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!

9 bottle triangle

 

Ester and The Enzymes

Ester 1

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

German flag 2

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.

Belgium

Belgian flag

 

Belgium”, General Charles de Gaulle once said, “is a country invented by the British to annoy the French”. Well, he had his issues. Luckily for the rest of the world, they’re not annoying us at all. In fact, many beer writers and experts have posited that Belgium is to beer what France is to wine, the Scottish Highlands to whisky, and even Cuba to cigars! Tim Webb, in his ‘World Atlas of Beer’, even deBrughes canalscribes it as “the Mother Ship of craft brewing”. So, if you’re interested in beer, you’d better get interested in Belgium.

This fairly small European country (approx. x6 times the size of T&T) of 11M people, is home to no less than 140 breweries! In comparison, if T&T grew to ten times our population, based on our current brewery to square mile ratio, we’d have, uhmm..yes, 9 breweries. Take some time to swallow that. And the next time you meet a Belgian, throw yourselves at their feet and beg them to take you home. For it is there that the widest variety of categories, sub-categories, styles and sub-styles of beer in the world have been brewed for centuries.

There are Trappist & Abbey ales such as Chimay and Orval, fabulous Oak-aged ales like the exquisite Duchess De Bourgogne, the ‘farmhouse’ or seasonal beers known as Saisons such as Saison Dupont. There are spiced Wheat beers, infused with coriander, cumin and orange peel, and then there are the idiosyncratic, uniquely Belgian Lambic sour, almost wineish beers. Add cherries and raspberries to give you Kriek and Framboise lambics respectively, and then pair them withMoules_Frites food, and you can start to believe that wormholes through time and space actually DO exist. Then, there’s the fact that practically every neighbourhood has its own ‘regional’ beer; Duvel Moorgat is a good example, and you can picture your fairly well informed beer enthusiast writhing around on his back in a cobble-stoned medieval square somewhere in Belgium babbling and frothing with information overload. It’s sort of like that Heineken TV ad, where all the men come to a house warming party and start screaming at their mate’s newly acquired Beer Cave, in tandem with his wife’s friends screaming at her Shoe Cave. Except that, the breadth and depth of Belgium’s brewing chutzpah can actually stun you into silence (almost; the author is hard to shut up).

The evolution of Belgian cuisine over the centuries, as a consequence of this happy cornucopia of styles, has meant that there is no better place in the world the true connoisseur of cuisine a la biere can go to open their palates, and minds.

Archaeology

Ancient Egypt beer

What? You’re probably thinking “Wrong blog, Mate!”, but actually, nothing could be more right. Most anthropologists (and the archaeologists who do the actual hard work of digging and measuring) agree that the first major pivotal point in human civilization was the change about 5,000 years ago from nomadic, Neolithic hunter-gatherers to settled cultivators…..of grain. And why? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? Beer!  But seriously, think about it. There’s a huge amount of ethanol going on around us, from simple natural fermentation of the sugars found in ripe fruit and malting grains by naturally occurring yeasts. Everything from insects to primates have been drawn to it in one form or fashion since time began, and not only for the nutritional value of the fruits and grains, but also for the unmistakable associated physiological effects of consuming alcohol. So it’s not that hard to imagine your average Neolithic bloke, weary from dragging his hunter-gather family around the plains, would find a bowl of some nice rough beer a happy distraction. He joins the dots, stays where the grains grow, tells his pals, et voila! Civilisation.

BrewingNInkasi is estimated to have emerged in southern Babylonia, or modern day Iraq around 5000 years ago. Rich soils and abundant water laid the foundation of the world’s first major civilisation, the Sumerians, of Lower Mespotamia. The made a type of bread from the grains, which they called bappir, and beer, which they called kas.  They worshipped a goddess by the name of Ninkasi, the “lady who fills the mouth”, and she was definitely quite a number. On Earth, she was in charge of stuff like harvesting, beer and brewing, drunken-ness, seduction, carnal love and almost inevitably, war. The Hymn to Ninkasi, essentially a couple of songs that record the recipes for brewing, and basically how to party with beer, is considered to be one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature! After that, there really was no looking back, because here was everything needed to make large numbers of people stay in one place and watch the show.220px-Standing_Osiris_edit1.svg

From Sumeria onward to Egypt, where in the early Dynastic period, 3100-2686 BCE, the brewing of beer became a lot more sophisticated, with use of several grains, including barley and wheat, and had become an important part of not only their culture but their economy. The Egyptians were in fact the world’s first major exporters of beer! Osiris, a pretty senior god in the Egyptian pantheon, in charge of the fertility, resurrection and the afterlife, was usually depicted holding his brewing staff. So they clearly weren’t messing around.

As Egypt came under the influence of first the Greeks, and then the Romans, both cultures more partial wine, the expansion and development of brewing hit something of a wall. But as the Roman Empire expanded northwards they bumped into a number of grain growing, beer-friendly tribes loosely known as Celts and Germans, and even further north the Britons, whose disinterest in organized warfare and general hairiness set the tone for craft brewers as we know them today!

The rest is history, which most archaeologists will tell you is the easy part.

AB InBev downs SAB Miller – are they just screwing with our heads?

Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev)

Only the world’s biggest brewer, and now set to become even bigger with the agreed acquisition of SAB Miller, the world’s second biggest brewer.  Together they’ll earn over half of the international beer industry profits and sell one of every three beers consumed worldwide. The US$106Bn. takeover is the equivalent of approximately twice the combined GDP of Caricom! Yes, twice the economic output of every nation between Jamaica and Guyana, including energy rich Trinidad & Tobago. In beer!

So, it’s a thirsty world. Just how thirsty, and for what, is the gamble on the future that AB InBev is taking in this gargantuan acquisition.*

Amongst the approx. 200 beer brands owned by AB InBev around the world are several well-known international brands, such as Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois, as well as Bass, Becks, Boddingtons, Hoegaarden, Labatts and Leffe. Get the picture? But the problem for them has been that while beer consumption in their major markets has been as flat as old beer, there’s been an 18% growth in craft beer sales in the same markets! Solution? A marriage proposal with the world’s No. 2 brewing group, SAB Miller, amongst whose 190 beer brands you’ll find the likes of Coors, Fosters, Grolsh, Miller and Peroni. They also own Bulmers, the U.K.’s biggest cider maker. But the really big attraction here for AB InBev is the SAB Miller business geography – they are the dominant brewery group in Africa, Asia and much of South America, where AB InBev has limited presence, and where the conglomerate’s strategy sages predict the biggest growth in beer consumption is most likely to happen in the decade ahead. Hence the (now agreed to) marriage.

While we may all know some, or even all of these brews, it wouldn’t be obtuse to ask what the heck it has to do with us in the Caribbean. After all, we have to import these beers anyway, so what does it matter? Well, there’s a Caribbean twist to this story as well. SAB Miller’s subsidiary, Brazil based AmBev, recently increased its stake in Banks Brewery of Barbados, triggering a takeover battle with T&T’s Ansa McAl Group, owners of Carib Brewery. Meanwhile, Heineken, world’s third largest brewer (pre-takeover), now a very distant second, is casting around for acquisitions, like other middleweights Carlsberg and Molson Coors, to help it bulk up in the face of the burgeoning behemoth. In fact, they have put in a bid to acquire all of Jamaica’s Desnoes & Geddes, brewers of Red Stripe lager and Dragon Stout, after buying the 58% stake previously owned by distillery group Diageo.  Watch this space!

Ale

Just a little three-letter word, but it’s what’s finally triggered the third biggest takeover bid in history, and the biggest ever in the brewing industry, and the consequent seismic shift of ownership and ultimately market control it will unleash in the global beer industry. How? For the last decade and more, beer drinkers in the developed markets have been voting with their bottle openers, and gradually moving away from the mass produced, flavourless beer-popsicles that have come to dominate the global markets, towards not only more traditional and historic styles of beer, but also new and innovative styles, which in turn has triggered an explosive growth in The Craft Beer industry. More on this in my next blogpost!

Hop by next week for another post from our A-to-Z of foamy facts, fiction, fables, fantasy and most important of all, fun!

*http://www.economist.com/news/business/21665074-ab-inbev-may-combine-sabmiller-flat-market-big-beer-brands-beer-monster

*http://www.economist.com/  news/business/21674381-sabmiller-ab-inbevs-toughest-takeover-yet-it-may-not-be-its-last-beerhemoth?zid=293&ah=e50f636873b42369614615ba3c16df4a).