Saturday, 25 February 2012

An Aside on the Colloquial Meaning of Ale in the UK

This is an addendum to my previous two posts on the etymology of ale. In that text, what I mentioned as the modern definition of ale is something differentiated from lager based on fermentation conditions. After I finished writing I realized that I've had many conversations with people in the UK about ale and lager, and the colloquial meaning of ale is actually something quite different.

From my experience (which I admit is relatively limited), almost all beer drinkers in the UK understand that beer served on cask is an ale while beer served pressurized out of a keg is lager. This understanding pervades publicans, barmen, and casual drinkers alike. I've recently made a point of asking such people what they think the difference is between ale and lager and I almost invariably get an answer along the lines of, "ale comes from a cask, while lager comes from a keg". They may also add something about the flavor differences but, by and large, I do not get answers relating to the differing fermentation conditions that create ales and lagers.

At first I was inclined to frustration that nobody understood what the technical differences are between ale and lager, but then Dan Fox from The Bull very much put me in my place. I asked the same question of him and we talked it over for a bit (mind Dan has a much more extensive understanding of beer styles than I do). He eventually said to me something along the lines of, "Who really cares what the different fermentation conditions are between ale and lager? Behind the bar if somebody asks about a beer, you won't describe the technical bullshit, you will tell them how it tastes and how it will be served." (this is not an exact quote, but you get the picture) He was absolutely right. If you are describing an ale in the UK, you will say that it comes from a cask at cellar temperature with lower carbonation levels than something coming out of a keg. Unless you are talking to somebody with a keen interest in beer beyond just drinking it, top/bottom fermentation probably should not come into the conversation.

Yet, I still believe this understanding of ale may be contributing to the lack of kegged ale in the UK. I have found that there are two distinct kinds of drinkers; those who prefer ale (since this is the UK we are talking almost exclusively Cask Ale) and those who prefer lager, with relatively little overlap. It is my notion that the flavors of kegged ales probably would not appeal to lager drinkers and ale drinkers would not drink kegged ales because they perceive them as being lagers. As a result, there is a distinct dichodomy between Real Ale and lager with not a whole lot in between.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has made some headway here and more and more bottled ales from the States are showing up in the UK in bars and on market shelves. There are even some UK breweries making kegged ale, notably Meantime Brewing (however, the last time I asked a barman about a Meantime ale he thought it was a lager...)

Either way, I have clearly found out that ale means something different to the average person, and only the worst of beer snobs would have a problem with that. All I can hope is that eventually kegged ales will catch on and add even more creativity to an already thriving craft beer landscape.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Etymology of Ale Part 2

This is the continuation of my previous post on the etymology of ale. I had to break it into two parts because many of my friends can't read very well and told me to make my entries shorter. Anyway, if you don't know what I'm talking about here, read the other post first.

Throughout the rest of the 18th century and through most of the first half of the 19th century, ale was still distinguishable from beer almost exclusively on the amount of hops used in the brew. The Complete Dictionary of Arts and Science of 1773 defined the word ale as "a fermented liquor obtained from an infusion of malt and differing from beer in having less proportion of hops". On top of that, porter became distinctive in that it was darker and often more bitter than beer. This is echoed by several definitions of the age (I will not bore you with them) up until the 1830's with the development of a new type of pale ale produced with large amounts of hops. We now know this as the birth of the India Pale Ale. The distinction was now between ale and porter (or porter beer), as porter became the almost ubiquitous dark beverage in London during the time period. The Engineer's and Mechanic's Encyclopedia published in 1836 describes the two:

In England two distinct sorts of beer are known, called ale, and porter, or beer, and of each sort there are numerous varieties. Although the difference in the flavor of ale and of porter is sufficiently marked, it is difficult to say in what way it is produced: that it is not altogether owing to pale malt being used for brewing ale, as some assert, is clear from the fact that in many parts of the country, ale is brewed from brown malt: neither is it owing to a larger quantity of hops being used in making porter, for the pale ale which is exported in large quantities from country to India contains a larger proportion of hops than the porter exported to the same place; neither will a difference in the proportions of the malt to the water account for it, since some ales are stronger and others weaker than porter. 
It appears that the distinction between ales and beers was becoming more dubious, with ale no longer a universal term for unhopped or lightly hopped beverages. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century "pale ale" and "bitter beer" were effectively synonyms. Yet, somewhat puzzlingly, the distinction of ale from beer persisted, but instead of being based on hop usage, it was now based on color. By the later parts of the 19th century, beer had become the umbrella term to describe all kinds of fermented malt beverages, and ale was simply a subdivision of beer. The Oxford English Dictionary agreed with this definition in 1884 saying under the topic of ale, "At present 'beer' is in the trade the generic name for all malt liquors, 'ale' being specifically applied to the paler coloured kinds, the malt for which has not been roasted or burnt". Further on, the colloquial usages of ale and beer gradually grew closer and closer to each other until roughly the early 1950's. If you had walked into a pub in London and asked for an ale at that time, what you would have likely received was a mild, relatively sweet, relatively low hopped malt liquor.

It was in the second half of the 20th century when ale finally started to take on the definition it has today. With the growth of lagers, both within England and around the world, lager became the beverage that most beer drinkers were familiar with. Lager would need to be distinguished from other types of beers, namely ales, and this was done on the basis of differing fermentation conditions. Lagers were defined as beers fermented at lower temperatures where the yeast tends to stay closer to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, while ales were fermented at higher temperatures with the yeast rising to the top of the fermentation vessel. By 1993, the famous beer writer Michael Jackson would declare: 
In modern usage, ale indicates a brew that has a warm fermentation, traditionally with strains of yeast that rise to the top of the vessel. These 'top-fermenting' yeasts distinguish ales from lagers...
Among beer enthusiasts, beer writers and brewers there is still some debate about the technical definition of ale, but the distinction is almost always between ales and lagers as opposed to hops or color as it has been in the past. Certainly there is some overlap between ales and lager, particularly with the craft brewing scene blossoming around the world. But for the most part, the definition by Michael Jackson is accepted by people with an interest in brewing as well as people within the brewing profession. 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Etymology of Ale Part 1

This is the first entry of two that I will make on the evolving meaning of the term ale from the advent of hops in England to the modern day. The first entry will cover the period from approximately the start of the 15th century to the beginnings of porter brewing in the first half of the 18th century.

Today when we think of the word ale, the most accepted definition is one that distinguishes ale from lager based on the fermentation conditions and yeasts that make the two beers. Ales are made with top fermenting yeasts at higher temperatures, and lagers are made with bottom fermenting yeasts at lower temperatures. Both lagers and ales can be described as beers. Yet in England, from the advent of hops in beer in the early part of the 15th century until perhaps the first half of the 20th century, ale was distinguished from beer based on the amount of hops used, color, or alcohol content. This is in slight contention with the conventional understanding that once hops became universally used a couple centuries after their first arrival in England, the words ale and beer became effectively synonyms. This is not the case. Even after hops were used in almost all fermented malt beverages, the term ale was understood to be a beverage that was less hopped than the closely related, but more bitter, beer.

The earliest word for ale was introduced to the English-speaking world by the Danes, who called their beverage øl. This became ealu in Old English before finally settling on the now familiar ale. Beer, on the other hand, first showed up in England around the beginning of the 15th century, when German-speaking settlers brought their hopped brews from continental Europe. The German word bier eventually became beer, which distinguished it from the unhopped ale.

Hops were very late in arriving to England. The first known use of hops in brewing was from 822 AD when the Benedictine monk Abbot Adalhard recorded that his monastery in northeastern France used hops. By the 11th century hopped beer was the norm in France, with King Louis IX going so far as mandating in 1268 that only malt and hops be used in the making of beer. As hops became prevalent throughout Europe, England remained ignorant to its use. Once introduced to hops, however, the English were reticent to use the flower in their native brews. For the most part, the English viewed hops as an unwholesome plant to be devoutly ignored. Two English kings, King Henry VI and King Henry VIII, in the 16th century went as far as to ban the use of the plant outright. Henry VIII justified his stance in the 1530's by proclaiming that hops were an aphrodisiac prone to drive his subjects to sinful behavior.

Such sentiment against the hop was likely a significant factor in keeping the terms ale and beer separate. Eventually, the benefits of hops as a preservative and a flavoring agent persuaded the English to adopt it in almost all of their brews by the first half of the 18th century. Even so, ale was still distinguishable from beer. The first edition of the London and Country Brewer in the 1730's described the difference between ale and beer based on their recipes, particularly with regards to the amount of hops used:
For strong brown ale brewed in any of the winter months and boiled an hour, one pound is but barely sufficient for a hogshead [54 gallons], if it be tapped in three weeks or a month. If for pale ale brewed at that time, and for that age, one pound and a quarter of hops; but if these ales are brewed in any of the summer months there should be more hops allowed. For October or March brown beer, a hogshead made from eleven bushels of malt boiled an hour and a quarter, to be kept nine months, three pounds and a half ought to be boiled in such a drink at the least. For October or March pale beer, a hogshead made from fourteen bushels, boiled an hour and a quarter and kept twelve months, six pounds ought to be allowed to a hogshead of such drink.
It was about the same time that a new type of beverage was gaining popularity that would become known as porter. Together with ale and beer, porter would become the third leg of the fermented beverages in England, with many pubs of the day (and even sometimes in England today) displaying that they serve "Ales, Beers and Porters".

Up next, the evolution of the meaning of ale through the rest of the 18th century through to today. We will see that ale eventually became less distinguishable from beer based on hop character and more so on color through to the first half of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, ale would finally take on the definition that we know today. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Battersea Beer Festival 2012

This past Thursday Duncan took me and a few of the boys to the Battersea Beer Festival at the Battersea Arts Center. When we arrived, we collected our glasses and proceded into the main hall where we were greeted by rows stacked two high and two abreast with casks. According to the program there were about 150 real ales on dispense, so naturally, we proceeded to try as many as we could.

I obviously didn't try a beer from every brewery at the event, but of the ones I tried, the brewery I was most impressed with was Purple Moose. They are very small brewery (only a ten barrel brewhouse) from the town of Porthmadog in North Wales. I had the pleasure of tasting two of their ales, the Glaslyn Ale and Dark Side of the Moose. Both were exquisite. The Glaslyn Ale is a golden bitter with a sweet lingering finish balanced by just the right amount of hop bitterness. The nose is also rather fruity, seeming to come from both yeasty esters and from late hop additions. At 4.2% it is an easily quaffable beer and one that I could spend entire nights drinking. I tried Dark Side of the Moose immediately after the Glaslyn Ale and it was a great follow up beer. Darker, more full bodied and more bitter than the Glaslyn Ale. It is not one that you would necessarily drink pint after pint of, but it is extremely enjoyable. Both ales exhibit similar ester profiles, which I assume comes from the same yeast being fermented at similar temperatures. Dark Side of the Moose, to me, was just a natural progression from the Glaslyn Ale, with darker malts, stepped up bitterness, and a higher gravity. 

There was also a dedicated room at the festival to cider and perry. One has to be careful with cider and perry, because the alcohol content can be quite high (sometimes upwards of 8%). Because of this, we tried one half pint each to preserve ourselves for the rest of the night. Real Cider (cider not of the Strongbow variety and the counterpart to Real Ale) has been a recent discovery of mine. I find good ciders to be very refreshing, if not somewhat overly intoxicating. As such, I have endevoured of late to try as many as I can within reasonable limits. My experience with cider has been that the beverage can range from almost cloying sweetness to an acrid acidity reminiscent of lactic acid spoilage in beer. While I find the extreme edges to be unpleasant, the middle ground is amazing. Refreshing and quaffable even at high gravities. The one cider I did try at the event was CJ's Medium Dry. It was good, just the right amount of acidity balanced with some residual sweetness. Again, the alcohol content was high (I can't recall exactly but I believe it was about 7%), so we drank our half pints gingerly and proceded back to the main hall. 

Overall, I was pleasantly suprised by the event. I expected a lot of beer (which was delivered), but was happy to see the variety on display. Just by looking at some of the beer names in the event program you see the wheels of creativity turning in the heads of the UK brewers. It was a good event for a vibrant beer scene. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Yeast Part 1: Ale, Lager and Brett

My friend Max requested that I write a few entries on yeast, with explanations of the types of yeasts there are and why I choose to use them in different contexts. This is the first such entry giving an overview of the two main classifications of yeast (ale and lager), with a caveat into the recently revived Brettanomyces strains. Check back for more over the coming weeks. Yeast is the aspect of brewing that most fascinates me so I hope you can learn to enjoy the topic of yeast as well.

Yeast is the magical ingredient in beer. It Is this organism which takes what is essentially sugar water and turns it into what I believe to be the most special and variable beverage on the planet. The spectrum of flavors that arise from yeast is absolutely amazing. From bone dry beers with almost no yeast flavor profile, to the immense, fruity, flavor bombs from Belgium. What is more interesting is that even though yeast is the most important ingredient in beer, its existence was unknown for the vast majority of brewing history. Yeast was first microscopically observed by the Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1680, but its importance to the brewing process was not fully understood until the mid 1870’s when Louis Pasteur published his seminal book Etudes sur la Biere. He was the first person to recognize that beer was made by the anaerobic metabolism of sugars in wort to produce carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.

Today, brewers have access to an unprecedented number of different yeast strains, all with distinctive characteristics. Just as dogs have been bred into different breeds, so have yeasts been bred into different strains. Some of this was by design, while at other times it was the natural processes of evolution and mutation that gave rise to various yeast strains. Either way, brewers today are reaping the benefits of this versatile and wonderful organism.

Ale, Lager and Brett Yeasts

While there are roughly 1,500 different types of yeasts, there are generally two that are of primary concern to brewers: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) and Saccharomyces  pastorianus (lager yeast). There is another genus of yeast, Brettanomyces, which has caught the interest of some craft brewers of late, which I will touch on briefly as well.

The main distinguishing factor generally used to classify yeast as ale or lager yeast is whether the yeast ferments at the top or the bottom of the fermentation vessel. Ale yeasts are said to ferment at the top of the vessel, while lager is said to ferment at the bottom. In addition, ale yeasts generally ferment more quickly (2-7 days) at warmer temperatures (60F-78F), than their slower (5-10 day) and colder (45F-55F) lager yeast counterparts. I use the term “generally”, because there is a degree of overlap between lager and ale yeasts.  Certainly with the way craft brewers are experimenting with yeasts, the line is often ever more blurred. Regardless, the conditions under which yeasts ferment have profound effects on the flavor profiles produced in beers.

As I mentioned earlier, ale yeast generally ferments at the top of the fermentation vessel. This is because the warmer temperatures promote more aggressive fermentations creating carbon dioxide forcing the yeast to the surface of the wort. Such fermentations produce a wide array of flavor compounds that are largely subdued under lager fermentation conditions. When you taste an ale, you will often note “fruity” flavors and aromas that you would probably not taste in lagers. The family of compounds that produce these flavors are called esters, and the flavors can range anywhere from banana to apple, or even roses and honey. The type of yeast strain is extremely important in determining which combination of esters will end up in a finished beer. Some strains, most famously Belgian strains, will produce large amounts of esters which essentially define their style.

Temperature is another factor that largely effects the composition of flavor and aroma compounds in beer. Given the same yeast strain, higher temperatures tend to promote higher levels of ester compounds with correspondingly fruitier beers. Brewers must be cautious, however, because if fermentation temperatures are too high, off-flavor compounds such as diacetyl (butterscotch flavor) or fusel alcohols (heavier alcohol molecules that lend hot or solvent-like flavors) may be produced in undesirable levels.

Differing fermentation conditions from ales are the main reason why lager yeasts are bottom fermenting and also largely determine the flavor profile imparted by the yeast. As opposed to ale fermentations, which are fast and very active, lager fermentations are slow due to lower temperatures. Less fermentation activity means less carbon dioxide to push the yeast cells to the top of the fermentation vessel. Lager yeasts, therefore, stay nearer to the bottom. Lower temperatures also retard the formation of the ester compounds mentioned above, leading to beers that are “crisper and cleaner” than ales, but with less flavor contributed from the yeast. Many lager styles can produce wonderful flavors such as the double bocks of Germany, but the flavors are largely the result of the grains utilized in the mash.

Lastly, there is the wild yeast Brettanomyces (abbreviated Brett). In most beer styles it is considered a spoilage organism, but in some historical styles, most notably Lambics and Flanders red ales, it is an integral part of their spontaneous tertiary fermentations. Further, as is the nature of craft brewing, many adventurous brewers have embraced Brett with a vengeance, using it in conjunction with conventional yeast strains to add complexity to their beers. Some even going so far as to use Brett exclusively in their brews. Flavors most often associated with Brett range from “earthy” to “floral” or the complimentary “horse blanket”. In addition, brewing with Brett can be a bit of a challenge, with the final product difficult to predict. Headstrong brewers have taken this challenge, sacrificing control for the reward of surprising results.   

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Bull and Goose Island

Last week I was invited by the new marketing director at Sambrook's, Jo Miller, to attend a beer and food pairing event at The Bull in Highgate hosted by Goose Island Brewery. The dinner was a pairing of seven beers and seven dishes and, before I get into the details, it was a fantastic night.

I had been meaning to head up to the Bull for quite some time. It is run by Jo's boyfriend Dan Fox who used to be the manager of the famous White Horse pub in Parsons Green (also a very nice place).

Overall, I was very impressed with the beers from Goose Island and the people they brought along for the dinner. I even had the pleasure of talking directly with the founder of Goose Island, John Hall, for about five or ten minutes. Each beer and food pairing was accompanied by a short speech by a representative of Goose Island, so the customers knew exactly what they were drinking and eating. One aspect of the night that particularly surprised me was the quality of the sour ales. Up until that night I had stubbornly avoided sour ales after a few bad experiences with them back in the States. I had the opportunity to try several, but the sour ale that stuck out to me the most was Sofie. The sourness imparted by the wild yeast from the wine barrels it was aged in was balanced with a dry, crisp, refreshing finish. This was not the bombshell of sour ales like the ones that turned me off to the style back home. It was very enjoyable to drink, and I was thoroughly impressed.

The second beer I would like to highlight is the Bourbon County Stout. Of course, it is almost obligatory to talk about this beer when you have the chance to try it. It is, more or less, considered the pinnacle of the beers produced by Goose Island. I can't be sure of which vintage it was that we tried, but I would assume that it was the 2010 or 2011 vintage because the beer seemed a bit young to me. There was some harshness to the roasted flavors in the beer that would probably mellow and be better balanced with the vanillin flavors from the bourbon barrels given time. I also found the beer to be somewhat hot, but this is easily explained by the fact that the beer is upwards of 14% ABV. Despite what I just said, I actually enjoyed it and can certainly respect the effort that goes into making such a beer. It was just a bit on the extreme edge to completely agree with my palate.

After the dinner, many of us stayed behind to have a few more pints. It was at this point that I had the opportunity of trying some of the exciting craft cask ales Dan had on offer. I had tried dozens of micro-brewed cask ales, most of which are lovely, but few (with the exception of the Dark Star beers) that I found truly reminiscent of the craft brewing seen in the United States. Here were beers that were hopped like American ales and delivered with the same spark of creativity that drew me to brewing in the first place. Furthermore, I was at a venue that was hosting many people that are at the centre of the London beer scene. I was able to talk to brewers, beer writers and publicans, all of whom shared the same passion for beer that I have. It seems to me that what I am experiencing in London is the same type of vitalisation of beer that happened in the States in the late 80's and early 90's and I cannot be more excited to be a part of it.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Harp in Covent Garden

I had the good fortune of discovering the Harp in the days preceding the start of my time at the brewery. I was looking for a place that served Sambrook's beer and it just so happened that the Harp was the closest known outlet for the beer I required. The Harp is a rather unassuming pub. Both the facade and interior are small but very well kept in the traditional style of English pubs. What sets the Harp apart from the myriad of other pubs I've visited in London is the ale. All told, the Harp boasts nine hand pumps (manually operated suction beer taps used almost exclusively for cask ale). Before I elaborate on why this is important, a few points must be distinctly understood on cask conditioned ales and the art of cellarmanship.

First, in cask conditioned ales, there is a secondary fermentation and conditioning process that occurs within the cask itself. The main activity in beer during this period is the breakdown of remaining fermentable sugars by the yeast into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. As opposed to kegged beer where carbon dioxide is added extraneously, all of the carbonation from proper cask ale comes from the process mentioned above. Since yeast, a living organism, is responsible for the secondary fermentation, conditions of the cask must be meticulously managed to ensure that the beer is properly conditioned before being served to customers. This is almost entirely the responsibility of the publican to perform and if done incorrectly, can lead to poor quality beer. Second, cask ale is dispensed by letting beer flow out through a dispensing hole (called a keystone) and letting ambient air flow through another hole called a bung. This presents challenges for the publican such as oxidation of the beer, loss of carbonation and the possibility of infection from spoilage micro-organisms (these can be mitigated somewhat by a device called a cask breather, which is against the official rules of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and; therefore, has not yet caught on in the UK. It will probably be explained more in a later post).

Managing all of those tasks is no easy feat and becomes much more difficult with the number of taps behind the bar. In my opinion, it is because it is difficult that there is such a disparity between how well casks are stored at pubs and producing a corresponding disparity in the quality of cask ales. Said differently, you will not always get the same pint every time even though the tap handle may say differently.

Based on the above, it becomes apparent why managing nine hand pumps is impressive. Bridgette (the owner) and Sara (the manager) manage their cellar as well or better than any I've yet seen. Each pint is consistently wonderful, with a beautiful head and delightful carbonation that virtually dances on your tongue. Further, Bridgette and Sarah only stock brews from small, independent brewers within the UK. There is consistent turnover in beers, so you can expect to always be able to have something different whenever you visit the Harp. What makes this even better is the that the Harp probably has the most knowledgeable and well trained staff of any pub I know.

Altogether, these factors have made the Harp my favourite pub in London. I'm not the only one to notice how stellar of a place it is either. Over the past decade, CAMRA has awarded the Harp many times, including National Pub of the Year for 2011 (yes that is CAMRA's assessment that the Harp serves the best cask ale of any pub in the entire UK). It has also caught on with the London public and pretty much any day past 3:00pm it is so crowded as to be almost impossible to navigate inside. In fact, the only negative remark I can make about the Harp is that it is just too damn popular. Because of this, I tend to enjoy my pints at the Harp before 2:00pm so I can enjoy the ale to its glorious zenith.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

And So It Begins...

Let me start by saying, beer is my life. Over the past few years I have seen my interests in beer evolve from beer lover to commercial brewer. My interest in home brewing began when my mother bought me a home brew kit for Christmas of 2008. This was an all liquid extract kit (as almost all starter kits are), and my first brew was awful. By most accounts it tasted like an under-carbonated sake bomb. Long story short, we drank the beer, and I have never looked back. Soon I was purchasing equipment for all grain brews, researching recipes, and reading every snippet I could about beer. When I moved into an apartment with my two awesome dude-bros, Chris and Max, in the summer of 2011, I had a three tap kegerator that we kept stocked by brewing up to three times a week.

Eventually, I realized that if brewing was something that I loved so much, why shouldn't I pursue it as a career? My job was mediocre (well paid and consistent, but completely unrewarding), and I decided that I owed it to myself to do something with my life that I genuinely cared about. About the same time, my girlfriend, Catherine, was planning on studying abroad in London. I took the opportunity, and wrote a few emails to breweries in London. I explained my situation via email to five or so brewers, and Duncan Sambrook of Sambrook's Brewery was the only one to respond. 

It is an unconfirmed notion, but I believe there is a good reason why Duncan responded to me. He empathized with my situation. Before Duncan opened the brewery in 2008, he was working for the same firm in London that I was working for in Southern California. He quit his job to open the brewery, which is similar to my situation of quitting my job to step into the commercial brewing sphere. Duncan offered me a trial period of a couple weeks to be sure that I was not a complete dunce. After the trial period I was able to convince him and the other employees at the brewery that, not only was I not a complete dunce, I was, in fact, somebody that was crazy (this is not an exaggeration) about beer. As it stands, I have a unique opportunity to continue to gain work experience at the brewery. 

I can honestly say this is the most excited I have ever been about anything in my life, and I look forward to sharing my experiences and knowledge about beer with anyone who cares to listen.