Sourfest: the results

A stand-out beer is picked
This time last weekend I was in Belfast judging at the Freshman year of Sourfest, a competition to find the best sour/wild ale both commercially and from amateur brewers for both the UK & Ireland.

The beers were judged blind by a panel (myself included), with the top three in each category qualifying for a reassessment for best overall and in category. We were given details on style & additional ingredients, but only after the initial tastings. Entrants remained anonymous until all prizes had been awarded and beers were all judged to the same standard, with feedback forms from all judges* being made available to entrants after the competition.
I'm getting sour, is this a sour?
Someone wasn't impressed...
There were some truly impressive beers and perhaps even more encouraging was that the overall standard was extremely high, with all beers deemed drinkable (except perhaps that berlinner weisse smelling of farts and an enteric (faecal) sour brown).The results were as follows:



Best UK amateur
Chris Lewis took this with a very impressive attempt at a true spontaneously fermented lambic called Teeth Grinder; with four year-old, three year old and one year old beers blended to produce a gueuze-alike. Of course we did not know what it was at the time, but the quality shone though. Honourable mention here went to Plum Smuggler from Dean Hollingworth.

Searching for words to describe
The aroma pleases Giacomo
Best Irish amateur
Awarded to Shane Smith for his Raspberry Turbo which also took overall best in the competition (and my personal favourite).
Highly commended went to another talented homebrewer, Roger Rotheroe for his American Sour Brown Currant Situation.
Both of these winners will have the opportunity to brew their beers on  commercial scale with Boundary brewing. I certainly look forward to trying both of these and fully intend to buy a few cases of each.


Matt takes an initial sip
Best UK Commercial
Elgoods Coolship Blonde took this one but it was close run thing with Ali Kocho Williams' (Seren) Rum barrel aged sour dark ale. Elgoods overthrew the impression of being a staid family brewer when they put a disused brewery coolship back into use after many years to turn out a beer very similar to Belgian lambics, though of course with a different microflora. You can read more about it in Roger Protz's piece here.


Best Irish Commercial
A recently released beer & one I'd already been lucky enough to try: Kinnegar & Brown Paper Bag Project Geuzberry (you can read more about it here). This was also deemed to be best commercial beer overall too.
Highly commended was another beer recently launched, the sour version of White Hag's Beann Gulban.

Congratulations to all of the winners, and well done to all of the entrants; the overall standard was very high and I hope you all enter again next year.  What is particularly encouraging is the high standard of the amateur beers; often indistinguishable than the commercial attempts and generally more adventurous. This bodes well for the next generation of breweries, I'd like to see more commercial entrants next year. Everyone who didn't enter: you have a year; so get cracking! I look forward to seeing what you all come up with.

Aromas redolent of red berries

Congratulations also must go to Shane for a flawless organisation of the competition, thank you for having me as a judge and congratulations again on managing to win your own event ;)

*If you get a feedback form from me and need help deciphering what I wrote, give me a shout!

Photos courtesy of Phil Harrison


A tradition or an old charter or something

(Hat tip to one of my favourite authors Robert Rankin for the borrowed title quote)

The beer scene in Belgium is quite fractured, with no real large grouping to represent all brewers interests. I spoke the other day about the tension between established brewers and brewers sans brewery (gypsy or cuckoo brewers). Taking Brussels as a microcosm I hope to reflect on some of these differences but also point out the obvious common ground.

Something Old
This one is easy, Cantillon is the obvious contender here at 115 years old. I loved finally being able to visit this hallowed beer mecca where (for the lowly sum of 8Euro) you can get a self-guided tour of what is essentially a working brewery museum and avail yourself of two free pours at the end. The brew kit is the original and is all wood and polished copper, replete with cobwebs in the corners to attract the right microflora into the beer.

Mash tun with elaborate paddles for turbid mashing
Tour beers comprise the unblended lambic and then a choice of whichever of the core range beers are available on that day. Then you are of course welcome to stay for more; which I did (also returning a second time) working my way through such beers as Lou Pepe Framboise and Cuvee Florian (last year's Zwanse a cherried version of fresh-hopped Iris), though it was the grassy fresh and zippy hallertau dry-hopped 2y/o lambic, Cuvee Saint-Gilloise, that really stood out for me as well as the sour yet jammy fou foune fresh from the tank.
Beers silenty slumbering in Cantillon cellars

Cantillon is a Brussels institution but until recently they were almost omitted from the plans for Belgium's Beer Temple...to be based in their own city! Cantillon and the other lambic brewers are seen as a bit of an oddity and thus often forgotten about. It seems us non-Belgians care more about their heritage than the natives.

Something New
Two contenders here, but as we shall see later my choice fits nicely here. Traipsing around half a mile from Cantillon back in towards the centre will bring you to En Stoemlings, the newest brewer in Brussels, note its not quite the newest brewery as explained below. Unfortunately it was closed on our visit (Despite being advertised as open); so I cannot speak for the beers but gazing through the large plate glass windows we're treated to the typical craft-beer bar stainless & bare-brick set-up with a minute hobby-size kit (indeed I've seen many larger home-brew set-ups) taking pride of place along the back wall. Very much a taproom only brewer then,  I look forward to a  proper visit in the future.
Tiny kit at En Stoemlings

Something Borrowed
co-founder Sebastien at Brussels Beer Project
Actually existing longer as a company but until now no physical brewery is Brussels Beer Project. Previously solely cuckoo brewing, they have now "borrowed" (see what I did there) money via kickstarter in order to set up their brewery in the swanky fashion district of Brussels, Dansaert. Co-funder Sebastien kindly showed us around a site 90% of the way to being a brewery (fermenters and bottling lines were due in 3 days and are all in place now). They want to be a brewery for the people, amongst the people, going to great lengths to get the local community on board. It wasn't just funding that was crowd-sourced but also their first core-beer, a pale ale of which four iterations were made with the public choosing the best. This and some other core beers will continue to be produced elsewhere with the the new site for monthly and seasonal specials with an on site taproom pouring their own and friend's beers.  They'll open on October 24th and certainly look forward to returning to a fully functioning brewery.
They might be new but they still
plan to do some things the old way
Its not all been plain sailing however, despite a good reception from community and press, other brewers have been frosty at best. Again this stems from the fact that they initially were sans brewery, 'who are these upstarts coming in to shake things up?' I was particularly impressed by their mesopotamian inspired bread beer, doughy with rich ESB like marmaladey hops.

Something Blue
That leaves us with De La Senne out in the suburbs. They're very well regarded amongst Belgian beer fans and produce good, balanced UK style ales with a  Belgian accent and US aspirations. Their tap room was abandoned on our visit but a clanking noise alerted us to the 5-strong team assembling the new bottling line which will be able to knock out 9000 bottles an hour. (This is some expansion for a brewery found throughout Brussels but seldom makes much noise beyond it.) Worried that the taproom would close (its only open 10-3) before I could sample anything I went in search of someone and found Joelle having a smoke before knocking off for the day. He kindly came inside to pour me what was on draught and grabbed a few bottled beers too. I settled in to drink them whilst perusing my copy of 80 beers, all were solid with  Schieve Tabarnak (a collaboration with Le Trou de Diable) really impressing all fresh tropical fruit & black pepper bitter yes but well moderated by the malt body.
Of course until recently they were the only ale fermentation brewery in Brussels and now have two younger neighbours to potentially compete with. This would of course leave one feeling a bit jaded - more competitors for tap space, people being less inclined to trek out to the suburbs and of course more flexibility with smaller kit. This will only be exacerbated as the number of brewers continue to grow and drinkers look beyond Belgium's borders with flagship beer bars and shops already beginning to stock the best of UK and US beers and Brewdog's (very) recent arrival likely to result in more establishments branching out into "world" beers.

Sixpence in the shoe
This perhaps shines a light on to how the Belgian Family Brewers are feeling at the moment. There are an increasing number of beers in a fairly stagnant market, with a number of "brands" appearing with no provenance, poorly developed recipes and dubious quality. However its only by working together as a group (not just Family Brewers or Trappist brewers or lambic brewers, but all brewers, with and without brewery)* to promote the fantastic range of Belgian beers (there's more than just Trappist and lambic!) that they'll be able to grow the market whilst getting native drinkers to turn away from ubiquitous pilsner-inspired lagers to more traditional and yes new Belgian brews. Take that heritage, the focus on quality and provenance, add a twist of innovation and collaboration and the beers will sell themselves. I don't know if anyone is brave enough to attempt such an organisation, but the rewards would be swiftly forthcoming. I'd certainly support them.
Incidentally most of these brewers were invited to attend the beer bloggers' and writers' conference but for various reasons were unable to (largely due to exorbitant fees). That's a topic for another post, however knowing in advance we'd not meet them in the festival; I did my best to get out and see them in situ. All beers were paid for by myself or fellow writers with the exception of four sample bottles from BBP, who also gave me a glass, thank you Sebastien.

*Well maybe not that Behemoth in Leuven, that'd just be counterproductive.


Sour and Wild ales in Ireland

With sour beers enjoying a renaissance amongst the keener craft brewers and in trendy beer bars its only right that Irish brewers aren't resting on their laurels and attempting some of their own.

First Out of the Blocks
Galway Bay were perhaps the first (in recent times) to launch soured beers on to the market place. J18 months ago we were treated to a dry hopped berlinner weisse style "Desperate Mile" and more unusually a black sour. (Shane has more details on his blog here.) Both of these and a more recent collaboration with Begyle were kettle sours, "we have cultured from everything from lab pitches, grain husks and even probiotic pitches from the health food store!".
Head brewer Chris Treanor first discovered sour beers whilst backpacking around Belgium, being warned by locals "tastes like 'vomit, but it tastes great really!'. Oddly enough, I wasn't perturbed by this and unknowingly, I did open up a whole world of flavours that I would be trying to replicate as a career not 5-6 years afterwards".
He has grander plans however "I'm spending this week at the Oslo, restarting the kit there for a sours program". For Chris its important to keep this segregation to minimise the very real threat of contamination of other brews.
The beers have been generally well received, with demands for re-brews; so the expansion should be well received. On designing recipes - "we do tend to err on the side of simplicity. When simplicity leads to complexity, that's when the best beers result." Chris also plans to go for barrel ageing in a big way, with a number of wine barrels purchased in a job lot with Boundary at the start of the year.

"tastes like vomit, but it tastes great really!"

Sour in Belfast
Speaking of Boundary, Galway Bay have also collaborated with them on a kettle sour, Berliner Vice. This low strength tart wheat beer was the first beer to sell out at the recent smash festival ABV and will be re-brewed to varying strengths. Brewer Matthew Dick explained "Its important to think about body with berlinner weisse style ales as they can get quite thin. We're also going to do a series with added fruit; the first is likely to be lemon and coconut".
We also saw a soured table porter "Sour Bake", a very intriguing suggestion of how staled beers could have tasted. Sour bake was brewed from the second runnings of a batch of the export stout with lactic bacteria. The culture was then back-dosed in to a barrel of export stout in a neat full circle and is maturing nicely fr release in a year or so.
 Matthew first discovered sour beer on a football trip to Belgium in his mid-teens; "we had a whole day to kill before our flight home and a friend took us around a number of what I now suspect to be lambic brewers. I wasn't the biggest fan but the friend described the taste as 'like an angel pissing on your tongue'...I'll probably use that as a beer name." After that living in Reno meant regular trips to Russian River to try American Sour beers.
What else can we look forward to? Well Matthew intends to produce further soured beers, and plans on dosing wild yeast into some of those aforementioned wine barrels to develop some aged special "dirty" beers alongside the unaged clean versions, the first of which will be another Galway Bay collaboration on a wild IPA. "I'd love to get a coolship but that's not going to happen any time soon!"

"like an angel pissing on your tongue"

Keeping it local
New brewers on the scene White Hag also plan to go for sours in a big way, being big fans of the flavour profile. They're inspired by the Flemish oud red/bruin brewers but also Jolly Pumpkin, a well-regarded American mixed-fermentation brewer. White Hag's first release was a kettle sour Imperial Red whose flavour profile was up there amongst the best Flemish reds. The kettle sour process is beneficial for consistency because according to head brewer Joe Kearns "potential off-flavours from other souring agents. Plus, the other main souring strains of yeast and bacteria need much long contact time to produce the desired effects." Kettle souring also eliminates the risk of cross-contaminating other beers. "When souring in the fermenter, the issue of cross-contamination is very real. Good cleaning processes and complete sterilization, or replacement of all soft materials (rubber hoses, gaskets, etc.), is vital to protect your standard beers from 'infection'."
 They've stepped it up a gear for their new release, Beann Gulban, using wild heather as both a flavouring agent and source of yeast - a spontaneously fermented brew, "We wanted to emulate the flavour of a beer produced in the Neolithic times, and at the same time create something completely new". There is also an intriguing hint about use of oak wine barrels...stay tuned for more!

"The idea was to provide a little pH tickle rather than a kick"

Mixing It Up
Serial gypsy brewers Brown Paper Bag Project have brewed not one but four different sour/wild ales. Digging deep in to the brewing archives they've created four beers in styles not yet seen elsewhere in Ireland, a gose, a grodziskie an oud bruin and a berlinner style. They've all only been brewed once; so if you come across any do grab whilst you can!
Their gose (a collaboration with Fano) was first up. Brewer Brian somehow got in touch with someone at Fano through online forums whilst researching gose brewing recipes, which resulted in an invite to brew in the remote brewery in Denmark. Launched via a blind twitter tasting it was great to see it was well received, before people had realised it was soured with added seasalt and coriander no less. Colin of Brown Paper Bag Project and L.Mulligan Grocer pub in Dublin said; "The great thing about a blind tasting is that you have no precocnieved ideas of the flavour, you're waiting for them to come to you rather than pre-empting and pushing your own opinions on to it"

Brown paper bag project Shmoake was next,  of the less common Grodziskie (Gratzer) style,a tart, smoked wheat beer. As with the gose, an old recipe was found whilst perusing online forums and an idea of the flavour forms which they try to reflect in the beer.
Perhaps the best received of the sour styles has been Aul Bruin Bagger (an oud Bruin aged on cherries). "Its gone down well. some people taste the sweet and tart cherryness and find it amazing and others can't stand it an dthink its disgusting.  A polarising beer but lots of good feedback"
A star of the show at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival (ICBCF) this year geuzeberry (a collaboration with Kinnegar). Brewed with gooseberries and live yoghurt culture, its a fruity, tart and complex kettle sour that stops just short of enamel-stripping. "I wanted to brew something with a local provenance, both myself and Rick are from the North-West [of Ireland]; I'm not sure who came up with the idea to use yoghurt but we just ran with it. Brian travelled up there and brewed it over 2 days. The idea was to provide a little pH tickle rather than a kick" Colin & Brian hope to produce more collaborations along guezeberry line. "Brewers love to make sour beers because they love drinking sour beers, its basically a massively ego-maniacal cycle where the more sour beers that get brewed the more brewers can drink". If that results in more for the rest of us t drink I'm all for it!
(I did send some questions to the team, but have been unable to get responses in time, will update article when I do!)

"Its a vision, I can see the beer in my head, I can taste it...I just need to wait to release it into the world"

The Elder statesmen
Cuilan Loughnane at White Gypsy has always been interested in offering a diverse range of styles as evidenced by the bottle line up of dubbel, doppelbock and Imperial stout. Last year's ICBCF saw the launch of Scarlet, a wood aged sour and pretty much a statement of intent of things to come. Preferring to do things properly, he had some virgin oak barrels made up to his specifications in both American and French oak about four years ago. "Each barel has its own character, if you have the wrong type or at the wrong time it can affect the quality of the beer. You need to learn about the beers and develop them through natural progression to the taste you want".By feeding the barrels with beer they have been seasoned over time and developed their own micro-flora to allow for the secondary conditioning of beers already fermented.
Obviously these barrels are stored in a separate part of the brewery to avoid cross-contamination. The actual mixed culture Cuilan is keeping close to his chest but he's had discussions with ex Guinness employees and seen papers relating to the past ageing of Guinness with both brettanomyces and lactobacillus mentioned. "I was missing a few technical pieces of the jigsaw, which they helped us put it together. There used to be Brett in Guinness but no one would admit that any more"
Why go to all the effort? Put simply Cuilan believes to get the complexity and balance into a sour/wild beer requires time, premium ingredients and plenty of patience. Premium ingredients like floor malted MMAris Otter for example "Those maltings are over 100 years old, they have their own micro-flora, that gets on the malt and comes to the brewery and ends up in the beer, that's important" Whilst faster produced sours may be tasty and refreshing in their own right they can't hold a candle to the best in Belgium, Boon Mariage Parfait Oude Gueuze for example, which Cuilan holds as a prime example of blending done well. Blending is about "finding a balance between old and new beer. The blending is the art, you need to hold your old stock and use portions from different old barrels in to fresh beer. I found our scarlet a bit much, too sharp a bit curt back in October, but by its second outing (in March at St Patrick's Festival) it had rounded out and tasted  beautiful."
Cuilan's no fool however, he's not just producing soured beer for kicks but knows it will form a flagship brand for the brewery. "I've learnt that a) you need to be unique, b) you need a good shelf life c)it needs to taste good and at a good price". On that last point that's obviously important that it can sell for a good price too, given how much has been invested in the wood and a new bottling machine for corked and caged bottles. Soured beers have intrinsically better shelf life, allowing for ageing, storage and most importantly withstanding the rigours of export. "Its a vision, I can see the beer in my head, I can taste it...I just need to wait to release it into the world".
So what is this vision? Well without giving too much away it will be a keeping stout, "the fantastic Irish stout of old" with a soured component that will taste great on release but only get better as its aged. It should be ready in early 2016. "I want to brew something that you can't quite put your finger on it but you know its damn good. The minute you drink it you can tell its ready. I'm not interested in releasing an unbalanced beer. It might have a certain proportion of beer drinkers  drooling over it, writing good things about it but the general population will be like 'what the fuck is this?!' I'm not going to release single barrels as specials, this beer needs to be suitable for everybody" I think we can all raise a glass to that!

A Tart Future 
Fermanagh brewer Gordy Fallis at Inishmacsaint has also been experimenting with spontaneous fermentation, producing some test batches that certainly show promise. With Blacks also beginning to delve into the sour styles and a good showing at the recent Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival we'll certainly have plenty to choose from in the coming months and years, long may it continue!

*As an aside Guinness used to age a portion of beer for 9-18months in Russian oak all over Dublin, then blend it  back into fresh beer at 2-3%.


Heading to Manchester

Most people who are in to decent beer in the UK will have heard of the Independent Manchester Beer Convention (or Indyman BeerCon for short, or even IMBC if you're feeling particularly lazy) (if not, have you been under a rock?!) but not everyone has had a chance to go. Until this year that is. Yes you lucky people attending the Friday day session will be graced with /annoyed by/indifferent to* my presence.

Running from the 8th-11th October, the festival (now in its 4th year) is going strong with several sessions selling out mere hours after going on release. Fear not as there are still three sessions available to attend at the moment (including the aforementioned with yours truly). The beer list for each day is yet to be pinned down, but going by the murmurings on Twitter and the list of brewers in attendance there will be more than enough to be going at.

Festival is held the atmospheric Victoria Baths
(Picture courtesy of Gary Brown)

One thing that I like about the festival is that a number of collaborative one-offs are brewed, I've managed to try a few of these elsewhere in the past; so if this years are of similar calibre we're in for an oral treat. To mix things up a bit, they pulled styles and names out of hat and arrived at the following:

Weird Beard/Lervig with IMBC: Gooseberry Pale
Northern Monk with IMBC: Quince IPA
Madhatter with IMBC: Seaweed Gose
Cromarty with IMBC: Bilberry Saison
Squawk with IMBC: Fig Stout
Hanging Bat with IMBC: Sloe Wit

The idea of a bilberry saison is doing it for me.

There are also a number of events-within-event with break-out tastings dueing all sessions (many still TBA). One which is likely to be popular is an exclusive meet the brewer and tasting of Mure with Pierre Tilquin, the newest gueuze blender in the Pajottenland (lambic region around Brussels in Belgium). I was fortunate enough to share a bottle of this on my recent trip and highly recommend you try to attend.

For me visiting the festival is more than just enjoying a few beers (which will of course be a large attraction) but also to experience the archetype event, the grand daddy of the new wave of beer festivals as an experience rather than just a giant pub. Venue, food and entertainment have all been carefully chosen to make the event in to something truly special. A small delegation from Northern Ireland attended last year and as a result set up the ABV fest, which went down stormingly in Belfast back in May. If an event can encourage people to stage something similar in the most barren of beer deserts it much be truly special indeed.

Tickets can be purchased here for the lowly sum of £8.88. Hope to see some of you at The Victoria Baths (or general environs) in a few weeks. Those of you not going are free to live vicariously through my tweetings or likely post-event run-down blog or future in person ravings.

Even outside of the festival there are a number of fringe events happening in Manchester and of course there's no shortage of bars available to be getting at...why not even head to Huddersfield to check out the new Magic Rock tap?Cloudwater already in my sites and of course all the usual haunts will be revisited but please let me know if there are other places I should be visiting in the Manchester environs.

NB I have received a free trade ticket for the session (though I would have paid anyway) and the flight+hostel cost the best part of £100; so not exactly a junket.

*Delete as appropriate


The State of Belgian Beer

There has been a bit  of an explosion in both numbers of brewers and creativity within worldwide in recent years (if you hadn't noticed, where have you been?!). One country that has been surprisingly slow in the uptake, given its prominence in the resurgence of interest in decent beer is Belgium. A recent visit to the country (largely to attend the European beer bloggers' and writers conference) has given me some insight on why this might be.

Belgians are a proud and independent people, this pride is evident when you meet family brewers who talk of which generation of the family they are from (Roman are on their 14th generation of brewers!) Brewers see themselves as custodians of a brewery, "We are not owners we just take care off breweries for the next generation", maintaining and preserving centuries old beer recipes for handing down to future generations. This is a good thing, far too many unique local styles have been lost through consolidation and closure in the brewing industry since the first world war. A downside to this however is that these breweries are more cautious, more risk averse when it comes to serving the market. Indeed the importance of the brewery reputation means it can take years to develop new products for the market. An de Ryck of De Ryck brewery gives an example of the importance of consistency: "People have begged us to make our beers available in keg or on cask but they will inevitably end up disappointed as they find it has declined slightly. We have more control over bottle consistency which is why we stick to bottles only. We have 7 products now and in ten years time they will probably be the same, it can sometimes take years to make the recipe exactly as you want it". She did however acknowledge that sometimes you can be too careful at the expense of progress.

"Fake brewers have slowed down the growth in craft beer because its easier to start up without building a brewery and you're therefore less careful about how you go about business resulting in more bad beers on the market reflecting badly on the whole marketplace" Jean Hummeler

Its perhaps not surprising then that the changes taking place in the brewing industry causes some conflict amongst the more established brewers. Many of the newer entrants to the market do not have breweries of their own, they contract other brewing kits and often other brewers to brew for them. This flexibility allows for more experimentation but the accusation in some quarters is that this leads to a more rushed approach to brewing, with no concern for consistency of product and no real longevity. Jean Hummeler, owner of Moeder lambic is one such critic. He believes such ventures should not be referred to as brewers as he explained in a colourful tirade during a lively conference session on beer marketing: "I checked in the dictionary for the definition of brewery, the definition of brewer and nothing there describes what these "gypsy brewers" are doing. The only way Mikkeller is a brewer is when he gets home at night and brews a cup of tea for himself." This incendiary statement was more of a call for greater critical journalism within beer writing which I fully support (topic for another post) and he was at pains to point out that he enjoys a number of Mikkeller's beers but it does underline a common opinion amongst the established Belgian beer community.  (My opinion: "Gypsy brewers", "cuckoo brewers", "contract brewers", "beer architects"; who cares about the semantics or who does the physical brewing, if the beer is of good quality and tastes good it can only be a positive. Contract brewing brings benefits for both the contractor and contractee and there is space for this type of operation in the brewing world. )

Brewchitects (courtesy of TwattyBeerDoodles)
An De Ryck is of a similar opinion; "Unless you sleep in the brewery, live in the brewer, wake up and smell the mash in the morning you lose your link to the product, you're not a real brewer but a commercial company". Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in to a brewing family however and hiring someone else's kit is a great route to market for those whom the overheads would be prohibitively expensive otherwise. A number of brewers who begin by this route do go on to purchase their own breweries, with Struise being a well-known example.

"For us we work for the beer and not for the brand, we are not showmen...newer craft brewers are rarely original" An De Ryck

When asked by an audience member is imitation not the greatest form of flattery An replied; "yes its nice to know you've produced something that others want to copy, but the market is a fixed size and if we are copied and they take our market share because they can spend more time on marketing then we lose out". Its this remark that is most telling about more established brewers' feelings towards brewers sans breweries they are worried they will lose market share, they feel threatened and are perhaps jealous that with lower overheads, contract brewers can focus more on promoting their product and perhaps have a bigger reach than some of the more established brands.

The other reason for conservatism within the brewing community is perhaps due to the desire to maintain a handful of well-established brands rather than a slew of specials; with fewer beers they need to appeal to a wider group of drinkers to ensure a good chunk of the market can be served. The physical brewery is as important if not more so than the recipes and brewing team. This opinion has perhaps pervaded the Belgian consciousness to keep the actual number of breweries in Belgium to a fairly small number of 150, This perhaps leads to recipes remaining similar, though with the calibre of beers produced there is certainly something to be said for focussing on quality rather than quantity. 
In recent years this number has more than doubled with the addition of contract and rebadged brands and you can begin to see where some of the tension arises. 
Belgian brewers (and some beer drinkers) see what overseas brewers release as "Belgian" beers and despair because they fall a long way from the best native examples, often mono-dimensional due to a pervading "more is better" mentality. As Allain Delaet of Huyghe points out "hops are the spice of brewing they should be in balance with the rest of the brew, you want to be able to taste the meat as well as the spice"

However its not just imitation as It is amongst these contract brewers we see the most experimentation and whilst a number of brewers do look to the US and UK for inspiration, others are looking back in the history books to revive old recipes or create a confluence of traditional styles using modern techniques. This needs to happen to prevent stagnation and attract new drinkers to Belgian beers - the increase in the number of breweries can only be a good thing for consumers, increasing choice and rousing the more established brewers from their routine to compete for their share of the marketplace. Older established breweries are aware of their weaknesses, but are perhaps not focussing on the right areas; a much touted press conference with the Belgian Family Brewers during the main conference was a little lacklustre looking inwards and aiming to maintain the status quo, peppering their presentation with buzzwords about what they should be doing, with less focus on how they'd go about doing it. Chris Hall has summarised this well here. It remains to be seen whether there will be much change.

One thing the established breweries do have going for them is their expertise, years of experience bring with them the knowledge and ability to produce some wonderful beers. They are in a unique position to be able to share this knowledge with each other to develop in new and interesting ways and perhaps this is where they need to focus in the future, rather than griping about losing market share to newer players. Business journalist Ina Verstl has witnessed some change in attitudes over time however "20 years ago you could visit a brewery and never meet a member of brewing staff, they'd be hiding them in the cellars. Now they're wheeling out the brewmasters at every opportunity. The brewers have had to learn a new skill-set"

The family brewers are at pains to point out that they're not sitting on their laurels and all of the brewers were keen to present to us their more innovative products including Brettanomyces re-fermented ales (Wild Jo from De Koninck, Saison Surfine from Dubuission, Straffe Hendrik Wild from De Halve Maan ... more info here) the use of unusual ingredients (pink grapefruit in Pink Killer from Silly and basil in Lindemans' collaboration with Mikkeller). Not all of them work, but the willingness to try new things can only bode well for the country's brewing future. 

Centrifuge at "traditional" farmhouse brewery Dupont
More so than recipes it is new technologies where the real innovation is happening. Whilst some of it is for cost saving (which is important too, if breweries cannot make a profit they will not continue to exist) others are genuine improvements leading to more consistent and better tasting brews. Take Lindeman's use of stainless steel for lambic maturation for example. Foeders are prohibitively expensive, around ten times the price of the equivalent volume stainless vessel, limiting the rate of growth and given the current demand reducing the availability of the beer. Use of stainless steel with wood chips allows for increased capacity at a fraction of the cost and whilst a tasting of both revealed noticeable differences in flavour after a year, the increase in batches available for blending has led to improved consistency. This innovation and the beginnings of a spirit of collaboration amongst more established players alongside an explosion of newer entrants to the market can only bode well for the future of Belgian brewing and consumer choice but there is still a long way to go.

This post is based on observations prior to, during and after the  conference in Brussels last month  I received a number of beer samples on a subsidised trip around Belgian family breweries prior to the conference, plus of course many more during though I don't believe these influenced my opinions on the beers. Some were excellent and would happily part with my own money for them. Others were not so enjoyable (and a few downright disgusting!) Yes we were plied with beer with a hope that we would write about them (with a number of brewers following up by email post-conference) and whilst it might be argued that even mentioning the breweries in this post helps to raise the profile of the brewers, I'm not sure criticism of their opinions is what they had in mind.  The opinions reflected here are largely of the Belgian Family Brewers, who make up just a small proportion of the 150 breweries in Belgium, but due to their profile do have a more prominent voice than many others. Your mileage may vary, am happy to discuss. 

Up next: a focus on the brewing scene in Brussels as a microcosm of Belgian brewing as a whole.


What do you mean by sour beer?

My trip to Belgium for #EBBC15 has driven home how eclectic the styles termed "sour" truly are. Aside from the fact that not all non-pure-Saccharomyces fermented beers really are sour, the sour/wild characteristics can be imparted by different methods.

These beers fall in to the following broad style groupings

1. Spontaneously fermented (lambic, gueuze etc), e.g. Cantillon
2. Fermented with cultured "wild" strains e.g. Alvinne Morpheus 
3.  Refermented with cultured "wild" strain, e.g. Orval
4.a)Mixed fermentation including bacteria and matured e.g. Rodenbach
b) Mixed fementation using lactobacillus and released young, e.g. Berlinner Kindl Weisse, Ritterguts Gose
5. Pre-soured in the kettle by lactobacillus/lactic acid
6. Refermented/matured in wood
7. Unintentional!

We were fortunate to be able to visit a number of breweries courtesy of both Visit Flanders & the Belgian Family Brewers, plus chat to a lot of the family brewers themselves. I'll use some of these examples to outline the differences, remember if the beers are unpasteurised they can continue to develop over time and can get worse as well as improve! This is not supposed to be an in depth how-to guide on these beers, nor do I want to go too deeply into the science as its pretty complex!  (There are a number of better qualified writers than I on these topics, Including Lars Marius Garshol, with recent posts on yeast and bacteria being particularly informative.)

1. The first "sour" that usually comes to mind are the Belgian lambics. These are brewed as a normal beer (except with the use of aged hops to reduce bitterness impact) then instead of being pitched with yeast are cooled overnight whilst exposed to native flora usually in a coolship with airflow controlled by vents. A number of breweries previously used coolships for cooling only but the lambic brewers specifically intend for wild yeasts and bacteria to inoculate the beer. A complex primary fermentation ensues, where different species including lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, pediococcus and Brettanomyces take the lead at different times. It is then matured in pre-used wooden casks that also contain a mixed culture and add further complexity to the beer. The beer may be released unblended (as jonge lambic <1yr and oude lambic >2yrs) or more often blended as a mixture of 1,2 & 3 year old lambics to produce gueuze. Lambic may also be aged on fruit to produce kriek (cherry), framboise/frambozen(raspberry) or other fruit lambics.

Coolship & open rafters at Cantillon
Recommended: Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, 3 Fonteinen Gueuze, Girardin Oude Lambiek

Sour ales maturing at Struise
2. Some brewers wish to produce beers with similar character to lambic beers but would like to be able to improve consistency/ repeatability of each batch. They may harvest or acquire a wild yeast(s)/ mixture with bacteria, then use this culture to ferment a beer. Often the cultures are not analysed, though in some cases they have been. They are capable of producing equally complex beers, though as they are not often matured/blended can taste quite different to spontaneously fermented beers.

Recommended: Alvinne Wild West, To Ol/ Mikkeller Ov-Ral

Orval mural at Bruges brewing museum
3. Similar to #2, these beers undergo a regular Saccharomyces fermentation then undergo a secondary refermentation either in bottle or conditioning tank. As with culturing wild yeast, these beers can gain complexity but in a more controlled way. That said, there is still variation in maturation "After three months people might say 'This beer is stinking' after 9 months however 'its fantastic'" of Hendrik Wild. 

Recommended: Orval, StraffeHendrik Wild, De Koninck Wild Jo

Forest of foeders at Rodenbach
4. a) Known as oud red/ oud bruin in Belgium, these beers obtain their sour character from a lactobacillus fermentation producing lactic acid. Rudi Ghequire at Rodenbach was a fount of knowledge about how their beer is produced. Undergoing initial fermentation it ends up at a pH around 5.5 whereupon it is aged in virgin (unused for other purposes) wood foeders for two years, reaching a pH of 3.2. The aged beer is then blended back with unaged beer to produce beers of different levels of sourness (regular rodenbach 3:1 new: old (pH 3.5) and grand cru 2:1 old:new (pH3.3)). Hops are not usually used as bitterness does not produce a good flavour profile with lactic acid; this can make the beers susceptible to acetobacter oxidation (producing acetic acid> vinegar) so care must be taken with the recipe design to scavenge (reduce) free oxygen and the beer is usually pasteurised prior to packaging. Like lambics, these beers can also be matured on fruit prior to packaging.

Recommended: Rodenbach foeder beer, Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne, Petrus Aged Pale, Rodenbach Caractere Rouge

b) Similar to the above beer styles are goses and berlinner weisses, though their pre-fermentation brewing process differs. Both include wheat in the mash, which is mashed at the higher acidity level conducive to the growth of lactobacillus in fermentation. The fermentation is often finished with other yeast strains and beer sare mor elikely to be drunk fersh rather than aged. Some details here.

5. Another method for producing lactic acid sourness without the need for lengthy ageing process is to sour the mash prior to boiling. This is also known as kettle souring. This is often employed by breweries without the space to mature beer and prevent the risk of contaminating equipment with organisms that could cause contamination of non-soured beers (the soured beer is boiled which kills the bacteria). Some breweries may also use food grade lactic acid, which is frowned upon by some as a cost saving measure (but then so is kettle souring).

Recommended: Galway Bay Heathen, Kernel London Sour

Bush de nuits slumbering
in Dubuisson's cellar
6. The final category is a bit of a catch all, which depending on the previous contents of the wood may or may not have sour character (and may or may not have been intended). The beer may have been fully fermented by one of the above methods prior to entering the barrel or undergo a refermentation in the barrel. Often the beer takes on the character of the wood/ barrels previous contents to a greater or lesser extent dependent upon the length of time in the wood. The use of wood for maturation is a complex topic; which I'll not go in to here.

7. Beers can also become sour unintentionally and sometimes unscrupulous brewers will release these on the market as intentional sour brews! Usually the result of an infection prior to leaving the brewery, they can also be picked up by poor pub hygiene or improper packaging. I'll not give examples here but sometimes unintentional souring can produce interesting results!

The diversity in the world of "sour" beers is only just beginning to be (re)explored by British brewers, with the majority of those released to date being of types 5+6. As brewers begin to invest in separate brew-plants to keep potential contaminants separate from their core ranges we will see more sour and wild beers produced in the UK. Already Elgoods have released a range of lambics inoculated using their old rooftop coolship and Wild beer co have produced Somerset Wild, inoculated in the orchards of Somerset. These beers can have a true sense of place, being tied intimately to their environment by their fermentation flora. Burning Sky and Brodies have produced sour red/brown ales and Fullers occasionally continue to produce the wood-matured Gales Prize Old Ale. Recently Redchurch have begun experimenting and Brewdog hope to invest in separate kit after this round of share-selling to boost their wild credentials. Unlike Nate, I think there is still a long way to go and I'd like to see sour beers more widely available out of the craft beer "geek" bars...of course there should always be a variety available, it is possible to have too much of a good thing!  I look forward to seeing how these breweries and others develop in the coming years. 

Northern Ireland is hosting what (I think) is the first of probably many sour beer competitions in the UK: Sourfest is on Saturday 26th September at Boundary Brewing in Belfast. I will be amongst the judges assessing both commercial and home brew efforts.

Left handed giant in Bristol will be launching their taproom next Sundayat the start of Bristol beer week with a sour beer festival; which has some great beers available, including some one offs; so do head along and check it out.

Do you know of any other UK breweries producing sour/ wild beers? Let me know in the comments below.

The idea for this post was driven by De Brabandere's very good presentation on how they make their Petrus range. Many free samples were provided during the beer bloggers conference, but I also bought plenty of beers.There may be some errors; so please feel free to correct me!


#TheSession #103: Difficult conversations

Warning: what follows is little more than a stream of thought outline rather than a cogent post, I may get a chance to cajole it into some semblance of logical thought, then again I'm off to Belgium next week; so I might not!

The session this month asks us to look at the difficult topics that aren't touched upon by beer . Part of me wants to point out that rather than be writing about what needs to be written about (blogging about blogging?), people should just get along and do it! Aside from finding the impetus to write something compelling instead of procrastinating^  there are certainly some topics that don't get touched upon by beer bloggers...either by dint of the topic being too difficult or controversial to write about or otherwise just plain boring.

There is of course a tendency for any stories about beer to be spun in a positive light, to the extent where facts are misrepresented and negative issues to be buried to the extent people even forgot they existed. This is certainly true in reviewing, perhaps doubly so if the beer/bar visit/insert item here is free.

There are myriad reasons for this. The more cynical amongst us would suggest that the writing of a bad review would lead to the cutting off of the lifeblood of some blogs which survive on free beer alone. The whole #BloggerBlackmail story has shed some light on the murky practice of promising a good review in return for freebies but this must surely be only  the odd bad-egg rather than something that is rife. I'd hope that people were able to be fair when reviewing a beer/pub/ whatever regardless of whether they got a freebie or not and whilst its nice to receive the occasional care package* the majority of beer writers and bloggers fork out their own readies on the beers they write about.

More likely is that most beers aren't astoundingly good or spectacularly bad, just so-so, meh, comme ci comme ca and provoke a feeling of indifference in the writer which doesn't really lead to compelling reading; resulting in only the interesting beers getting through. Believe me for every good beer I write about there are five that are so-so and another few total drain pours.

Others will be loathe to write off a brewery on the back of a single bad experience, being keen to remind everyone that brewers are just doing a day job, often heavily self-funded and a bad review could cause harm to their business. Whilst this may be true for a small handful of writers, the majority of us just don't have the clout to make that much of an impact.

Finally taste is subjective, therefore enjoyment of beer is objective. Aside from obvious flaws and off-notes (which sadly are all to prevalent in our resurgent beer scene)¬ who's to say what you're tasting and not enjoying won't float someone else's boat.

All that said I really enjoy reading well written critiques of beers, especially those which take apart the status quo on "whale" beers and other highly hyped beers. A plea for more of these please!

^a topic for a whole other blog post
*Fully declared of course...
¬ability to objectively determine such flaws is few and far between in the pool of all beer bloggers, not excluding myself either
+Another potential blog topic...