree of success with, Worthington White Shield and other Worthington line spin-offs, even if they have been dragging their feet on several fronts of late.
  • Fact: As Pete Brown points out, on the surface, at least, Sharp’s seems to be a good fit with MolsonCoors U.K.

So, might this foretell of a craft brewery acquisition or two coming up in the United States, despite Miller’s disastrous past history with the segment? If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d be mighty tempted to put money on it.

Me and Michelin

In the premiere issue of Beer Connoisseur magazine, which you should still be able to find on some magazine store shelves – or subscribe here! – I wrote a story headlined “Bettering Beer & Food,” in which I sang the praises of several good food pubs in London. (Not necessarily gastropubs, I hasten to add, despite the editor’s addition of “The Rise of the Gastropub” as a sub-head on the story. Rather, I wanted to highlight pubs which simply had excellent food.) Among the places I noted are the Warrington, the Fox & Anchor, which also features terrific accommodations, and the Harwood Arms.

Now, remembering that last name, click here.

Yep, the Harwood Arms is the first pub in the British capital to achieve a Michelin star. And best of all, they did it with simple, unfussy food, well-prepared and presented, period. No pomposity, no pretence, and a sizable area maintained for those who just want to pop by for a pint or two, even at prime seating times.

Congratulations to the Harwood Arms! And Michelin inspectors, if you want any further insights, please feel free to drop me a line.

Cask Ale Notes from Britain

Cask Marque is a British brewery-funded organization dedicated to assuring that every one of the 5400+ accredited pubs are doing a proper job keeping and serving their cask-conditioned ale. To this end, they have 49 inspectors who travel around sampling pints – tastes only, no sessions when you need to get back in the car and drive another hundred kilometres! – and making sure that standards are maintained.

(Note to Greene King haters: The oft maligned brewery was one of four that initially set up Cask Marque, so proper credit where credit is due on that front.)

I mention this both to bring Cask Marque to your attention, because if you ever drink in the U.K., whether as a resident or visitor, you really should know that the little Cask Marque badge in the pub’s window really does mean something, and to introduce an article that appeared recently in Time Out. It’s interesting reading, but more fascinating to me is the tidbit of information tossed into it subheader, to wit:

Eight women in ten haven’t tried real ale.

I can’t say that really surprises me, even in our post-Madonna-drinks-Landlord world, but it truly is a damn shame, really. With its low carbonation – bubbles being something that many women I’ve spoken to complain about with respect to draught and bottled beer – and soft textures, cask ale would seem ideally suited to the female palate, providing, of course, that the first encounter or two aren’t assertively bitter, as per the point Ms. Smith makes towards the end of the article.

Something needs be done to change this state of affairs, and it needs to start with the brewers and publicans who made cask ale such a boys thing in the first place.

Let Us Rejoice

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick and tired of all the economic doom and gloom that surrounds us. Sure, it’s a definite reality and one which affects all too many innocent souls, but day in and day out depression does no one any good. So here are some reasons to rejoice today:

1) Cask Ale Week begins next week in the U.K., shining a spotlight on the fact that, as Pete Brown reminds us, cask-conditioned ale is the single best performing sector of the beer market in ol’ Blighty.

2) Bud Light is no longer the world’s best selling beer, a fact that is apparently causing conniptions within the ranks of the world’s largest brewing company.

3) In North America, craft brewed beer continues to sell well, despite and regardless of the economic uncertainties of today. Say that again with me, “Craft brewed beer continues to sell well.”

4) Spring is just around the corner, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.

5) Today marks the start of the Cask Ale Crawl in Toronto, proving that cask-conditioned ale is doing pretty well on this side of the pond, too.

6) It’s time for Session #26 and our host, the inestimable Lew Bryson, has us actually talking about beer for a change, instead of musing all New Age-y like about what a particular aspect of beer means to us. I’ll be writing up my first ever World of Beer Session post later on today, so check back with me here and with Lew there.