Category Archives: Breweries

Only With Love brewery visit

Back in March 2017 I visited Little Goldsmiths Farm, in the East Sussex Weald, to witness the birth of Holler Boys brewery. That brewery lost its “Boys”, moved to Brighton to create a wonderful taproom, which then became Unbarred Brewery taproom, and Holler founder and brewer Steve Keegan moved on.

Over the intervening years, Steve, a keen footballer, got involved with Lewes Football Club. He plays for Lewes FC’s Vets team, where he met Roger Warner, a former player for Charlton’s youth squads, who had a career in technology and digital marketing but was also a home-brewer, making a batch every Christmas. Both are now LFC board members. As part of their involvement with both football and beer, one recent project they undertook was to create a “Drive Thru” beer shop at the Dripping Pan, Lewes FC’s ground, so people could safely stock up on quality, local craft brews during lockdown.

Socially driven business
The Craft Brew Drive Thru represents an ideology Steve and Roger are bringing to their new brewery, Only With Love, which I’ve just visited – back at Little Goldsmiths Farm, in a bigger space in the same former cow shed where Holler started back in 2017. With the Drive Thru, they brought together the football club, a community organisation, with several breweries. The shop itself helped raised funds for the club. As Roger says, “Community organisations need to partner with commercial organisations to make stuff happen”.

Roger is enthused by this model of “socially driven businesses”, citing Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia as among the biggest, best-known examples. Another plan they have to help raise funds for the football club is the creation of a lager, brewed by Only With Love but branded for the club, sold in the club bar and local shops. They plan to extend this model of collaboration and fundraising to other local organisations, putting “10-15 per cent” of Only With Love’s profits back into the community. They also plan to connect with the brewing community, offering help, advice and facilities to brewers wanting to expand their ambitions.

The Only With Love boys, Roger Warner and Steve Keegan

Tech specs
Only With Love’s facilities not only feature a brewery for ales and lagers, but they’re also producing kombucha and they even have their own canning line. As Steve puts it, they’ve “really upscaled the level of geek” with the new operation, with investment in analytical equipment key alongside the investment in the brewing equipment. For the latter, they have a capacity of 14,000 litres (14 hectolitres, or 85.5 UK beer barrels) in shiny brand new tanks. The plague year hasn’t had many upsides for businesses but Steve and Roger scored with their new brew kit. A Birmingham company exhibited it in March, just before the lockdown started, then couldn’t sell it for its normal £80,000 price tag. Instead, Only With Love got it for half that. It’s good stuff to boot. “It’s the best brew kit I’ve ever worked with,” says Steve.

The canning line can do 700 an hour or 1,500 litres in a day, which is comparatively slow but Steve says they can test more as a result and as such get less wastage. That analytical equipment means they have firm control over cleanliness, CO2 levels and dissolved oxygen levels (which can be problematic, affecting flavour and shelf life). At the back of the brewery is the Booch Room, where Steve is currently fermenting kombucha in 220 litre tubs, though he’ll soon be scaling up to 1,000 litre containers.

Steve and his booch

The production of kombucha makes for a fascinating contrast with brewing beer. Although both involve the management of yeasts, it’s a very different process. Steve got a bit technical for me at this point, with the sugar percentage, gravities, and how you manage both the yeast and bacteria in the mix. For those who don’t know – still – kombucha relies on a jelly-ish scoby, “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast”, to convert sweet tea into a delicious no- or low-alcohol drink, which can be flavoured and adapted according to the inclinations of the brewer.

Steve – who says their kombucha has an alcohol level of 0.5%, “the same as a ripe banana” and therefore qualifies as a soft drink – is producing Lemon Lifebuoy, a lemonade-like pick me up, and Kickstart Kombucha, the classic. Steve’s been making kombucha for about a decade, and honed his knowledge with a trip to California, where it’s popular (naturally). When I first tried kombucha at Old Man Mountain, where I lived in New Zealand in the mid-90s, it tasted like a fizzy pear drink, but every one is different – as indeed every palette is different. Silly of me to not try some OWL booch.

Beer for the people
I have tried their initial three ales, though, and can happily report they’re of the reliable Keegan quality. Their initial offering is: Dance Every Day, a 3.8% Pale Ale; Let’s Go, a 5.7% IPA; and Love Bug 5.8%, a New England IPA brewed in collaboration with Cellar Head Brewery in the Weald. Next up, they’re going to be doing a 4.5% (ish) session IPA; a 4.5% Pilsner-style lager; and a 6% Porter style dark beer, “quite strong but easy drinking”.

Their business model is based on cans and kegs, but they will also be doing some cask. It’s a very different business model breweries launching in 2020 have had to work with. Lockdown and the plague year in general have made us change our buying habits. Breweries cannot simply pass their wares to a distributor to supply pubs and bars, instead they have to work more directly with customers. “It’s all about the customer” now, with Roger driving local deliveries around himself, or a courier taking next-day delivery orders all over the country. Within a week of launch, Only With Love beer has gone as far as Aberdeen. Roger also talks about “other non-traditional outlets” – like their own Drive Thru.

What happens next year, and whether those kegs and casks can make their presence felt in a more relaxed pub experience (I hope), is unknowable, but for those of us lucky to live in Sussex, Only With Love is another amazing addition to the remarkable brewing scene in this segment of southern England. With both my wife and my kids breaking up tomorrow, we’ll be able to relax a bit more at home, and I shall certainly be opening some more cans of Only With Love. Including these exclusives – like a hip DJ’s white label vinyl, a no label beer direct from that most dynamic of cow sheds.

Only With Love’s site.
And their Instagram.

5 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries

Only With Love new brews news

Anyone with a keen eye for British craft beer will recognise the design style of these new beers from Only With Love. It’s by Billy Mather, the illustrator who also played a key role in the branding of Holler, previously Holler Boys, the now subsumed brewery I covered here and here. The founder and brewer of Holler was Steve Keegan, previously of Late Knights in south London. Late Knights and Holler were both purveyors of very fine beer, so I was very excited to get a ring on the doorbell just now and a delivery from Roger Warner, Steve’s partner in new brewery operation Only With Love, which launched this week.

With the plague and the Brexit shambles it’s been a grim year but somehow the brewers in this neck of the woods – in and around Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, in the south of England – have been bucking the trend of social and ecomonic freefall. Not only did Danny Tapper successfully launch The Beak brewery and taproom back in August but now we’ve got Only With Love, who are offering not only fine beer but also kombucha, that mystery drink fermented from a jellyfish-like SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) growing in a sweet tea mix.

Futhermore, another great local brewing operation, Abyss, have just successfully crowdfunded to get started on a new taproom with Mexican streetfood that’s not only in Lewes, but even in my part of town, somewhere that’s been sorely lacking in drinking options since traffic-based restructuring of the town killed off its pubs and, more recently, the working men’s club. It’s really exciting, as frankly, the past few years in Lewes it’s felt like developers have been killing all the opportunities for artisans, creatives and small businesses by snapping up all the available spaces and turning them into unaffordable housing, with not a jot of thought for the shape of the community.

Anyway, I was planning to get to Only With Love for a brewery visit and proper write-up, but was hit by a vile snot-cold at the start of the week. And in this era, no one wants you sharing your germs with them, especially in a brewery – a place of carefully managed microbial activitiy – during its launch week. I’ll hopefully get there soon, so watch this space.

During lockdown and the plague year in general, I’ve been trying not to have any booze on weekdays, but I may have to crack open some Only With Love tonight.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries

The Beak Brewery and taproom, Lewes

It’s been a tough year in many respects thanks to Covid-19, and the brewing and pub trade has taken some serious knocks. Lockdown closures and subsequent restrictions and curfews have resulted in substantial job losses and falling sales. For the big chains – Wetherspoons*, Greene King, Marstons, Fullers etc ­– sales are down about a third on the same period last year. As for already struggling independent pubs it’s not looking good for that particular cornerstone of British conviviality.

All of which makes it all the more impressive that brewer and food writer Danny Tapper successfully open a brewery and taproom in the midst of lockdown.

The Beak, based just outside the East Sussex county town of Lewes, opened its taproom just after the long lockdown eased in August 2020. We hiked over the Downs with the kids (it’s child- and dog-friendly) on Saturday 15 August and enjoyed a sunny afternoon sitting on benches in the carpark of an industrial estate, drinking Danny and brewer Robin Head-Fourman’s beers and eating food from a pop-up by Kitgum of Brighton.

Danny Tapper

“We signed a ten year lease two weeks before lockdown”, says Danny with understandable bemusement. They were setting up the brewery in March 2020, just as the country shifted into the new reality of lockdown. “It was a big leap of faith.” Not only given the pandemic, but also the fact that, after a fruitless search for a rural location for his brewery, Danny had visited “this not very inspiring industrial unit” in Cliffe Industrial Estate. Although it’s only a 10-15 minute walk from the centre of Lewes, they had no idea if people would come, walking via a busy road (in desperate need of a toucan crossing) to an industrial unit.

The site, however, is actually rather special. On a sunny evening, the magnificent chalk cliffs behind the brewery radiate light, while gulls, corvids and even peregrine falcons wheel around. On a more practical level, as the other businesses in the estate are generally closed over the weekend, there’s room for Beak visitors to spread out, with socially distanced tables on the shop floor and in the carpark, under shelters as necessary. “A space like this has been a blessing during lockdown,” says Danny.

New brews

For anyone who knows British beer, particularly in the south of England, Lewes is renowned for its strong brewing heritage. For years the town has been synonymous with Harvey’s. The Beak offers a very different experience – a young microbrewery compared to a heritage brewery (which dates itself back to 1790); kegs and cans versus casks and bottles; a craft beer outfit versus a real ale one (though that’s painfully reductive, and personally I prefer to say “real beer” for anything not brewed by the industrial giants). But their relationship seems cordial, you can’t  argue with choice and variety and historically Lewes had a dozen or so breweries.

Most of all, Danny’s business had an agility that’s enabled it to prevail against the Covid odds.

Although the taproom offers a great social experience and enables visitors to develop a bond you don’t get when simply buying a beer from the supermarket or even a pub, 85 per cent The Beak’s business is in direct sales, mostly in the form of cans.

Danny and Robin’s output is currently from three fermenters, each able to produce 15 barrels or 2,000 litres. So a total of 6,000 litres (or 60 hectolitres), which equates to around 10,000 cans. Danny started homebrewing in his early twenties, before switching to nomad brewing so he could produce commercially. He created The Beak brand in 2016, and says previously he’d “probably do in a year what we do in a week here.”

Of the beer they brew, kegs are mostly used at the taproom and a few other local venues, like The Patch and Depot, where Danny first met Robin, who was working at nearby Burning Sky. Danny says the taproom sells about 700 pints on a Saturday. Most of the rest of the beer is shipped around the country – to London and Leeds (where Danny used to be based), Brighton, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle. During his nomad brewing days, Danny not only worked with various renowned breweries, like North Brew Co, Partizan, Beavertown, Burning Sky and Northern Monk, he also personally drove around doing his sales and deliveries, creating a network. As a business model, it was a “great way to build a brand, but a crap way to make money.” 

Planning ahead

Danny says they’re also talking to exporters. He’s got plans. When they set up, they planned to be able to double capacity. They’ve already ordered a fourth fermenting vessel. “It is a big step for us,” says Danny “We didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.” They’re now also opening the taproom on Fridays, with the plans for  “plant-based Indian street food” on offer. On Saturdays, meanwhile, the pop-up food options will keep on changing. Danny says, “we’re mixing it up all the time”.

So while the brewery will have a core range – Lulla 3.5% session table pale, Parade 6% IPA, Strangers 5% IPA ­– Danny and Robin like to keep experimenting. As an agile microbrewery, they enjoy what Robin calls the “scope to be creative”. They “want the beers to be quite playful”. So while Danny has stepped back from the brewing, they work together on recipes. “Like any good relationship, we talk a lot,” he says. For Halloween 2020, for example, they’re using some refurbished casks from the 40s or 50s to age and inflect some Pencil, Beaks’  6% India porter.

Further ahead things get even more exciting, with Danny having ordered a concrete fermenter from Italy. Traditionally these vessels are used for natural wine making. Danny and Robin will be using them for mixed fermentation beers, an equivalent to natural wines. As they’re surrounded by the South Downs National Park, with Southerham Farm Nature Reserve on the hills above those cliffs, they plan to harvest wild yeasts and create a “mother beer” – not unlike a sourdough madre (mother) or kombucha scoby** – for blending using the Solera method.

The mother beer will be something that’s unique to The Beak, and, alongside their use of London Fog yeast, will further define the character of The Beak’s output. Realistically Danny hopes those beers will be arriving in Spring 2021. Watch this space for my coverage of The Beak’s “These Hills Sing” project. And – geographical and pandemic factors willing – try and visit The Beak taproom for a dynamic real beer and fun food experience. And if you can’t make it, order some from the site. “People always want beer,” says Danny “It’s just figuring out how to get it to them.”

The Beak Brewery
beakbrewery.com
@thebeakbrewery
Unit 14 Cliffe Industrial Estate, BN8 6JL

 

 

Footnotes

* I don’t think I’ve visited a Wetherspoons since I worked in London’s Leicester Square circa 1997. It remains a place I’ve no interest in visiting a) given the alternatives and b) given the founder’s frequent obnoxiousness, but in particular his encouragement of Britain’s absurd departure from the EU.

** Scoby means “symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeasts”. For those who still haven’t encountered kombucha, it’s a drink made by fermenting sweet tea that may have originated in Manchuria. I first had at Old Man Mountain, my New Zealand home in the mid-90s. It’s been popular in certain, shall we say, more hippy-healthfood circles for decades.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer

Crumbs Brewing and the bread-beer relationship

Crumbs Brewing Amber Lager

This blog was founded because of my dual love of bread and beer, two foodstuffs that are linked through their fundamental ingredients of grain and yeast. At some point after humanity settled and began growing crops, we discovered that grain, either whole or ground as flour, underwent a decisive process when mixed with liquid and left – fermentation. The first written record of all this is from ancient Sumeria (modern southern Iraq), the circa 1800BC Hymn to Ninkasi1 – the goddess of beer, or more broadly, the goddess of fermentation. Her followers may well have been responsible for beer and bread.

For centuries, fermentation remained a sort of quotidian mystery. Such was the significance of bread and ale as staples for the masses in Medieval Europe that the unknown ingredient had an almost spiritual nature and was called “Godisgoode”, “God is good” (possibly2). Early scientists thought the process was chemical not biological. The single cell fungi yeast and lactobacilli that fed on sugars and produced carbon dioxide – leavening bread and lending vigour to beer – wouldn’t be understood until the mid-19th century and the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

Anyway. In Lewes, on the second Sunday of every month, there’s a street food market called Food Rocks. Not many people seem to be aware of it, so it needs a bit more promotion – as there’s some good stuff there. I was helping my friend Alex Marcovitch on his stall Kabak, selling delicious Eastern Meditteranean, North African and Middle Eastern-inspired foods. This time round, diagonally opposite us were Chalk Hills Bakery of Reigate, in the Surrey Hills, where I got myself ready for my shift with a delicious cinnamon bun, and Crumbs Brewing, where I met founder Morgan Arnell and “crumb spreader” Adria Tarrida.

Restoring an ancient connection
These two establishments have a noteworthy relationship. It’s one that reconfirms the ancient connection between baker and brewer. Historically, notably in Gaelic cultures, bakeries and breweries would have operated side-by-side, the barm – the frothy surplus yeast – from the brew being utilised by the baker to make a leaven for bread3.

Apparently, in some parts of Europe, the barm method existed alongside the sourdough method. Baker and food writer John Downes gives one Medieval example here: “In England noblemen’s bread, manchet, was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners’ bread, maslin, was a sourdough.” He continues “Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes.”

Anyway, as usual I’m getting distracted4. Crumbs Brewing aren’t doing this (yet). Instead,they’re using leftover bread from Chalk Hills Bakery as an ingredient. A few breweries are using the technique, such as Toast Ale, whose website gives the statistic that “44% of bread is wasted”. It’s pretty shocking. Any food waste is a crime. The amount of energy put into growing and transporting food, only for it to be thrown away is bad enough, but in landfills it contributes to the problem of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Morgan Arnell and Adria Tarrida of Crumbs Brewing

Hills to Isle
So the work of breweries like Crumbs is very important. Morgan, who founded Crumbs with his wife Elaine, says they collect any leftover bread, crumb it, and freeze it. When they have 150kg they take it to Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight. Morgan says Goddards were “one of the few brewers that was willing to test out our recipe and method, helped by the fact that I grew up on the Island so could twist their arm to help us!”

The longer term plan is to set up in the Surrey Hills too. Morgan writes more about the process of making the beer – their first batch was brewed in April – here on the Crumbs blog. The 150kg makes a 30 hectolitre5 brew, “c 6000 500ml bottles in our case” explains Morgan.

Breadbeerisgood
Suffice to say, the beer is delicious. I wouldn’t really be writing about it here if I didn’t actually like the stuff. It’s called an Amber Lager, and I can kind of see the logic of this naming to help it appeal to lager drinkers. It’s certainly light and refreshing. It’s bottled at Goddards and isn’t bottle conditioned, but its carbonation level is pleasant. To my mind it is more an ale than a lager, and it is indeed made with top-fermenting (ale) yeasts, not bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast.

There are so many craft ales around at the moment, notably dubbed APA and American IPA, which overuse the Chinook, Cascade, Citra, Mosaic hops etc to the point where they’re reminiscent of cleaning products, pine-scented detergent or whathaveyou. Thankfully the Crumbs Amber is more subtle proposition. Morgan says they use Progress hops, which the British Hops Association says, are “an excellent bittering and late aroma hop.” The overall flavour is more about the malt and bread. It doesn’t taste bready per se, but it has a warm sweetness and decent body, without heaviness. Morgan says “The slightly sweet, malty aftertaste is a result of the bread.” He adds that they plan to try brewing with different types of bread and it “Will be interesting to see how brewing with different loaves changes that character.”

It’s a great addition to the SE of England craft brewing scene so I’m very glad to have come across Crumbs at Food Rocks. Good luck to them, and I’m intrigued to try their next beers made with different breads: “dark rye stout or sourdough IPA anyone?”

Notes
1 The full text of the Hymn of Ninkasi can be found here. In English, not ancient Sumerian.
2 There’s some debate. This thread gives a few sources for the term, but it’s not entirely conclusive.
3 I’ve done a few barm bread experiments: here and here.
4 When one is actually paid to write journalistically, one mustn’t get distracted. There’s usually a tight editorial brief and even tighter wordcount. Not so on one’s own blog! Hah!
5 A hectolitre is 100 litres. 1hl is about 0.61 UK beer barrels, or So 30hl is around 18 UK beer barrels or 660 imperial gallons. For Americans, 30hl is 25.5 US beer barrels or 795 US liquid gallons. Good heavens I wish people would standardise things globally. Some might see it as heritage. I love a bit of history, but all these different weights and measures just make life even more flipping complicated. I sincerely hope “Brexit” doesn’t have us going back to shillings and scruples and chains.

3 Comments

Filed under Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Flour & grain

Welcome Holler Boys Brewery!

Steve Keegan at Holler Boys Brewery

The small East Sussex town of Lewes once had a dozen breweries. In the 19th century, these included Harvey’s, Southdown, Lyells, Beards, Verralls, Ballards, Bear Yard, Cliffe (then South Malling Steam Brewery). The latter burned down, the former still majestically dominates the centre of town – architecturally and olfactorily. All the rest are gone too. But the story of the region’s brewing reflects the wider story of Britain’s brewing.

The 20th century saw the decimation of diversity, the reduction of enormous regional variety and its replacement in pubs, largely, with interchangeable industrial lagers. A few real ales hung on, defended by CAMRA. Then, around the turn of the millennium, new ‘craft beer’ breweries began to appear; with the advent of 2002’s Progressive Beer Duty1, they started flourishing.

I don’t really like the real ale/craft beer distinction, especially as the latter has no accepted definition. But what I do like is the restoration of diversity with the emergence of innumerable new breweries. The number of breweries in the UK is now at its highest in 70 years2.

In the Lewes area, we now have Burning Sky, Gun, Long Man, 360, Isfield, among others. They were even microbrewing out of the Elephant and Castle pub and the Pelham Arms has its new Abyss Brewing operation. Excitingly, we’re getting another new brewery now near Lewes. It’s called Holler Boys, a name that’s sure to connect with the area’s Bonfire boys and girls, as it comes from a Bonfire prayer3.

Steve Keegan at Holler Boys Brewery. And wort.

Old hand, new brewery
It’s being set up by Steve Keegan, an old hand in the booze industry: he was at the forefront of setting up pubs that sold craft beer, before he borrowed £700 on his credit card and set up Late Knights Brewery in Penge, south London, in 2012. It was his night job, but Late Knights quickly became very successful, with them opening up a half dozen bars, including the Brighton Beer Dispensary. They ended up with a £2.2 million turnover. Then, in Autumn 2016, it all came to an end. While Steve’s relationship with their investor was getting difficult, he injured his head badly playing football and was laid up with labyrinthitis, barely able to talk. Steve and his girlfriend and creative collaborator, Bethany Warren, are also expecting – indeed, the baby is due this month, around the same time as the first batch of beer.

It was through Bethany, a local girl, whose father has a vineyard near Crowborough, that Steve met Anthony Becvar. Anthony’s Czech granddad immigrated here in the 1930s – “a military man who knew what was coming,” says Anthony – and starting to farm at Little Goldsmiths, near Blackboys. He’s the third generation to run the farm.

Not only has Anthony switched away from dairy to arable, he’s another example of a farmer diversifying. Farm buildings are used for all sorts these days – from soft play to brewing. Holler Boys is being set up in the building that once was used for milking, and is still partly used for storing bales. They’ve put in walls, creating the brewing space, cold room and office so far, with the latter to be fitted out to host tastings.

Brewery in a cow shed

What’s in a name?
Originally Steve planned to use the name Ironstone, a nod to the bedrock of his home turf around Middlesbrough, but also to the Blackboys area, which gets its name from the sooty faces of the charcoal burners and smelters who once toiled here. It turned out Molson Coors had it copyrighted though, and weren’t forthcoming when he tried to negotiate. Then a small backroom brewery in Staffordshire started using it too, so they found a new name. Bethany is involved in Bonfire, a member of Cliffe Bonfire Society, so would understand full well the potential local resonance of the name.

When me and my friend Alex Markovitch (of Kabak Food, who knew Steve from Penge; Steve’s also provided beer for Alex’s Festival of Jim over several years) visited in late February, Steve was busy brewing up a batch of Golden Ale. He says, “The past two months we’ve been plumbers, electricians and painters” so he was excited to now be brewing. The Golden Ale is using NZ Pacific Gem (for bittering) and Kentish Goldings (for aroma). He explained that many of the big flavour US hops favoured by craft brewers are all bought up by the big boys so he’s almost forced to innovate with the hops, malts and even the yeasts that are more available. This particular beer is based on an 1890 recipe which he found after being inspired by Peter Haydon, a director at Meantime Brewery, writer and former General Secretary of the Society of Independent Brewers, to research.

Belgian red from Holler Boys Brewery

Testing, testing
He’s also doing tests for an English IPA and a black lager, as well as planning a “crisp, easy-drinking” session IPA, 4-4.2%. Steve also gave me and Alex a chocolate milk stout and a Flemish red beer (made with Belgian yeast). I always feel chuffed to get beers from brewers even before they’ve finalised their branding4: a bottle without a label is strangely exciting. We really enjoyed the Belgian Red, a beer that has both a hoppy crispness and a warm, full body. Steve explains, “with the craft world dominated by the hop side of things at the moment, there is certainly going to be a shift into what we can do with malt and yeast. The Flemish red is my way of showing what a Belgian yeast can really do.”

I’m looking forward to seeing some of Steve’s beers appearing in the pubs of Lewes. He said the brews should be ready later this month. Initially he’ll be focussing on bottling and casks, which he plans to sell “within half an hour of here”, to places where the beer is well looked after. Down the line there’s talk of kegs, can, even venues, as that’s Steve’s background – when he started Late Knights he was running places in London, Oxford and Brighton and had been an operations manager for Fullers. But as Late Knights grew so fast, he’s keen to pace himself better this time, get the brew right, build up slowly, retain control. He says, “I’ve turned down a lot of investment… actually I want to do it myself.” Unlike with Late Knights, he even has a proper lease with Anthony for using the farm buildings.

Steve and Anthony talk about growing hops, keeping bees, and maybe even trying barley (though Anthony says, “It’s not the best ground for barley”). The farm has “plenty of space” – 200 acres (81 ha or 0.8 km2) – for such projects. Time will tell. It’s all rather thrilling, to taste these beers after having a previous acquaintance with Late Knights, then be able to sit back and see what happens next. Steve, Bethany and the baby, with assistance from Anthony, production in tanks dubbed Wayne, Long John, Jake and Ellwood, are initially aiming for 100 casks5 a week, with a range of English IPA, Golden, Session IPA and Stout.

Holler Boys tanks

 

Notes
1. Under Gordon Brown, the taxation of breweries was changed so that smaller companies paid less tax on the beer they were selling. Wikipedia gives more detail.
2. Peter Brown, in this (undated) article.
3. It comes from this verse of Bonfire Prayer. The full prayer can be found here.
“God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match,
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!”
4. Labels etc are being designed by Brighton-based illustrator Billy Mather, billymather.co.uk.
5. There are 73 imperial pints in a cask, so 7,300 pints; that is about 37.5 hectolitres.

7 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries

Harveys’ Old Ale and the end of the summer

Rev Godfrey Broster of Rectory Ales (left), Edmund Jenner and Robin Thorpe of Harveys (behind the bar)

In my last post I mentioned it was the autumn equinox a few days ago. This is the moment when day and night are the same length. And now the nights are, officially, getting longer. We’ve had a fairly poor summer here in southern England. May and June were lovely, but since then it’s been unsettled, frequently cool. After my two and half summers in Rome, where summer generally runs from April to October, I feel somewhat cheated.

That said, there is one bright side to the nights drawing in and the prospect of dark and damp from here through to March: Harveys’1 Old Ale.

I love Old Ale. It’s quite possibly my favourite of Harveys’ 20-odd beers (I think I’ve tried them all now; nearly at least). It’s dark and sweet and warming. If a beer can be cosy and reassuring, it’s Harveys’ Old Ale. It’s a beer that’s perfect to drink in a warm pub, preferably with an open fire, on a long winter evening. Robin Thorpe of Harveys called it the “classic winter beer”, and added that as September has already turned so cool and wet it’s fine to be drinking it already. Which suits me.

We got to try the first of this year’s Old Ale at a Harveys tasting last night, hosted by Robin and Edmund Jenner. The evening was billed as a Seasonal Beer Tasting, and was a highly informative run-through of the beers – and how and why they fit with certain seasons.

A trend of the past 30 or 40 years may have seen a diminishment of seasonal beers, with many ill-informed drinkers just quaffing the same generic industrial brews all year round, but Harveys is among the heritage breweries that maintains the tradition of varying production through the year.

The evening started, however, with Wild Hop, a 3.7% ABV light ale that’s a perfect light summer drink. I mentioned Wild Hop back after my tour of the brewery in June 2014, but Edmund told us more about the gestation of this beer, which they first produced in 2004 “in response to what we now call blonde ale.”

It’s made with Fuggles and Goldings hops in the boil, then dry-hopped with English grown Cascade, which are more modest in flavour and aroma than their New World counterparts. It also contains Sussex variety hops – which are a recent domestication of a wild variety, first discovered on the Sussex-Kent border. Ed explained how most wild hops simply don’t have the qualities required for brewing, but this hybrid proved perfect.

Fran, in her usual unique way, said the Wild Hop reminded her of Sindy dolls or Tiny Tears. Something in the aroma reminded her of nuzzled dollies as a child. I can’t say I could relate; maybe Action Man smelled very different.

Harveys beer tasting

Although Harveys vary their production during the year, their main year-round brew is their Best Bitter. It accounts for about 90% of their production now. Bitter and Best Bitter are quintessential English beers, and it would be easy to imagine we’ve been drinking them here for centuries. But Ed gave us more history. Harveys’ Best wasn’t produced in 1945 (instead they brewed 75% mild, 25% pale), only accounted for 7% of their production in 1955 and 45% in 1965. Today’s Best Bitter, in fact, only “re-evolved” after the Second World War.

Two wars seriously threatened Britain’s grain supplies, with convoys from North America harried by U-boats. When grain did get here, the priority was food, not booze. So barley wasn’t used in brewing so much and what was produced had lower gravity, and alcohol by volume. Brewers were required to keep gravity low, and indeed, the wars even resulted in the introduction of licensing hours to keep the war effort population more sensible in their booze consumption. Trends and tastes in beer change – mild is way out of fashion now – but war and law have also played a significant role too.

At the end of the evening we had a blend2 of Best and the Old Ale, and it was a cracker. I may be asking for this again, see if I can help encourage some pubs to start this practice again. Blending was the norm in British beer drinking until fairly recently.

As much as I love the Old Ale, the most pertinent beer we tasted last night was the South Downs Harvest. Like the wheat sheaf in my previous post, this is a celebration of the harvest, of autumn. It’s a light, biscuity golden ale – which is made with green hops, just harvested. As Ed said, it contains “something of this year’s summer.”

Among the other beers we tasted was Armada Ale, which was first brewed in 1988 to commemorate 400 years since the Spanish Armada. Harveys are great at such commemorative brews. Among their recent ones was the fascinating Priory Ale, brewed last year for the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes. I talked about this herby, historical brew here.

Last night Robin raised their Celebration Cocktail – with Priory Ale – and said it was to celebrate numerous things happening in 2015: 800 years since the Magna Carta, the birth of Anne of Cleves (who had a house in Lewes, which you can still visit, and was born 22 September 1515), 75 years since the Battle of Britain, 50 years since the development of the famed Maris Otter malt and even Harveys’ own 225th birthday.

So much history, mediated through the medium of beer. Harveys’ production of such beers encapsulate various elements of local and English history. Furthermore, as Ed reiterated, their beers get their character from their yeast, the same strain since 1957, and the water, taken from a borehole into the chalk aquifer. It’s rainwater filtered through chalk and as such has a unique mineral character. Have a pint of Harveys and that liquid is our history, our heritage and our environment. It’s a wonderful thing. With all this on offer, how anyone can drink characterless industrial beers I don’t know.

Notes
1. They’re called “Harvey’s”, though it’s more generally rendered as “Harveys” these days. Luckily, as a double possessive apostrophe is a bit painful: Harvey’s’.
2. I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. Blending beers is also out of fashion, but not at The Jolly Tanners in Staplefield, West Sussex, where Ed says they call the practice “tosspotting”. For those who don’t know this minor English word, a tosspot is an idiot or a drunkard. With “to toss” British slang for “to masturbate”. Apparently tosspot has its origins in the 1560s.

3 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries

Walking from Lewes to Winchester on the South Downs Way

Mist in the Weald, South Downs Way

Winchester, in Hampshire, is my home town but now I’m living in Lewes, in Sussex. Between the two is the ridge of chalk hills known as the South Downs, along which runs a path: the South Downs Way.

When we moved to Lewes in summer 2011, we walked a section of the Way to the southeast of Lewes, but since we moved back here this year, I’ve been wanting to walk to Winchester. We finally found a time in September to escape the building site and do the walk, happily coinciding with my birthday. After a cool, wet August, the summer came back in September and we had great weather. Three of the five mornings had thick mists, but these generally burned off leaving sun and views along the hills and north over the Weald, the lowland area between the South Downs and the next set of hills, the North Downs.

The south of England has been populated and manipulated by humans for millennia. The landscape of the hills was defined by centuries of sheep farming, which resulted in a unique ecology, plagioclimax communities featuring amazing selections of wildflowers and other wildlife. Much of this downland has been lost in England with the mechanisation of farming, but there’s still plenty along the Way. The human influence is also evinced by numerous hill forts , old industrial buildings, castles, tumuli (prehistoric burial mounds) and many, many cross dykes. No, not angry lesbians, but prehistoric earthworks that may have been territorial boundaries

Nature, history – and pubs
The other good thing about a walk in a long-populated part of the world is that you can go to the pub, something that’s not so easy on a backcountry hike. There were some great pubs along the way, and some great beers. A few pints of which, I would say, are well-earned after walking 20 miles (32km). We also stopped in a few nice tea shops, which, along with pubs, are – when done well – one of England’s great pleasures.

England’s B&Bs, on the other hand, can be less of a pleasure. There are some great B&Bs out there, and we stayed in a few lovely places, but they’re not the greatest examples of our hospitality. Aside from small, rubbish showers, my main grievance is the so-called “full English breakfast”. It’s all very well to pile a plate with sausages and beans and toast, but when all of that food is industrially produced, it just turns my stomach. Luckily, we stayed a few places that had their own chickens, ducks and pigs, so the eggs and pork products were good, but among the five places we stayed, only one served real bread, and only one offered homemade granola. The other four provided toast and “cereal” made from industrially used and abused grains. These are not good foods for your health in general and preparing to walk long distances specifically. B&Bs of Britain – make the effort! Serving real bread would be a great start.

In total we walked 88 miles / 141km, linking, the old-fashioned way, my current home and my childhood home. Here are some pics.

Day 1: Lewes to Steyning (21 miles / 34km)
Misty morning. Though this dew pond – one of many along the top of the Downs – with its one solitary tree looked handsome and moody.

Dew pond near Ditchling Beacon

Already done a few miles. I love topographic features with devil-related names. The Dyke is the grandest of them along the South Downs.

Finger post, one of many

Tea stop at the Hiker’s Rest, Saddlescombe Farm, before climbing up the Devil’s Dyke. A unique arrangement involving a small food truck serving cakes etc parked in a farm yard, with seating both outside and inside old feeding sheds.

Cake and coffee at Saddlescombe

Cup of tea at eminently cute Steyning Tea Rooms. Yes, it’s green tea with lemon, not your normal British black tea with milk. Cos that’s how I roll. Sometimes.

Tea at Steyning Tea Rooms

First pint of the walk, Long Man Pale Ale from Long Man Brewery, further east in Sussex, near the Long Man of Wilmington. We stayed at the Chequer Inn. Although it was a pretty standard pub, the beer was well kept – they have Cask Marque and SIBA signs – and the 15th century building had a lot of character.

Long Man American Pale Ale at the Chequer Inn, Steyning

Steyning has a very handsome high street, which remains fairly unspoiled except for that most reliable of taints on the modern human environment, the motor vehicle.

Steyning High St, evening

Day 2: Steyning to Bury (13 miles / 21km)
Started the day getting supplies from the Sussex Produce Company, which has this excellent selection of local beers.

Local beers, Sussex Produce Company

These hops were growing semi-wild on the edge of Steyning.

Hops - and convolvulus - Steyning

Wild chicory on the ridge above Steyning. If you like chicory and are interested in the various cultivated forms and their relationship with this wild one, I wrote about it here.

Wild chicory

Paths in the mist – or possibly fret, as a sea mist is known in Sussex dialect.

Tracks in the mist

An unusual WW2 bunker on Highden Hill, just after crossing the A24 London Road. It was apparently built by Canadian forces 1940-42, and was dubbed the “Tin Castle” by local schoolchildren.

World War 2 'Tin Castle', Highden Hill

Stopping at The Bridge Inn at Amberley (or more accurately, Amberley station / Houghton Bridge) for a few halves of  Hip Hop – a hoppy blonde ale – from West Sussex’s  Langham Brewery and some live bluegrass.

Hip Hop and bluegrass at the Bridge, Amberley

There used to be a ferry across the River Arun between Bury and Amberley. Walkers be warned – there isn’t a ferry any more, but there is a fine new foot and cycle bridge.

The old ferry crossing, Bury

Nice little village Bury. We had dinner at the Squire and Horse gastro pub where the food was good and the service very hospitable, so much so that I forget to take photos. I was drinking Sussex Gold, from Arundel Brewery, suitably enough, as it’s just down the River Arun. This light, smooth 4.2% ABV ale, which combined subtle lemon and caramel flavours, was just right for a warm evening, sitting outside watching dragonflies flit. (It really has been an amazing year for dragonflies here in southern England.)

Day 3: Bury to South Harting (20 miles / 33km)
Another misty start coming out of Bury, but it cleared very suddenly when we got back up on the ridge.

Another misty start

The Devil’s Jumps, one of the many wonderful prehistoric sites along the route. They’re a series of five bell barrows, a type of tumulus: that is, a grave (or not) created with a stone construction covered with earth. Fran had been having a bad day with blisters but a game pie cheered her up as did the amazing sight of a hare which ran across the path near the Jumps, closely followed by a stoat.

Devil's Jumps

This memorial is just near the Devil’s Jumps, and another fascinating bit of history. The South Downs Way official trail guide shows its weakness when author Paul just says “A German pilot killed during the Second World War perhaps?”. In fact, it’s a memorial to a 25-year-old airman who was on a Ju88 bomber, shot down by a British fighter on 13 August 1940, “Eagle Day”.

German airman memorial

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours enjoying beautiful late afternoon/evening weather – and Upham Brewery beers, from Hampshire, though we were still in West Sussex – at the White Hart pub in South Harting.

The White Hart, South Harting

Day 4: South Harting to Corhampton (18 miles / 29km)

The day started with mist again, beautiful as we headed back up to the ridge through these woods.

Sunlight through the morning mist in woods, near South Harting

I’m assuming this enigmatic bollard with a length of chain attached marks the county boundary between Hampshire and West Sussex. Why the chain?

Sussex-Hampshire county boundary I believe

The English hedgerows in September are things of great beauty. Among the many plants in these tangled, frequently ancient field boundaries is black bryony, Dioscorea communis. This is Britain’s only native member of the yam family, though unlike its African staple food relative, it’s not edible.

Garland of black bryony

After seeing a 20-year-old book about the Way illustrated with aerial photos, I was intrigued about the landlocked naval base known as HMS Mercury. Sadly, by the time we arrived, it’s all a building site for massive houses in a weird pastiche 18th farm cottage architectural style. This is Fran changing the plasters on her blisters just nearby.

Blister rest stop near the old HMS Mercury

This was our lunch that day. Local Sussex cheese and bread, though the latter was disappointing. My water bottle is a growler from Estes Park Brewery, which we visited almost a year ago.

A lunch

View of Old Winchester Hill from the east. Quite why it’s called Old Winchester, when it’s 18km from Winchester (itelf pretty old, with its own hill fort) is a mystery. One local legend says the Romans tried to build Winchester (Venta Belgarum) there, but every morning they returned to the site and found the stonework they’d laid had been rolled down the hill. So they chose Winchester instead.

Old Winchester Hill, Iron Age hill fort

Quick break on Old Winchester Hill, most of which is a wild flower meadow at the moment, helping mantain species that need grazed chalk downland and also helping the much-ravaged bee population.

Rest on Old Winchester Hill

The villages of Corhampton, Meonstoke and Exton all blur together. Two of them have pubs and ancient churches. Corhampton church dates from 1020. This yew tree may be even older.

Thousand year old yew, Corhampton Church

Exton’s church, St Peter’s and St Paul’s, is slightly younger, 13th century. This is apparently a gravestone (now located in the nave) showing the Angel of Death summoning a scholar from his books.

Angel of death visits scholar, Exton church

We arrived about 4.30pm. The pub, appropriately named The Shoe, didn’t open till 6pm, dammit. So we hung about in the churchyard until it did, then I had a pint of Wadworth 6X. Wadworth is in Wiltshire, so relatively local as it’s the next county to the  northwest of Hampshire. It was a solid, medium-bodied, malty, caramelly ale. Fran had Swordfish, a similar malt ale given a bit of bite with the addition of rum.

Pint at The Shoe, Exton

The Shoe is a great food pub. Desserts included that essential British (gastro-) pub classic, sticky toffee pudding. It wasn’t the best sticky toffee I’ve had (it wasn’t warm enough for starters) but the main coarses we had – venison and scallops – were excellent so we were in a forgiving mood.

Sticky toffee pudding at The Shoe

Day 5: Corhampton to Winchester (15 miles / 25km)
Leaving the lovely Corhampton Lane Farm B&B, where they both grow and clean grain, we scrambled down the back of their property. This vineyard was across the valley. The South Downs are becoming increasingly significant for wine production. I don’t know much about it, but apparently chalk and limestone are particularly good for producing sparkling wines – and that’s what this estate, Exton Park, does.

Vineyard near Exton

Not far to go now, getting back in the countryside I explored as a kid on my bike and on family walks.

Winchester 10

For those who know me, they’ll know I got a bit obsessed with dead bikes while living in Rome. This was a nice variation on a theme. What it’s doing alongside a path on Gander Down I don’t know.

Dead bike, Gander Down

Some more hedgerow bounty. It really has been an amazing year for sloes and blackberries. If we’d been medieval pilgrims of a lowly caste or abstemious bent, we probably could have walked the whole route feeding ourselves on blackberries and hedgerow apples.

Amazing year for brambles.

Reaching Winchester, we stopped at my favourite home town pub, The Black Boy free house, for a quick early afternoon drink. I had a Saxon Bronze from Alfred’s Brewery, founded in 2012 and named after our 9th century Saxon king, Alfred the Great. Winchester was his capital and from there he built the foundations of modern England. The Saxon Bronze is one of those new generation English ales that has the maltiness of a traditional bitter, but is informed by the crisp New World hoppiness so associated with the craft beer revolution.

Black Boy beers

And here is some serious caskery outside the Black Boy.

Casks outside the Black Boor

The end of our walk, on the steps of my folks’ place.

Made it

Now, I absolutely loved this walk. So much history and beauty. Fran had a wobble when her blisters were getting to her, but overall she enjoyed it too. My only regret is not doing one extra mile at the end and going to the Hospital of St Cross, a Norman church and almshouses, where you can request the “wayfarer’s dole” at the porter’s lodge. As we were genuine old-school wayfarers, it would have made sense, but as I grew up just near there, it felt weird to go there to blag a piece of bread and mouthful of ale.

Instead, we paid a visit to this wonderful gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Thetcher was a soldier who died in 1726, apparently because of his beer choice: “Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, / Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, / Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall / And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”

Small beer memorial

14 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Bars, pubs etc, Breweries

Bad memories, skunkiness and the question of beer in cans

Beaverton Gamma

For many drinkers of real beer, the implications of cans are almost too terrible to contemplate. They certainly are for me. Cans remind me of buying cheapo industrial lager just to get drunk in the Winchester Cathedral Grounds as a teenager. As well as associating canned beer with vile industrial lagers, I always associated them with a metallic taste. I assumed this was not necessarily the vile industrial lager itself, but the packaging.

But all that’s changing. The challenge now is changing such preconceptions.

It is strange how abiding a prejudice can be, but if you learned to drink by consuming vile industrial lagers (or indeed snakebites), frequently from cans, and have memories of puking and hangovers, the psychology isn’t that complex. It’s just a kind of self-inflicted aversion. It worked too: I didn’t drink from the age of 18 to 24.

Times change
Anyway, the past few years, I’ve been increasingly encountering real beers, in cans. Initially I bridled when I was served  Angry Peaches from Garage Project in a can in a restaurant in Wellington, but this New Zealand take on an APA turned out to be delicious, and one of the best beers I had in NZ.

Angry Peaches meal md

More recently I’ve encountered a couple of other interesting beers in cans. When we were in Rome a few weeks ago, hanging out at Tram Depot in Testaccio, I was drinking Steamer (7.6% ABV). But it wasn’t as good as I remembered: I appreciate its depth of flavour and body, but it’s not well-integrated and always seems to be over-carbonated. Its recipe needs some tweaking. So I wanted to try the other real beer they were offering, something not quite as strong (it had been a long day, a long hot day of boozing and eating). This turned out to be something called Kurt (4.32% ABV), and not Italian but Swiss. I didn’t even know Switzerland had a craft beer scene.

Kurt 1

It was nominally from a brewery called Bad Attitude. Aside from any irony inherent in this name, the Bad Attitude set-up is a bit confusing. It also seems to be Ticino Brewing Company (aka Birrificio Ticinese in Italian, as the Ticino is Switzerland’s predominantly Italian-speaking canton). Which also seems to be related to another brand, Birra San Martino. The latter’s site says they were founded in 2002, but have called themselves Birrificio Ticinese since 2010. They’re all at the same address in the town of Stabio, but I can’t work out why they exist as three brands.

As for the straw-coloured beer itself, it was a bit weird. Despite being made with two hops from one of my favourite parts of the world – Riwaka and Motueka, both places in the north of South Island NZ – and some great British Marris Otter malt, most of all I got a coconut flavour. It’s not that I dislike coconut especially, but I just didn’t like it in a pale ale flavour profile. I know some beers have coconut as an adjunct, but Kurt didn’t, so I’d guess it came from an ester, those chemical compounds that give beers so many diverse flavours and aromas.*

Kurt 2

Retro-futuristic
The most recent beer I’ve had in a can I drunk in the beautiful evening sun last night. This was Gamma Ray from Beavertown. This was the beer I’ve tried from this brewery, set up in London in 2011, and it was very enjoyable indeed.

I do love British APAs – they tend to have the decisive characteristics of the more aromatic US hops but balanced with our traditional love of beers defined more by their maltiness. In this case the hops were Amarillo, Columbus, Bravo and Magnum (“added in ever increasing amounts at the end of the boil and in the fermenter”), though the bitterness was surprisingly minimal, without any particularly dry mouthfeel. The beer was rounded out and sweetened with not one but three malts, Simpsons Best, Caragold and Caramalt. Excellent.

Gamma can 1

The experience was enhanced by the can’s awesome wraparound wide-screen design, a kind of retro-SF horror tableau of goldfish bowl-helmeted spacemen being zapped into skullfacedness by flying saucers. Love it. Indeed, on an aesthetic level, one of the great points about cans is how they design can go 360 like this, unlike with the traditional front and back labels of bottles.

Cans versus bottles
The main arguments for using cans, however, are more practical. Mostly made from aluminum, they’re simply a lighter weight material and as such involve much less energy when transported, compared to glass bottles. From both me lugging stuff home from Twenty One Wines in Brighton in a bag to massive trucks carrying it around on roads, or shipments moving internationally (something that’s arguably absurd given that beer is mostly water, but that’s another argument). Furthermore, a bottle, when used once, involves a lot more energy to manufacture and then recycle – assuming people bother to even recycle.

The other big argument for cans is that they protect the beer from light damage. The traditional brown glass bottle protects the beer from light damage to some extent, but for those companies that insist on packaging in green or clear glass, the beer will spoil, will get lightstruck when left in daylight. The UV causes a reaction resulting in what’s called “skunkiness” – that is, a chemical process creates a molecule that’s closely related to those in skunk spray.

As for the issue of the beer getting a metallic taste, so synonymous with cheapo bad lager, most cans used for beer these days have a thin inner lining so there’s no contact between beer and aluminium. Certainly all my recent experiences with “tinnies” have been entirely free of metallic hauntings and the ensuing teenage flashbacks.

So I’ll definitely be happy to drink real beer in cans now. Which is good, as it’s becoming increasingly common. This US NPR article quote says, “five years ago, just a few dozen craft brewers in the US were canning, while today there are more than 500.” So expect to see more here in the UK too.

Having said that though, probably 60 per cent of the beer I drink at home is from my local (800m away) brewery, Harveys. Their (brown) bottled beer is sold with a deposit, so I just take them back and they reuse them. But most people don’t have a local brewery with such an enlightened (nay, sensibly old-fashioned – we always did the same with milk in Britain when things were more localised) approach. So for the abovementioned reasons, there’s probably no reason to poo-poo cans any more. Even if you’re particularly hardcore about your real beer requirements. The Gamma Ray for example was in a can and unpasteurised and unfiltered.

 

 

* My friend Michele, a food scientist and brewer, suggests the coconut odour and taste may come from one of two chemicals: from the molecule d-Decalattone  (C10H18O2) or from an ethyl group of chemicals (–C2H5), which are derived from ethane (C2H6). Srangely, the latter can present with odours of coconut, or pear, or wine.

1 Comment

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer, Discussion

A week in Rome: Etruscan necropolis, Etrusca beer

Stone beds at Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri

We didn’t spend out entire holiday just eating and drinking. I made a point of doing a few day trips. One was to the Etruscan necropolis – city of the dead – of Banditaccia, a train ride, a bus ride and a surprisingly pleasant walk from Cerveteri, a town near the coast to the nortwest of Rome.

Banditaccia is such an evocative name. It makes me think of bandits and other unsavoury rural types using the old underground chambers (hypogea) to hide away in the middle ages. It’s quite likely they did too, though I can’t report that as fact.

The necropolis was established at the beginning of the 7th century BC, at least. I love this – you wander round Rome going “Wow, Colosseum…” but that particular monument only dates from the 1st century AD. Etruscan civilisation, which gave its name to Tuscany, was already remarkably sophisticated when Romulus and Remus were still just dirty wolf-boys shouting at each other, mythically, from huts on the adjacent hilltops of the Palatine and Aventine.

Etruscan pot, Cerveteri museum

Cerveteri, called Caere by the Etruscans and located a mile from Banditaccia, has a museum in the castle that dominates the centre of town. Even after all the best finds from excavations were filched by the Vatican, it’s still full of amazing finds, mostly ceramics. They show how closely the Etruscans traded through the Med, notably with the Greeks, as the art style is similar, as are the gods and mythological characters featured.

Multimedia hypogea
Visiting the tombs themselves, and imagining how they would have looked decorated with these urns and other funerary furnishings, is an amazing experience. The place was pretty much deserted when we visited, so a staff member was able to turn on multimedia installations for us in three of the hypogea. I have mixed feelings about all the holes in the tuff volcanic rock drilled so they could install projectors and speakers, but the systems work surprisingly well, lighting up the tombs and giving a sense of how these spaces were used.

What struck me, even centuries later, with the tombs mostly denuded of their decorations, is how homely they are. And this is just the point. The Etruscans created the necropolises as mirror images of the cities of the living. Each hypogeum was a home for several generations of family. The dead were initially body wrapped in cloth, then buried, or burned and put in urns. The hypogea consist of rooms with stone beds, and some even feature incredible decorations. The most famous example is Banditaccia’s Tomb of the Reliefs – amazing 3D designs of tools and utensils, for war and domestic work: those two most important activities of the living.

Tomb of the Reliefs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri (Photo: Fran Hortop)

As Fran pointed out, the notion of the tombs being the mirror image of homes is also expressed by the fact that these spaces, firstly large, rounded tumuli, then later in rows much like terraced housing, were carved out of the tuff. It was a process of creating a living space for the dead by hollowing out spaces in the ground. This contrasts with building a home above ground, creating space by erecting walls and roofs.

Terraced tombs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s interesting too that although the Roman Republic eventually subsumed Etruria, the final three kings of the Roman Kingdom were an Etruscan dynasty (in the 7th-6th centuries BC, though this period isn’t well documented). And as they had so much common culture, the guide we spoke to said the Romans respected the Etruscan funerary arrangements enough to leave the necropolises alone, even after they had effectively quashed their civilisation. Indeed, there were still new tombs being carved in the 3rd century AD. It was only later they were semi-forgotten, becoming overgrown. Although some did provide strange cave-like spaces for shepherds – and bandits? – over the centuries, most were lost and the area resembled a series of lumps and small hills in the 19th century, before Raniero Mengarelli started his systematic excavations in 1909.

Tumulus Etruscan tomb, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s a wonderful place, right up there with Ostia Antica for my favourite ancient sites in Italy: partly because these two are just undersubscribed compared to the better-known Pompey and Herculaneum, but also partly because Banditaccia has a reminded me of its fellow UNESCO site Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Banditaccia – or at least what’s been excavated – is a lot smaller but both have a similar substantialness and sense of mystery. Angkor Wat is a lot more recent (dating from the 11th-15th centuries AD) but I love these places where ancient stones have trees growing through the weathered old stonework, itself carved with sheer manpower.

Etruscan beer
After visiting Banditaccia we went beer shopping and it seemed only right to get a bottle of Birra del Borgo’s Etrusca “archeo birra”.

Borgo Etrusca label

Etrusca is actually the name of three beers, first made during a fascinating project in 2012 by Birra del Borgo (in Lazio, east of Rome), Baladin brewery (in Piedmont, NW Italy) and Dogfish Head (in Delaware, US). The brewmasters of all three worked with Dr Patrick McGovern, an archaeology professor and director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who had worked on various other ancient ale projects previously with Dogfish Head.

Together they established a list of ingredients that were consumed by the Etruscans. The Baladin site says, “Under Dr Pat’s supervision, ingredients have been selected on the basis of the findings made at several Italian archaeological sites.” According to a post on the Dogfish Head site, meanwhile, “the team clearly found that the Etruscans had a taste for ale.”

I know the ancient Romans drank beer, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the Etruscans did too true. Although grain-based beer is more associated with northern Europe, grain was of course grown in ancient Italy too, and the Dogfish site continues “The backbone of Birra Etrusca comes from two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat.” This wheat is ‘Senatore Cappelli’, which I saw in several Italian craft beers on this recent visit.

Italian society never underwent the seismic changes experienced in Britain during our comprehensive industrial revolution. Nor did it embrace as fully as Britain or the US the post-war approaches to agriculture based on rejecting ancient practices in favour of plying farmland with tonnes and tonnes and endless tonnes of petrochemical industry derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Plus, pockets of mountainous Italy remain isolated to this day. Unlike Britain, where we rejected our heritage grains in favour of modern varieties bred by agri-corporations to thrive with said chemicals, Italy still grows some of the same varieties of grain it has grown for centuries. Cappelli, however, arguably isn’t such a grain: it was selectively bred from Tunisian ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ durum wheat at the start of the 20th century. It’s conjecture, but ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ may have ancient heritage, and may indeed have been related to grain traded or cultivated by the Etruscans. I don’t know; I need to consult an expert more. Or find some funding to bloody well do a PhD!

Weird and wonderful
The beer also contains various other weird and wonderful ingredients, based on, according to the Baladin site, “research carried out on Etruscan habits, as they would [have] spiced fermented drinks with hazelnut flour, pomegranate and pomegranate juice, honeys, sultanas, natural resin and gentian root”. The “natural resin” in question is probably what the Dogfish site refers to as “the sarsaparilla-like Ethiopian myrrh resin.” The myrrh and gentian are the bittering agents, though the recipe does also include a “handful of whole-flower hops”.

Recording cultivation of hops in Europe didn’t come until centuries later, though as Humulus lupulus is native to Eurasia and north Africa there’s the chance it was utilised by the Etruscans. Wondering about this, I sent an email to Dr McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages”. Though busy on a lecture tour in Australia he kindly replied and said, “There is some evidence of hops being found in association with beverages at Etruscan sites, but not much.” I’ve just ordered his most recent book, ‘Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages’ (Berkeley: University of California, 2009) so perhaps that will tell me more. Check out the article ‘The Brewing of Etrusca Beer’ via Dr Pat’s site here (a PDF download) as it gives more detail of the procedure, while a second article on the same page, ‘Ancient Italic Beer The archaeological finds at Pombia (NO), discusses the evidence of hop usage in this era, though it refers to finds from a “proto-Celtic” population in Piedmont/Piemonte, nortern Italy, that is north of ancient Etruria.

Birra del Borgo's Etrusca

So what does it taste like?
Evaluating the experience of drinking a beer like this is tricky as the story of its genesis is so fascinating it’s potentially distracting. Not only was the recipe created with Dr Pat’s expert input, but the three breweries used different materials for the ferment. Dogfish used some bronze plates in in the vats, Baladin used wooden barrels, and Borgo used specially made terracotta jars. This is appropriate given the importance of terracotta for storing liquids in ancient Italy. We were staying in Testaccio, and drank our bottle of Etrusca there, a mere 100m or so from Monte Testaccio, which is also known as Monte dei cocci – which could be translated as “Hill of the earthenware shards”. Yes, the hill is a massive mound of broken ancient Roman amphorae.

Suitably enough, given our day trip, Fran said the beer, which is a pale, cloudy golden colour, “smells like an old cave somewhere”, with all that nuttiness, fruit and fermentation giving a certain mustiness.

Dammit can't read the label

Fran got more earthy smells from it – mushrooms, humus (leaf litter not chickpea). I got a more sharp, sauerkraut smell, with honey. The taste was sour, honey, balsamic, metallic. Fran thought it tasted like fermented tomato juice: not that she’s ever drunk that, as far as I know, but it did have a certain minerally, Bloody Mary quality.

It’s not a beer to spend a relaxing evening with, perhaps, but it’s unique. I wish I could try the Dogfish Head version, but I’ve never seen any of their ales for sale in Italy or the UK, sadly. The comparison would be interesting, and Dr Pat says that he finds the “pomegranate and myrrh are more pronounced and better integrated” with the Dogfish version.

Either way, I love these historical experiments, like Harveys’ Priory Ale from earlier this year, commemorating a slightly more recent bit of history, the Battle of Lewes 750 years ago. Dogfish Head has produced a series of these experimental brews, with their most recent collaboration with Dr McGovern a prehistoric-style Nordic ale they’re called Kvasir. There’s more about their working process, and why we lost our inclination to make such diverse brews, in an article on The Atlantic’s site here.

So anyway, Etruscan remains, Etrusca archaeological ale recreations: what a great day. And far too long a post. I was planning to mention a few other beers I tried on the trip but that will have to wait.

5 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Discussion, Italian beer, Misc, Rome

The Eighteenth South Downs Beer & Cider Festival, Lewes, 20-21 June 2014

18th South Downs Beer Festival in Lewes town hall. With many empty casks.

The poster for the 18th South Downs Beer and Cider Festival nicely riffs on the cover design of Neil Young’s 1972 classic album ‘Harvest’. As I’m a fan of both real beer and that album, it got me excited about the event when I first spotted it. As Fran was interested in going, and couldn’t do the first day, a Friday, due to work commitments, I got tickets for the 11am to 5pm Saturday session.

South Downs Beer Festival 2014 PosterHarvest album cover

A week or so before the event, I went to the CAMRA site and printed off the list of breweries represented, going through it to highlight all the local ones. This festival, being held in the handsome Lewes Town Hall, marked forty years of the Brighton and South Downs Branch of CAMRA, so promised to be special.

So it was a kick in the teeth when we arrived at about 1pm on the Saturday to find pretty much all the local beers had run out, bar those from Harveys. Now I love Harveys, but I drink it most days, so I was most keen on trying other stuff from around Sussex. So it was disappointing to see crosses through the signs for both the beers from 360 Degree brewery at Sheffield Park, just north of Lewes; through those of Bedlam in Aldbourne, West Sussex; through both the beers from Burning Sky at nearby Firle; ditto Downlands, at Small Dole, West Sussex; ditto both beers from Goldstone, from nearby Ditchling; ditto Kissingate of Lower Beeding, West Sussex; ditto Brighton’s Laine; ditto Pin-Up Brewery of Southwick, East Sussex; ditto the intriguing Rectory of Streat, East Sussex, brewed by a priest.

Guttering and empty casks. Sorry, bad photo.

The few local beers I tried were: Lammas Ale from 1648 Brewing Co in East Hoathly, East Sussex. This had bubblegum-ish aroma, from malted wheat, and low carbonation, medium body. Then a Wolseley Best from The Stanley in Portslade, also East Sussex (though currently brewed at Downlands). This had nice hints of liquorice, charcoal and nuts, but frankly, I drink Harveys Best all the time and I wasn’t here for the best bitters. Cavedweller from Caveman Brewery, over in Kent, was a bit more interesting, a porter nicely combined blackcurranty flavours with more piney, resiny hints from UK Bramling Cross hops. I wouldn’t call porter a summer beer though. Another more interesting one was Regaler from Franklins, in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex. The notes called it a “cold-fermented lager-style ale”. I assume it was a Kölsch-style beer, top-fermented like an ale and more full-bodied and less carbonated than most lagers.

Festival beer list

All of which was fun, but not what I was hoping for. Interestingly, a lot of what had run out was the more hoppy American craft beer-style stuff: not what you typically associate with CAMRA, which can he thanked for keeping British cask ale, notably bitters, alive through the 1970s and 1980s when dreadful industrial lagers took over British pubs. Although Britons still drink mostly industrial lager by proportion now, we’re coming back round to real beer – in part thanks to CAMRA, but also in part thanks to the vitality of the highly influential US craft beer movement and the exciting flavours and aromas offered by US hops.

My favourite beers these days are those that take our incredible British brewing heritage but aren’t afraid to be inspired by US beers and US hop flavours. That’s what I was hoping to try more at the festival, things like Burning Sky’s ‘Arise’ “Session strength IPA”, here available in cask. But it had run out.

Drinking out third-pints at the 18th South Downs Beer Festival

Now, I’m aware that things do – and have to – run out at these beer festivals, but considering the event was running from 11am on the Friday to the evening of the Saturday, when everything was finished, a total of about 20 hours of sessions, it seemed pretty poor that so much was gone already when we arrived – at roughly just after the mid-point. I realise part of the buzz of a beer festival is the first rush to try the latest products of interesting breweries on the first day, but well, it just seemed like poor event management that so many punters like us who didn’t arrive till the second day were deprived of the so many of the beers, in particular those local brews.

Now if I was writing about the event in a journalistic capacity, I would contact the Brighton CAMRA branch and the festival organiser, Ruth Anderson, but instead I’m just blogging about it as a disappointed punter and don’t feel like chasing around after them for quotes. Plus, I suspect they’d just reiterate the line about how it’s normal for casks to run dry after the initial evening throng has been at them. I really didn’t want to be writing a moany post about the event I’d been so looking forward to but, well, here we are.

Lewes Corn Exchange, with surprisingly mixed crowd at the beer festival

Still, while pretty much all the stuff I’d marked on my print-off had run out, at least it meant we’d only drunk a few third-pint samples each and were subsequently able to cycle down to the Kingston village fete, along a lovely traffic-free path. The festival was held in the Lewes Town Hall and corn exchange, a great venue where I usually just go to give blood, but as it was a gorgeous hot, sunny day, being outside appealed greatly.

Pints at the Kingston village fete

At the fete, we met some friends. And visited the beer tent – which not only had a cask of Burning Sky’s delicious Plateau pale ale, but the guy serving the drinks even gave us a free glass from Long Man, another nearby brewery. We went home via The Swan in Southover, where we had a Harveys Olympia golden summer ale in the lovely garden, so the day turned out well in the end.

Bikes outside fete, nr pub

2 Comments

Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Events