The transformation of the beer scene in Australia over the past few years appears to be even more evident in the pubs and bars of Melbourne than it is in the bottle shops. Even the most resolutely conventional pub seemingly offers at least some small concession to new wave brewing, if not necessarily to micro brews and brewers.
This often takes the form of Matilda Bay Brewing Co’s recently-introduced, American-syle Fat Yak Pale Ale (4.7%, actually owned by Fosters) and Coopers Brewery’s straw-coloured Pale Ale (4.5%, not actually a newcomer but perhaps the brewery that inspired the Australian beer renaissance). Both beers were available widely, including at my Melbourne colleagues’ “local”, the Mitre Tavern on Bank Place off Little Collins Street.
Tokyo had provided a tantalising view of how far the Japanese craft brewing movement has come in the last few years. But ten days in Australia prior to that had given me a much better opportunity to appreciate of how good beer can inspire new devotion and put down new roots.
Despite being a beer-loving nation Australia had, until recently, largely forgotten (or perhaps ignored) its brewing traditions and past. But as one of my first blog posts on The Alternative Tipple implied, that has now changed.
Going back to Australia after a gap of thirteen years proved just how much the situation has altered for small brewers. On my previous visit to Melbourne, what had looked like becoming an entrenched if fairly small scale part of the overall brewing scene (if Michael Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book was to be believed) was in fact petering out. Only a handful of new wave breweries looked like making it into the new millennium. On top of this, many of the more interesting old brands were fighting a rearguard action to stay alive in a country that had rewritten its brewing history around endless bland – if perhaps fuller-bodied than many – interpretations of international lager.
My last hurrah on this trip to Tokyo came at the suggestion of my good friend Nick’s brother Tom, who forsook the north of England for the Japanese capital some six years ago. Taking the train north and slightly east from Ginza brought us to Ryogoku, home of Tokyo’s sumo stadium and many of its training “stables”. While I couldn’t have my fix of Japan’s national sport (“living history” is an equally good descriptor for sumo) on this occasion, as the season was over, I was able to refresh myself in what must be among the most memorable beer establishments I experienced on this trip: the oddly-named but exceptional Popeye bar.
Thankfully free from too many cartoon memorabilia and references, Popeye offers perhaps the best selection of Japan-brewed micros in any pub in the country, preferring to focus on local brews (upwards of 70) and draughts over imports. Moreover, the owners clearly delight in the variety that beer has to offer, with a well-thought out list catering for all kinds of tastes and styles (daily beer menu here).
Prior to visiting Hong Kong I enjoyed overnight stops in Shanghai and Beijing, albeit with little or no opportunity to seek out interesting local products. Not that that should deter one from trying. A small number of modern-style brewpubs are to be found in both cities if you have the time to seek them out – for example Boxing Cat Brewery, of which there are two branches in Shanghai, and Drei Kronen 1308 Brauhaus, apparently an Asian outpost of a Bavarian brewer of the same name, although that’s not easy to confirm. There are several others.
Such was also the case in Taipei, capital of that “other” China, Taiwan, a few days earlier. Here Le Blé d’Or and a branch of the Gordon Biersch brewpub chain are among the establishments offering a break from the near-ubiquitous Taiwan Beer. There was no chance to try these either, unfortunately, although I can report that the national brew went well with local fare.
Thankfully a weekend in Tokyo did provide a few opportunities to sample Japanese brewing, however. This was true both in its established – and heavily German-influenced – form and in the shape of a new generation of micros that, somewhat surprisingly, are taking their influences from well beyond Germany or the more-recently influential US brewing scene.
After almost five weeks of near constant travel for business, I’m back in Blighty and finally in a position to update the blog. There’s much to say. While business travel doesn’t usually offer much scope for tourism it does typically offer the opportunity to try out a few local tipples, especially with the assistance of locally-based colleagues and friends.
Such was the case with my latest overseas adventure, which took me first to Canada, then on to Australia, Taiwan, Japan, mainland China and finally to Hong Kong. Which, as is my prerogative, is where I’ll start, if only to speed up the writing process and to save the best till last.
A busy weekend in Poland for a friend’s wedding offered ample opportunity to imbibe the country’s national spirit and a few of its better-known beers. Regrettably, lack of time and a huge storm during our brief stop over in Warsaw on the first night, restricted chances to delve far into Poland’s alcoholic culture and especially recent innovations. But I still came away with something worthwhile drinkwise.
Polish brews such as Tyskie, Żywiec and Lech aren’t difficult to find in the UK these days. The large number of Polish nationals currently living and working in the UK have encouraged our supermarkets to stock all manner of Polish goods over the past few years, although I’ve largely ignored the beers as rather mainstream. (Polish smoked sausages, especially Kabanos, have not escaped my notice however.)
Now for my first full post on a non-beery topic, although some similarities are apparent, especially in the way the concoction in question is consumed.
Kefir is one of a number of fermented milk drinks made and consumed in large quantities around the world but not well known in the UK or other Western markets. Thought to originate in the northern Caucasus, this example, Nourish Kefir, comes from a dairy near St. Pancras, London. Carr Foods, the company behind Nourish, is seeking to raise awareness of this ancient beverage and has already achieved a decent level of distribution for Nourish, largely in the greater London area but increasingly further afield. My bottle came from very near its point of origin, Alara Wholefoods in Marchmont Street, just down the road from St. Pancras station.
As a longstanding motor sport enthusiast I’ve become accustomed to spending several long, hot days each summer in the beer desert that is, or rather was, Silverstone, longstanding home of the British Grand Prix. Fosters, Carlsberg, Guinness and John Smith’s Extra Smooth were pretty much the only options for the thirsty racegoer for years, dictated by event sponsors and controlled supply.
No more. This July’s event boasted a small number of outlets where the cask ale drinker could slake their thirst with something nearer to their preferred pub tipple. Although it still takes a reasonably committed drinker to hold out for a better brew when they’re so widely spread out across the event site.
Whether it’s age, a diminishing ability to consumer large quantities of alcohol, or a growing sense of accountability to my employer (or probably some combination of all three), I’m increasingly finding myself drawn to the concept of low-alcohol beers.
Not the no-alcohol Barbicans, Clausthalers, or “alkoholfrei” versions of big-brand German beers such as Erdinger or Bitburger. Nor the traditional but generally uninspiring Belgian tafelbiers, Swedish folköl’s and the like. Nor, for that matter, anachronistic British beer survivors such as Manns Brown Ale and Tennent’s Sweetheart Stout. Rather, my interest lies in a new wave of beers designed from the outset to appeal to serious beer drinkers in situations where they would rather not imbibe too heavily.
Tuesday’s opening night at The Great British Beer Festival 2011 marked the 21st consecutive year that I’ve made the pilgrimage to this temple of beer. Ever since the festival made its permanent home in London, in fact, although the current event bears little resemblance to the one-off edition that began my adventure at the London Docklands Arena in 1991.CAMRA clearly learned a lot from that Dantean Inferno of an event, which – on the day I visited at least – saw most of the beers on offer dispensed at a temperature more akin to that of a brew kettle at full blast than that of a cool cellar. GBBF moved the next year to the greater expanse of Olympia where it stayed until 2005 (it’s going back in 2012) while barrel cooling jackets rapidly became de rigueur at all CAMRA festivals. The overall excellent condition of the various tipples sampled on Tuesday night at Earls Court, which would largely have passed muster in a Good Beer Guide-listed pub, is testament to the skill and knowledge that the Campaign’s volunteer army brings to the World’s biggest bar.