Category Archives: British beer

Crumbs Brewing and the bread-beer relationship

Crumbs Brewing Amber Lager

This blog was founded because of my dual love of bread and beer, two foodstuffs that are linked through their fundamental ingredients of grain and yeast. At some point after humanity settled and began growing crops, we discovered that grain, either whole or ground as flour, underwent a decisive process when mixed with liquid and left – fermentation. The first written record of all this is from ancient Sumeria (modern southern Iraq), the circa 1800BC Hymn to Ninkasi1 – the goddess of beer, or more broadly, the goddess of fermentation. Her followers may well have been responsible for beer and bread.

For centuries, fermentation remained a sort of quotidian mystery. Such was the significance of bread and ale as staples for the masses in Medieval Europe that the unknown ingredient had an almost spiritual nature and was called “Godisgoode”, “God is good” (possibly2). Early scientists thought the process was chemical not biological. The single cell fungi yeast and lactobacilli that fed on sugars and produced carbon dioxide – leavening bread and lending vigour to beer – wouldn’t be understood until the mid-19th century and the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

Anyway. In Lewes, on the second Sunday of every month, there’s a street food market called Food Rocks. Not many people seem to be aware of it, so it needs a bit more promotion – as there’s some good stuff there. I was helping my friend Alex Marcovitch on his stall Kabak, selling delicious Eastern Meditteranean, North African and Middle Eastern foods. This time round, diagonally opposite us were Chalk Hills Bakery of Reigate, in the Surrey Hills, where I got myself ready for my shift with a delicious cinnamon bun, and Crumbs Brewing, where I met founder Morgan Arnell and “crumb spreader” Adria Tarrida.

Restoring an ancient connection
These two establishments have a noteworthy relationship. It’s one that reconfirms the ancient connection between baker and brewer. Historically, notably in Gaelic cultures, bakeries and breweries would have operated side-by-side, the barm – the frothy surplus yeast – from the brew being utilised by the baker to make a leaven for bread3.

Apparently, in some parts of Europe, the barm method existed alongside the sourdough method. Baker and food writer John Downes gives one Medieval example here: “In England noblemen’s bread, manchet, was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners’ bread, maslin, was a sourdough.” He continues “Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes.”

Anyway, as usual I’m getting distracted4. Crumbs Brewing aren’t doing this (yet). Instead,they’re using leftover bread from Chalk Hills Bakery as an ingredient. A few breweries are using the technique, such as Toast Ale, whose website gives the statistic that “44% of bread is wasted”. It’s pretty shocking. Any food waste is a crime. The amount of energy put into growing and transporting food, only for it to be thrown away is bad enough, but in landfills it contributes to the problem of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Morgan Arnell and Adria Tarrida of Crumbs Brewing

Hills to Isle
So the work of breweries like Crumbs is very important. Morgan, who founded Crumbs with his wife Elaine, says they collect any leftover bread, crumb it, and freeze it. When they have 150kg they take it to Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight. Morgan says Goddards were “one of the few brewers that was willing to test out our recipe and method, helped by the fact that I grew up on the Island so could twist their arm to help us!”

The longer term plan is to set up in the Surrey Hills too. Morgan writes more about the process of making the beer – their first batch was brewed in April – here on the Crumbs blog. The 150kg makes a 30 hectolitre5 brew, “c 6000 500ml bottles in our case” explains Morgan.

Breadbeerisgood
Suffice to say, the beer is delicious. I wouldn’t really be writing about it here if I didn’t actually like the stuff. It’s called an Amber Lager, and I can kind of see the logic of this naming to help it appeal to lager drinkers. It’s certainly light and refreshing. It’s bottled at Goddards and isn’t bottle conditioned, but its carbonation level is pleasant. To my mind it is more an ale than a lager, and it is indeed made with top-fermenting (ale) yeasts, not bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast.

There are so many craft ales around at the moment, notably dubbed APA and American IPA, which overuse the Chinook, Cascade, Citra, Mosaic hops etc to the point where they’re reminiscent of cleaning products, pine-scented detergent or whathaveyou. Thankfully the Crumbs Amber is more subtle proposition. Morgan says they use Progress hops, which the British Hops Association says, are “an excellent bittering and late aroma hop.” The overall flavour is more about the malt and bread. It doesn’t taste bready per se, but it has a warm sweetness and decent body, without heaviness. Morgan says “The slightly sweet, malty aftertaste is a result of the bread.” He adds that they plan to try brewing with different types of bread and it “Will be interesting to see how brewing with different loaves changes that character.”

It’s a great addition to the SE of England craft brewing scene so I’m very glad to have come across Crumbs at Food Rocks. Good luck to them, and I’m intrigued to try their next beers made with different breads: “dark rye stout or sourdough IPA anyone?”

Notes
1 The full text of the Hymn of Ninkasi can be found here. In English, not ancient Sumerian.
2 There’s some debate. This thread gives a few sources for the term, but it’s not entirely conclusive.
3 I’ve done a few barm bread experiments: here and here.
4 When one is actually paid to write journalistically, one mustn’t get distracted. There’s usually a tight editorial brief and even tighter wordcount. Not so on one’s own blog! Hah!
5 A hectolitre is 100 litres. 1hl is about 0.61 UK beer barrels, or So 30hl is around 18 UK beer barrels or 660 imperial gallons. For Americans, 30hl is 25.5 US beer barrels or 795 US liquid gallons. Good heavens I wish people would standardise things globally. Some might see it as heritage. I love a bit of history, but all these different weights and measures just make life even more flipping complicated. I sincerely hope “Brexit” doesn’t have us going back to shillings and scruples and chains.

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Filed under Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Flour & grain

Bad memories, skunkiness and the question of beer in cans

Beaverton Gamma

For many drinkers of real beer, the implications of cans are almost too terrible to contemplate. They certainly are for me. Cans remind me of buying cheapo industrial lager just to get drunk in the Winchester Cathedral Grounds as a teenager. As well as associating canned beer with vile industrial lagers, I always associated them with a metallic taste. I assumed this was not necessarily the vile industrial lager itself, but the packaging.

But all that’s changing. The challenge now is changing such preconceptions.

It is strange how abiding a prejudice can be, but if you learned to drink by consuming vile industrial lagers (or indeed snakebites), frequently from cans, and have memories of puking and hangovers, the psychology isn’t that complex. It’s just a kind of self-inflicted aversion. It worked too: I didn’t drink from the age of 18 to 24.

Times change
Anyway, the past few years, I’ve been increasingly encountering real beers, in cans. Initially I bridled when I was served  Angry Peaches from Garage Project in a can in a restaurant in Wellington, but this New Zealand take on an APA turned out to be delicious, and one of the best beers I had in NZ.

Angry Peaches meal md

More recently I’ve encountered a couple of other interesting beers in cans. When we were in Rome a few weeks ago, hanging out at Tram Depot in Testaccio, I was drinking Steamer (7.6% ABV). But it wasn’t as good as I remembered: I appreciate its depth of flavour and body, but it’s not well-integrated and always seems to be over-carbonated. Its recipe needs some tweaking. So I wanted to try the other real beer they were offering, something not quite as strong (it had been a long day, a long hot day of boozing and eating). This turned out to be something called Kurt (4.32% ABV), and not Italian but Swiss. I didn’t even know Switzerland had a craft beer scene.

Kurt 1

It was nominally from a brewery called Bad Attitude. Aside from any irony inherent in this name, the Bad Attitude set-up is a bit confusing. It also seems to be Ticino Brewing Company (aka Birrificio Ticinese in Italian, as the Ticino is Switzerland’s predominantly Italian-speaking canton). Which also seems to be related to another brand, Birra San Martino. The latter’s site says they were founded in 2002, but have called themselves Birrificio Ticinese since 2010. They’re all at the same address in the town of Stabio, but I can’t work out why they exist as three brands.

As for the straw-coloured beer itself, it was a bit weird. Despite being made with two hops from one of my favourite parts of the world – Riwaka and Motueka, both places in the north of South Island NZ – and some great British Marris Otter malt, most of all I got a coconut flavour. It’s not that I dislike coconut especially, but I just didn’t like it in a pale ale flavour profile. I know some beers have coconut as an adjunct, but Kurt didn’t, so I’d guess it came from an ester, those chemical compounds that give beers so many diverse flavours and aromas.*

Kurt 2

Retro-futuristic
The most recent beer I’ve had in a can I drunk in the beautiful evening sun last night. This was Gamma Ray from Beavertown. This was the beer I’ve tried from this brewery, set up in London in 2011, and it was very enjoyable indeed.

I do love British APAs – they tend to have the decisive characteristics of the more aromatic US hops but balanced with our traditional love of beers defined more by their maltiness. In this case the hops were Amarillo, Columbus, Bravo and Magnum (“added in ever increasing amounts at the end of the boil and in the fermenter”), though the bitterness was surprisingly minimal, without any particularly dry mouthfeel. The beer was rounded out and sweetened with not one but three malts, Simpsons Best, Caragold and Caramalt. Excellent.

Gamma can 1

The experience was enhanced by the can’s awesome wraparound wide-screen design, a kind of retro-SF horror tableau of goldfish bowl-helmeted spacemen being zapped into skullfacedness by flying saucers. Love it. Indeed, on an aesthetic level, one of the great points about cans is how they design can go 360 like this, unlike with the traditional front and back labels of bottles.

Cans versus bottles
The main arguments for using cans, however, are more practical. Mostly made from aluminum, they’re simply a lighter weight material and as such involve much less energy when transported, compared to glass bottles. From both me lugging stuff home from Twenty One Wines in Brighton in a bag to massive trucks carrying it around on roads, or shipments moving internationally (something that’s arguably absurd given that beer is mostly water, but that’s another argument). Furthermore, a bottle, when used once, involves a lot more energy to manufacture and then recycle – assuming people bother to even recycle.

The other big argument for cans is that they protect the beer from light damage. The traditional brown glass bottle protects the beer from light damage to some extent, but for those companies that insist on packaging in green or clear glass, the beer will spoil, will get lightstruck when left in daylight. The UV causes a reaction resulting in what’s called “skunkiness” – that is, a chemical process creates a molecule that’s closely related to those in skunk spray.

As for the issue of the beer getting a metallic taste, so synonymous with cheapo bad lager, most cans used for beer these days have a thin inner lining so there’s no contact between beer and aluminium. Certainly all my recent experiences with “tinnies” have been entirely free of metallic hauntings and the ensuing teenage flashbacks.

So I’ll definitely be happy to drink real beer in cans now. Which is good, as it’s becoming increasingly common. This US NPR article quote says, “five years ago, just a few dozen craft brewers in the US were canning, while today there are more than 500.” So expect to see more here in the UK too.

Having said that though, probably 60 per cent of the beer I drink at home is from my local (800m away) brewery, Harveys. Their (brown) bottled beer is sold with a deposit, so I just take them back and they reuse them. But most people don’t have a local brewery with such an enlightened (nay, sensibly old-fashioned – we always did the same with milk in Britain when things were more localised) approach. So for the abovementioned reasons, there’s probably no reason to poo-poo cans any more. Even if you’re particularly hardcore about your real beer requirements. The Gamma Ray for example was in a can and unpasteurised and unfiltered.

 

 

* My friend Michele, a food scientist and brewer, suggests the coconut odour and taste may come from one of two chemicals: from the molecule d-Decalattone  (C10H18O2) or from an ethyl group of chemicals (–C2H5), which are derived from ethane (C2H6). Srangely, the latter can present with odours of coconut, or pear, or wine.

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The Eighteenth South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, Lewes, 20-21 June 2014

18th South Downs Beer Festival in Lewes town hall. With many empty casks.

The poster for the 18th South Downs Beer and Cider Festival nicely riffs on the cover design of Neil Young’s 1972 classic album ‘Harvest’. As I’m a fan of both real beer and that album, it got me excited about the event when I first spotted it. As Fran was interested in going, and couldn’t do the first day, a Friday, due to work commitments, I got tickets for the 11am to 5pm Saturday session.

South Downs Beer Festival 2014 PosterHarvest album cover

A week or so before the event, I went to the CAMRA site and printed off the list of breweries represented, going through it to highlight all the local ones. This festival, being held in the handsome Lewes Town Hall, marked forty years of the Brighton and South Downs Branch of CAMRA, so promised to be special.

So it was a kick in the teeth when we arrived at about 1pm on the Saturday to find pretty much all the local beers had run out, bar those from Harveys. Now I love Harveys, but I drink it most days, so I was most keen on trying other stuff from around Sussex. So it was disappointing to see crosses through the signs for both the beers from 360 Degree brewery at Sheffield Park, just north of Lewes; through those of Bedlam in Aldbourne, West Sussex; through both the beers from Burning Sky at nearby Firle; ditto Downlands, at Small Dole, West Sussex; ditto both beers from Goldstone, from nearby Ditchling; ditto Kissingate of Lower Beeding, West Sussex; ditto Brighton’s Laine; ditto Pin-Up Brewery of Southwick, East Sussex; ditto the intriguing Rectory of Streat, East Sussex, brewed by a priest.

Guttering and empty casks. Sorry, bad photo.

The few local beers I tried were: Lammas Ale from 1648 Brewing Co in East Hoathly, East Sussex. This had bubblegum-ish aroma, from malted wheat, and low carbonation, medium body. Then a Wolseley Best from The Stanley in Portslade, also East Sussex (though currently brewed at Downlands). This had nice hints of liquorice, charcoal and nuts, but frankly, I drink Harveys Best all the time and I wasn’t here for the best bitters. Cavedweller from Caveman Brewery, over in Kent, was a bit more interesting, a porter nicely combined blackcurranty flavours with more piney, resiny hints from UK Bramling Cross hops. I wouldn’t call porter a summer beer though. Another more interesting one was Regaler from Franklins, in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The notes called it a “cold-fermented lager-style ale”. I assume it was a Kölsch-style beer, top-fermented like an ale and more full-bodied and less carbonated than most lagers.

Festival beer list

All of which was fun, but not what I was hoping for. Interestingly, a lot of what had run out was the more hoppy American craft beer-style stuff: not what you typically associate with CAMRA, which can he thanked for keeping British cask ale, notably bitters, alive through the 1970s and 1980s when dreadful industrial lagers took over British pubs. Although Britons still drink mostly industrial lager by proportion now, we’re coming back round to real beer – in part thanks to CAMRA, but also in part thanks to the vitality of the highly influential US craft beer movement and the exciting flavours and aromas offered by US hops.

My favourite beers these days are those that take our incredible British brewing heritage but aren’t afraid to be inspired by US beers and US hop flavours. That’s what I was hoping to try more at the festival, things like Burning Sky’s ‘Arise’ “Session strength IPA”, here available in cask. But it had run out.

Drinking out third-pints at the 18th South Downs Beer Festival

Now, I’m aware that things do – and have to – run out at these beer festivals, but considering the event was running from 11am on the Friday to the evening of the Saturday, when everything was finished, a total of about 20 hours of sessions, it seemed pretty poor that so much was gone already when we arrived – at roughly just after the mid-point. I realise part of the buzz of a beer festival is the first rush to try the latest products of interesting breweries on the first day, but well, it just seemed like poor event management that so many punters like us who didn’t arrive till the second day were deprived of the so many of the beers, in particular those local brews.

Now if I was writing about the event in a journalistic capacity, I would contact the Brighton CAMRA branch and the festival organiser, Ruth Anderson, but instead I’m just blogging about it as a disappointed punter and don’t feel like chasing around after them for quotes. Plus, I suspect they’d just reiterate the line about how it’s normal for casks to run dry after the initial evening throng has been at them. I really didn’t want to be writing a moany post about the event I’d been so looking forward to but, well, here we are.

Lewes Corn Exchange, with surprisingly mixed crowd at the beer festival

Still, while pretty much all the stuff I’d marked on my print-off had run out, at least it meant we’d only drunk a few third-pint samples each and were subsequently able to cycle down to the Kingston village fete, along a lovely traffic-free path. The festival was held in the Lewes Town Hall and corn exchange, a great venue where I usually just go to give blood, but as it was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, being outside appealed greatly.

Pints at the Kingston village fete

At the fete, we met some friends. And visited the beer tent – which not only had a cask of Burning Sky’s delicious Plateau pale ale, but the guy serving the drinks even gave us a free glass from Long Man, another nearby brewery. We went home via The Swan in Southover, where we had a Harveys Olympia golden summer ale in the lovely garden, so the day turned out well in the end.

Bikes outside fete, nr pub

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Sourdough pizza and Hastings Brewery’s No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale

Sourdough pizza with Hastings Brewery No 6 Pale Ale

Even though we ate tonnes on Saturday night, accompanied by various local beers and wines, I was making bread dough on Tuesday evening and thought, heck, why not make another pizza? One of the justifications was that on Saturday night one batch we did was slightly over-baked and the other slightly under-baked, so I wanted to keep on experimenting with our oven to try and get it right.

Anyone who’s made real pizza in a domestic oven will know it can be slightly challenging, largely because you simply can’t get the heat. My oven goes up to about 250C (480F) but a wood-fired pizza oven can get up to 450C (840F), enabling flash baking. You can improve things in a domestic oven by using a baking stone. Stones are excellent as you heat them in the oven first, so when the pizza is slid onto them, they’re already hot and help bake the dough through, quickly, as well as crisping up the base.

But I’ve not got one at the moment.

Currently, I’m just using a metal baking sheet, which goes into the oven cold. It’s not ideal, as, depending on the temperature variables in your oven, you can get a done, or potentially burnt, top, before the base is full baked. Even though I’m pleased with this recipe, the base wasn’t baked to perfection. That’s the challenge – for me and for you, as your oven will be different again.

Hastings Brewery No 6. With cat

Hopping forward
The other enjoyable factor about this pizza dinner – aside from being able to eat it outside on a warm English summer evening, 20C, no mosquitoes – was a great beer. I mentioned in my previous post I don’t think the light mild beer I was drinking was a good food pairing. This time round I chose a considerably more hoppy beer, and it worked well.

This was a Handmade No 6 Pale Ale bottled beer from Hastings Brewery, bought from the excellent Trafalgar Wines in Brighton, a booze shop with an excellent selection of beers. Apparently Hastings Brewery beers are their second-best selling now, after beers from The Kernel in London.

Hastings Brewery is a new discovery for me. I’m slowly working my way through all the local breweries. This one is 23 miles away from my home in Lewes. It started with founders Pete Mason and Brett Ross inspired “whilst litter picking after the Hastings Beer & Music Festival in July 2010.” Pete’s dad Andy got on board and by 2011 they’d bought “a larger – but still small – brewery”.

They’re an interesting outfit as not only do they do everything by hand on a small scale, with brews of 800 litres, they’re also make entirely vegan products. A lot of drinkers may not realise beer generally isn’t very vegetarian or vegan, but it’s often filtered with isinglass finings, which are fish bladders. Pete Mason is a vegan, as is their sales manager. Their beers are unfiltered. For some, this is appealing as filtering, arguably, can remove some of the flavour and mouthfeel.

The brewery’s label design and branding is great too. Their labels – all featuring a lion with fine mane and tongue sticking out1 – certainly stood out on the shelf at Trafalgar Wines.

Handmade

The 4.8% ABV beer, with its slightly unwieldy full name of ‘Hastings Handmade No 6 Hop Forward Pale Ale (Columbus)’, is very much a British take on a US craft beer. It’s defined by its use of Columbus, an American hop variety with a high alpha acid (around 15%), making it suitable for assertive bittering, 48 IBUs apparently. I suspect they’ve also used it for late-hopping (adding later in the boil, so it the oils aren’t totally broken down) or even dry hopping (adding during the conditioning stage so the oils remain largely intact) as the beer is highly aromatic: citrus, ginger, passion fruit, honey. The taste, while defined by massive bitterness, is also honeyed, with a salty, minerally aftertaste that verges on soapiness. [See below – actually they used a hopback.]

This beer really reminded us of our travels in the US, and while I have vague feelings of disloyalty to more traditional, malty, subtly hopped British beer styles when I drink something like this, I also love how British brewers are playing around with US styles. I love all the international cross-pollination of tastes and styles. The beer also went really well with our pizza, which I topped with mozzarella, thinly sliced pancetta from Beals Farm Charcuterie and a pecorino romano, for that added salty goodness.

I was hoping to add some asparagus but while I still saw plenty on the farmers’ markets a few days ago, guess what? Waitrose – nominally the less unethical British supermarket – only had asparagus from Peru! Southafeckingmerica!!! It’s asparagus season here – in England – right now, the end of the season sure, but still now. Now. In England. I’ve seen signs outside farms as I’ve cycled around Sussex, mere miles from that branch of Waitrose. Supermarket food economics is bonkers. Not to mention environmentally appalling.

Baked pizza

Sourdough pizza recipe
This makes one large-ish pizza, about 30cm (12 inch), but could cut up and manipulated differently. If you roll it flat, you’ll get a much more Roman-style pizza. If you open out the centre more and leave a wider, fatter edge, you’ll get a more Neapolitan-style pizza. The latter is called a cornicione and is the speciality of Michael Hanson at The Hearth in Lewes. Lewes, depressingly, has about four industrial chain pizza places; I’d say my pizza is better than all of theirs, easily, though still second-best in Lewes, after The Hearth.

This is a naturally leavened dough, so you want to make it the day before, to give it time to do a nice long fermentation.

250g strong white bread flour (or a mixture of strong, high protein flour and plain, all-purpose flour)
180g water
50g sourdough starter (100% hydration. I used a rye-based one, but wheat-based would be fine too)
15g olive oil (a good glug basically, QB)
5g salt

1. Whisk together the sourdough starter and water. It doesn’t matter if the water is cool, as it’s a long fermentation it doesn’t really need that boost of using body-temperature water. Try and use water that’s not too chlorinated or fluorinated. I filter my tap water with a Brita and the sourdough starter seems to prefer it.
2. Add the flour and salt and stir together well.
3. Add the olive oil and keep blending until well-combined.
4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface lightly greased with more olive oil and give it a short knead. It is a relatively wet dough. If you find it too sloppy, add a little more flour – but not too much or you’ll make a nasty dry dough.2
5. Put the dough back in the bowl, cleaned and oiled, and let it rest for 15 minutes before giving it another quick knead, stretching it and folding it over. Repeat this twice more, then put the dough back in the bowl, again, cleaned and oiled.
6. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a shower cap, and put it in the fridge and let it ferment slowly for about 24 hours.
7. Take the dough out of the fridge about an hour before you want to use it.
8. Form it into a ball on a floured work surface. Cover.
9. When you want to bake, preheat your oven to the highest setting.
10. Gently stretch out the dough. Don’t be too rough, or you’ll damage the structure that’d been developing during the fermentation period. How you open it up depends on what shape of pizza you’re making (see above).
11. Once you have opened up the dough to almost the desired shaped, gently transfer it to an oiled baking sheet, hanging it over your forearm and taking care not to poke your fingers through it.
12. Cover with your desired toppings. I did a pizza rossa – with tomato sauce – along with the abovementioned cheese and pancetta. Here’s the pizza before it went into the oven:

Unbaked pizza.
13. Bake in your preheated oven until it’s done. Yes, I know that’s vague, but it could be 10 minutes, it could be 25, with the oven turned down a little lower to make sure the middle of the base bakes and the top doesn’t char (too much).
14. Enjoy. Preferably al fresco with a quality, hoppy local beer.

 

Info
Hastings Brewery, 12 Moorhurst Road, Hastings TN38 9NB
hastingsbrewery.co.uk | info@hastingsbrewery.co.uk | 01424 572051

 

Trafalgar Wines, 23 Trafalgar St, Brighton BN1 4EQ
01273 683325

 

Footnotes
1 Some local ignorance – is the lion a Hastings thing? Maybe, as there are lions – or one lion and two half-lion/half-boat things – on the town’s crest.
2 The mixture is really 275g flour and 205g water, as the 50g of leaven at 100% hydration is 25g water, 25g flour. So this is a 74.5% hydration dough in bakers’ percentages. I’m using Stoates organic strong white bread flour; I find it quite absorbent, possibly as it’s stoneground and contains more bran. If you’re using a whiter, less branny flour that’s less absorbent, and

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Filed under Ale, beer, Baking, British beer, Pizza, Recipes

A tour of my local brewery: the famed, historic Harveys of Lewes

Harveys chimney

Anyone who’s read my blog before will know I’m an advocate of local produce. And a big fan of real beer. For me, “local plus beer” means Harvey & Son Ltd (aka Harveys, Harveys of Lewes) – a traditional brewery that is a mere 800 metres as the crow flies from my house in Lewes, East Sussex.

Harveys also has an emphasis on local. The brewery gets uses water from a borehole, using local rain – or more specifically, as Edmund Jenner explained, local rain that’s been filtered through the rocks over the past 30 years. Locally grown hops and barley for their malt are the main other ingredients, and most of their beer is consumed within 60 miles of the brewery. Head brewer and joint managing director Miles Jenner has said ubiquity “diminishes the product”. It’s also an eminently sensible attitude in an era where the fuel burnt when transporting foodstuffs is a major contributor to climate change.

Shop poster

Shopaholic
Harveys also has an excellent shop in the centre of Lewes, where I buy my Harveys beers, then take the bottles back for reuse. I really am lucky to have this operation on my doorstep. And as I keep going and asking questions when I’m buying beer (and wine) from the shop, I got invited on a brewery tour – something that otherwise has a two-year waiting list. Even luckier!

The aforementioned Edmund is the son of Miles. As well being a member of the family that’s been brewing at Harveys for since the 1930s and a man who knows his brewing, he’s also a historian: which is ideal when talking about a firm that was established in 1790.

The original John Harvey was a wine merchant – hence the shop has an excellent selection of wine alongside the Harveys beers. (My favourite currently is from Danebury Vineyards – which grows on the flank of an Iron Age hill fort where I used to play and picnic a lot as a child.) Since medieval times, Lewes had been an important port, despite being about seven miles inland. Wharfs lined the banks of the Ouse in the centre of town, and John Harvey used these to bring in wines, spirits, and even coal – indeed, Harveys is still technically a coal merchant too, despite a spat with bureaucrats in 1948.

Danebury wine

Flood waters and liquor
The current brewery yard, alongside the river, used to contain a pile of coal – previously used as the principle fuel for the brewery. They were still burning through the pile when the floods of October 2000 hit Lewes, overwhelming the flood wall – then in construction – and rushing into the brewery. There’s a mark on the doors into the yard indicating the height the flood-waters reached. I’m more than six foot tall and it’s near my eye-level.

Ed explained they had just filled the hopbacks on the ground floor with 50 barrels (about 8,185 litres) with wort when the Ouse rushed in. They were used to flooding in the brewery, as indeed the whole of this stretch of the Ouse valley has a long history of it, but this inundation was atypical and extreme. Yet two days later, the hopbacks were intact in situ, the weight of the liquid holding them in place, despite damage to other equipment. The insurers said they wouldn’t be back in business for nine months, but they were actually brewing again in nine days, in part thanks to the help of other breweries like Kent’s Shepherd Neame. The beer that had been in fermenting upstairs during the crisis was saved and sold as the renowned “Ooze Booze”, with profits going to the flood appeal.

Back to the 1830s
John Harvey had acquired the Bridge Wharf site in 1838. Three of his offspring, Henry, Edwin and William, developed Harvey & Son. John himself died in 1862, while Henry and Edwin died in 1866. William, no brewer, brought in a chap with the wonderfully Victorian name of Henry Titlow-Barrett to handle the growing brewery business. The borehole that supplies the water  was one of T-B’s developments. His incentive? Well, Ed said there was a typhoid breakout, which was traced to the local utility company. That’s a pretty good motivator.

Any brewer will tell you of the importance of the water, or the “liquor” as it’s known by many British brewers, but Ed says that, “along with the yeast strain, it defines the character of the beer.”

Another of T-B’s major contributiuons to the history of the brewery was the redevelopment of the Bridge Wharf site, with substantial new buildings constructed in 1881, designed by famed brewery architect William Bradford.

The brewery still utilises Bradford’s energy-efficient tower design to this day, though a second tower was added in 1985 – just before the building acquired a Grade II listing. The building certainly has a memorable roofline, with its towers, flues and even a brick smokestack – part of the old coal-burning plant, which was half-demolished in the 1950s, then rebuilt in the 1970s, and is graced with a slight curve. I’ve read that some people call the grand old brewery building “Lewes Cathedral”, though I’ve yet to hear that.

Harveys malt room

Grains of truth
After a quick jaunt into the yard, to appreciate Bradford’s oriel window, we headed back inside and upstairs to the malt room. A grand chamber, it’s wood-lined and packed with sacks of malt, notably the popular Maris Otter.

Ed described the malting process, though I won’t go into too much detail about that here – suffice to say, the grain is tricked into germinating to unlock its sugars. The sugars are essential to brewing, as the fermentation involves feeding the yeast. And what does yeast like to eat? Sugars.

Ed also talked about the “extract potential” of grain – that is, how much sugar it will be able to yield. This has a bearing on brewing as strong beers need more sugars to feed the yeast, which then produces the alcohol. So either you have to use more malt, or use malt with a higher extract potential. Speciality malts – chocolate, roast, caramel, biscuit, crystal malts etc – are used to give beers colours and flavours but generally have lower extract potentials. So while Harveys’ Sussex Best Bitter, their flagship brew and what I was drinking in the Lewes Arms last night, contains just two per cent speciality malts, their Imperial Extra Double Stout contains up to a third.

Ed Jenner in hop room

The green stuff
Next door to the malt room is the hop storage room, with contains wooden alcoves resembling stalls for seriously truncated horses.

Here we got into the fascinating discussion – about the historical difference between ale and beer. Although these days both terms are used fairly generically, with ale meaning “not lager”, originally “beer” was a Dutch drink – made with malted barley and hops. The older British styles of drink were made with malted barley and potentially other herbs for flavouring and preservation (see my post about Harveys’ Priory Ale). English brewers were fairly prejudiced against hops, seeing them as foreign muck, but within few centuries of them arriving (c1500), most British ale was made with at least some hop, for its preservative qualities. The term “ale”had come to mean a “less well-hopped brew”.

Ed also described some of the key qualities of hops for us, notably their alpha acid characteristics. Whereas hops, and specifically home-grown hops, were used in Britain more for their preservative and certain bittering qualities, these days, many craft beers contain New World hops that are much more overtly flavoursome and stridently aromatic.

Flavour and aroma distinctions are largely defined by the hops used, and the alpha acid levels of those hops. So while British hops might have alpha acids of about 4-6%, and give arguably more subtle bittering, New World hops might have up to 16% alpha acid (or higher). This higher alpha acid doesn’t just result in more explicit bitterness, but can also bring more overt aromas of tropical fruit, citrus and pine. Though it’s not just a question of the provenance of the hop variety, it’s also a question of where it’s grown, as the climate and terroir have an influence. Cascade is a classic American hop, originating in Oregon, though when grown in Britain, it will have different qualities – and indeed, Harveys use British Cascade in their intriguing Sussex Wild Hop, alongside a hedgerow variety discovered nearby in 2004. (This is a story I want to get to the bottom of; watch this space.) Hop essential oils are also significant for aromas.

Harveys copper mash tun

The mash tuns
Moving sideways and down a bit, we reached Harveys’ mash tuns. I always love any mention of mash tuns, as my the main pub of my teenage years was named The Mash Tun. Not all the memories are good – notably as it was the 1980s, when bad lager really dominated, and I was too ignorant to know anything about real beer – but I still have a fondness for these large vessels where the malt, ground into grist, is cooked up with liquor. I like the feel of the words in my mouth – as well as the promise of their product.

Harveys has two mash tuns one copper, located in the old tower, and one stainless, put in in 1985 in the new tower. The copper one was from a design patented in 1853 and was made in 1924. It was used by Page and Overton brewery in Croydon and in a 1954 auction, Mr Jenner had to go up against scrap merchants – who deferred to his bids when they learned he actually wanted it for brewing.

Each mash tun holds 120 barrels, that is about 19,650 litres. They’re first warmed by steaming to 70C (158F; Ed did everything in Fahrenheit, which is a foreign language to me). After the enzymes have worked the mash, freeing up more of those sugars, half the husk from the grist settles to a false floor in the vessels. The sweet wort is then gradually drained, lautered. It’s then sparged, sprayed with more water to get out as much of the goodness as possible.

Near the mash tuns, on the other side of the head brewer’s office, the brewery still contains two old steam engines, one of them, a small eight horsepower machine, is from the old Beards brewery. Beards was one of the dozen or so other Lewes breweries that didn’t survive the ebb and flow of the industry.

Harveys copper no 1

Flowing downhill
The wort then continues its journey, into receivers, then into the coppers, or boiling kettles. Harveys has two – Number 1 is copper, and looks very Jules Verne, but was actually made in 1999 in Scotland. Number 2 is stainless steel.

Here, hops are added at two different points, and the heating izomerises them – changing the atoms in the molecule into something that gives a bitter flavour . The liquid from the kettles then flows on downstairs again, into the abovementioned hopbacks. The journey continues with the liquid pumped through heat exchangers, cooling it enough for the addition of the yeast – for the next, perhaps most important stage: the fermentation.

After the wort is cooled to 15C (60F), yeast is added – Ed said at a rate of “one pound per barrel”, so that’s about 454g per 164 litres. (164 litres is more or less the size of a UK barrel, 36 imperial gallons. A US beer barrel is 31 US gallons, or 26 imperial gallons, about 117 litres. And that, folks, is why I like metric.)

Harveys, barm in fermenter

So if the day’s brewing starts at 6am, it takes until 4.30pm to get the liquid into the fermenters, which Ed also referred to as tuns. Once the yeast is added, this all-important organism, which I’ve previously made the argument for being man’s true best friend, gets to work. As ales are made using mostly top-fermenting yeasts, it diffuses through the liquid but mostly settles on the top. Anaerobically, it metabolises the sugars, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide – bubbles. To encourage the yeast to reproduce (asexually), the fermenting mix is aerated, the temperature kept low and steady.

The fermentation continues for three days, the yeast forming a thick crust on the top in an “intestine or brain pattern”, which protects the beer, keeps it pure.

Harveys, fermenter brain crust 2

Harveys has been using the same yeast culture since 1957, with Ed explaining it “gives us our flavour, our brand identity.” Before then, their yeast was supplied by the Burton Pure Yeast Company. When it went bust, Harveys had a scramble to try and find a replacement source of the same strain. The sample Harveys received was wrong, so they asked for further samples from breweries all over the country. They eventually received one from John Smiths in Tadcaster that was right, enabling Harveys to keep on brewing consistently.

Or almost consistently. Ed says that the yeast culture itself is changing subtly with every brew, every generation and he conjectures this “little variation stops it being dull to the palette”. I certainly like this idea – it’s like a sourdough culture that might be decades old, but colonies of yeasts and bacteria evolve and change slightly with every use, every generation.

Fermenters

The right temperature
After fermentation, the beer is cooled to 60F / 15C again: closer to cellar temperature, which CAMRA defines as 12-14C, and the optimal temperature for serving many ales. Descending, we reached the racking cellar, where some of the final steps take place – notably the clarification of the beer, using finings – that is, derivatives of fish swim bladders. Quite how anyone ever discovered they had this effect is bewildering, but long molecules of the finings sink through the liquid, collecting sediment.

The beer will undergo some secondary fermentation in the cask, adding some extra fizz. This period of cask conditioning varies depending on the beer in question. So their Old Ale is conditioned for four weeks, their Porter for six, and their Imperial Stout for 18 months.

Not that Ed is entirely staunch about just drinking cask beer. Like me, he agrees that good beer is good beer, if it’s made with knowledge and skill, if it’s served properly. So if it comes in a bottle or a keg, that can be fine too. I drink a lot of Harveys in bottles at home, as I mentioned at the start. Though I do prefer a hand-pumped cask beer, I’m not averse to real beer from a keg. In the meantime, we ended the tour by trying several of Harveys’ classics brews – from a handsome row of casks in the cellar.

All in all, a wonderful experience, and a fascinating compare and contrast with some of the other breweries I’ve visited the past few years, notably Mastri Birrai Umbri in Umbria. The latter is purpose-built, but relies on traditional knowledge and values from a family with a similarly long tradition of food production. And both have a not dissimilar output: Harveys produces 45,000 UK barrels per year, which in new money is about 74,000 hectolitres, while Mastri produces 100,000hl.

For more information about Harveys, their website is comprehensive – about everything from their beer to their history to their environmental credentials, though this doesn’t even mention that their new depot, a few hundred metres away over the river, has a roof covered in PV solar panels, which generated 98kW of power. Again, eminently sensible. What a great company.

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Harveys’ Priory Ale and the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes

Harveys Priory Ale, 11 May 2014

Harveys of Lewes, my local brewery, founded in 1790, has just released a new brew: Priory Ale. Although I drink Harveys Best often in the pub, and I’ve been enjoying working my way through their bottled beers, this is a novelty. The 6% ABV ale has been brewed especially to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes, which is being celebrated this weekend.

For those who don’t know their English 13th century history, the Battle of Lewes was a clash between the forces of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, and those of King Henry III. The royal forces outnumbered those of Simon (10,000 versus 5,000) but he won anyway, and as a result he and his allies were able to force a reduction in the king’s autocratic powers.

The battle for democracy
Although you could see the battle as a squabble between Norman aristocrats, idealists instead couch it as an important step in the journey towards parliamentary democracy in England. That’s certainly the line taken here in Sussex and in Lewes, a town with strong links to the history of democracy. (Thomas Paine lived here for six years before heading to America in 1774, where his writing and philosophies contributed to the American Revolution and helped shape the ensuing nation’s democracy.)

The Priory Ale is the most interesting beer I’ve drunk in a while. Harveys’ head brewer and joint managing director Miles A Jenner and brewer Peter Yartlett have created a fascinating concoction, a kind of historical recreation of a 13th century-style beer. (I love this kind of thing – check out my efforts to make a bread using beer barm, as they would have done for centuries in Britain before yeast became something that could be cultivated in the late 19th century.)

The label says the ale “is brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St Pancras in Lewes in 1264, where a brew house was known to exist.” Which is nice, as we visited the ruins of the priory on Sunday too – or at least all that’s left of it, mostly just the foundations of massive medeival toilet blocks. The rest, including a vast church (128m long internally) was knocked down in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Interestingly, Henry employed an Italian engineer – who was presumably a catholic. Surely he must have had his doubts about his path to the afterlife being employed by an excommunicated reformer to knock down catholic houses?

For centuries, the site was used a quarry. Then the Victorians topped the vandalism by ploughing a massive railway cutting through the middle. Much as I love railways, I probably love historical buildings more, or at least am shocked at their mistreatment. I thought we didn’t do that anymore in England – certainly the local authority here is fussing about us building an extension, saying we have to have an archaeologist present. But then my mum and dad, whose house’s foundations are on the Roman walls of the city of Winchester, told me developers up the road were allowed to demolish a stretch of those walls to build some new flats!!!!!! My jaw genuinely dropped when I heard this.

Anyway, I digress.

Priory Ale label text, 11 May 2014

Harveys’ description of the Priory Ale also says, “Fermentable sugars are produced from a mash of barley, oats and wheat prior to being boiled with hops and yarrow to impart bitterness.” Though hops (Humulus lupulus) were not used in British ales in the 13th century. Chatting to Ed Page in the Harveys shop, we concurred on the notion that hops didn’t become commonplace in British brewing until the 16th century, with him saying they probably came over with Flemish workman. He also said these workmen probably invented cricket around the same time too. Ed explained Harveys used hops in the Priory Ale as their modern yeast strains simply couldn’t cope without some of the chemicals provided by the hops, the fermentation wouldn’t work.*

Hops in England
On this question of when hops arrived in Britain, Martyn Cornell gives his usual levels of detail and research into the history of the plant in brewing here. They were being grown in the Netherlands in the 14th century, and “The first import of Low Countries ‘beere’ into England seems to have come in 1362/63”. Though he continues, “However, the first brewer of the hopped drink in England does not appear until 1412.”

He corroborates what I’d been chatting about in the Harveys shop, saying, “The English beer trade seems to have stayed in the hands of immigrants from the Low Countries for the next century, as the conservative-minded natives stuck to their unhopped ale. As a result, the first beer brewers in England apparently imported all their hops from across the Channel, with no attempt to cultivate the plant here until early in the 16th century.” Hop growing in southeast England became established in the middle of the 16th century and had spread to “at least 14 English counties” by 1655.

As for other plants used in brewing, Cornwell says, before hops brewers “had been using a huge range of other plants to flavour their ale in the meanwhile: the bushy, aromatic moorland shrub bog myrtle, for example, the grassland weed yarrow, the hedgerow plant ground-ivy, even rosemary and sage.” He later mentions “bitter hop alternatives such as broom and wormwood”. Harveys are using yarrow (Achillea millefolium) alongside hops in the boil. They do use other herbs for flavouring, though: “The resultant brew is conditioned in vats with ale cost, also known as tansy, rosemary and thyme.”

The Lewes Priory ruins include a wonderful herb garden now, where all these herbs can be found, emulating the site’s original, somewhat larger herb garden.

Strangely, the resulting beer has a somewhat ginger-beery taste, though I would say the thyme (Thymus vulgaris) provides the dominant flavour. Or more likely the thyme essential oil, thymol, which lends a distinctive herbal-antiseptic odour.

What is “ale cost”?
I’d never heard of “ale cost” before, so that got me investigating. A couple of Google book searches specify “alecost”, “ale-cost” or “ale cost” is specifically a name for the herb Tanacetum balsamita, also known as costmary. It’s related to the abovementioned tansy, which is Tanacetum vulgare.

Tansy

‘Breverton’s Complete Herbal’ (2011), an updating of ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’ (originally published 1653) says, “‘Cost’ refers to costus, a spicy Asian plant related to ginger, which has a slightly similar flavour. … ‘Alecost’ translates into ale-cost or ‘spicy herb for ale’ as it [Tanacetum balsamita] was once an important flavouring of ales.” (Link here.) This is confirmed by the wonderfully titled 1823 ‘Universal Technological Dictionary Or Familiar Explanation of the Terms Used in All Arts and Sciences Containing Definitions Drawn From The Original Writers’, here. The costus in question, also Costi amari radix or costus root, which the costmary or alecost is reminiscent of and partly named after, was apparently an important trade item for the ancient Romans. It’s been identified as a member of the Saussurea genus, S. lappa.Which isn’t related to ginger at all.

So, yes, Harveys, I very much enjoyed your Priory Ale, both as a striking, slightly strange ale and as a historical experiment. And as a stimulant to learn more about random old herbs and plants and the term “ale cost” – which arguably Harveys are using with some poetic brewers’ license.

Oh, and among the info boards at the priory is this one, explaining the sign language used by the monks when eating in their refectory. It doesn’t include the sign for “ale”, surprisingly, as this was of course made at the priory, a hugely important drink and quite possibly somewhat like a murkier version of Harveys’ Priory Ale – but without the hops. Perhaps they just used the same sign we do – imaginary glass held up in front of mouth, hand tilted back and forth slightly.

Monastic sign language

* Since writing this, I’ve been ruminating about it, and chatting to brewers. I can’t really understand how yeast – which feeds on the sugars in the wort, from the mashed malt – would be affected by the presence, or not, of yeast. I hope to try and ask Ed Page in Harveys to clarify this. Addendum 2: I spoke to Ed again yesterday and he reiterated that their yeast does need a bit of hop in the fermentation. He said they’ve had the same yeast culture for 60 years, so at about 300 brews a year, that’s about 18,000 generations of yeast – and he said it’s become so used to the hop in the mix that while it will still ferment, “it doesn’t function to its best without it”.
Addendum 3 (24 May 2014): So I met Edmund Jenner, son of head brewer Miles Jenner. He’s called “Beer ambassador” on the Harveys site, and is certainly very knowledgebale – as you’d expect from a member of this renowned brewing family. He called their yeast “hop dependent”, explaining they need the alpha acids from the hops “to perform”. For the brew, they use a small amount of Alsace-grown Savinski Goldings hops (which I believe are Styrian Goldings, a Slovenian form of the British Fuggles hop.)
Addedum 4 (7 June 2014): Ran into Edmund again, and he said that although he’d talked about hop dependency of yeast at Brewlab, when he mentioned it to the brewing team at Harveys they weren’t convinced. So now I’m confused. Again. Ed says he’ll look into it further and I’m sure we’ll discuss it further next time we meet.

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Thornbridge acronym ale taste test

Thornbridge's Jaipur and Chiron

Very pleasant, somewhat flying visit to Sheffield over the weekend to visit friends, and celebrate a Big Birthday. Said birthday celebrations took place in the Beauchief Hotel, which serves Thornbridge beers. Andrew Drinkwater over at Andrew Drinks classifies Thornbridge as a “big regionals” along with Adnams, and presumably Harveys down here in Sussex.

I talked a fair bit about Thornbridge over here, back when I encountered their Tzara, a Kölsch-style beer at the Cut Bar in London.  It was really good to have a chance to try more of their range though.

Long boozy lunch
It’s said that long, long, rambling, amiable lunches are a more Mediterranean thing, but we – about 40 Brits – managed to do about five hours of eating and drinking and chatting. During this time, I mostly drank Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a 4%, fairly dark British cask bitter that was toffee apple, slightly spicy, a great winter drink. Yes, it’s been hot for March the past few weeks in England, but it was cool and rainy again on this particular Saturday.

A vs I
I tried several other Thornbridge ales, with the most interesting test being a comparison between their mutli-award-winning Jaipur and Chiron (both from kegs). The former is a 5.9% IPA, the latter a 5% APA. It’s a shame the bar didn’t also have Thornbridge’s Kipling “South Pacific Pale Ale” and Halcyon (“Imperial IPA” – ie stronger) to complete the journey through closely related, hoppy ales.

Two was good though, with the IPA being a classic 19th century style of English ale, now highly influenced by APA, an American style of ale that emerged in the 1970s as arguably an evolution of the IPA, or more specifically as an evolution on American IPA. So what we had here was a modern English take on an older English style of ale, and a British take on a related style of American ale. Broadly, you could say a more traditional, English IPA was defined by its inclusion of English hops, with their subtle, dry, bitter flavours. Jaipur, however, is made with a range of American hops, and as such had a bigger, more overt citrussy flavour along with its crispness.

Yes, but…
The Chiron is bigger though, more aromatic, tangier, more fruity, with more citrus, pine, passionfruit in both the aroma and the taste, as you’d expert from an actual US APA. Both delicious. But I do wonder why Thornbridge call the Jaipur an IPA when it’s so heavily influenced by APA you could just as easily market it as an (English) APA.

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Departures, rip-offs, cocoa beans and kernels

We finally left Rome on Wednesday. The flat was scoured, the kitchen was re-cluttered with the piles of stuff belonging to our landlady that we’d stashed in the basement, and, well, the place didn’t really look very different. It was sad to leave Rome, but it wasn’t exactly sad to leave that flat, where we always felt besieged by the other denizens of the palazzo: mad, sad or just pretty unfriendly to know. And all of them shouters, barkers and door-slammers.

One final, expensive international-house-move hiccough happened when we tried to check in our bags at the airport. We’re not naive, and understand perfectly that budget airlines make their money by hitting you from all sides with extra ways, many unexpected, to help you part with your cash, but EasyJet’s luggage policy is especially dubious. We didn’t think to question that spending money to carry extra luggage meant you were spending money to carry extra weight. That’s a logical assumption. You’re paying for the extra weight, right? Um, no – you’re paying simply to have the option to spread your luggage between more bags. So one hold bag: 20kg. Two hold bags: 20kg. Eh?

We’re both pretty web literate, but this info isn’t exactly front and centre on the site when you’re booking; it’s stashed, to help encourage punters to make this costly mistake. Being told we had to pay several hundred euro extra there and then before our clobber would be added to the flight was a shocker.

Oddly, carry-on has “No weight restriction applies as long as you can place and retrieve the cabin bag safely in the overhead lockers without assistance.” I’ve always treated carry-on as a means of transporting my passport and my reading matter, not being one of those people who blocks up boarding and disembarking. So yeah, I suppose I am naive. And the bank account is somewhat lighter too. Ouch.

Still, at least our arrival in Blighty was fairly painless; if British railways’ gulp-inducing prices could ever be considered painless. (No they can’t – they’re a national disgrace, each year leaping ahead of the rate of inflation with undisguised exploitative neoliberal glee.) Struggling with our marginally hefty, now somewhat highly priced luggage, we went into London then out again to our old hood, Herne Hill, where we met the friend Becca, who, with husband Ceri and daughter Angharad, is looking after our cats, who survived their road trip from Rome.

A taxi took us to their house, and a reunion with the beasts in question, Lux and Pip. They’d settled in well. Further reunions followed when we headed further into deepest sarf London and Honor Oak. Some were of the human variety, with old friends Jo and Lawrence and their somewhat enlarged, considerably more articulate kids, and some were with beer.

This isn’t a blog about child development though, so I’ll stick to the latter.

Meantime at Donde

We went to a tapas place called Donde, where they had Meantime London Pale Ale and London Stout on tap. Founded in 2000, Meantime was on the first of the new generation of London breweries I drank their products a reasonable amount before we moved out of London in 2011, and always enjoyed them. Although I enjoyed my pint of London Pale Ale, it struck me as somewhat generic and decided over-carbonised; the latter is partly because it was keg not cask. The former is – I don’t know – perhaps it’s one of those cases where a traditional brewery has got so successful and grown so much that the product, while still good quality, has lost its distinction.

Sure they still exemplify a continuity in the great brewing traditions of London, but with a more industrial approach. They, for example, had a relationship with supermarket chain Sainsbury’s to make some of their own-branded beers. I’m really not sure about this. Surely something as avowedly authentic and artisanal as traditionally brewed beer shouldn’t really cosy up with something as antithetical to all things artisanal, local and traditional as a corporate supermarket.

I really can’t decide what I think about all this. Do success and scale implicitly go hand in hand with a compromise in quality?

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot through two years of enjoying Italian craft beers, especially given that a friend, Michele Sensidoni, is master brewer at one of Italy’s biggest craft breweries. A brewery with an output that some in Italy won’t even acknowledge as “artigianale” (100,000hl / 6,097 UK barrels / 8,547 US barrels – big for Italy, but tiny by US or multinational standards). I talked about Michele’s brewery here, then went on to discuss this question of what defines craft beer: for me, with fermented products like bread and beer, time is one of key factors. Not rushing. Michele doesn’t rush their beers: they’re bottle conditioned for long periods and remain unpasteurised and unfiltered. He also regularly brews up new tests beers, a very hands-on process.

One such beer was smuggled in the luggage I paid an arm and a leg to transport back to Britain. As such, it’s not only the first of its kind to reach these shores, it also had a pretty substantial relative value, thanks to EasyJet’s €14 per excess kilo. (Yes, €14 – about £12, or US$19. I still need a take a breath when I think about that).

Mastri Birra Umbri chocolate stout

The beer is a stout. As with many of Michele’s beers, it’s made with atypical ingredients. So while there’s nothing new about stout that tastes very chocolaty, this one is specifically made with cocoa/cacao beans. They give the beer a delicious smell of chocolate. The beer itself was pretty carbonised and had a similarly delicious taste of chocolate, well toasted malts, charcoal. I’d want perhaps a little less carbon and a bit more body ultimately though.

We drank the beer over dinner, with Ceri and Becca and the cats, then moved on to a bottle of The Kernel Breweryʼs Table Beer. This added a nice balance to the evening: I started drinking beer from one of the founders of London’s new generation of breweries, said farewell to Italian craft beer in the middle, then continued with one of the big success stories of more recent London craft breweries.

The Kernel was founded in 2009. Sadly, I didn’t even become aware of it until I left London in early 2011, but during my time in Rome its name came up a lot as being at the heart of London’s newly revitalised craft brewing scene. The brewery was part of the burgeoning real food scene in Maltby Street, in Bermondsey, southeast London. Like Meantime, they quickly established a reputation and moved to bigger premises in 2012. I’ve only tried a few of their beers so far, but both have been great.

The Table Beer features The Kernel’s neat, pleasing brown packing paper style labels, where, while completely failing to take a photo, I noticed it was just 3.3% ABV. This was an interesting surprise after so many strong beers in Italy. It’s also a delicious beer, very easy drinking with a floral scent and fresh, citrusy taste. Compared to the Meantime London Pale Ale, this is a thinner kind of pale ale, with less body, but it’s also perfectly carbonised, very drinkable and feels, well, uncomplicated but eager. It’s eager to sit on your table and be drunk along with food in lieu of a table wine.

Now  I’m sitting here at the kitchen table in my parents’ house in Winchester, the ancient capital of England. I grew up here, looking out over the hillfort that predated the Roman settlement whose street plan still dictates something of the nature of the contemporary city. Rome itself is about 850 miles or 1370km to my south. It was cold and blue and beautiful this morning, but now the rain is sheeting down and the cliché of English weather is asserting itself.

We’ve got a few days here in Blighty, enough time to do one of the best things this island has to offer: avoiding the rain by going to pubs. Then we’ll be off to New York City, and whatever bread, cakes and ale I encounter there. Just to add to the neatness of Wednesday’s beer consumption reflected my current trajectory, Ceri also opened a bottle of Brooklyn Breweryʼs Brooklyn Lager. In a week or so we’ll be able to try it again, mere miles from where it’s brewed.

Info
Donde Tapas
37–39 Honor Oak Park, Honor Oak, London SE23 1DZ
(+44) 20 8291 2822 | dondetapas.com | share@dondetapas.com

Meantime Brewery
Lawrence Trading Estate, Blackwall Lann, Greenwich, London SE10 0AR
(+44) 20 8293 1111 | meantimebrewing.com | sales@meantimebrewing.com

The Kernel Brewery
1 Spa Business Park, Spa Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 4QT
+44 (0)20 7231 4516 | thekernelbrewery.com | contact@thekernelbrewery.com

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