Monthly Archives: January 2019

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This is an interesting thread from Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau:

Interesting – and informative (read the whole thread) – but, sadly, wrong.

The interesting part first: yes, moving from wooden to metal casks meant that secondary fermentation happened – or didn’t happen – in different ways. I’m not sure what Steve means by ‘micro-oxidation’, but I’d agree that the natural porosity of wood is likely to lead to (what we’d view as) undesirable loss of condition (i.e. beer going flat), while beer that was in a wooden cask for any length of time would be likely to pick up flavours from the wood itself (and/or from the pitch used to caulk the barrels(?)*). There’s also Brettanomyces, the proverbial English Disease**, which flourishes in the less-than-sterile environment of a repeatedly-used wooden cask*. Most beer – at least in 19th- and 20th-century conditions – was ‘running beer’*, which wouldn’t spend a lot of time in cask, but the difference in a ‘stock’ beer like a porter or Burton* would be quite pronounced.

The question then is whether anyone moaning about ‘kegging’ should either (a) insist on getting their beer from the wood or (b) shut up. I say No, for three reasons. In ascending order of importance:

Whose keg is it anyway?

Take the same, conditioning, beer, put one lot in a steel cask and the other lot inna bag inna box, and wait. Very similar stuff is going to happen to both lots of beer (although the bag inna box may be a bit of a bugger to vent). Slightly different things will happen once you start tapping the two containers, but the main difference will be the lack of oxidation in the beer inna bag inna box. Anyone who objects to every single manifestation of kegging – including unfiltered beer being packaged inna bag inna box and conditioning in very much the same way as beer in cask, but oxidating (if that’s a word) more slowly – is letting their taste in beer be ruled by an objection to the word ‘keg’, which is a bit daft.

That said, you can object to keg because you don’t like beer being filtered, pasteurised and force-carbonated (as, indeed, who does?). Admittedly, this objection doesn’t catch quite a lot of what’s done nowadays under the name of ‘keg’, but it’s still a valid position. Or you can object to the “filtering and serving under gas” part of conventional kegging; or you may not like your beer chilled (which in itself doesn’t have much bearing on whether a beer’s in keg or not*, but does tend to go along with kegging). Or – and this is the nearest I personally come to an ‘anti-keg’ position – you may have no principled objection to beer being filtered and CO2’d (or even chilled), in and of itself, but believe that beer which can be cask-conditioned (and traditionally has been) is probably going to be better if it continues to be.

So, someone who tells you they don’t like “keg” may be saying that they believe (or affect to believe) that putting beer inna bag inna box immediately turns it to bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel; or they may be saying that they’ll drink pretty much anything apart from b. W.’s R. B. or its modern equivalent; or they may have one of a number of positions in between, including my own (irrefutably correct) position of drinking interesting beers in keg when they’re on keg, but preferring the same beers on cask*** when they’re available. It follows that some people who moan about kegging are ignorant, obtuse stick-in-the-muds, but not all; I myself, for instance, am open-minded, erudite and thoroughly sophistimacated.

One of its legs is both alike

But let’s say that there are people going around being ignorantly prejudiced against any beer in a keg, up to and including unfiltered beer inna bag inna box. (Incidentally, I have seen “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” labels on keg taps, but only twice in the last four years; I guess it’s not much of a selling point. Presumably the CAMRA members don’t believe it and the craft keg drinkers don’t care.) The question then is whether wood to metal is the same kind of change as cask to keg – or rather, whether it’s a change of the same kind and similar magnitude. (“How can you object to us building a housing estate in this National Park? You didn’t mind when it was one house!”)

Steve argues that, as compared with beer from a wooden cask, beer from metal is fizzier and “a much cleaner, almost filtered product”. On the specific issue of losing condition, the difference between wood and metal clearly is the same kind of difference as the difference between metal and beer inna bag inna box. (That said, I doubt that the first difference – between oxidation plus loss of condition via the wood and oxidation alone – is of the same magnitude as the second one – oxidation vs no oxidation – or anywhere near.) I have more problems with “almost filtered”: in terms of active yeast in suspension*, surely a beer’s either filtered or it’s not. Surely it’s a coincidence – at best – if the effect of putting an unfiltered beer in metal seems ‘almost’ the same as that of filtering it; unfiltered beer is still, well, unfiltered. It’s certainly unlikely to be a change of the same magnitude.

You’re a fine one (just like me)

But let’s put all this logic-chopping aside. Steve’s right about the effect on beer of keeping it in wood, as compared to the effect of keeping it in metal; let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the effect of kegging is just “more of the same”, another step down the same road. Beer in the wood, ‘woody’, Bretty and flat; beer in metal, clean, consistent and sparkling; keg beer, more clean, consistent and sparkling. Does this leave keg objectors without a leg to stand on, unless they go the whole hog and enrol in the SPBW?

I don’t believe so. It’s a common tactic, when you’re pushing a conservationist line of some sort, to reduce a complex history**** to a black-and-white choice: to claim that the thing you’re trying to protect or preserve is utterly unspoilt and pristine, and that the development you’re resisting would ruin it forever. It’s a common tactic, and it’s almost always poorly-founded: very few things in the world are unspoilt and pristine. Beer and pubs certainly aren’t, and to all intents and purposes never have been. Even if you were to take the view that we should go back to a time nobody alive now remembers – before the First World War, when Lloyd George ruined everything – you’d be effectively disregarding several hundred years of history, during which a lot of things changed (even in brewing).

So it’s certainly not the case that everything was great before kegging came on the scene, or that nothing had changed up to then. However, the fact that nothing (in the world of beer) is pristine and unchanged doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth preserving – or that there are no changes worth resisting. This becomes clearer if we assume, not only that “wood to metal” and “metal to keg” are the same kind of change, but that they’re both bad changes. If you assume that going to metal casks made the beer worse, and that going to keg makes it worse again, Steve’s argument becomes “why are you objecting to something that’s deteriorated twice when you accept something that’s deteriorated once?”. It’s a good argument for beer from the wood, but as an argument for kegging it lacks something – it’s a bit like saying “how can you say I’d be better off not being neck-deep in water, when you’re knee-deep yourself?”

In short, Steve’s argument only really works if you assume that going from wood to metal wasn’t a bad thing, and that going from metal casks to kegging wasn’t a bad thing – but if you already believe both of these, you don’t need the argument.

(Interesting stuff about beer from the wood, though. Me, I’m a child of the 70s, so it’s unfiltered beer from a metal cask for me, for preference – but, as ever, there’s plenty of good stuff that doesn’t fit that description.)

*All corrections welcome. I’m very hazy (ironically) on the history and even more hazy on the technicalities of brewing & keeping beer.
**Brett has never been referred to as the English Disease, AFAIK, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on.
***In my experience, Blackjack Devilfish Saison and Marble Earl Grey IPA are, in fact, better on keg. Everything else where I’ve had a chance to compare, the cask wins.
****All histories are complex.

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Say goodbye

I recently bought some beers from my personal favourite brewery, TicketyBrew.

What’s wrong with that statement? As we know, TicketyBrew closed down in early to mid-2018 (May? June?). There was no announcement, so I didn’t get the news till a couple of months later. After that I bought their beers whenever I saw them in shops (which, by that time, didn’t happen very often), and laid in stocks of the three greats – the Pale, the Dubbel and the Blonde – from an online beer merchant which still had a few bottles.

I worked my way through those over the next couple of months, and didn’t think much more about it. It was only the other day – on noticing Grimbergen Blonde, which never fails to remind me how much better TicketyBrew Blonde iswas – that it occurred to me to wonder if any other beer merchant still had any bottles in stock.

And so it came to pass. Sadly, the beers Flavourly had in stock (and still have, at the time of writing) don’t include all the ones I would have liked to stock up on, but the fact that they’ve got any of them, seven or eight months down the line, is worth celebrating.

Drinking them is an odd experience, though. There’s a distinct Mary Celeste quality about TicketyBrew’s closure – this post about their exciting new label designs dates from June 25th this year, by which point I suspect the brewery had already closed; certainly some of the new labels never seem to have made it into production. The impression is strengthened by some of the label copy on the bottles I bought, as we’ll see.

The Dubbel seems to have had a redesign (see previous link), but the bottle I bought came with the old-style label (black lettering on single-colour background with no spot colour, label copy reads “THE TICKETYBREW COMPANY”). As soon as I started to ease the crown cork there was a loud hiss and a thick collar of foam formed in the bottle; some careful work with the bottle-opener was required to avoid any gushing. Once open, it all went into a 355 ml glass without any fuss, though. As for what it’s like, it’s a beautiful beer. It opens with red-berry jamminess backed by malt loaf; at 6.5%, there’s no alcohol burn to speak of, just a pleasant density and warmth. There’s bitterness on the finish, but it’s smooth and unassertive, more like dark chocolate than coffee and perhaps even more like high-cocoa milk chocolate. It’s a really good dubbel, and I hope the world hasn’t seen the last of it. (I know I haven’t, as I bought several bottles, which are stamped BBE Feb 2020.)

Carrying on down the strength scale, the Black IPA – also with the old-style label – comes in at 6.1%, and I’d class it as good rather than great. I drank another black IPA earlier the same evening for comparison, and this one was certainly the better of the two; it just didn’t set off the piney fireworks that I remember from some black IPAs, back when they were new and some were referring to them as “Cascadian dark ales”. What you get is something like a best bitter, but with a smoky, tobacco-like edge, which builds to a charcoal bitterness and an overpowering ‘roasty’ finish; lots of bitterness, then, or different bitternesses. It is good and it is interesting, but it doesn’t score high enough on either count to make me want to bag the remaining stock. (BBE Jan 2019, so if it does appeal to you, the clock is ticking.)

Both Viva La Stalyvegas and Gertcha! are in the new livery, with spot colour (although, oddly, the VLS label has an amorphous blob of colour where publicity photos suggested the number 9 should be); both are listed as being in the ‘Staly Series’, complete with collect-the-set “Stalyfacts” (##1 and 3 respectively; I assume #2 was on the bottles for the US-hopped Yanks for the Memories, which coincidentally was the last cask Ticketybrew beer I ever drank). My VLS, like a lot of TicketyBrew bottles, was on the fizzy side of well-conditioned, but a careful pour into an oversized glass was all that was needed. It’s a 6% IPA and it’s terrific. Citra, Rakau and Ekuanot hops give a complex fruitiness, dominated by grapefruit – particularly on the long aftertaste – but with a distinct pineapple-ish sweetness in the mouth. Interestingly, the label says the beer was based on the Summer IPA, which was made with added pineapple and mango. I was positive about that beer when I reviewed it last year, but noted “I still can’t help feeling I’d rather be drinking an IPA that had got pineapple and mango flavours out of hops and malt”. I guess Viva La Stalyvegas is that IPA. If you like fruit-salad IPAs that don’t compromise on bitterness – and why wouldn’t you? – this is a fine example. (The BBE date for this, and for all the remaining three beers, was Feb 2019.)

The new label system included two-tone labels for short-run beers; one such is the Pink IPA, labelled in two rather fetching shades of pink. The label copy announces that this was the second in TicketyBrew’s “rainbow series of IPAs for 2018”; second and last, sadly. It’s a 6% IPA, like Viva La Stalyvegas; unlike VLS, it was made with fruit additions – strawberry, raspberry and hibiscus, in fact. It’s not pink to look at, though, or particularly fruity to taste. Initially it tastes like a pale ale, albeit with a faint raspberry overtone; something else rapidly takes over, though, and the flavour is dominated by a rather overpowering bitter finish. Being bottle-conditioned (as all these beers are) and close to its BBE date (as most of them are), I wonder if it had dried out since it was fresh. For whatever reason, I didn’t think this one was a success.

The aforementioned Gertcha!, its label featuring a large spot-colour number 11, is a 4% pale ale, and as such falls foul of my scepticism about putting 4%ers – or anything much under 6% – in a 330 ml bottle. The label copy retrospectively sounds a particularly sad, Mary Celeste-ish note:

This is a pale ale which showcases two different hops each month, utilising the hop back. Just check on the Web site to see which hops are in your bottle! http://www.ticketybrew.co.uk/doublehop

Needless to say, that URL won’t get you anywhere now. So I’ve no idea which two hops were featured in the bottle I’ve drunk, but the end result was perfectly pleasant. Like VLS, it’s very much in the grapefruit zone, but with a simpler and more straightforward flavour and a lighter texture to go with it. More of a sessioner, I guess, although that brings us back to the vexed question of bottle size. (Stalyfact #3, in case you’re wondering, is the fact – or rumour – that the Courage advert based on Chas and Dave’s song “Gertcha!” was filmed in Stalybridge Buffet Bar, standing in for an East End boozer of old. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating thought.)

Lastly, Mocha Mild (a short-run beer, also in a two-tone label) is a bit of an oddity. This is another beer with additions: coffee, cocoa nibs and lactose. Uniquely (in my experience, at least), what these sweet coffee and chocolate flavours have to contend with isn’t the depth of an imperial stout or the weight of a porter, but a thin-textured, 3.9% dark mild. The oddest thing of all is how well it works: it doesn’t put you in mind of an Irish coffee so much as a mochaccino, but that’s no bad thing. The beer underneath isn’t swamped as you might expect, but works harmoniously with the additions; as well as giving you a blast of coffee and milk chocolate, they effectively tweak the flavour profile of a dark mild in that direction (and away from the more familiar malt loaf area). I’ve never had a coffee mild before, and I hope this one won’t be my last – although it may well be my last Mocha Mild.

So, farewell then (again), TicketyBrew! Although even this isn’t likely to be my very last look at their beers; as well as a small stash of Dubbels, I’ve held back one each of the Blonde and the Pale, for drinking when the Dubbels are finally down to the last one. (Also, at the time of writing the beer merchant I mentioned has 20+ bottles of all of these beers except for the Mocha Mild, so I might just restock.) As the man said, How can I leave you when you won’t go away?