Fuller, Smith & Turner

Fullers logo

Fuller, Smith & Turner. Sounds like a rock band from the 80’s, doesn’t it? Except it’s much cooler than that. It’s the name of one of the foremost British brewers of traditional ‘real’ ale, and a benchmark for quality and innovation around the world.Fullers Brewery front door

I was lucky enough to pay them a visit recently at their Griffin Brewery site in Chiswick, London. From the moment you walk through their front door, you realise that even after nearly 200 years, they still feel like a family business.  Everyone inside and outside were all so cheerful, and friendly to one another, myself included, that for a second I almost felt I was on the set of The Truman Show!

The purpose of my visit was three-fold; take a tour of the brewery, visit their sampling bar, and then have lunch in their own pub, The Mawson Arms, round the corner. And I’m happy to report that I managed to achieve all three objectives!

The brewery tour was everything a beer geek could dream of, and more, because it was also happening in a place that has actually made, and continues to make, beer history.  From the milling rWP_20160209_007oom to the hop store, the brewers office to the mash tuns, and the fermenting vats to the kegging lines, this, no matter how often you see it, is as close as I come in adulthood to going to church. The delicious, rich smells; the steady, quiet calm of man and nature in perfect harmony; and the gentle hum of good things happening all around.  Because WP_20160209_005of its reputation as a giant of the ale brewing world, the one thing that keeps surprising me whenever I’ve visited is how small some of the spaces actually are! The milling room, where the wonderful ‘grain bill‘ for each ale is mixed and milled, is little more than a bedroom, and the hop store not much bigger than a restaurant walk-in chiller. Another lovely feature of the brewery is the way that they have expanded and built a thoroughly modern brewery, shining stainless steel everywhere, around so much of their old, historic equipment which is all mostly still in place.

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In this brewery, Fullers have produced winning ale after winning ale, year after year. Their first CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain winner, Extra Special Bitter (ESB), a 5.5% ‘winter beer’, has since won the prestigious award a further four times, along with two other Fuller’s ales, Chiswick Bitter and their flagship ale, London Pride. In fact, in the USA, ESB now denotes an entire class of beers, thanks to the distinct rich maltiness and high alcohol warmth of the original.

One particularly special ale that Fullers produce is an annual limited edition Vintage Ale. Since 1997, they have produced an individual, specially crafted ale with different malt and hops each year. They actually recommend that buyers lay them down for several years before drinking, as they continue to improve in the bottle over time. One very good reason to keep going back every year!

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Ester and The Enzymes

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If brewing awarded Grammys, this little group would be scooping them up year after year. Sure, they’ve had their hits, and their misses, and who hasn’t had at least one complete flop in their career? But, just about every single released by the group has had its fans, although there have been cases of extreme inter-fan rivalry, even downright violence, but there’s no doubt about their loyalty. Across a mind-boggling diversity of genres too, their unmistakable voices shine through, and even though they’ve been around for millennia, the future still looks bright for this extraordinary ensemble.

So, how did they meet?

Well, The Enzymes were there first. They were the ones who broke it down, you know, so others could follow. There were two of them, Alpha and Beta Amylase (sound kinda like stars, don’t they? Who knew?) Regular guys, hard workers, they mostly hung out in grains, like Barley, but also some others like Wheat, Rice, and Corn. Take Barley; the minute that grain started to germinate, or malt, those guys got to work, hydrolyzing those complex starches into sugars, which the grain was going to need as it grew. Of course, no one knew then what was headed their way – Ester; she blew into town one day with some guys called the Yeasts. At first no-one noticed. They kept to themselves, almost invisible. But it wasn’t long before the Yeasts met the grains; Greatest hitsI mean, they were everywhere!

What happened next?

It took everyone by surprise. One minute folks were making their usual daily bread, and the next thing, bang! Beer arrived! Crashed through the saloon doors like in a John Wayne movie. It was crazy! People started singing, laughing, sometimes even throwing the furniture around. What a laugh! And then Ester, this quiet little girl that no-one really noticed before, just appears from the back of the room; a stunning beauty! And what a fragrance! Conversations stopped, men with hands like shovels wrung their fingers nervously, waiting to see what she’d do. She just smiled at The Enzymes, and then gave this…this…smouldering Lauren Bacall look to The Yeasts, and then the music began. They’re still going strong. I’ve been buying their albums for years!

Deutschland, Deutschland

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Not many countries have managed to acquire their own month. But everyone in the beer drinking universe agrees that Germany owns October. Serendipity had a role to play in this, but the ever expanding juggernaut that is the global beer industry has had an influence on this too. Their world famous Oktoberfest has successfully managed to rivet itself onto the bucket list of beer enthusiasts everywhere, but it has also firmly anchored “brand Germany” in the minds of beer consumers globally.Oktoberfest2

This, like most things, has its advantages and its disadvantages. The Oktoberfest, for example, is really a show put on in Munich (in September) by the Big Six Munich or Bavarian-based brewers, all producing similar styles of beer (mostly lager and some wheat beer), and at least four of which are owned by either Anheuser-Busch InBev or Heineken; themselves owners and producers of an enormous share of the world’s mass-produced, pale lager beers (and even more so now, after the intended merger between AB InBev and SAB Miller). No wonder then that the original Oktoberfest found itself over the decades experiencing some quite impressive brand extension from Brazil to Beijing! Throw in some great atmospheric history like the 16th Century German Purity Law, the “Reinheitsgebot”, which all the brewers involved very prominently advertise, and the beer-appreciation prism has narrowed even further.

Despite their reputation for being one of the world’s largest quaffers of mass produced, identical looking and tasting beers, very few people other than a GermanAltbierglas could confidently tell you the difference between a Helles, a Lager, and a Pils. Probably because of the deeply embedded Germanic need to classify, qualify and catalogue! And yet, the differences are real, and to true beer-aficionados, they matter. Do a bit more digging, and you’ll actually uncover a wonderfully diverse range of beers, across the country, and even within smaller regions. There are the northern Bavarian beers of Franconia, in particular their Rauchbiers, or smoked beers, where the malt has been kilned over beechwood before mashing. Or the dark, earthy Altbiers, literally “old beers’ from around Dusseldorf, made with top-fermenting ale yeasts but cool-conditioned, like lagers. Head a bit further northwest to Cologne, and you’ll find the proudly local, pale, subtle Kolsh, served not in the huge 1L Bavarian ‘Mass’, but in tiny 20cl glasses. It’s strange, and rather refreshing that so many of these actually quite wonderful beers haven’t been packaged up and thrown at the world with some made-up marketing tagline. It leaves plenty of room for the enthusiastic beer nomad to wander and explore.

Outside of Germany, the best known traditional styles might be the Schwarzbiers – the dark, strong, but cool-fermented Bocks, and Dopplebocks, Paulaner’s Salvator probably being one of the best known.  Their wheat beers too have become note-worthy with their characteristic citrusy notes and banana-like estery character.

A German friend of mine, who also happens to own a local German ‘brauhaus’ selling brews from one particular Bavarian brewer, loved to tell a joke every time I ordered an alcohol-free beer at his bar. His joke was that buying an alcohol free beer was like going into a brothel, and asking for a hug. Imagine this being told, with extensive pauses for chortling, in a strong German accent. And he always finished with genuine, raucous laughter! The joke itself, especially after the umpteenth telling, wasn’t that amusing, but his enjoyment of the telling certainly was. In fact, I sometimes used to buy the beer just to watch him crumple up with laughter.  But then he’d sit down with me and talk like a scholar about the beers of his country, both of which he obviously loved.

Never underestimate the depths you can find in simplicity. The same can be said for German beer.

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The C-word

 

Flight of Craft

So, what the heck is Craft Beer? If you asked a dozen people that question, you’re almost guaranteed a dozen different answers. The one thing that most beer drinkers can agree on is that it’s a positive and even necessary movement away from universally bland, flavourless, mass produced brews that have to be served so cold they may as well be beer popsicles. Now, there’s nothing wrong with loving beer popsicles, but where real beer is concerned, it’s the difference between beef-flavoured potato chips, and a Ribeye steak.

Several ingredients are stirred into the Craft Brewing story, the most significant being Size, Tradition, Flavour, Ownership and Innovation. Each one of these has at one time or another been cited as the main impetus behind the Craft Beer movement, but in fact they’ve all played, and continue to play, a major role in the evolution of both the craft, and the industry as a whole.

About 40 years ago, in a bearded and long-haired, George Harrison, John Lennon England, a protest group of sorts arose, CAMRA, or the Campaign for Real Ale. At that time, the beer market in Britain, and most of Europe, were under the heavy, post-war (that’s WW2 for all you millennials) commercial thumb of the predominantly lager producing multi-national brewers. Miraculously, they (CAMRA) struck a chord, as there were still sufficient pools of aggrieved lovers of traditional beer styles in the UK and Europe who needed a flag to rally around. Traditional British brewers found their legs again, while smaller, upstart black sheep brewers took matters, and their brews, into their own hands and a re-birth of ale began.Prohibition

In the USA, where the culture of beer had suffered an even worse fate than in Britain (e.g. their incomprehensible Prohibition era), they didn’t even know what they were missing, as ever since the 1850’s the production of beer on any significant scale was largely in the hands of German immigrants, who brewed what they knew. Lager. Business being business, the emphasis inevitably focused on the bottom line, and on making more of the same stuff, only more cheaply, and that’s how what we now recognize as the big ‘traditional’ American beer brands came to be infused with cheaper-than-barley grains like corn and rice, to the inevitable detriment of taste.

In the late 70’s, cheap, de-regulated trans-Atlantic air travel, and the legalization of home-brewing in the both the UK and the USA, slowly opened the door to what would eventually become a frenzy of cross-pollination of beer cultures. And just like wind-blown wild yeasts, ideas got everywhere. On stony ground in the USA at first, the concept that taste could actually be combined with beer started putting down firm roots in the 90’s.  Micro-breweries appeared, whose drivingphilosophy seemed to be “Small is Good, Big is Bad!”.  This of course became problematic when successful micro-breweries turned into Macro-breweries, or worse, were swallowed up by one of the industrial megaliths. Whither the Romance?

But by the early 2000’s in the USA, the demand for individuality and variety had become an unstoppable train. While overall beer sales had slowed, and even declined in some markets, the growth of what had now come to be known as “Craft Beers” continued to rise sharply, and, according to the US Brewers Association, so did the growth in number of small, independent, traditional brewers joining up to brew them. Food became an important part of this landscape, as did innovative (sometimes even bizarre) use of traditional ingredients!

Today, Craft Brewing is a constantly evolving landscape, with possibly as many individual types of beer as there are opinions. The one thing these craft brewers probably have in common is that they’re  usually bearded and broke, but worshipped, by customers who refuse to be sheep.