Friday, 3 April 2015

Cans or Bottles? Does It Matter? #TheSession

In this 98th edition of The Session, Nathan over on MicroBrewr asks us to discuss beer packaging. Cans or Bottles specifically. Which is better? Does it matter?

Well, who actually cares and why? For that, we have to go back a bit. When the craft beer scene around the world was really picking up in the late 90s and early to mid 00s, there was a clear perception that any beer that came in a can was rubbish. Why? Because it was the packaging of choice for most macro breweries and they didn't produce anything worth drinking for craft beer drinkers. Sure, most of these macros also produced bottled beer but that was overlooked.

Craft beer only came in bottles, probably because canning lines were more expensive at the time. They probably still are actually.

Things started to change when Colorado brewery; Oskar Blues produced the first craft beer in a can. That was in 2002 I believe. In 2004 I married a girl from Michigan and I discovered craft beer in the form of Bell's Oberon while visiting so craft cans have been around longer than I have been drinking craft beer.

It took a long time for this side of the Atlantic to catch on but a number of UK breweries have since started to can. Brewdog were possibly the first and since then Beavertown and Adnams among others have made the change.

In Ireland, we got our first Irish micro-brewery canned beer from Metalman just a few short months ago.

The can itself looks brilliant, it makes use of their logo and style brilliantly. It might not stand out quite as much as the brilliant Beavertown artwork but it does stand out. Up until they got the canning line, Metalman was only available in draught. I'm not going to talk about the beer inside the can because it tastes the same as the draught version, just slightly less carbonated in the first batch, something that will be addressed and it really doesn't detract from it anyway.

I'm going to list some Pros and Cons of canned beer.

Lighter, stackable, safer, whole area can be used for info rather than what fits on a label, can be placed in a recycling bin*, unaffected by light, better seal=fresher product, cheaper shipping.

Misplaced stigma, probably not advisable to age beer in**.

Well, that looks very positive for cans. If I do the same for bottles?

Aesthetically pleasing, can be re-used by home brewers, good for cellaring beer**.

Cons: Heavy, dangerous (breakable), stack-ability is limited, more expensive shipping, cap seal can fail, light can get in to varying degrees depending on the colour.

Reading it like that, it sounds like the can is the clear winner. It has more pros than cons but it's not that simple. If you note the asterisks, I have some things to say on those ones in particular.

* Recycling: Cans are easier to recycle for the consumer because they can be placed in your recycling bin. Glass bottles can't in Ireland, they must be brought to the bottle bank. This usually means driving unless you live a few minutes walk from a recycling area. Driving to a bottle bank uses fuel and so on.

** Metal lining: cans are either made out of aluminium or a mix of steel and aluminium. Exposing liquid to these metals would result in oxidisation the materiel itself. This in turn wouldn't be much good for the contents. To get past this, cans are lined with a plastic coating. This plastic coating does not last forever and can fail entirely. This usually ruins the contents. Also, the coating is made of toxic materials. Usually it's in such a small dose that it's harmless but it's something to be aware of and over time, exposure could be problematic.

So, where does that leave us?
Possible health risks aside, I still think cans are the better form of packaging for fresh beer. Lagers, pale ales etc are fine from a can. Just consume as soon as possible. They are especially good for fresh hop forward beers like IPAs as the hop aromas and flavours will be as fresh as possible if consumed within a couple of months of packaging.

One other thing, you might wonder about bottle conditioning. Can you condition in a can? Yes you can. I have had New Belgium's Fat Tire in the can and it's can conditioned. The bottled version isn't and it's not as good either.

Old ales, imperial stouts or pretty much anything you might like to cellar for a few months/years should only come in a bottle and not a can in my opinion.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Little Bullies?

In my last article, I wrote about alleged bully like activities among the big three brewers in Ireland towards small independent Irish breweries. I wanted to look at it from the other side today.

Craft beer has taken off all over the world and the big drinks companies are taking notice. Some of them buy small breweries to add to their portfolio. Others release new products either under their own brand or a new faux craft brand. The big 3 in Ireland are no exception. Here's the thing, two of the big 3 are foreign based multinationals. One is Irish and known more for cider than beer but has recently started to get more involved in the Irish beer market.

All of them have new products that they have started pushing heavily recently. Could it be in retaliation? Craft brewers have been nibbling at their feet for the last few years and maybe they have decided to fight back.

Consider this. In 2010, the island of Ireland had 27 pubs serving Irish craft beer. A tiny number of pubs out of the thousands. By 2014, that number was in excess of 600 that we know of and that number was growing all the time and still is. While many of those pubs might only sell bottled Irish craft beer, plenty of them had draught. Those lines had to come from somewhere as tap space tends to be finite in pubs. In some cases, new lines would have been run but in others, something had to go and that meant that a well known brand was taken out and an independent local beer served in its place. For the most part, the beer that was taken out was probably not selling so it makes sense for the publican to try something new.

In the last couple of years though, new brands have emerged from the big 3 in response to the craft beer movement. To give an example, Diageo first brought out the new Smithwicks beers like the pale ale, winter spirit and so on. That was a number of years ago. More recently, they released Guinness branded beers such as Dublin porter, west Indies porter and the new Hop House 13. These taps need to go somewhere and I doubt they will want existing products of theirs taken out of pubs so that leaves a competitor's tap space.

Heineken have just announced that they are launching a new cider in Ireland from May. I don't know if this will be draught or bottle at the moment but if it's draught, things will get interesting. There's really only one major cider brand in Ireland on draught in every pub so will they be targeting that or craft cider taps?

So, what's the difference between a craft brewery replacing a big brand in a pub with a big brand replacing a small one? Is it all just business?

The way I see it is that a craft brewery can only replace a big brand in a pub if that big brand isn't making the pub enough money or if the publican wants to give consumers what they want. They also can't offer the publican any special deals of free kegs or the like. Their margins are already too tight.

When it's in reverse, the same can be true yes. Perhaps the craft beer isn't selling and the publican knows that people want the big brands products instead. It's more likely that the craft beer was selling just fine but the offer of a golden egg laying goose is too good to refuse.

Craft breweries have been buzzing around the big boys like flies for a few years. It sounds like they have started to reach for the fly swatter.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Big Bullies

It should come as no surprise that the large beer companies around the world are taking notice of the craft beer revolution, even if it's still a very small percentage of beer sales. The reality is that beer sales around the world are falling but craft beer consumption is actually increasing as is its market share.

With massive economies of scale, the big conglomerates have the ability to try and weather the coming storm. In Ireland, they have traditionally done this by offering free kegs or other items in exchange for adding a line. Mostly, they did this to each other before craft beer became "a thing".

In recent years, we have heard rumours that some of the big 3 drinks companies in Ireland are offering free kegs to replace a craft tap with one of their own. It's something that's a little unfair since the small producers lack the ability to give free kegs away.

A worrying trend that occurred because of this was that publicans that were friendly to each other would call up their mates and say that a certain brewery just gave me a bunch of free kegs to take out that craft beer tap I just got in. Those publicans would then got off and have a craft beer tap put in and wait for one of the big boy reps to show up and see if they get the same deal. It got to the point that some of the craft breweries were refusing to put in single taps in certain areas because they knew it would just be taken out a month later after the publican got his freebies.

All of this just sounds like good business by the big boys. If they can afford to do it then what's the problem? It's difficult for the small breweries but the other way of looking at it is that craft beer has become so popular that they can easily put their lost taps in somewhere that will appreciate it more so it's not the end of the world.

That all seems to have changed in recent months. I'm hearing reports from brewers and some publicans that some of the big drinks companies in Ireland are solely targeting craft beer, all craft beer. They are offering 5 figure sums to pubs serving lots of craft beer to take it all out and replace it with their products and to even agree to keep out the craft for a year. They aren't requesting the same of their larger rivals products for obvious reasons.

In one case, I have even heard of one breweries taps actually being taken away. Since these taps belong to the brewery, that amounts to plain theft.

Reps from some of the big boys have apparently been telling some publicans that it's actually illegal for them to take out their taps if they want to put in something else. This is clearly a pack of lies.

One very prominent Dublin pub known for craft beer was repeatedly offered major deals over the course of 2 years and each time, they turned it down. Recently, they relented and took a deal where the Irish craft taps have been reduced to one or two, down from nearly 20. It's not like the craft beer wasn't selling, the pub was always packed and it was a destination pub for tourists interested in local beer. The annoying thing is that it always had beer from the big boys anyway so consumers could decide which they wanted to drink so now all that's happened is that choice has been taken away from customers and craft beer drinkers will go elsewhere. Since the pub is so prominent, this will not make much difference to them as they will always be busy. It's a win win situation for the pub and the big boys but not for the struggling small Irish breweries.

All of this is hearsay of course because no one will go on the record. They are terrified of retaliation with no means to defend themselves. Does this behaviour sound like something else? There's another word for this sort of behaviour. In fact, there are several that spring to mind.

As far as I'm concerned, your product should sell itself. It shouldn't be forced on people because the marketing budget is there to enable that.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Poch’s Basalt

Just a random beer I had in my fridge. If I remember correctly, it's one of the leftover beers from the Dublin Beer Cup. I can't provide too much info about it because very little exists. The brewery is in Spain and called Poch’s Cervesa Artesana. The website is "coming soon" and even ratebeer has little more info than that.

What I can tell you is that Basalt is an Imperial Stout with strength of 9.5% ABV. I found it quite fizzy for an imperial stout but it wasn't pale lager territory and was actually quite pleasing. It was also quite oily and vinous with plenty of chocolate, a little liquorice and a hint of coffee. It's quite tasty and I suspect quite new to the market so keep an eye out.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Beer In Reykjavik

I was in Reykjavik at the end of January and as you can imagine, it was cold. It was only a little colder than Dublin but it's the wind that gets you. Going out without a hat and gloves was not an option. 

I knew Iceland was going to be expensive. I had been under the impression that beer was especially expensive and I could be paying €12 or more but in reality, it was half that for the most part. Don't get me wrong, it's still expensive but €6 isn't bad for a pint of beer by Dublin standards. They have happy hours in most bars. I only experienced this in one location and theirs was buy one, get one free for a couple of hours.

On arrival, we headed out to lunch and came across this absolute gem. Yes, that's the Chuck Norris bar and grill. It is a little piece of awesome in Reykjavik. Beer wise, they only had to versions of Viking pils which is OK. It was my first beer in Iceland but we were there for food and I had possibly the best pulled pork sandwich and possibly the best fries I have ever tasted. Lunch for 2 with a glass of beer each was about €42 or so. Expensive but not overly so. The same thing in Dublin would have been just under €30 I reckon. Unfortunately, this was the best value meal we had during our stay.

One of the best beers of the trip was Viking Íslenskur Úrvals Stout. I had many pints of this. It was very tasty. A big stout with lots of coffee and caramel along with rich chocolate. There's an almost chocolate syrup finish balancing the intense bitterness. It was also 5.8% and that was just the right ABV for that kind of weather.
They also had a juniper-berry bock, a sweet and caramel based bock with crisp lager bite. Some fruit but not much. It's a nice beer but I stuck with my stout.

Found some great graffiti at an underpass. This long wall, and more that's not in frame, was covered in symbols. This was some sort of code and there was a wall with a translation matrix so you could in theory translate all of these symbols. I imagine it would take many hours and you would probably be disappointed at the end.

You can get Einstök beer in Ireland for the last few years. I once had the whole range in a bag, handed it to my wife, who assured me she had it and it promptly fell to the ground as soon as I let go. All bottles smashed as I looked in disbelief, wondering what she thought she had a hold of? Anyway, what better place to try Einstök than in Iceland? The toasted porter is 6% and I found it a little metallic but with lots of coffee but also sweet toffee. It's nice but a little underwhelming. That said, I suspect another bottle might be better.

Three beers from the Borg Brugghús, starting with Galar Nr. 29 Mjödur is an 8.8 mead ale. I wasn't paying attention when I bought it and regretted it as soon as I realised. I opened it anyway, maybe it will not be so bad? No such luck, a bizarre aroma hit me. I then tasted it. Honey, spices, herbs, a sort of cross between aniseed mouthwash and honey. Meh... it went down the sink. This is not my kind of beer.

Myrkvi Nr. 13 Porter is another 6% porter but pretty different. It's very much like a milk stout. Incredibly sweet with no real bitterness. Good beer but a little on the sweet side for my taste.

Garūn Nr. 19 Icelandic stout on the other hand was a little bit more up my alley. This one is a whopping 11.5% and it's pretty wow. Massive chocolate and caramel body. Not much coffee but plenty of molasses and enough bitterness to keep it from becoming cloying.

And finally, from Ölvisholt Brugghús we have Ölvisholt Lava. This is a 9.4% smoked imperial stout. It's pretty smokey too. I thought it was perhaps a little on the fizzy side. Lots of dark chocolate here along with a little coffee. It's a little bitter but no hops aroma or flavours that I could detect. A very tasty beer.

I had some other beer during the trip of course, but this is what stood out for me. I can't say that Iceland is a beer destination, far from it. However, when you find yourself in Iceland, you can be sure that you will have little trouble finding some locally brewed beer.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Belgian Beer Box

Last month, I was sent a box of Belgian beer to try. It's from the Belgian Beer Discovery people which appears to be a similar idea to Beer52 (still working my way through that box). Belgian Beer Discovery are trying make a bigger impact in the UK so they have a website dedicated to the UK market. This website includes the cost of shipping in the price. You can have your monthly delivery from £26.90 or to Ireland (Republic) for €19.90 plus €17 shipping. This works out at pretty much the same as the UK price once converted.

Here's what the inside of the box looks like. Each bottle is individually wrapped in bubble wrap and separated by cardboard. The bottom and top of the box are also lined in bubble wrap making the whole box very secure. You are unlikely to suffer any breakages.

Taking everything out of the box, I was presented with a glass, bottle opener, a magazine and a beer menu that described all of the beers. Typically, you only get 8 x 330ml bottles* and a menu. There is an option to add a glass from the brewery and some other goodies if you wish. I'm not actually sure how much the optional extras cost offhand.  

The beer in the box is typically from a single brewery. It's always going to be a small or medium sized brewery so don't expect bottles of Leffe or Duvel. In my beer box, I got 4 beers from Brasserie Grain d’Orge in Hombourg. There were two of each so I could share them with my wife and get her thoughts.

This review is about the box and not the beer that happened to be in the box that I received. I enjoyed the beer that I got and it's exactly what was promised. 8 bottles of beer from a small craft brewery in Belgium. I thought that Brice and especially Joup were pretty good beers. Both were 7.5% and tasty. The other two were Aubel Triple and Grelotte, both 9% I liked the Aubel but to be honest, Grelotte left a lot to be desired. It seemed overly sweet and sugary without anything interesting to balance it out. It was also a big of a gusher, both bottles were actually.

The idea is sound. You get beer from small batch producers in Belgium. Beer that is likely not available in Ireland or the UK. If you are an armchair beer ticker then it's ideal.
You are clearly paying a premium for the service because of the shipping charges. If my maths are correct, the average price for a bottle of 330ml beer is about €4.61 each with this service. Not cheap but then, you would likely have to travel to Belgium to find most of this beer and even then, it might not be an easy task.

The real benefit here is as a gift. Something for that person who has everything. Someone like me actually.

*  Beers are in 33 cl or 25 cl bottles. Occasionally they might replace these bottles with 4 x 750ml bottles or 6 x 500ml bottles.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Support My Local? - #ShowUsYourLocal

The Show Us Your Local campaign is being driven by Jamie Olivers' Drinks Tube channel. The video above is from said channel and features the lovely Sarah Warman from Brewdog.

What's a local though? Is it the pub that's physically located the closest to you? In my case no, not even close. There are two pubs in the little Westmeath village I call home and neither are places I choose to drink. Neither of them serve the type of beer I want to drink so I need to look further afield. Mullingar and Tullamore are my two closest big towns and while they do have pubs serving good Irish beer from independent Irish breweries, transport is problematic. It's either a 3 times a day bus, last one being about 6 pm or else a €22 taxi ride each way. That gets expensive. It's just cheaper for me to get the bus to Dublin or spend the night at my mother's house if it's a weeknight.

So I consider Dublin my local. It's my local area to go drinking. It's where I'm from, where I work and where most of my friends live.

So where in Dublin do I consider my local? For me, the whole city is my playground. When I have to travel 80 km to have a few pints, a little extra walking time isn't going to kill me.

Here are some of my favourite places to drink in Dublin, in no particular order.

Any of the Galway Bay bars are often top of my list. Brewock and Alfie Byrne's are my two personal favourites because they are so different. Alfie's is much bigger and gets a different crowd to Brewdock. The others are quite similar, Against The Grain and Black Sheep. You often go to a different one for different things. Black Sheep for cask, Brew Dock for American beer and Against The Grain for an all around good mix up. A little further out there's the lovely Dark Horse in Blackrock and the 108 in Rathgar, though I haven't made it to that one yet.

The Bull and Castle, Dublin's original independent craft beer specialist pub. It's still a great place for Irish craft beer and even better if you want to eat a mouthwatering steak or succulent IPA marinated rack of ribs. The Bull and Castle showed us what good beer was in 2007 and Dublin hasn't looked back since.

A short walk from there to Leonard's Corner and the fantastic 57 The Headline. With about 20 taps of purely Irish craft beer, it is probably one of the, of not the best line-up of Irish beer on tap in Dublin and possibly the country. Add to that the knowledgeable staff and great food and you will wonder why you put up with the crowded and overly loud Temple Bar pubs. It can still get crowded though, it's a popular place at the weekend but you can always have a chat without the distraction of loud music and non stop TV chatter.

Any of the Porterhouse bars with Temple Bar being my favourite, just because I prefer the layout. Great beer, especially Wrasslers, Hop Head and TSB. They do their own tied beer or  a range of Irish and international craft beer on tap and an impressive and reasonably priced bottle selection.

The Norseman, formally Farrington's, formally the Norseman. It has come full circle in name but no matter which, the beer list is astounding. It boasts one of the best tap lineups in the city and for a bar in the middle of Temple Bar, that's impressive. My favourite thing about the Norseman is you can either be in the thick of things downstairs or go upstairs for some relative quiet and comfy leather couches to have a chat. The beer options are less impressive upstairs but it's only a short hop downstairs to get what you want.

O'Neill's on Suffolk Street, nooks and crannies everywhere and a great tap line-up. This is a tourist destination pub as well as a local Dublin destination pub.

L. Mulligan Grocer. When it comes to game changing pubs, this is second only to Bull and Castle. Not only did they bring Irish craft beer to Stoneybatter, not an area known for that sort of thing, they also opened after taking out the Guinness tap. A ballsy move that started a trend among other craft beer pubs. They were encouraged by the number of people that didn't walk out when they were told they didn't serve Guinness. This little gem has been written about in the New York times and many other worldwide publications. It's not just a beer heaven, it's a foodie heaven. Booking a table for dinner is always advisable, even on a week night. The bar area can also get very busy but you can usually enjoy a comfortable pint.

J.W. Sweetman's, formally Messrs Maguire. Currently it's Dublin's only brewpub, though that will be changing in the near future. This is a multi level superpub, possibly the largest pub in Dublin in terms of floor space with perhaps The Church(another good venue) its closest rival in size. Sweetman's brews their own beer on site and it's really good too. The porter is among the best porters available in Ireland, just let it warm up a little as it's served too cold usually. Order the porter and a pale ale and by the time you are finished with the pale ale, your porter might be ready to drink.

That's all I can think of at the moment. If I didn't put you on the list, it doesn't mean I don't like you. There are simply too many good pubs in Dublin. The best advice I can give is to use the BeoirFinder app to find a good one wherever you are on the island of Ireland.

At the end of the day, your local is not only where your heart is, it's wherever you find yourself when you are in the mood for a pint.