Wednesday, 10 October 2018
A Bottle Conditioned Beer Event
It''s a warm Thursday afternoon in early October and I'm sitting outside The White Horse in Parsons Green with a pint of Ilkley's Mangoes Overboard, occasionally checking my watch for the six o'clock deadline. It's a deadline that I really don't want to miss as tonight beer writers and brewers are gathered together to celebrate bottle-conditioned, and as we shall see, can-conditioned beer.
Bottle conditioning, as I'm sure you are well aware, is the process of adding priming sugars into a bottle containing beer which has little or no carbon dioxide which enables refermentation in the bottle. It is this that brings the beer into condition, continuing the fermentation which produces carbon dioxide, making the beer naturally carbonated and as similar, in many cases, to the cask conditioned product. To quote The Oxford Companion to Beer, "Bottle conditioning, when done properly, can result in a beer with a finer, silkier texture of carbonation, superior foam retention, more complex flavo(u)rs, longer ag(e)ing ability than beers that are "force carbonated"."
Gathering in the upstairs rooms, where once I brewed a Citron Pilsener with Martyn Cornell and Andy Parker, now of Elusive Brewing renown, we are seated at tables laden with glasses, and platters of bread, meat and cheese, ready for the panel in front of us to introduce both themselves and tonight's beers.
After a brief welcome from Rupert Ponsonby from R&R Teanmwork, who have invited us here tonight, Jeff Evans, editor of eight editions of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, is ready to give us a brief history of bottle-conditioned beer.
He asks us to forget the apocryphal story of it's invention some 400 or so years ago by the Hertfordshire rector and angler, Dr Alexander Nowell who, after a fishing trip, left a full bottle of home brewed ale by the river, only returning a few days later to discover the still full bottle had continued its fermentation. "He found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at opening". (Martyn Cornell also debunks the myth in this excellent post on the subject ).
Potentially the story of bottle (or flask, or leather bag) conditioned beer goes back millennia, but certainly goes back to the 18th century when beer was first put into bottles for sale commercially. It was the advent of pasteurisation, the process that killed bacteria, making for a consistently uninfected product that meant that bottle conditioned beer became little more than a footnote in history.
With the formation of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in 1971 there were only 5 bottle conditioned beers available in the UK, including Spingo from The Blue Anchor in Cornwall, Worthington's White Shield, and the recently revived Thomas Hardy's Ale, produced at that time by Eldridge Pope in Dorset.
With the uplift in cask conditioned beer there was, from the early 1980s, a revival in bottle conditioned beer. By 1990 there were more and more available, so many in fact that in 1991 CAMRA passed a motion at it's AGM to actively promote these beers.
As a result of this Jeff persuaded CAMRA to produce a book on the subject, and in 1997 the CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in a Bottle was produced. He wasn't happy with either the title or the cover, and in 1998 this was relaunched as the Good Bottled Beer Guide.
By the time of the 2009 edition there were over 1300 bottle conditioned beers in the UK alone, with foreign bottle conditioned beers, including the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, swelling that number.
There has been no new book since the 2013 edition, and there are approximately 1800 beers that meet the criteria now, but Jeff left us with the parting comment that it might be possible that an up to date edition is not too far away.
First to present their beer was Stuart Cail from Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland.
Schiehallion Lager (4.8%) came to us in a 75cl sharing bottle which Stuart informed us that they had just started producing. This bottle conditioned version started as a trial sample which was tested locally before they made the decision to expand. To my mind it tasted a bit flat, with the aroma of burnt tyres, a little maltiness with some lemon in the mix. This faded quickly and the general consensus at our table was that the beer was in poor condition.
Highland Park whisky casks. There was a little of the same burnt tyre aroma as the Sciehallion initially but this was quickly overtaken by a nose full of boozy dark chocolate and coffee. It had a deep chocolate flavour and a long, lingering finish, one that completely removed all traces of the previous beer.
Pat McGinty from Marstons then spoke to us about their approach to bottle conditioned beer. For them, he said, it was all about wanting to give the consumer the experience and taste of cask conditioned Marstons Pedigree in a bottle.
Burton Union System in Burton on Trent, but the new process involved here was understanding how much yeast was needed in the bottle in order to give exactly the result they were after.
After much trial and error they hit upon the winning formula, although there was some initial confusion with consumers over the haze resulting in the yeast in the beer, and helping them understand that bottle conditioning was a continuation of the brewing process. He finished his talk with the following phrase which summed up what they are striving for: "Bottle conditioning is the way forward, it's what real beer is all about."
We were then giving some of the bottle conditioned Marstons Pedigree (4.5%) to try, and they really have done a fantastic job with it. The aroma retains that classic sulphurous 'Burton snatch', with a hint of cardboard and a little roasted malt. Quite thin, it was clean and fresh tasting, with that distinctive Pedigree malty flavour with the merest hint of berry fruits. It was astonishingly close to the cask version in great condition and I would have welcomed the opportunity to taste them side by side.
Next it was the turn of Justin Hawke from Moor Beer Co. who talked about the influence that both cask beer and the beer he had whilst stationed in Germany with the US military had on both him and the beer he now produces.
After a night out drinking they would notice that the naturally cloudy, unfiltered, naturtrub beer he and his companions had been drinking meant that they avoided hangovers the following day, but it was cask beer that he had fallen in love with and it was this that led him to come to the UK and start brewing. This was something that, once you know, is obvious to see and taste in Moor's beer, something that has made their uncompromising position on both unfiltered beer and taste in abundance both admired and respected.
All three of the beers we tasted from Moor were out of the can, with Nor Hop (4.1%) with it's score of 100% for style on RateBeer being first. This has a gorgeous tropical aroma, lime mango, passion fruit and dragon fruit all inter-mingling wonderfully, and with a wonderful taste that delivers everything the nose promises.
Do It Together is a Mango Tea Pale Ale at 5.2% abv, with a slightly musty green tea and passion fruit aroma. It glides over the tongue elegantly before delivering those flavours all over again for maximum impact.
The final beer from Moor was Old Freddy Walker Strong Old Ale (7.3%) which had a strong chocolate malt aroma, like a chocolatey horlicks. It was thinner than I remembered but the chocolate malt punch was swift and welcome, the taste fading wonderfully slowly leaving a subtle reminder of the beer before.
Roger Ryman of St. Austell Brewery spoke of how a trip to Marstons to see what they were brewing led him to set up his own version of the Union System to experiment with. We were told that St. Austell are possibly the biggest producer of bottle conditioned beer in the UK, with Proper Job IPA (5.5%) taking up a third of that production.
The initial aroma reminded me a little of 'cheesy' feet, although that may have been down to the brie I had just consumed, but there was more of that burnt tyre aroma I experienced with the Harviestoun beers (which I am inclined to believe may be down to the carbon dioxide produced in re-fermentation) before a wave of lemon hit my senses. The beer itself was clean and fresh tasting, with some biscuity malt accentuated by the lemon notes from the hops. It finished clean and succintly on that same biscuity lemon note, a beautiful beer by all accounts. I can't remember the last time I had some Proper Job but I'll be making a point of having at least one next time I do.
The Bad Habit Abbey Tripel (8.2%) was the second and final beer from St.Austell, one that Roger confessed was a bit of an indulgence as he wanted to explore the flavours of the Belgian beers he loves so much. This had a sharp, sweet aroma, with that classic Belgian yeast note reminding me quite considerably of Chimay Blue. There were some dark fruit notes in the flavour and it tasted quite sweet, however we all noted that it didn't linger on the palate as you may expect a Belgian beer of this strength to do, rather it rinsed itself away, the flavours all collapsing in on themselves before seemingly disappearring down a drain in the middle of the tongue. None of us found this unwelcome just unusual, and it's certainly a beer I'd like to try again.
Our final speaker of the evening was John Keeling of Fullers someone who is never short of an opinion. He also had two bottles of their Vintage Ale with him which I will come to in a moment, but before that I want to start with three direct quotes that I noted down from what he said which seemed to sum up what this whole evening was about. They were:
"Bottle conditioned beers are never the same as cask beers."
"Bottle conditioned beers are the supreme example of small package beers."
"Bottle conditioned beers exist in their own right."
The first Vintage Ale was the most recent, the 2017 (8.5%) which was relatively light tasting. It positively glowed in the glass with a distinct raisin and biscuit aroma. I last had this beer shortly after it's release and someone remarked after their first sip how it had changed in the last 9 months. The slight bitterness I remember had faded away and this was a more complex beer, the raisin notes accentuated, hinting at plums and damsons, but that malty biscuit backbone was still very defined.
Fortunately I have a bottle of this, and many other years of the Vintage Ale at home, although when asked about tasting this at the right time John suggested we should,
"Buy 64 bottles of each vintage on release and try it every three months or so."
He went on to explain the method they use at Fullers for the Vintage Ale where they chill the beer at one fifth gravity, although I missed the next part as I was rather distracted by the sublime beer in the glass in front of me.
When asked about the changes in the beer and how to account for them he replied in a phrase that was honest and summed up my experience and the science of ageing beer for me:
"Changes are so difficult to predict so you just have to enjoy the ride as it goes on."
After thanking the speakers and respectfully applauding it was revealed that there was one more treat in store for us that evening.
When the noise of applause had died down it was revealed that they were opening a bottle of the Bass & Co. Ratcliff Strong Ale, brewed on the 16th December 1869, for us to try.
We were all given thimble-fulls of this beer which, considering it's age I tasted with some trepidation. It poured a murky brown colour, and the aroma had a touch of dusty port about it. Initially muddy and musty it quickly changed character and became a deep rich madeira flavour. Hints of raisin, not unlike the last Vintage Ale, began to appear, and it finished incredibly smooth and complex. At nearly 150 years old this was certainly a beer to savour but my small pour was finished far too quickly for my liking. Luckily there was still plenty left so I managed to grab another so that I could enjoy this rare and wonderful experience all over again.