Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Black Velvet, Brett and the beer that came back from the dead

Christmas at the old Courage Brewery by Tower Bridge began with Black Velvet and oysters. Not just any Black Velvet, though, as Jim Robertson (the head brewer at Well’s and Young’s, who began his career on the south bank of the Thames) explains. “Every Christmas, the brewers got together in the sampling room, all dressed up, at noon on Christmas Eve,” he says.

“The head brewer would produce a 13-year-old magnum of Russian Stout and a 13-year-old magnum of vintage champagne  - which I’m lead to believe is the optimum age for vintage champagne, but I’m not an expert!  And the two were mixed together in an old enamel jug in the sample room  to form the brewer’s Christmas Black Velvet. Then the porters came in from the market with huge plates of oysters; we started our Christmas festivities with black velvet and oysters.”

It’s no wonder that Robertson, who worked at Horselydown between 1977 and its closure in 1982, has been the driving force behind reviving this most fabled of beers. It was in 2006 that the resurrection of this beer – which was last brewed in the early 1990s – first became possible. “That was when we [Well’s and Young’s] bought the Courage brands,” he says. “That immediately refreshed my memory. The major brews that we produced were Courage Best and Courage Directors - but IRS caused most excitement.

“It took probably about three years to get anybody else interested in it. There was not much enthusiasm four or five years ago for strong bottled beers: it was perceived to be flying in the face of commercial wisdom. But I was very passionate and I talked to ex-colleagues from Courage: a chap called Tim O’Rourke, who I’d worked with for many years, and others. They teased me: ‘when are you going to bring it back?’

“The key moment was when we started to work in the US with an export team. I was at a ‘Meet The Brewer’ function in Philadelphia, in a bar with the importer, and the bar owner said: ‘You used to work for Courage. Would you like to try some Russian Stout I’ve got stacked away in the cellar?’ So with great enthusiasm, we tucked into the poor chap’s stock of bottles going back to the seventies! Much-treasured, we polished them off. He said it was about time we started brewing it again and replenished his stock.”

And here we are. This second vintage has been well-received, although beer geeks would surely like to have had a taste from the barrels that were seeded with Brettanomyces - but never released to the public.

“We did some experimentation where we took some of the brew off, put it in separate barrels and seeded it with Brett,” says Robertson. “That produces a very interesting beer but for me it wasn’t correct. It wasn’t Russian Stout. I’ve no doubt, particularly in America, there would be a heck of a lot of interest in a barrel-aged Brett version but that wasn’t what I wanted to produce.”

If that seems a little bit of a shame, then the beer that has been released is ample recompense. The effort required to produce it has been written about elsewhere but the steps taken to make sure the second vintage (2012) matched the first as closely as possible in terms of flavour are interesting. “I don’t believe the average drinker would be able to tell the difference between the vintages,” he says, “but I noticed some difference.

“The second time, we brewed six times as much beer as in 2011. There was quite a significant difference between batches – six brews, divided into two maturation tanks. One matured better than the other- it was a matter of yeast quality, I believe the second batch got too much dead yeast and hop from the fermenter. We re-pitched the second one, and blended it together before bottling. That meant that the final blend of 2012 was very similar to 2011.”

Robertson’s experience with IRS has clearly whetted his appetite for brewing historic beers, of which there are a number in Well’s and Young’s portfolio. “There’s  a couple I’d like to work on,” he says.

“One – which I’m keeping under my hat -  is a very standard, working-class beer which goes back to my Courage roots, and another one that I can tell you about - because we’re just about to launch it - is McEwan’s Scotch, which is seven per cent ABV. Again we’re really focused on the American market. It’s totally different to other beers in that category: sweet, full-drinking and lower in hop character.”

I spoke to Jim Robertson recently for an article in the Financial Times. Not everything he said could go into that story, though, so the rest is here. Strictly speaking, of course, he’s not really a London brewer - but his experience of London beer and brewing surely qualifies him to appear here.

Friday, 3 May 2013

An Argentine brewer in London

This weekend sees the first London's Brewing, at which over 30 of the city's best breweries will present their wares. It's a sign of how far London's beer scene has come in the past few years - and few brewers have come as far as Julio Moncada...

Julio Moncada’s life took a decisive turn the day he first walked into a London pub. “I saw these things on the bar, these handpumps,” he says. “I'd never seen them before. I said to the barman: ‘What is that? Can I try it?’ 

"It was completely different to what I was used to, so full of flavour and aroma. It just blew my mind. From that day on, I have been drinking cask ales, I have been trying different beers all the time. I haven’t stopped since.”

That was in 2001. 12 years on, Moncada is not only a keen drinker of cask ale but a producer, too, having set up his eponymous brewery in Kensal Green just under two years’ ago. It’s not something that the 35-year-old would have predicted when he left his hometown of Villa Mercedes in the Argentine province of San Luis. That part of the world is better known for its wine: Moncada grew up near to Argentina’s  most famous wine region, Mendoza.

“Becoming a brewer was an accident more than a plan,” he says, smiling. “I didn’t think I would ever own a brewery.  [After I came to the UK] I was a homebrewer for five years: I was more into cooking, I wanted to become a chef. I did different courses and worked in different restaurants around London to get experience. But it was very demanding ... 

“With my wife, I decided to open a deli. I thought it would be nice to have the brewing equipment behind the  counter and to produce my own beer for the deli. That was the first step, when I thought it could be a business.

“It was after a course at [brewing training centre] Brewlab in Sunderland that I decided to just be a brewer: on the train back, I phoned my wife and said: ‘Forgot about the deli. This is what I want to do’.”

If brewing English beer (Moncada currently produce seven beers, all of them in traditional British styles) in London is an imaginative choice for an Argentine, it seems plenty of his countrymen have also been converted to craft beer. Moncada is a regular visitor to his home country – where Quilmes, a flavour-light pale lager, is ubiquitous - and made his latest trip home in April.

“I think the spread of good beer is everywhere,” he says. “I think there are probably 200 microbreweries in Argentina now, opening up everywhere. Patagonia is quite a big area for microbreweries: there’s lot of European communities there.

“There’s actually a town in Cordoba, they do the Oktoberfest,  it’s a German colony. They start exactly the same day as in Bavaria. That was one of the first places I really enjoyed beer, I went when I was 17. After that, I was going every year.”

Moncada is now a Londoner. The beer may be improving in Argentina, but he has no plans to return. “I’m established here,” he says.  “My kids were born in London. This is my home. I don’t see myself moving out.”

It’s an exciting, confusing time for beer in London, as Moncada acknowledges. Barely a week goes by, it seems, without a new brewery opening. “When I decided to open a brewery, I got a phone call,” he says. “The first person who called me was Paddy Johnson from Windsor and Eton, he explained to me what the London Brewers’ Alliance was about, and that I was brewer no 14. How many do we have now? 40, I think.

“At the last LBA meeting, we had another 10 planning applications to go ahead. By the end of this year, there should be at least another five new breweries. In 2014, there will be more. It keeps going up and up.”

A number of these breweries are and will be in West London, where craft beer is yet to fully take hold as it has in the Eastern half of the city. It’s an interesting peculiarity (perhaps explained by the relatively high cost of living in West London), but the overwhelming majority of London’s best places to drink beer can be found in its eastern half.

“It is more difficult in West London,” Moncada admits. “Often, we need to do business over there [in East London], but there are lots of microbreweries there, too. I’m like a foreigner!”

With the business thriving (Moncada, who along with brewer Sam Dicksion does all the work for now, is aiming to increase capacity and take on new staff soon), says this presents a problem. “Our biggest challenge now is to find and convince new pubs around here to stock our beer,” he says. “We have the problem with the tied pubs, there are so many around here.”

Perhaps some new beers will convince local publicans to take a chance on a local brewery. Although Moncada concentrate on English styles for now, that won’t always be the case. “We don’t want to get stuck in a routine,” says Moncada. 

“I always want to experiment and try something new. I’m always happy to try something new. What we like to do is try something and give it to people, to see their reactions. With our porter, for example  – we wrote three different recipes, gave it to a pub, gave it out for free. The punters voted for which one they liked best.”

If that sounds like fun, it clearly is. Moncada is soon to open a bar at the brewery (initially one Friday a month, but perhaps more often depending on demand) and the atmosphere at the brewery is happy and optimistic. “I’m really having fun,” says Moncada. “This job has stressful elements – we want it to be a success, to stay in business for many years to come - but I’m having a good time.”