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Archive for May, 2009

Death by Peroni

.. soon you’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life, sang Tom Lehrer, but that’s not the way it happens with good pubs. Some remarkably hang on for decades. Some move upmarket, some downmarket. Some take pride in their knowledge and range of beer and food. Some have a genuine feeling of neighbourhood, even if they are just of busy streets in busy cities.

I used to have a favourite pub in London. I don’t know the first time I was there. Let’s say 25 years ago. Then it had two entrances. The public bar was to the left, where regulars enjoyed their pint of Young’s Special. There  was a shelf for swapping paperbacks, there was friendly chatter and a relaxed atmosphere. Just around the corner from one of the best Waterstone’s bookshops in London – a place to linger for more then one pint.

Through the right door you entered the main bar and dining area. Friendly and fine as well, but a bit less casual, more pinstripes than tweed, perhaps. Same range of beers, but the customers were quite likely to have a bottle of claret instead.

Over the years, the pub has gone through several refurbishments, ripping out walls and giving it all a slicker feel. The pub atmosphere has gone. I’m sure you can have a beer if you walk over to the bar, but it’s generally table service now.

But they still had some pride in their Young’s ales.

That seems to be history, too. The e-mailed me about their latest promotion the other day. They have sold themselves to Peroni. Peroni!

We’ve teamed up with Peroni Nastro Azzurro,to bring you our very own take on L’Aperitivo di Peroni. Buy two pints of Peroni or a bottle of El Coto wine and get 50% off pizza or an indoor picnic.

I click through to their web site, and there is nothing there to lighten my mood. A full range of the usual suspects is greeting you on their main page. Kronenbourg. Fosters. Heineken. (Imported, proclaims the beer engine. Wow!) Scrumpy Jack. Guinness. No cask ales were present when the photo was taken.

It was just this we feared when Young’s merged with Wells’ and ceased to exist except as a brand name, wasn’t it, guys?

Luckily I’ve found other watering holes in London. No need to be on their mailing list any longer.

Before Peroni

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I had to return home again on Saturday evening. 17 May is when we celebrate out independence day in Norway, with lots of activities for children – in short a time for being with your family.

I left Valby at seven for my plane shortly before nine. The airport was almost empty, though the plane was full. A snack on the plane, through customs without any fuss, the train back home.

The same question as always – did the beers survive?

I had, in a moment of Dutch – or maybe Danish – Courage, told my mates Geir Ove and Ole Richard that we could split one of the special festival packages, I could carry it home. A magnum bottle of Mikkeller’s special festival beer plus six beautiful glasses. I somehow managed to fit the bottle inside my suitcase, the box of glasses was under my arm.

I’m afraid two of the glasses are broken. But the bottle survived.

As did all the other bottles, most of them from Ølbutikken. One leaky cork, I suspect that is the Lost Abbey Ten Commandments. I suppose I have to drink that one soon, then.

I’ve started sampling the beer stock since the photo was taken. I’ve enjoyed every drop. Except the Amager 3. akt, which is not up to their usual standard.

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Heavy load

Heavy load

Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten tries a new angle – this time it is not Norwegians stocking up on beer, wine and stronger stuff in Sweden. It’s Swedes doing the same in Germany.

Expensive toll bridges, petrol and ferries means they have to buy quite a lot for this to be profitable. But they do. Legally.

The European Union has large quotas for alcohol. And if you can convince the customs officers its for personal use, the sky is the limit. Or, more precisely, your car.

While the beer list is not remarkable in scope, with those prices there are temptations for everyone. I wouldn’t mind paying 3.75 € for a 75 cl bottle of Duvel. But if you look at the promotional flyers on their web page, most customers go for Danish or Swedish beers to take back home. Not the most green way to arrange things….

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I am not a Luddite, and I have no strong views on sticking to traditional methods when brewing or serving beers. Sure, I know the difference between cask and keg, but sometimes, and in some countries, you have to settle for the second best.

But innovation takes place in fields far removed the craft beer world as well. Like in Switzerland. With slipping margins and the big brewers devouring each other, some Swiss guys think the solution is to prolong the shelf life of pale lagers.

A marketing man named Adami Jean Nicolas tells us that dissolved or residual oxygen in beer is a serious problem. With his new tool you can measure contamination  in parts per billion.

I beg to ask if oxygen appearing as a result of a natural brewing process can be called contamination. And I would add that brewing for flavour instead of volume is something that may be considered.

Productivity gains are key to increase the brewery’s margins, says Mr. Nicolas.

I’ve discussed this view of the world with other beer hounds on various occasions. We often scratch our heads and wonder why the big brewers don’t focus more on quality. One reason is that they are trained as mechanical engineers in a German tradition. Keeping the machines running without any glitches and keeping a steady output at a stable quality is the only thing that matters. That the finished product is intended for human consumption is of minor interest.

If you brew according to these principles and hire marketing men who don’t really like beer, you end up in the present situation. A desperate scramble for dwindling market shares – while the craft brewers are doing pretty well. And they don’t lose a moments’ sleep worrying about that oxygen that makes up one part in a billion.

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Swedish beer blogger dempabeerwrote about a new batch of High Five! beer from Dugges some days ago, as he was did not feel that the quality was up to previous batches. A number of his readers added their comments, and then brewer Dugge himself entered the discussion, giving his point of view. (In short, the quality of his hops had not been good enough.)

A good example of how social media transforms the relationship between the consumer and the producer. It gives the consumer a lot of power – but it also opens for a true dialogue, far beyond flashy marketing.

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I have written recently about attempts to pass off standard (or subpremium) lagers as premium. One newspaper, which has been outstanding in its quality coverage of beer over the last couple of years, has slipped into the same trap. The New York Times, no less.

Instead of praising the virtues of American craft beers, Czech lagers or Danish experimental brews, they have decided to sing the praises of Beer Lao.

The author is convinced by the sight of young backpackers enjoying the national beer. They must be on to something.

 And the brand’s logo adorns everything from patio furniture to street signs, according to the NYT. As if that was a sign of anything. I can point to dozens of countries with a hot climate where advertising for the local beers is plentiful, but where the beer is, at best, mediocre.

If the product you are writing about is unavailable where your newspaper is sold, you can get away with nearly everything. With the web, there are lots of us who have tasted Beer Laos and can testify that the reason that this beer does not travel so well is that it is brewed with cheap ingredients in a hot climate and loses its magic when removed from its context. I enjoy pale lagers after a day in the hot sun as well. But if there is something of real quality as an alternative, I will always go for that.

There are lots of us who will try any new beer. Once.

My advice? Enjoy your national monopoly while you can. Maybe add some real premium beers to your range. If you are Czech trained, you know what I mean.  No rice in the beer is a place to start. There are tougher times ahead, even if you don’t waste your money on an export adventure.

As for the claim that beer snobs like it, ratebeer snobs gives it 6/100, BeerAdvocate snobs give it C, meaning mediocre.

Thanks to Evan for twittering about this.

Where did I buy my bottle ? WholeFoods, Kensington, London. They have at least 50 beers which you should try before this. But if you’re a ticker, by all means. It’s not as if you’ll go blind drinking it.

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Following my enthusiastic reports over the last few days, you’ll know that I was generally very impressed. Lots of volunteers making this possible, friendly brewers and importers, old and new acquaintances.

I have only myself to blame for not being present for the launching of special beers like the Mikkeller/BrewDog collaboration Divine Rebel. But better this type of disappointment than running out of interesting beers to try during the afternoon – I have a nagging fear this will happen in Oslo next month.

Still – how could the Copenhagen Festival be improved?

All in all, this was very enjoyable, and they seem to have good routines for running the event in Valbyhallen. The S-trains taking less than ten minutes from downtown are also fine.

The food was, like last year, surprisingly good. New potatoes are underrated!

More seating is always in demand. There were some plastic seats along a wall, probably used for sports events, but they were not very comfortable. On the other hand, you’d better use the premium space for stands rather than for seating, I suppose. And there was seating in the food tent.

ratebeer table

ratebeer table

The lack of proper ventilation is my main criticism. With thousands of people drinking in an enclosed space, you have to make sure there is enough oxygen. When I left at seven on Saturday evening, I was not the only one feeling uncomfortable due to the bad air quality. This was like drinking before the smoking ban. Please do something about this next time.

The lack of oxygen would, ironically, have been a bigger problem if the festival had been more successful in attracting visitors. There were just 7000 visitorsover three days.  The festival at the Carlsberg premises last year had three times as many. This probably means a significant deficit – on top of the red figures from last year.

I hope the low number of visitors does not mean that this event was the last of its kind. These event mean a lot for the innovations on the European beer scene. I hope better marketing and fine tuning of the concept will mean a better attendance next time around.

Not crowded enough

Not crowded enough

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Spending one day at a three day beer festival and trying to cover it,does not do it much justice. But, briefly, some highlights from my very personal point of view. At least I can make my Irish readers a bit jealous…

Busy at Hornbeer

Busy pouring at Hornbeer

Hornbeer had a high profile at last year’s festival , at a time when they had just started brewing. They went on to win the “Best New Danish  Beer” award for 2008 with their Caribbean Rum Stout, which meant that they had quite a crowd in front of their stand this year, too. Their brewery burned down just after they started last year, but they have managed to rebuild and keep it all going. It is a family business, run by Jørgen Vogt Rasmussen and his wife Gunhild. Gunhild paints the beautiflu labels for the bottles. One of the paintings was auctioned off for charity during the festival. I tried two outstanding beers from Hornbrew – Black Magic and Barley Wine. A bottle of the Caribbean Rum Stout currently resides in my cellar, where I doubt it will remain for very long.

Note that the brewer no longer  has a striking semblance to the Prime Minister of Denmark. He now has a striking semblance to the Secretary General of NATO. At least one of the brothers has an honest job!

Svaneke Bryghus, located on the holiday island of Bornholm, quite a distance from the rest of Denmark, seems to be doing quite well. They had to build a bigger brewery with a bottling plant to supply the national market while keeping the equipment at the brew pub, where they do experimental brews and one offs. They are not at the extreme end, but do well crafted beers that appeal to a wider audience. They have the most inventive names of the beers at the festival like  Den Udødelige Hæst, Medicinskabet and Salmesykkel. I won’t try to translate, I was the only one around the ratebeer table, Danish or Norwegian, who knew what Salmesykkel meant. Answers on a beer mat, please!

Charlie’s Bar had a tent outside with English cask ales, including a Fuller’s Vintage (they did not know which vintage..!). It was a rainy day – with better weather this would have been a fine place to hang around.

There were a number of Italian beers, presented by Brasserie 4:20from Rome. I had tried most of the beers they had offered, but they seemed to attract a lot of curious drinkers. They had hand picked Italian craft beers from breweries like Lambrate and White Dog, and the Danes seemed very impressed by the Tipopils, one of the very best lagers to be found anywhere.

The Dutch Brouwerij de Molen  has quite a name in beer circles, and they were present with lots of temptations on tap and in bottled. To try to get throug them at a festival like this does not really do them justice. I hope I get the opportunity to visit them some time.

The centerpiece of the festival, like last year was the stand by Mikkeller including guests like Nøgne ø and BrewDog. If you add Amager Bryghus around the corner, you get some of the most inventive and bold beers known to man. A number of special brews – I’ll get back to them later.

What’s more? Dozens of other Danish breweries. Rare lagers from Asia, bottled beers aplenty from Germany, England, Belgium. Beer Here, the new label from Christian Skovdal Andersen, formerly at Ølfabrikken, had some great stuff.

I almost forgot Djævlebryg. It’s a pretty good festival when you almost forget Djævlebryg. It’s at this point that my notes start to get illegible. Luckily I bought home a bottle of the Djævlebryg OriginAle. I have to get a Djævelbryg t-shirt!

The Devils Apprentices?

The Devil's Apprentices?

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Hops and GloryPete Brown’s new book is out on 5 June, chronicling his epic journey from Burton to India.

Hops & Glory – One Man’s Search for the Beer That Built the British Empire. You can pre-order it at half price through amazon in the UK, no dates for any US edition.

More information on his blog, and in this day and age there is of course a Facebook group, too.

New books to read while you drink are always welcome!

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It is interesting to get a glimpse of the thinking of the men in suits once in a while. Those who think that Bud and Heineken are high quality beers just because they charge premium prices for them.

Dave Peacock, president of the US operations of Anheuser-Busch InBev NV boldly proclaims in the Wall Street Journal that We feel we have brands that can meet any consumer need.

Not my needs, I can tell you.

But there is some substance to the story in the Wall Street Journal, too:

This year through April 19, U.S. retailers’ sales of domestic “subpremium” brands were up 2.6% by volume and 8% by value from a year earlier, according to market-research firm Information Resources Inc. The data exclude sales at bars, restaurants and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. outlets.

By contrast, the U.S. beer industry’s total volume rose just 0.5%. Sales of “premium” beers, such as Bud Light and Miller Lite, which account for about half the industry’s total sales, fell 1.4%.

For shoppers, the math is simple. While prices vary, Busch Light or MillerCoors’s Keystone Light generally cost around $14 a case, about $5 less than a case of Bud Light or Coors Light.

Not long ago, drinkers were “trading up,” favoring imports, small-batch “craft” beers and premium lights. Now, Heineken and other import brands are struggling, and the growth of craft beers has slowed.

There is further reporting pointing to the same trends, among them an article in Beverage Daily showing that consumers are more cost conscious when buying alcohol.

Maybe some consumers are concluding that one crap lager is as good as the next one, and that the only premium about Heineken is the price? The truly amazing fact is that so many of us have been fooled for so long!

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