An Acceptable Level of Lump

An acceptable level of lump

Recently during a beer tasting a cracked open a few cans of a beer I had been warned about, and on seeing the contents gush/gunk out like frothy peanut butter I started to wonder if a) the beer itself was drinkable (or edible, such was the lump to liquid ratio) but also b) what exactly is acceptable in beer these days.

Not so long ago, if you ordered a beer and it was hazy you’d have taken it back to the bar; it was the end of the barrel, it was old, had turned and so on. Then came the move towards New England IPAs and the ensuing arms race to make the haziest, thickest beer possible, and what was acceptable, nay desirable in a pale ale, for many, changed. All the while more challenging beers such as sours were beginning to grow in popularity on these shores, and sure enough this too led to an arms race to make the fruitiest, gloopiest beer. So maybe this beer, which looked like small nutty slugs basking in the sea foam on a muddy beach, is just the natural next step. It was a sour, fruit crumble something something (the description alone was exhausting), and it made me wonder if I was just getting old*. Taste wise it was actually not bad, very sour, full of fruit and so on, but the appearance and texture was just so…

Or maybe it’s just me. Something that makes beer so exciting is the fact that it keeps evolving, styles keep being invented, new techniques and ingredients used, and all of this newness can sit side by side with the classics and with tradition, offering beer that can both be the conversation and can be the quiet conversation catalyst. While I wouldn’t dare put a beer out like that, and I definitely won’t be buying it again, in the name of invention and keeping things fresh I think it gets a pass, but it didn’t half make me want a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.

*I am getting old

Lager and the importance of time

A lot of brewers say pilsners are the hardest beers to brew, but are they really? Sure, if something goes wrong there is nowhere to hide, a good pilsner should be clean, crisp and balanced, hence any little off-flavours or mistakes will be magnified, but I actually think to brew a pilsner is not particularly difficult. There is, though, one thing that tends to be underdone, and can make a huge difference to the quality of the final product. Time.

The word ‘lager’ comes from the German word for ‘storage’. ‘Lager’ actually means ‘store’ and ‘lagerbier’ means ‘beer made for storing’. So to lager a beer is to store it, specifically at low temperatures post-fermentation, to let the beer mature. The primary fermentation of a lager is also slower than with ale as lager yeast ferments at a lower temperature to ale yeast (so around 2 weeks for a lager to 1 week or less for an ale). Pre-refrigeration lagering was done in caves and underground where temperatures could be better controlled. It used to be that this process was sometimes many months, but now this is often much less. Rumour has it some of the major producers of (sub-standard) lager actually go from brew day to can in five days, and judging by the taste of some, that doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Recently I brewed a pilsner. Well, the actual brew day was around 14 weeks ago, but it has only just been packaged (as a comparison an ale can go from brew day to being packaged in 2-3 weeks). In craft brewing time is a luxury, after all space is a premium, so it’s rare that craft breweries can afford to take up a tank for so long with lager, and one reason that we don’t brew lots of lager at our brewery. In the pilsner I brewed I used a new Czech hop, Most, which didn’t really do what we were expecting; it was a bit earthier and smokier than the description we were given, but it did change dramatically over the lagering period, as did, well… everything. The flavours levelled out, the smokiness subsided and gave way to more citrus and even peachy notes. Despite being dry hopped (dry hopping is adding hops towards the end of or after primary fermentation) and not filtered the beer settled to be completely, almost bafflingly clear. It just got better and better, going from a lager I thought was just OK to being one I now am so happy with that there’s another in tank.

While there is a lot to get right in making a good pilsner, as with any ale, I think what most sets apart the great pilsners (and really most styles of lager) is the period of lagering. So while I sit here sipping this remarkably clear drop, I’ll do a little toast to Father Time, and cross my fingers we manage to keep this next one in tank for just as long, if not slightly longer…

beer testing

Recent Tour & Tasting

Style highlight – Grisette

After a long day’s brewing, which is very hot work (and sadly we are now out of the approximately two months a year in which a brewery is at a reasonable temperature), I like to crack open a cold can of porter. People often think I’m bonkers for this. ‘Why on earth would you sink a dark beer when you’re visibly steaming?’ they shout/mutter/imply when I tell them of my ritual.

Well, I’m not talking a high ABV, viscous sort of porter – the one we brew at Neckstamper, Bonebox Cooler, so is easily accessible, it is 4% and based on a 150 year old recipe – so isn’t strong, is smooth but light in body, is dry on the finish, and the dark malts give it that burnt/chocolate astringency so it comes across a bit like a cold brew coffee. Porter is, after all, a style that was supposed to be refreshing, that the workers (porters) down by the Thames would sink after or even during a hard day’s work, and for a time it was the most popular beer style in the world. It was a proper worker’s beer, a theme on which variations were brewed around the world, and they varied considerably but have a few key characteristics – low ABV, easy-drinking, and cheap.

Not too long ago I discovered another of these variations which may actually be more refreshing than my cold porter (I know, wild!); the Grisette, a beer I now firmly believe to be one of my favourites (not just favourite beers but things in general), despite me having only tried three of them. I only discovered it during one of our lockdowns, thanks to Exhale Brewing in Walthamstow. I was doing a number of online beer tastings at the time, and one particular group who were doing them regularly liked to keep me on my toes (they really know their beer), so, keen to surprise them, I had been hunting for something a little different to include. I stumbled across Holler on Exhale’s website, a 3.2% grisette, and the description had me intrigued. In this first, and so hopefully worst, blog post for our site, I’ll attempt to explain this beer, which I’ve been prattling on about to all and sundry since I first took a sip.

The Grisette originates from the mining regions along the border of Belgium and France and dates back to the late 1800s. Much like the Saisons of Belgium, which were brewed in the winter months to be a thirst-quenching beer for the farm hands in the busy and hot summer months, or the aforementioned porters in London, the Grisette was a low alcohol beer designed to sate the miners not inconsiderable thirst after a long hard day underground smashing stones (there was/is probably more to mining than smashing stones). The name itself, meaning ‘little grey one’, potentially relates to a few things:

the colour of the stone that the miners were working in would leave them covered in a grey dust at the end of the day;
the women working in the bars serving the miners wore grey dresses;
because there’s a lot of wheat in the malt bill for a grisette, thus making the beer hazy/white (like wheat/witbiers and so on), so arguably giving the beer a kind of grey hue; or
none of the above, it is something that Gary decided to call it one day at the bar because grey was his favourite colour.

Beer history is nothing if not incomplete, so we’ll probably never know (it isn’t 4 though).

So what is the beer like? Apart from being low strength (around 3.5%, although it can be more/less), it also, as already mentioned, tends to feature a lot of wheat in the grain bill, is lightly hoppy and a little spicy from the yeast. It is a farmhouse ale, so can be made with mixed yeast cultures, Brettannomyces (wild yeast) and/or Saison yeasts which means, as with Saisons, it tends to be quite dry and can have a bit of a funk to it, as well as tartness. It is actually much like a Saison (some see it as a sort of mini-Saison) and so a key characteristic is that the yeasts used to ferment the them are high attenuating (meaning they convert a large proportion of the sugars from the malt into alcohol/CO2, thus making the beer have a dry finish) and they impart those estery, peppery and fruity flavours which work so well for the style. As with many farmhouse ales, and beer styles in general, there is a fair bit of scope for interpretation.

Exhale’s Holler was blended with 10% of a barrel aged beer to add a foeder-like flavour (a foeder is essentially a massive barrel used to ferment and mature beer in), and somehow (having never had a proper traditional Grisette) what they made I imagine was pretty close to what those dusty stone-smackers would have so keenly sunk 150 odd years back. Exhale used a house blend of yeasts to make Holler, which was zesty and peppery with a vanilla hint from the wood. This combined with a really moreish crispness, as well as the white grape suggestion from the little Nelson Sauvin addition at dry hop made this a really memorable beer for me (although I’m working from memory for this description so if you tried it and remember better please say so below!).

So where can you get such a wonderous drink? Not many places really. Like the Gose from the Goslar region of Germany, or Berlinerweisse from Berlin and surrounds, it is a regional style that for a time was much-loved and enjoyed, but gradually died out with the coming of commercial lagers and bigger brewing, as well as societal, industrial and technological changes (probably a blog post or twelve to be done on this later). Much like those styles it was the craft brewers over in the States that played a large part in ensuring this most special of brews wasn’t lost to the sands of time, their curiosity and lack of being ham-strung by tradition meant they took ideas and recipes from all over the place and ran with them. Now a handful of breweries in the UK have started to see the light and try their hands at making their own interpretations, with delicious results, and there’s a modest but growing interest in the style from brewers and craft beer drinkers.

In conclusion, because there probably should be a conclusion, there’s currently a growing demand for lower ABV beers that are full of flavour without being too thin/watery, and so I think it’s the Grisette’s time to make a proper comeback (well, ‘comeback’ might be a stretch as it was never really here) and it fits that brief better than any other beer (shut up Table Beer). It’s light, refreshing, but also complex, so can be quaffed at pace if required, but also slowly enjoyed and really pored over (and poured over and over again – sorry). For me it is the perfect session beer, and if Exhale ever re-brew theirs, if that’s even achievable, I’ll be first in line to buy all of it. Maybe it can even replace my porter as the post brew day coolant, and you can stop chuntering on about me thinking (correctly) porter is refreshing.