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Beer: the future is flavour

Added: Wednesday, February 26th 2014

Sierra Nevada Torpedo

Speech by Roger Protz at the Publican’s Morning Advertiser Beer Innovation Summit in Burton-on-Trent, 26 February 2014

India Pale Ale, as the name suggests, was a beer designed for travel. It was brewed for export to India and other outposts of the British Empire in the 19th century and we’re meeting here today in Burton-on-Trent, which is the ancestral home of a beer style that transformed brewing on a world scale.

It may seem odd to start a talk on world beers and beer innovation with an English style from the 19th century, but old beers have a habit of coming back and biting you. The first brewery to develop a beer for the India trade was called Hodgson who had the good fortune to be based at Bow Bridge in East London, close to the docks where ships sailed for India. Hodgson produced a strong ale that was able to withstand a three or fourth month journey to India and he had the market to himself, meeting a clamour from the Raj, soldiers and civil servants for a more refreshing beer than the milds, porters and stouts sent to them.

But Hodgson made the mistake of annoying the mighty East India Company by not paying his bills. As a result the company suggested to a Burton brewer named Allsopp that he should brew a similar beer for the India trade. Burton brewers, unlike London ones, had the advantage of remarkable water in the Trent Valley, rich in sulphates, which are flavour enhancers and brought out the full flavours of malt and hops. Allsopp was able to brew a far better beer than Hodgson for export to India and soon he and other brewers in the town, including Bass and Worthington, were sending large amounts of beer to India. It was the first pale beer in the world and brewers from Austria and Germany rushed to Burton to see how pale ale was made and then went home to fashion the first golden lager beers.

In fact, golden lager proved the undoing of IPA. By the end of the 19th century, strong IPAs for export were to all intents and purposes dead and buried, driven out of the colonies by German and American lagers which were sent to India and Africa on boats packed with ice. In Australia, brewing was transformed when two brothers named Foster arrived from New York with something not seen before Down Under: a fridge.

But IPA has risen from the grave. It’s become a world-wide phenomenon. In 2005 when I published my book 300 Beers to Try Before You Die, I included 11 versions of the style. The successor book, 300 MORE Beers, published last year, lists 34. It’s the biggest section of the book and I could have included many more. The driving force behind modern IPAs is the demand for beers with aroma and flavour. Bland beers are in free fall. Flavour is the great innovator and IPA, strong in alcohol and hops, meets the bill.

Is there room for more IPAs? Undoubtedly Yes, but let’s define the style. An IPA is not a golden ale. The first IPAs were called pale because they were distinctively different to the dark milds, porters and stouts of the 18th and 19th century. IPAs were amber coloured. The famous, classic bottled IPA, Worthington White Shield, still brewed up the road at the former Bass brewery, has a touch of slightly darker crystal malt added to pale malt. If you have time today, drop into the bar at the National Brewery Museum where you can drink White Shield on draught. It’s history in a glass.

Shipyard IPA

Long before the arrival of lager brewing in the United States, brewers there made a type of IPA they called Stock Ale. Now scores of American brewers have restored IPA to their portfolios and, with typical American exuberance, have gone the extra mile with Export IPAs and Imperial IPAs, stronger interpretations bursting with the rich, citrus character of local hops. Goose Island IPA, for my money, is the finest example of an IPA brewed anywhere in the world and with 58 units of bitterness is also one of the world’s bitterest beers. Other brilliant examples of the style available in this country are Sam Adams IPA from Boston, Brooklyn Brewery’s East India IPA, Odell Brewery’s Myrcenary in Fort Collins, Colorado, Rogue Brutal IPA from Oregon, and Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA from Chico, California. The last-named uses four American hops that create a staggering 65 units of bitterness – it’s not for the faint-hearted – and the beer rests on a deep bed of hops in a vessel called the torpedo before it’s packaged.

One of my favourite American IPAs, imported by Marston’s and on sale in Morrisons and Tesco, is Shipyard IPA from the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, Maine. It was founded by a Brit, Alan Pugsley, who learned the brewing skills at Ringwood in Hampshire. He was allowed to take a sample of the Ringwood yeast culture with him and, using just imported English Fuggles hops, has created an English rather than an American interpretation of the style.

But IPA is not just confined to the US and the UK. I’ve been twice to Australia and found a craft beer revolution in full swing. I couldn’t find Fosters – though I must confess I wasn’t looking very hard – but I found more than 200 small breweries bringing much-needed choice to the parched country. There are plenty of IPAs, including Stimulus IPA from the leading craft brewery, Little Creatures in Fremantle, Holgate Hopinator from Victoria and Murray’s Icon IPA from New South Wales. New Zealand can’t be left out of the mix and offers among others the alarmingly-named Armageddon IPA from Auckland.

Belgium had colonies but had no contact with India. That hasn’t stopped brewers there producing the style of which a beer from the Chouffe brewery is worth seeking out. Even before you taste it, it’s quite a mouthful: Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel. Houblon is the French for hop and tripel indicates that three hop varieties are used. Dobbelen is a Belgian term for strong ale and the Chouffe beer measures up at 9%. And in a deep bow to its town of origin, the brewers “Burtonise” the water, which means they add the salts found in the water of the Trent Valley.

Budvar brewhouse

A final word on IPA: if you’re tempted, please don’t brew something called Black IPA. As the great American brewer and beer writer Garrett Oliver said on the subject: “Don’t get me started”. In other words, which part of India PALE Ale do you not understand? Black IPA is absurd and an insult to history.

But the word black leads me on neatly to a beer style utterly different to IPA: Porter and Stout. They are also undergoing a great revival. This is a style that, with the exception of Ireland, had disappeared from sight but has been revived with great enthusiasm here, in the U.S. and Down Under. Porter was a beer that got its name from its popularity with porters working the markets and docks in London in the early 18th century. The strongest version of porter was called Stout Porter, later reduced to just Stout. Such was the clamour for the style in the whole of the UK – which then included the whole of Ireland – that such giant breweries as Whitbread in London and Guinness in Dublin were created to meet the almost insatiable demand. But porter and stout disappeared from the UK during World War One when the government banned the use of dark roasted malts as they required energy that had to be directed to the munitions industry. Slowly at first Porter and Stout started to stage a comeback and today are growing in popularity. As far away as Tampa, Florida, you will find Cigar City’s Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout followed by Firestone Walker’s Reserve Porter in California, while Alaskan Smoked Porter is not only magnificent but is probably the closest we’ll ever get to the flavour of an 18th-century version of the beer. From Iceland I have tasted Einstock’s Toasted Porter. Down Under you will find Invercargill Pitch Black Stout in New Zealand and James Squire’s Jack of Spades Porter in Sydney.

Ireland of course, can’t be left out. There are some two dozen small craft breweries in Ireland now, offering much-needed choice to drinkers. Several naturally make porter and stout, and one of the biggest craft breweries, Carlow, has a delicious stout that’s sold in bottled form in Marks & Spencer’s here. Such is the interest in the renaissance of the style that last year Molson Coors bought the Franciscan Well brewery in Cork and is building a new brewery to greatly increase production. The brewery’s Shandon Stout is superb and will, under the new owners, be vigorously exported to the U.S.

As a sign of the times, Marston’s Oyster Stout has replaced Guinness on the bars of De Vere hotel group. The Dark Ages are back!

Before I move on to the major item of lager, a quick word about a few other ale styles worthy of consideration. Far and away the most interesting and innovative new style is oak-aged beer. In this country it began with Innis & Gunn’s Oak Aged Beer from Edinburgh and in the U.S. with Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. The marriage of beer and whisky is a sound one, for both drinks are grain-based. Ageing beer in bourbon and whisky casks brings smoky, oaky, peaty and fruit notes that blend well with the robust flavours of brewing malt and hops. Innis & Gunn has become a major exporter, selling two million cases a year to Canada alone. Goose Island has created such interest in the U.S. that scores of American brewers are now ageing beer in bourbon barrels. In the U.K. the style is not confined to Scotland: the likes of Thornbridge in Derbyshire and Fuller’s in London have created great interest in their versions. Last month I tasted two new oak-aged beers from Hawkshead in Cumbria, one called Jim and one called Jack – no prizes for guessing which distilleries the barrels came from. They are two of the most delicious new beers I have tasted for a long time. Oak-aged beers may be a niche but it’s highly profitable niche.

Where beer is concerned, Belgium is not so much innovative as idiosyncratic. No other country can offer such weird but truly wonderful styles as beers brewed by Trappist monks, sour beers, fruit beers and, most amazing of all, lambic and gueuze beers that are made by spontaneous fermentation, using wild yeasts in the atmosphere. Every time I go to Belgium I bump into large numbers of Brits who are there to sample the beers but curiously they have been slow to penetrate the UK market. That’s now changing and supermarkets as well as specialist beer shops now have a good selection, including the superb St Stefanus abbey beer, imported by Miller Brands. Inspired by the Belgian tradition, a growing number of British brewers are now producing fruit beers and are going the extra mile with chocolate and coffee beers as well.

In secular Britain there’s unlikely to be a major growth of beers brewed by Trappist monks but the Cistercian monks at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire have restored the brewing tradition there with a strong dark beer modelled on the beers brewed at the Rochefort Abbey in Belgium. And Sharp’s in Cornwall has produced a range of bottle-conditioned beers, including Dubbel and Tripels modelled on Belgian Trappist styles.

Change is taking place on the lager front. As sales of global lagers plummet, brewers of proper lager are moving in to fill the gap. A quick definition: lager is a German word meaning storage place. A true lager should be stored for many weeks if not months while a slow secondary fermentation takes place. The classic Czech beer Budweiser Budvar (brewhosue pictured above) enjoys 90 days in the lager cellars beneath the brewery and the result is a beer packed with juicy malt and delicate Czech hop character. Another famous Czech, Pilsner Urquell – the name means original Pilsner – is aged for 40 days. They are quite different beers to those produced by international brewers who want to get their beers to market as fast as possible. 21 days is now the norm for global lagers – and that period includes the entire brewing process, not just fermentation. They are produced as quickly as ale and cannot be called lager unless the word is now devoid of meaning.

But fine interpretations of Pilsner and golden lagers are now being produced by dedicated craft brewers. In the U.S. Samuel Adams Noble Pils from Boston shows that a Pils beer can burst with malt and hop flavour while further south in New York City Brooklyn Lager is a truly magnificent interpretation of a style known as Vienna Red, an amber lager that disappeared during Prohibition and has been revived to great acclaim. The Aussies and the Kiwis are no slouches at brewing great Pils, such as Croucher Pilsner and Emerson’s Pilsner from New Zealand and Matilda Bay and Red Hill Bohemian Pilsner, both brewed in Victoria. The penny has dropped here, too. Just up the road from here in Abbotts Bromley, the Freedom Lager Brewery is producing lager and Pils of considerable quality. The same is true of Meantime in Greenwich with their London Lager and in Glasgow a German called Petra Wetzel has had runaway success with her Bavarian-style brewhouse where she makes lagers and wheat beers to the strict German beer purity law.

Finally, if you think from what I have said that beer innovation is confined to Anglo-Saxon countries, then think again. If you want to see innovation, passion and commitment at first hand then go to – of all places – Italy. Don’t the Italians just drink such bland lagers as Peroni and Moretti? Not any more. There are – remarkably – more than 500 small craft breweries in the country making beers of astonishing quality. There’s a small chain of specialist beer bistros called Baladin with outlets in Milan, Turin, Forence and Rome. I went to the opening of the Milan branch last August and had to fight my way through the crowds in the streets to get into the place.

The brewers are inspired by Belgian, Czech, American, German and British styles. They are transforming the way beer is appreciated in Italy. Beer has become part of la bella figura – the good life. And that’s precisely how it should be.