Thursday 31 July 2008

Belgian coast (part two)

Sometimes it's nice to let someone else do the planning. This wasn't intended as a beer trip. There was nothing in particular I wanted to do, once I realised visiting Westvleteren wasn't really practical. I let Dolores choose the day's activities

A charming young girl had handed me a folder listing attractions along the Kusttram route on our journey to Oostduinkerke. It gave Dolores plenty of options. After much deliberation, she opted for Abdijmuseum Ten Duinen in the morning and an art-deco holiday villa in the afternoon.

As we headed off Lexie asked me "What's Ten Duinen? "A museum of monks and monking." "What's a monk?" "A sort of male nun." "What's a nun?" "A female monk." We're constantly having this type of high-level intellectual discussion. Eventually, I just told him monks are the ruddy-cheeked blokes in funny clothes and on dad's beer bottles.

There was nowhere to buy tickets at the closest tram stop. We had to walk to the next. It was up another bloody mountain. The morning weather forecast has promised it would be 21º C on the Belgian coast. That had already been demonstrated to be pure fantasy by breakfast. It felt more like 41º climbing that hill. That's warm enough for Einmaischen.

Pub, pub!
I've taught the kids many things. One of the most useful is what to do on sighting a pub. Shout "Pub, pub!". Lexie had plenty of chance to practice this skill on the tram ride to Koksijde. A couple looked quite interesting. Particularly the one with a big "Streekbieren" sign. I'd have jumped right off, had I been alone.

(One of the other things I've taught the kids is that, in Britain, it's unlucky to walk past a pub that's open without stopping for a pint. Though I think they're beginning to suspect this might not be totally true. Never mind. It worked for a couple of years.)

Achy fortyseven
-I'm surprised Lexie missed the gun shop. It was right next to the tram line. He's asked me plenty of times to buy him a gun when I've been going to Belgium. Somehow he's found out gun controls are much looser than in Holland. I shouldn't really have mentioned the gun shop. Not if I'd wanted any peace for the next few hours.

"Can I have a gun dad?" "Yes." "Can I have an achy fortyseven? "You can have two, in case one breaks." "can I have ammo, too, dad?" "Yes." "Can we get off the tram and go back?" "No, we're going to the museum."

Half an hour later, we were wandering around aimlessly looking for the museum of monks and monking. "How much does an achy fortyseven cost, dad?" "Shut up about stupid guns, Lexie." That was Andrew. After thirty minutes of crazy gun talk he just snapped. The heat and the fact we were lost didn't help.

Ten Duinen wasn't really that hard to find. Or at least wouldn't have been if there were any signposts. Relief was great in our party when it came into view. Approaching it, the entrance seemed suspiciously dark and empty. It was almost midday. It was dark and empty inside for a reason. On Saturday, it doesn't open until 14:00.

Pint of vinegar, please
What now? Perhaps we could take a look at that windmill we'd seen turning at the end of the street. As we neared, we could see someone tethering the sails. The windmill was open Saturday mornings. But closed at twelve.

Time for plan-b. (Unfortunately not the Copenhagen plan-b.) There was that big wet thing the other side of the dunes. What's called? The sea, that's it. We embarked on another, as the kids so sweetly put it, "death march". I shouldn't let them watch the History Channel so much.

Sitting in the sun while my shoes fill with sand isn't really my thing. Sitting on a shady terrace while by belly fills with beer is. The others headed for the beach, me and Andrew for the pub. "Don't let your dad drink more than one beer, Andrew." Dolores said. As we walked along the promenade to the nearest boozer I asked Andrew "How much not to tell your mum about the jenevers? What about a euro for each one?" "Daaad."

None of the Belgian coast is that posh. The pub was proletarianly-inclined. We sat next to an enormous Wallon couple with a tiny baby. Both seemed to have slight speech defects. Just my sort of place. At least I won't look weird. None of the staff, except the barman who appeared the owner, was older than fifteen. Even the cook, who was wearing a distractingly short skirt, little wider than a belt.

A pretty Asian waitress kept walking right past us. Maybe I shouldn't have stared at her quite so hard. Eventually I caught the eye of her colleague, a spotty youth. "Een grote Rodenbach, als U blijft." Andrew was happy with a bag of crisps. As soon as the youth had disappeared inside, pretty Asian girl came to take our order. Typical.

The Rodenbach really was a ig one. The pub had it on tap and offered half litres. (Again, the beer selection was a pleasant surprise. See photo.) Well, I was only having the one, wasn't I? "Try this Andrew." "Ugh. It smells like vinegar." "Taste it." "Uuugh. It tastes like vinegar, too." "I thought you liked vinegar." "On my chips, dad, not to drink."

I did just drink the one beer. I'm a man of my word. Mostly. Back on the beach, Lexie told me he'd found a dead crab. "We can crack it open with a stone and eat it for tea." he took me and Andrew to look at it.

Only a couple of centimetres across, it wouldn't have made much of a meal. When I'd convinced him we'd need something more substantial to feed all four of us, Lexie took just a claw back to show his mum. "Look", he said "I've found a crab. Smell it" He'd already suggested I do the same. But I had a good idea what it was likely to smell like and declined the offer. "Peeeuuw. It smells like a dead rat!" Yep, exactly what I'd expected.

St Bernardus - what a guy!
Time for another death march. It was boiling hot and the humidity was around 150%. A sea breeze had kept the seafront bearable. Away from its cooling embrace, my radiator soon began to boil. Was it really only 400 metres? Even the museum's air-conidtioning wasn't helping much. I went to the toilet and stuck my head under the cold tap for a while. That was better.

Ten Duinen is a very modern museum. It's adjacent to the site of a huge monastery that was abandoned in the late 1500's. Being modern, it's heavy on multimedia experiences and light on glass cases stuffed with old things. But there was alos a lot of background on the history of the Cistercians and monks in general. In particular, those in the immediate area.

In case you're Belgian geography isn't that great, Koksijde is in the top left hand corner. Watou isn't far (hence some of the beers on sale in the pubs). You know something. It had never crossed my mind that St Bernardus was a actaul person. Thick, aren't I? The museum has a a painting of him. Even better, it has a section on the St Sixtus Abbey. Westvleteren to you and me. Including a little film. It shows all aspects of life in the monastery, including brewing. I never realised how modern the brewery is, all stainless steel shiny things.

St Idesbald
You can wander around what's left of the Duinen monastery. It's just a few stubs of wall, most not more than two foot high. But it does give you an idea of the size of the place. The cafeteria overlooks the ruins. After being outside for 20 minutes, the kids were ready for an ice cream. So we headed to it. I hoped it sold beer.

What was I thinking? This is Belgium. Of course it sold beer. And not just any beer, but their own St Idesbald* abbey beers, Blond, Bruin and Tripel. There's another reason why Belgium is so civilised. OK, they almost certainly aren't original beers. The label says they're brewed by Huyghe. But it wasn't just some Inbev crap on sale. I had the Tripel. Not bad. But I was as sweaty as docker's armpit. Anything would have tasted good.

When we left the museum it was 16:30. Lexie insisted in putting his socks back on (he'd removed them for paddling). We got back to the tram stop just in time to see a tram pulling away. How long do the the supermarkets stay open on Saturday? Dolores wanted to stock up on wine for an evening in the hotel garden. "If we're too late for the supermarket, it'll be your fault, Lexie.", I said encouragingly "then there'll be no presents for you this christmas." I'm such a good dad.

We needn't have worried. Even on Saturday, the Delhaize in Oostduinkerke is open until late. Thankfully, Lexie had stopped talking incessantly about achy fortysevens. As soon as we entered the supermarket, he said "I want vodka! Where's the vodka?" I headed for the beer shelves. "Is this vodka?" "No, it's beer." "Where's the vodka?" Despite being much greater in size, Delhaize's beer selection was inferior to Spar's in one very important way. No St. Bernardus. I made do with Maredsous Bruin and Rochefort 8.

"I want vodka!" Reluctantly, I guided Lexie to the spirits section. I wasn't going to buy him any. I'm not totally irresponsible. No vodka until he's eleven. Really, I wanted to run my eyes over the jenever selection. There was a Hasselt "Vieux Système" with an amusingly archaic label. No idea if the contents were any good. And there was a familiar kruk. Filliers 5 Jaar. Now that is a good one. But I'm just window shopping.

I discover Andrew at the cheese counter. His face has the same expression as mine does when I'm drooling over beer. "Mmmm, cheese." He says. Cheese wasn't on our shopping list. Andrew was impressed by the diversity of Belgian cheese. Inspired perhaps by our museum visit or, more likely, by my beer purchases, he got some Maredsous. "Snap", I said. "Andrew's got some cheese, can I have some vodka." "No, Alexei." "An achy fortyseven?" "No!"

I had to have a lie down after another death march up the hill between tram stop and hotel. I was so hot. Good news was that our room had a fridge. Against my usual principles, I would have put my beet in it. If it had been more than half a degree cooler than the room. Instead I immersed a few bottles in cold water in the sink. Dolores had done the same with her wine. Lucky the bathroom had three sinks.

While the others sipped wine in the garden I lay on my bed. Knackered. With just a bottle of Maredsous and a French quiz programme on the telly for company. "Which French cheese doesn't bear the name of a commune?" I love the French. There was a choice of four. Ramounet, I guessed. Pity Andrew wasn't there.

Lexie had forgotten about vodka and achy fortysevens. "Can I have money for the pool table, dad?" I gave him a five euro note. A minute later Lexie, Andrew and Robert (Kirsten and Klaus's boy) were back. "The table's broken. Half the balls won't come out." That was a bummer. I'd been hoping to drink my wine in peace. Fat chance.

"Dad, can I have money for pool?" "It's broken." "We could try putting another euro in." "It's broken." "Dad, we can try. Maybe the balls will come out if we put another euro in" "It's broken" . . . .

Two hours elapse.

. . . "Dad, can I have money for pool?" "The table's broken" "Can't we try putting another euro in?" "Lexie, shut up about pool already" Andrew had finally cracked again. "Vodka! I want vodka!"

*St Idesbald used to be buried in the Duinen monastery. Part of Koksijde now bears his name.

** Note that no crap beers were consumed this day.

Abdijmuseum ten Duinen 1138
Koninklijke Prinslaan 6-8
B-8670 Koksijde
Telefoon: + 32 (0)58 53 39 50
Fax: + 32 (0)58 51 00 61

Taverne de Strandcabine
Zeedijk 106,
8670 St Idesbald.

Wednesday 30 July 2008


Which do you want first? The good news or the good-challenged news? . . . . What's that? I can't hear you. . . . no . . .Always the optimist, I'll start with the good.

The St Bernardus Abt drought is over! The Gall & Gall on Amstelveenseweg stocks it Hooray! I have a SBAIACY next to my mouse right now. A very man has been made old happy.

Dolores has always hated our kitchen. Especially the two redundant steps leading up to it. She's right. It's claimed many victims. It ripped off one of Lexie's toenails during The Police Game. This morning it was my turn.

Have I mentioned my broken ankles? (I enter drunken man with incomprehensible regional accent mode.) No? You're sure? Not just saying that to be polite? Tell me if I'm boring you.

The kids do. 'Daaad. You've already told me that.' 'I know, dad. You said that ten minutes ago.' 'Not again dad. You just exactly the same thing.'

I've often banged my toes into the stupid kitchen steps. Today, for the first time, I managed a perfect hit. At exactly 90 degrees. It did hurt a bit. The crack! was more disturbing. Dolores heard it. 'I heard a crack!' No. Don't tell me that. I'm worried enough already. I want reassurance.

Berlin. Thursday. Stupid kitchen. I should rip you out.

Some might say my ankle breaks were suspicious. I'll just say Volksfest and feest. But they weren't my fault. I wasn't drunk. Really. Well, not that drunk. I won't deny that alcohol had passed my lips. I wasn't pissed, right?

This time, there can be no doubt. I was walking into the kitchen of foot injuries to make breakfast.

The doctor says that whatever the toe next to the biggest one is called is either broken or gekneusd. He leaned towards the latter. Not quite sure what that is in English. That's always part of the thrill of conducting medical appointments in a foreign language. Like reading a 16th century brewing text, You're never quite sure of the vocabulary.

'Berlin has an excellent metro system.' my doctor helpfully said when I told him I was going there. Yeah. I'm going to a beer festival several kilometres long. The metro will be a big help. But he's friendly, helpful and positive. So I don't mention the festival. One more day to rest up. I'll be fine.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Goodnight Sweetheart Stout

It will come as no surprise that I was a big fan iof the TV series "Goodnight Sweetheart". It was set in the past and heavily featured a pub. Watching it probably induced one of my best ever dreams. The one where I was on a pub crawl of Newark in 1940. I even got to taste the beer. It was that good a dream.

It's a while since I'd seen an episode. I hadn't realised at the time what effort they'd put into getting the pub scenes right. Until Mike, who's new to the programme, pointed it out to me. Thanks for the screenshots, Mike.

The Royal Oak, quite realistically, was a Truman's house. As you can see clearly from the dray making deliveries.

A display of bottled beers behind the bar also clearly have Truman's labels. I can remember when I watched the series the first time around wondering what the beers they drank were like. You can guess what's coming now. Details of Truman's beers from 1940.

The Strong Ale will be their Burton. The others are pretty self-explanatory. You'll not that their Bitter was still a decent strength, at around 5% ABV. The Mild, with a gravity of 1035, was pretty much like a modern one, though perhaps a little less attenuated.

The exterior shots were of a real East End pub:

Royal Oak Hotel
73 Columbia Road,
Bethnal Green,

Monday 28 July 2008

The lost breweries of Ireland

If you're interested in brewery history, take a look at Mapping the lost breweries of Ireland. The title is fairly self explanatory. It's a project to map and document vanished Irish breweries. It's great to see such commitment to research.

Belgian coast

My experience of the Belgian coast was limited to a couple of weekends in Oostende and an hour or two in Blankenberge. Until last weekend. Which the whole family spent in Oostduinkerke.

We began by taking the train from Amsterdam to Antwerp. How many times have a made this journey? Dozens. And that's just this year. Here's a tip if you're making the same trip. Get to the platform well in time, so that you're there when the train arrives. And walk along the platform until you're beyond the massive glass canopy. Then you'll have a chance of a seat.

We sat in the second carriage. On leaving Amsterdam Centraal there was still the odd free seat. After Schiphol they were standing in the aisles. Most of the way between the airport and Roosendaal a succession of fat arses were thrust into my face. Wonderful when you're trying to concentrate on sudoku.

The train from Antwerp to Oostende was much better. Not exactly empty, but the air-conditioning was full on. No flabby buttocks a millimetre away from my nose, either. By the time we hit Oostende, I felt I deserved a beer. (Shite beer warning for Tandleman. Look away now.) Many features distinguish Belgium as a civilised country. Having drinks machines on many platforms is one. Having beer in them is an even bigger one. Even if it is just Jupiler. It was cold, too.

In case you don't know, an intercity tram runs most of the length of the Belgian coast. It's a brilliant way of getting form one resort to another. I say one resort to another. The coast is so heavily built up, it's more like one mega-resort stretching the whole of it's length. The Atlantic Wall Museum (Domain Raversijde) is one of the few gaps. Our tram journey took about an hour. Much of it standing up. Just as well I had that can of delicious Jupiler to drink. (Tell Tandleman he can look back again now.)

There was a tram stop right at the end of our hotel's street. Unfortunately, the hotel was at the other end. I've become very acclimatised to the Netherlands. So much so, that I now find any sort of hill scary and exhausting. The hotel was up in the dunes, possibly as much as 50 feet above sea level. How was I expected to climb that with all my luggage (two shirts and a change of underwear; the kids have to carry their own stuff)?

I found the bar 30 seconds after throwing my bag into a corner of our room. My expectations weren't high. First impressions - when I spotted Maes Pils and Grimbergen taps - confirmed this. Then I noticed signs advertising Brugse Zot and Slaapmutske. Not had any Slaapmutske beers before. The Triple was sold out, so I made do with a Bruin. Alright, but a bit homebrewy. I had time to squeeze in a Chimay Blue (not the world's greatest, I know) and a huge jenever before Dolores dragged me away.

The hill didn't appear quite as mountainous on the way down. But there was another to struggle up to reach the promenade. The kids didn't fancy a dip in the sea so we dipped into seafront pub (De Zeemeermin, Mermaid) instead. Just chosen at random. Five draught and about two dozen bottled. In parts of Holland, that would classify it as a specialist beer pub. Petrus Oud Bruin and Petrus Dubbel Bruin were on tap. But I opted for something else.

Have I mentioned the Ton Overmars disaster? He's my local purveyor of all things alcoholic. In most cases St. Bernardus by the case. When I dropped by last Tuesday, the shop was closed. The bastard's gone on holiday for a fornight. How selfish can you get? I'd been a week without St. Bernardus. So obviously, when I spotted it on the menu, I ordered an Abt. It came in a proper St. Bernardus glass rather than a Chimay one, but you can't have everything.

I wasn't allowed to linger. We had a supermarket to find.

You can't accuse Niuewpoort Bad of being pretty. 10-storey blocks hunch shoulder to shoulder along the whole seafront. The high street behind is little better. A forlorn little church is about the only building more than five minutes old. But I wasn't on an architectural tour. I had a pretty good idea of the aesthetic qualities of the Belgian seaside before I came. At least there are plenty of shops.

We found a little Spar hiding amongst them. Neither the largest, poshest nor cheapest supermarket I've encountered. It didn't have a huge beer section. But guess who I did see smiling cheerfully out at me from an azure blue label? That's right. The St. Bernardus Abt. I'll have six of those, thank you. (They were only 1.32 each. What a bargain.)

I've forgotten to tell you why we were in Oostduinkerke. One of Dolores's university mates was there for a fortnight. Staying in the same hotel. We spent the evening with them, drinking wine in the hotel garden. The others were drinking wine. I'd got my Abt. Why the hell would I drink wine? Kerstin and Klaus live in Leipzig. And their house has a guest room big enough to sleep all of us Pattinsons. I'm always very nice to them. It's because I'm such a friendly, open-hearted bloke. Really.

That's the end of part one. You know the score. One post per day of holiday. This time, there should be a film version, too. Andrew was on video camera duties. He's editing it today. I doubt I'll publish it on the web. I don't want you to swoon at my manly beauty. Or laugh at my beer gut.

Historical note
Our hotel was on land purchased by socialist politician Emile Vandervelde and first housed a camp for children fleeing the Spanish Civil War. After WW II it was a socialist holiday camp. It was rebuilt as a hotel in 1996. Why do I mention this? Vandervelde was the man responsible for banning the sale of spirits in Belgian pubs for 60 years. I'm equivocal about his legacy. The abundance of strong beers in Belgium has partly been attributed to the ban on hard liquor in pubs. I drank an extra large jenever to Vandervelde's memory in the hotel bar.

Sunday 27 July 2008

A special kind of company

"Few companies survive for two hundred and fifty years". That's what it says in the foreword of "Good Company", a history of Scottish & Newcastle, published in 1999. Clearly, even fewer survive 260 years.

They aren't the only brewery to have this "it couldn't happen to us" attitude to takeovers. I've a pile of brewery histories and most of them are guilty of this way of thinking. Especially ones that bought and closed dozens of others.

Does anyone have any idea who now owns the rights to the name Courage Russian Stout? I've been considering buying them. I've plenty of the original recipes. And images of old labels. I'm sure I could find a brewer to do the actual brewing.

Saturday 26 July 2008

Czech trains and beer

The Czechs always had their priorities right. There was never any problem getting the necessary provisions for a train journey in Czechoslovakia. You could even buy draught beer, served in wax paper cups, on the platform to carry on with you. Where else do they do that?

I have many happy memories of boozing on Czech trains. Buying tickets, now that was tricky. Not the actual ticket itself. That was easy enough to purchase at one of the many windows. It was getting hold of a mistenka that was the problem. For all the long distance trains you needed one of these, too*. In Hlavni Nadrazi in Prague there was just a single counter selling them, hidden away somewhere in the bowels of the building. With no-one speaking English, finding it was quite an initiative test.

As just one person sold mistenky, there was always a long queue. Which is how come I had so little time on the platform. When I was travelling to Brno in 1985. For the summer school to learn Czech. I'd flown into Prague and was taking the train the rest of the way. I should have had plenty of time. For some reason, the service between Prague and the country's second largest city wasn't great. There was a big gap in the middle of the day. If I missed the train, I'd have several hours to wait for the next.

By the time I had my mistenka in my hand, there were only ten minutes before the train was due to leave. Luckily, there was a kiosk right on the platform. It sold beer. Unfortunately, there was a queue. I dumped my bags on the train and joined it.

Eight minutes to go. Five people in front of me. I hoped no-one had nicked my unattended bags. The customer at the head of the queue finished. Six minutes left. Hurry up will you. There's a man with a thirst and a train to catch back here. The next two were pretty quick. Five minutes. Naturally, it was now turn for the chatty but indecisive old dear. Get a move on will you. She finally made up her mind. Two minutes. The bloke in front of me just wanted a packet of fags. Brilliant. I still had 90 seconds. "Sest piv, prosim." Six beers should be about enough for a four-hour train ride. I threw a note in the assistant's direction and didn't bother waiting for my change.

Still 20 seconds to go according to the station clock. I jumped through the nearest door. Where was my seat? The train started moving before I found it. My heart was still thumping a dark jungle rhythm as I bustled through the train. Bang! Why's my shirt so wet. Have I been shot? Not to worry. One of the beer bottles had exploded. Compartment found, I sat thankfully down in my beer-perfumed shirt, clutching the five intact bottles. "What happened to your shirt?" That's what I think a fellow passenger meant, pointing at my shirt quizzically. I mimed an explosion. That seemed to satisfy him.

Just one slight problem. I had no bottle-opener with me. "Mate otvirac?" I asked my new friend. I knew all the important Czech vocabulary. He didn't have an opener. But that wasn't a problem. No Czech needed one. They were incredibly ingenious when it came to getting at beer. We were in a compartment carriage with pull-down windows. My mate demonstrated how to hook the crown cork on the lip of the window and push it back up into the closed position. The crown cork magically flew free. Another useful skill learned.

"Chces pivo?" "Ne." He didn't even want a beer as reward. What wonderful people the Czechs are.

Which beer was it? I think it was Mestan. But I could be wrong. Rarely has a beer tasted so good. I know that.

*There's a passage in "Three Men on the Bummel" taking the piss out of the need for several tickets to travel on central European trains. Almost a century later, the Czech system was still the same.

Friday 25 July 2008

Irish breweries

Another book arrived yesterday. It's an overview if Irish agriculture and industry published in 1902. I'm only really interested in one chapter. Any guess which?

A thought struck me while flicking through the tables of statistics. Ireland had the first truly modern brewing industry. I'm talking here in terms of its structure, not so much how the plants themselves were equipped and arranged.

One brewery - Guinness - was dominant. It brewed more than two thirds of all the beer produced in Ireland. The second largest brewer made less than a tenth of the quantity Guinness did. With a massive export trade, Guinness was not only the largest brewery in the UK, but in the whole world, with an output of more than 2 million barrels annually. There were just a handful of medium-sized breweries, seven to be precise, producing more than 50,000 barrels. The other 30 were all pretty small.

That's the type of structure you see in much of the brewing industry today. In Holland, you have Heineken, in Denmark Carlsberg, in Belgium Inbev, in the USA Anheuser-Busch (though not for much longer).

The early appearance of a brewing monolith could go far to explaining the relative scarcity of new brewers in Ireland. That and the stranglehold Guinness has on retail outlets.

Another intersting point is the minimal use of adjuncts and sugar. In Ireland, these only made up around a quarter of a percent of ingredients used. In the UK as a whole, it was more than 7.5%.

Is brewery consolidation over?


What? You expect more detail? Usually the complaint is that I provide far too much detail. What a picky lot you are.

Mega deals like that between Inbev and Anheuser-Busch usually concentrate the minds of those suddenly confronted with an enormous competitor. I expect a reaction.

Currently, assuming the AB-Inbev merger does go ahead, there are 5 serious global players:


I expect that number to fall by at least two. Who will join forces with whom? Assuming Inbev will be occupied for some time digesting AB, that leaves us just four.

From a US point of view, combining SABMiller and MolsonCoors would make sense. They've already combined their North American operations. Like AB, the activities of MolsonCoors are mostly concentrated in America. Which puts them at a distinct disadvantage. The only growth in the US is in imports and craft beer.

SABMiller, Carlsberg and Heineken all have a good geographical spread around the world. Though only SABMiller do serious amounts of brewing in the USA. Are they about to start fighting over MolsonCoors?


Let's have a look at the possibilities for mergers.


Which is your favourite? Mine has to be Heineken-Carlsberg. Give me a few minutes and I'll think of the reason why. Or SABMiller-Heineken-Carlsberg. How about that for world-domination?

That should be all the permutations. I'll be able to say "I predicted that" no matter what happens.

Is brewery consolidation over?


What? You expect more detail? Usually the complaint is that I provide far too much detail. What a picky lot you are.

Mega deals like that between Inbev and Anheuser-Busch usually concentrate the minds of those suddenly confronted with an enormous competitor. I expect a reaction.

Currently, assuming the AB-Inbev merger does go ahead, there are 5 serious global players:


I expect that number to fall by at least two. Who will join forces with whom? Assuming Inbev will be occupied for some time digesting AB, that leaves us just four.

From a US point of view, combining SABMiller and MolsonCoors would make sense. They've already combined their North American operations. Like AB, the activities of MolsonCoors are mostly concentrated in America. Which puts them at a distinct disadvantage. The only growth in the US is in imports and craft beer.

SABMiller, Carlsberg and Heineken all have a good geographical spread around the world. Though only SABMiller do serious amounts of brewing in the USA. Are they about to start fighting over MolsonCoors?


Let's have a look at the possibilities for mergers.


Which is your favourite? Mine has to be Heineken-Carlsberg. Give me a few minutes and I'll think of the reason why. Or SABMiller-Heineken-Carlsberg. How about that for world-domination?

That should be all the permutations. I'll be able to say "I predicted that" no matter what happens.

Thursday 24 July 2008

19th century Belgian beers

I don't currently have details of many old Belgian beers. A few lagers from the 1950's. Nothing that interesting there. And a handful from the 19th century, mostly lambics. That's more intriguing.

Let's take a look at them.

Someone asked the other day how the acidity was measured in one of my tables. In this case, it's lactic acid percentage by weight. If you compare these lambics with the German top-fermenting beers I wrote about a couple of days ago, you'll see that the lactic acid content of some of the German beers is even higher. Mouth-puckeringly sour, I would say.

The attenuation of the lambics is, as you would expect, pretty high. What surprised me was the alcohol content. Much higher than modern versions. Now can anyone explain that? The Petermann is also unexpectedly strong. I would have guessed 5% ABV max. Just goes to show how accurate guesswork is.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Brewery Life

Despite all my obsessing on the subject, my professional contact with brewing has been achingly brief. Just a few weeks between school and university, back in 1975.

I'd been looking forward to a summer on the dole and was a bit miffed when the Labour Exchange found me a job. Bastards. On the plus side, it was in a brewery and the money wasn't bad. On the minus side, it was shift work and it brewed no cask beer.

There's a particular smell that all breweries have. A mixture of fermentation and disinfectant. As soon as I catch a whiff, I'm transported back to James Hole's 1975. it permeated the whole brewery. Even the kegging line, where I worked.

My work was relatively simple, but physically demanding. Put six kegs in the rack and set the washer going. While that went through its cycle, I'd fill another six kegs and roll them over to a corner of the bay or straight onto a lorry. By the time I'd filled the kegs, it was time to take the six others off the washer and start the whole process again. Not exactly varied.

I'd been taken on because of increased sales due to hot weather. Not something you always get in England. That had affected what was going into the kegs, too. More lager than usual. Most of what I filled was lager, AK and, to a lesser extent, Mild. There was also the odd keg of IPA. It was a former Warwick's beer and at that time was sold in just one Newark pub, The Vine. I can clearly remember that the IPA sticker was blue - just like the bottle label had been for decades before.

We had two 15 minute "tea" breaks and half an hour for dinner. These were spent in a dank and dingy cellar, with a couple of kegs standing in the corner. I put tea in inverted commas because no-one drank tea during breaks. The kegs were full and you could help yourself to as much beer as you wanted. The regular staff could easily knock back 5 pints in 15 minutes. My intake was far more modest. Firstly, I couldn't physically drink that fast. Secondly, because I wasn't that keen on the beer. Typical. Get a job in a brewery and it's one whose beer you dislike.

I'm sure no brewery still allows its workers to slurp down as much as they like during the working day. We were working pretty heavy machinery and lugging weighty full kegs around. It can't have been very safe if you were half (or three-quarters) cut. Though I have noticed that hard, manual labour soon wears of the effect of alcohol.

I never got to see most of the brewery. The mash tuns, coppers and fermenters. All the interesting bits. I did once go up into the malt loft. Shafts of sunlight from the tiny windows illuminated the thick dust and the air was filled with the sweet, comforting smell of malt.

It was just as well that I'd been issued with a pair of industrial steel toe capped wellies. A couple of times I dropped a full keg on my feet. I'd have had a full set of matching broken toes, if not for those wellies. And there was water all over the place. I remember the floors being permanently wet everywhere I went in the brewery. From my viewpoint, it seemed to exist exclusively of gloomy, damp spaces. Except where we worked which, being next to the loading bay, was open to the outside on one side.

Though it never brewed anything decent after I started drinking, it was still nice to have Hole's in Newark. It spread the delectable smell of mashing across the town every day. Every day until 1982, when it was closed by Courage. And that was it. The end of Newark's brewing industry. Today the town has no brewery of any kind. I'm glad that, in some small way, I got to participate in the trade that had once made Newark famous. Before just its memory remained.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

German top-fermenting beers 1850 - 1910

Time to look at German Ales. Sorry, German top-fermenting beers. The period I've chosen is when most of them began their dash to extinction. Very few of the styles listed still exist. Those that do won't require a second had to count all the examples.

What are the common characteristics of many traditional German top-fermenting styles? Low ABV and high level of acidity. That about sums them up. A beer like Berliner Weisse, nowadays at the extreme low end of ABV and extreme high end of acidity, was a fairly run-of-the-mill beer 150 years ago.

Many of those listed above would nowadays barely qualify as beer because of their minimal alcohol content. In fact, the Gose aside, I doubt any of them could get you very intoxicated. It's no wonder North Germans were prepared to pay more for Bayerisches Lagerbier with 4-5% ABV.

The contrast with British Ales of the same period is striking. These range from 5% to over 10% ABV.

But the story is more complicated than that. At the same time there were top-fermenting beers - such as Mumme ot Adambier - with massive OG's. Though, as in the case of Mumme, this didn't necessarily a mean a high ABV.

Adambier sounds impressive. I know at least one brewer in the States has had a go at it.

Monday 21 July 2008

Bottled Stout 1959

Another very specific post today. I just hit a rich seam in the Whitbread Gravity Book. Loads of Stouts, all analysed on September 3rd 1959. The beers came from an array of regional breweries across the Midlands, North and Scotland. A couple are even still around.

The Stouts have broadly similar OG's - between 1039 and 1049 - yet are remarkably diverse in ABV and apparent attenuation. They range from Holt's Brown Stout at 4.7% ABV and 83% attenuation to Younger's Capital Stout at 2.8% ABV and 51% attenuation. The other beers are spread pretty evenly between these maximum and minimum figures.

What does that tell us? That British Stouts were very diverse. The ones at the bottom end of the attenuation scale must have been pretty sweet. The word "Sweet" in the names of many of these beers is a bit of a giveaway on that count. On the other hand, anything with over 80% attenuation must have been dry. These are how they break down:

>80% attenuation 3
70-80% attenuation 4
60-70% attenuation 16
<60% attenuation 15

From which I deduce that a majority of these Stouts were quite sweet. A significant minority - 18% - were dry.

What's the purpose of this? Just me hammering away at the point "Not all British Stout was sweet".

Sunday 20 July 2008

Five beers for five pubs

I'm meeting anti-American Mike in Wildeman tonight. He's keen to experience a smoke-free environment in his favourite places. I think Ooievaar tops his list.

Which got me thinking. I've done "10 Amsterdam pubs to visit this summer" and "10 Dutch beer you should try". What about a combination list? "Five Amsterdam pubs to visit this evening and 5 Dutch beers to drink in them". Or isn't that snappy enough?

Ooievaar/Brand Up
I'm never disappointed by a visit to Ooievaar. The barmen are friendly and attentive, the atmosphere intimate and the clientele varied. You could sit next to a suit on his way home from the office or a girl taking a break from a very different type of work. Or both. Despite being tiny and really a Jenever bar, it still has a decent lineup of draught beers. La Chouffe, Brugse Zot, Gouden Carolus Classic. And Brand UP, of course. Should you ask "Ron, which Dutch Pilsners are worth drinking?" my answer would be brief. Grolsch, Christoffel Blond, Amstel 1870 and Brand UP. UP is very plae in colour, dry and with a delicious hop character. It was recently returned to its classic recipe after the bitterness had been ratcheted down a few notches some years ago. I find it goes very nicely with one of the boiled eggs they sell.

For the pisshead: a Kopstoot Royale of Brand UP and Wees 5 jaar jenever.

Cafe Belgique/Vlo
Me and Café Belgique have grown apart in recent years. I blame fag smoke and Mike. I used to be a regular feature at the end of the bar. Many assumed I was part of the fittings. It's a super little pub, which is great for atmosphere, but not for the atmosphere. get 3 or 4 smokers in there during the winter and the air was blue as a caribbean sky. Now fags have been banished, I'm looking forward to getting reacquainted. Given it's name, it's no surprise the choices of Dutch beer are limited. But it does have one that is both a rarity, distinctive and very good: 't Ij Vlo. As I wrote about Vlo yesterday, I'll limit myself to just one additional detail. Vlo is Dutch for flea. "Two fleas please, barman."

Pisshead combination: Vlo and Filliers 8 jaar jenever.

Haven van Texel/Texels Skuumkoppe
Beer from Dutch micros, 't Ij excepted, are rarely spotted outside specialist beer bars. This is an exception. Haven van Texel is, for its old town location, quite spacious, with effectively two rooms. I'm impressed that the owner went to the trouble of getting beers to match the pub's name. They sell most of the Texels range, split between draught and bottled. I've chosen witbeier Skuumkoppe mostly because of its crazy name. The canalside outdoor seating area is particularly pleasant and has a great view of some of the oldest parts of the city.

Steady your hands with: Texelse Skuumkoppe and Bols Korenwijn.

De Balie/Columbus
I'm not a fan of the Leidseplein. Crap pubs filled, later in the evening, with threatening drunks. I prefer my crap pubs filled with unthreatening drunks. When in the area, the one place I can drink with pleasure is de Balie. Stylish, modern and trendy. Sounds like a description of me, doesn't it? Columbus is one of their permanent tap selections. It's a powerful, tasty beer and the occasional random touch of brettanomyces does it no harm. Not for me. Purists may disagree.

Pisshead special: Columbus and Bols Korenwijn.

De Beiaard/Manke Monnik
Last time I dropped by here with my kids, I was disconcerted when the barman immediately shouted out "Korenwijn" to his colleague. I didn't think I drank that much of it. Being close to Heiligenweg, me and the kids often pop in after they've conned me into buying lego. Manke Monnik is a Tripel brewed at Bekeerde Suster, also part of de Beiaard chain. It's a pleasant, lightish beer, with a touch of orange and some hoppiness in the finish. Though I believe they've toned down the bitterness since it first appeared. A long glazed wall provides excellent views of the passing trams and the bikes that weave suicicdally between them.

For the alcoholically challenged: Manke Monnik and Bols Korenwijn.

De Ooievaar
Sint Olofspoort 1,
1012 AJ Amsterdam.
Tel. 020-420 8004
Opening hours: Mon - Thu 15:00-01:00
Fri - Sat 15:00-03:00,
Sun 12:00-01:00.

Café Belgique
Gravenstraat 2,
1012 NM Amsterdam.
Tel. 020-625 1974
Opening hours: Mon - Thur: 12:00-01:00
Fri - Sat: 12:00-03:00
Sun: 14:00-01:00

De Haven van Texel
St. Olofssteeg 11,
1012 AK Amsterdam.
tel: 020 - 427 07 68
fax: 020 - 427 07 68

De Balie
Kleine Gartmanplantsoen 10,
Tel. 020 - 553 5131
Fax: 020 -
Email: Homepage:
Opening hours: Sun - Thur 10:00-01:00
Fri - Sat 10:00-02:00

De Beiaard
Spui 30,
1012 XA Amsterdam.
Tel. 020-622 5110
Opening hours: Mon - Thu 11:00-01:00,
Fri - Sat 11:00-02:00

Saturday 19 July 2008

Fuller, Smith & Turner

One of the thrills of the Whitbread and Truman gravity books is finding the beers of long-vanished breweries with exotic names. Beer & Rigden; Buddon Bigg; Catterick & Swarbrick; Cox & Holbrook; Gordon & Blair; Groves & Whitnall; Norman & Pring; Red Tower Lager Brewery; Russell & Wrangham; Starkey, Knight & Ford; Steel & Coulson; Warwick & Richardson; Wells & Winch; Wenlock; Whitworth Son & Nephew; Young, Crawshay & Young.

Then there's the occasional one that's still around. Like Fuller, Smith & Turner.

Let's take a look at their beers, shall we?

London Pride has been around in its current form the longest. I'm not sure when it was given that name, but I'm pretty sure the 1951 Best Bitter is the same beer. You can see how their Pale Ale (or Bitter) was emasculated during WW II, dropping from 1050 to a puny 1032. In 1959 it managed to have an even lower OG than their Mild. I assume that London Pride was introduced around 1951 when government controls on beer gravity were loosened. Many breweries took the opportunity to re-introduce a stronger Bitter, though not at pre-war strength.

Why doesn't ESB appear until so late? Because it wasn't introduced until 1971, when it replaced their Burton (Strong Ale in the table). Fuller's Mild, by then called Hock, was discontuinued as a regular beer in the early 1980's. A shame, as it was rather nice, when you could find it. Mild had already pretty much disappeared as a mainstream beer in London by the late 1970's.

Groves & Whitnall
Regent Road,

Red Rose Stout, September 3rd 1959:

Price size package FG OG Colour ABV attenuation
12.5d halfpint bottled 1018.7 1047.5 250 3.7% 60.63%

Bought by Greenall Whitley (spit) 1961 and closed 1972.

There's also a Groves & Whitnall forum. The mere knowledge of its existence brings a smile to my face.


I was pleased to read that the British Guild of Beer Writers has introduced a new category in its annual awards. For beer writing published in electronic media. About time. There's much excellent stuff about beer on the interweb. Some of it not even written by me.

It's a recognition that "proper" writing isn't limited to printed media. That's been true for a decade. Like I said, about time. The small market for specialist beer publications means that not much makes it into print. How many full-time beer writers are there in the world? A dozen? Maybe not even that. Some of the field's most distinguished scribes - Martyn Cornell and Pete Brown, for example - still need other work to survive financially. The arrival of the internet has given hundreds more the possibility of writing about beer. That can only be a good thing.

The quantity and range of beer writing has expanded enormously. Obviously the quality varies, but there are some damn good writers out there. The best easily match those working in physical media. Stonch, Tandleman, The Beer Nut, Boak and Bailey, Impy Malting, to name just a few. They deserve to have their work recognised.

I hope the web's best writers will submit pieces for this year's awards. You don't need to be a Guild member. Come on, show the world how good web writing can be.

Friday 18 July 2008

Irish breweries

Whilst researching British beer, I come across quite a bit about Ireland. Not surprising, as it was part of the UK before 1922. Irish beer is also one of my side interests. That partly stems from a fascination with Guinness. Not the crappy standard Guinness spouting out of nitro fonts at sub-zero temperatures. Proper Guinness. The (sadly now deceased) bottle-conditioned version and the Special Export Stout reserved for us lucky bastards in the Benelux.

Today I've got two more tables for you. The first shows beers from Ireland's other two Stout breweries, Murphy's and Beamish & Crawford:

If you compare this with the figures I've already published for Guinness gravities, you'll see that they're generally similar.

The second table shows the number of brewers and beer retailers in the divisions of the UK in 1838:

Don't you just love numbers? These ones tell us so much about the differences between the regions.

First, the number of breweries varies hugely. England has far more than either Scotland or Ireland. This isn't just because of the greater population of England. At this period, before the Irish famine, the difference between the population of England and Ireland was much, much smaller. Why are there so many more breweries in England?

Here are the population figures from the 1841 census:

England: 15,002,000
Scotland: 2,621,854
Ireland: 8,199,853

(How many other countries in Europe have a population much lower than in 1841? My guess is none. A demonstration of the terrible impact of the famine in Ireland.)

Take a look at the spread across the output categories. More than half the English breweries were producing less than 100 barrels a year, or around 166 hectolitres. That's bugger all. Few modern brewpubs produce less than 300-400 hl annually. In the 1830's in most of England, except for London, a large proportion of pubs still brewed. And a lot of them were pretty small. Only brewers in the last category, making more than a 1,000 barrels a year, were really operating on a commercial scale.

This is probably about the maximum number of breweries ever operating at one time in England. Publican brewers were already well on their way out in London, and the same was about to haoppen in much of the rest of the country. Though in some areas, such as the Black Country and part of Yorkshire, there were still considerabnle numbers of pub breweris well into the 20th century (the last one in Leeds, the Lord Nelson, ceased brewing in the 1950's)

The figures show a very different situation in Scotland and Ireland, where very few breweries were in the smallest three categories. This tells us that brewing was already mainly a commercial industry, carried out in stand-alone breweries. This feature is most apparent in Ireland.

You'll notice that when it comes to beer retailers, the figures are much closer. These undoubtedly more closely reflect the relative populations of the three regions. The greater wealth of England is reflected in the much higher proportion of retailers whose premises had a rateable value greater than 20 quid.

I'll doubtless post more soon about Ireland. I've just ordered a book published in 1902 about Irish agriculture and industry. It'll make a change for you from decoction and the Gravity Books.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Ten Dutch beers you should try

I've noticed how much people like lists. And it's always been my policy to give people what they want. Except when I give them something else instead and hope they don't notice. So following on from my "Ten Amsterdam pubs to visit this summer" post, here are suggestions for what to drink in them. If you can find them. Dutch pubs have a habit of selling of selling good Belgian beers and crap Dutch beers.

As usual, these are in no particular order.

Christoffel Blond
Christoffel is the only new Dutch brewery to concentrate exclusively on lagers. Not surprising, as it was founde by a member of the Brand family who had studied at Wehenstephan. A pale lager, it's usually classified as a Pilsner, despite its 6% ABV. The first thing you notice is the massive hop aroma. It's one of those beers I could just sit and sniff all day. The aroma is that good. Should you manage to get it into your mouth, you'll be greeted by more abundant hop flavours and a scorching bitterness. (Here's an alternative description for American hopheads: there's a little a hoppiness in the aroma and a slight trace of bitterness in the finish.) Distinctive and very drinkable. That's a winning combination in my book.

Amstel Bock
That's right. I'm seriously proposing that you try a beer brewed in one of Heinken's mega lager factories. Amstel Bok is a surprisingly good beer, that regularly scores well in blind tastings. It's the classic old-fashioned Dutch Bock, malty, but without the tooth-rotting sweetness of more modern versions, such as the sugary Grolsch attempt. In my years on the dole, I drank hectolitres of the stuff, as it's dirt cheap. It demonstrates that Heineken can, when they want, brew something pretty decent. Clearly, they don't always aim that high. You'll have to wait to try it. It's only available October to January.

Van Vollenhoven's Stout
I have a soft spot for classic beer recreations, as you might have noticed. This is a cracker: deep, complex and satisfying. Guus, owner of de Schans, is a talented brewer. And this is one of his best efforts. Van Vollenhoven's was an Amsterdam brewery taken over by Heineken in the 1940's and closed around 1960. Heineken brewed a bottom-fermenting version until about half a dozen years ago. I was told yesterday that it won't be available again until Autumn. So you may have to be very lucky to try it this summer.

De Molen Tsarina Esra
Now I'm being perverse, picking a beer with incredibly limited availability. It's brewed just a few times a year in tiny batches and is sold only at the brewery in Bodegraven. Let's just say it gives you a good reasion to visit the brewery. If you're lucky, you may meet Menno. A great guy and a great brewer. Say "hi" to him from me. He's such a nice bloke that I don't even mind him describing it as an Imperial Porter. Powerful and complex without being overpowering or unbalanced. A top beer by any standards.

't Ij Vlo
Most of 't Ij's beers are firmly based on Belgian examples. Vlo is an exception. Brewed originally for beer shop De Bierkoning, the recipe is supposedly the result of an accident at the brewery. Now where have I heard that one before? It's certainly an unusual beer, dark amber in colour and with more coriander than an Indian spice shop. The coriander stops just short of total craziness and it's surpisingly drinkable and refreshing (what am I saying here, this is like a marketing man's description). Joris, you probably think it tastes like soup. I think it tastes delicious. This one at least is pretty easily avaible. If you're in Mokum. Unsurpisingly, you can find it bottled at Bierkoning. And it's one of Café Belgique's regular draught beers.

SNAB Speculator
Speculaas is a type of spiced biscuit eaten around Sinter Klaas. SNAB, not a brewery but an organisation that gets beers contract brewed, has created a beer featuring the same spices. It took them a couple of tries to get the balance right. Goldilocks. First year too much spice, second too little, since then spot on. A unique beer with a particularly Dutch identity.

Jopen Koyt
It's disheartening that Dutch micros usually draw their inspiration from abroad, Belgium in particular, ignoring their own rich brewing tradition. Koyt is an exception. A modern interpretation of a style of pre-hop beer once common in Holland. Some hops are used in Jopen's version, but they are barely noticeable through the spices. As was usual in medieval and renaissance Holland, the grain bill is a combination of wheat, barley, rye and oats. That adds a particular depth to the malt flavours I just adore.

Bavaria Pils
I've included this for a very special reason. To demonstrate just how disgusting a mass-produced Dutch Pils can be. Best would be to get a less discerning friend to buy it and just take a sip yourself. If it's chilled enough, you'll be spared some of the nastiness. A masochist might want to try it at cellar temperature.

Since the takeover of Grolsch by SABMiller, Bavaria has become Holland's largest independent brewery. Unfortunately, all their beer is crap.

Mestreechs Aajt
You may notice a theme here: uniquely Dutch beers. Meestrechs Aijt has similarities with Belgian styles such as Oud Bruin, where aged, sour beer is mixed with young beer. The twist here, is that Aijt is only 3.5% ABV. There's only one brewery that makes it: Gulpener. There was a rumour that production would have to cease because of EU rules about the use of wood in food manufacture. Thankfully, that hasn't happened yet.

Double Saison de Liège
The De Keyzerr brewery in Maastricht was closed and left intact in 1970. It's recently been opened for tours. This is a recreation of one of their products contract brewed by Den Engel Bierbrouwers. Why did a Dutch brewery make a Saison? Because they owned another brewery across the border in Liege. When they shut that down, production was moved to Holland. It's dry and spicily hoppy, as you would expect from a Saison.

Budels Oud Bruin
It doesn't necessarily have to be Budels Oud Bruin. Any other one will do. Not to be confused with the sour Belgian beer with the same moniker, Oud Bruin is one of a handful of indigenous Dutch styles. (It always makes me smile when I see them lumped together with Belgian Oud Bruin on beer ratings sites. And it's a good one to bring up when someone claims every single style of beer is brewed in the US.) Based on a very cursory look through Amstel and Heineken records, it seems to have appeared after WWII. Very sweet, low in alcohol and with virtually no hop presence. One for the extreme beer fans.