Craft Lager versus Industrial Lager

These are two separate blog posts I just realised I forgot to post on here, originally published in the Brewers’ Journal.  Although they are actually two separate blog posts, they tie in quite nicely and emphasise the differences between mass produced lager, where time is money, and a more traditional approach, where flavour comes first.

The Art of Brewing a Helles

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If I was to sit down and try articulate what made a world class Helles, I would probably use adjectives such as delicate, soft, deft and rounded. I probably wouldn’t use those words to describe most craft beers and certainly not any mass produced lagers.

Other than buying imported German Helles, it is almost impossible to enjoy a well-crafted, authentic German style example in the UK. Unfortunately, your average drinker really hasn’t been exposed to such a perfectly crafted beer. UK lagers from the big brewers are so far removed from the style it’s an absolute travesty. With frequent visits to Bavaria, when I was a young brewer, and with some help from some amazing brewers in Bavaria, I really got a feel for German brewing traditions and the thought processes behind these beers and I now feel very comfortable brewing almost any German style. Despite brewing an amazing range of forward-thinking ales, Thornbridge didn’t have a ‘Germanic style’ in its core selection. When I took the helm six years ago, I naturally wanted to add lager styles to the already impressive range. Since then, we have brewed a Vienna Lager, Smoked lager, Oktoberfest, Pilsner and numerous Weisse beers. I cannot believe it took me until this year to brew a Helles, the most popular style in Bavaria by far.

I remember years ago an old brewer told me that brewing is all about separation. I don’t think until the last few years as I have grown older it truly made sense to me. When I talk about separation, I’m talking about separation from start to finish.
When we mash in, we are separating the sugars from the malt. That’s not as simple as you might think. We mash in at a specific temperature in order to obtain the right spectrum of sugars, so:

a) We hit the correct final gravity, which will do so much for mouth feel and drinkability;
b) We hit the right original gravity, so the ABV is what we’re aiming for.

Not only is temperature important, but also pH and liquor-to-grist ratio should be correct. It’s also important we mash in as gently as possible, so we don’t cause any unnecessary sheer forces, damaging the husk. Control of all these parameters will prevent us from extracting any undesirable compounds resulting in astringency in the finished beer.
Onto lautering, which is separating the sweet wort we have produced during mashing from the malt. It’s important to have the right bed loading and raking profile, so we produce a relatively bright wort which is free of undesirable compounds, but still has the desired extract. I personally believe that a traditional infusion mash will produce the best quality worts, but careful and controlled lautering can still produce a fantastic quality wort (I would need an entire blog post to put my argument forward!).

There are a whole multitude of reasons why we boil as brewers, but, in terms of separation, we want to separate as much of the trub as possible from the wort that goes into the fermenter and also evaporate undesirable compounds. So a good aggressive boil, with sufficient evaporation, the correct level of copper finings and a well-designed whirlpool ale aid with this process. I personally don’t favour some modern German brewhouses which concentrate on efficiency, where evaporation rates are low and concentrate on only the elimination of DMS as a measure of efficacy. This, in my opinion, results in a distinct flavour profile and a poorer quality wort. I have spoken to other lager brewers who also advocate an aggressive boil throughout and good evaporation; I guess the proof is there to be drunk.

We are so careful to eliminate trub from our lighter German beers. We watch each cast out, to make sure none of the trub from the whirlpool is taken through into the fermenter. Rapid wort chilling also ensures the formation and optimal removal of cold break. We also employ a flotation vessel and trub off the first few mornings of fermentation. I even know of brewers in Bavaria who skim off the hop drive on the initial day of fermentation, as this is supposed to contain astringent compounds, but this is one step too far for us!
There are of course other considerations when making a Helles. The use of German Pilsner malt, the choice of yeast strain, the choice of hops. However, with the quality of raw materials at hand for brewers these days, only a fool could pick badly here! We are well known for using Bamberger Malt for our Germanic styles and the hops we use for Lukas at the moment are Hallertau Tradition, from the Hallertau region of Bavaria.

Onto fermentation – I know, from experience, when I lowered what would be considered a relatively cool fermentation temperature from 12C to 9C across the board for my lager styles, the improvement in perception of softness was significant. Low fermentation temperature reduce the already low ester formation and result in a much cleaner, more delicate beer. What is absolutely essential though, is getting a solid fermentation at these low temperatures, as a sluggish formation could do more damage than good.
After the primary fermentation we lager our Helles for five weeks. During this process the yeast slowly metabolises by-products, which were produced during the fermentation, and utilises any remaining gravity. Prolonged lagering essentially smooths out any rough edges and creates a much more delicate product. I have read many times that prolonged lagering is not strictly necessary, but the proof is well and truly in the pudding here. I defy anyone to show me a Helles which is lagered for a minimum amount of time which can complete with a world class Helles. We also make sure we only carbonate naturally by krausening each batch. This takes some jiggery-pokery with the brewing schedule sometimes, but ensures a much finer carbon dioxide bubble, which breaks out of solution much more slowly when compared to forced carbonation.

Probably the most obvious example of separation is producing a bright beer, using either filtration or centrifugation. This style is most commonly enjoyed sparklingly bright. Not only is this demanded from an aesthetical point of view, but also yeast masks flavour and alters the mouth feel (try drinking a ‘Kristal Weisse’ next to a normal Weisse beer). I know there is a trend amongst a section of the craft brewing fraternity for cloudy beer, but I’m not convinced it’s cloudy for the right reasons. I would advocate a tank beer if the yeast count was tightly controlled and supply chain could guarantee the product was drunk fresh. We might still brew a ‘Keller’ version of our Helles at some point in future, but I still need my arm twisting a little bit tighter…

The correct water profile is also very important. I remember brewing with relatively hard water and after tasting a lager in Bamberg, which used an RO plant to produce soft water, invested in a RO plant straight away. Our brewing liquor in Bakewell is (thankfully) naturally very soft. What difference does soft water bring to the table? The best way I can describe it is that a lager goes from being 2D to 3D!

One other final point is the overall structure of the beer, to me this is of fundamental importance. When I first set out to brew a Helles, I rounded up samples of some the best around and measured the final gravity and bitterness. The relationship between final gravity and bitterness ensures supreme drinkability. We monitor every batch extremely closely to make sure they are in specification. If we are slightly out, we hold back and blend with another batch to correct it.

So, I hope you see what I mean about how important separation is when brewing this style, as faults will stick out like a sore thumb and ruin the desired soft palate. There is a reason why Helles is so popular in Germany and that is because of its supreme drinkability and thirst -quenching attributes. They might not be as fashionable as hazy DIPAs at the moment, but I know what I’d be prefer to be drinking when the mercury hits 30C.

Why the Big Boys Need Craft Beer

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I was always well aware that the big brewers were pretty efficient at producing beer as cost effectively as possible, with the accountants ruling the roost, not the brewers.  However, it wasn’t until a few months ago when I got chatting to a friend who did a stint for one of the ‘big boys’ did I realise how efficient they were.

Here is an extract from the e-mail:  I have omitted the name of the two brands:

“We produced ‘X’ and ‘Y’, but ‘Y’ was definitely the more extreme ‘macrobrew’ of the two. The malt bill was about 25% syrup and only 75% malt. The rest of the wort production process was fairly normal (we did also use alpha-acid extract in the kettle, but only about 10% of the hops used were extract, and I don’t find that too out of the ordinary). We tried to ferment it in less than 100 hours, but we looked at hours, gravity/AE, and total VKD count before calling fermentation done. Once the beer was between a certain AE and the total VKD was below 100ppm, we crashed the temperature, regardless of whether it was still fermenting (usually it wasn’t, in fact many times we crashed a batch because it had gone above our 120 hour maximum fermentation time).

 Once a batch had hit 2 deg. C, we centrifuged it and sent it to a maturation vessel. During this transfer we would add two things: first was a tetra- and hexa-iso-alpha-acid extract blend to bring the bitterness in spec (the kettle hop dosings were purposefully low, so we could add the extract and get the correct bitterness every time); and secondly, we would add ‘recovered beer’, which was beer that was filtered from the bottoms of the maturation vessels, pasteurised and then re-injected into subsequent batches; ‘Y’ could be up to 20% recovered beer, ‘X’ could be up to 5% (but recovered beer was a blend of those two brands – all of the bottoms were collected together in a series of tanks and it didn’t matter which brand they were, the mixtures were injected into either beer).

 Maturation was at -1 deg C and had a minimum of 5 days in residence.  After that time it was filtered. At this point the ‘Y’ was at about 8%-9% abv and the ‘X’ was at about 6.5%-7.5%. During my time there, we filtered them at this higher alcohol content and used (really cool and impressive!) blenders that would dilute a beer with de-aerated water and carbonate it as it was sent from the bright tank to packaging. These blenders measured AE, abv and carbonation and was able to keep the beer in a series of specifications as it was blended at a rate of 150 hectolitres per hour (so around 300 hectolitres an hour of diluted ‘Y’). The ‘Y’ was blended with de-aerated water to 4% and ‘X’ was diluted down to 5%, so the ‘Y’ was cut oftentimes by more than half, whereas the ‘X’ was only diluted by about 25%.

 One of the issues with high gravity brewing, which I remember from my classes at Brewing school was that high gravity brewing results in decreased head formation and retention, hexa-iso-alpha-acids increases head formation and retention (tetra- do as well, but to a lesser degree). Tetra- and hexa-iso-alpha-acids are also light-struck resistant, so it limited skunking (although our facility only did cans and kegs). In fact, before I left,  we had developed ‘Z’, which is exactly the same as regular ‘Y’, just blended to 4.5% or 5% instead of 4%, but also brewed almost entirely with a tetra- and hexa- blend.

Now, you don’t need to be Master Brewer to realise the timeframe and practices they are employing are not exactly going to result in the crème de la crème of beers.

Big brewers are under the cosh when it comes to their market share. The Brewers Association in the US claim that craft beers sales equate to a whopping 12.5% of the market share:  https://www.brewersassociation.org/statistics/national-beer-sales-production-data/ and personally I think it’s only going in that direction in the UK too.  The big brewers are actually running out of ammunition when it comes to trying to halt the relentless thirst for craft beer. Despite them discounting heavily and trying to price craft beers out of the market place, the consumer still demands craft products. I believe this situation is here to stay and think any new bar or pub opening now with only the usual suspects on the bar would be doomed to fail. So, they have resorted to buying out major craft brands: Lagunitas, Ballast Point, Goose island in the US, Meantime and Camden in the UK to name but a few.

I think gone are the days where big brewers would buy out a brewery and gradually phase out the brands they purchased, purely to cull the competition. The big brewers realise the public are tired of mass-produced, ubiquitous yellow beer and if they paid such large sums for these breweries and then ditched the brands, another up and coming craft brewer would only replace them. I would suggest that the big brewers intend to leave the craft beers they have bought relatively untouched in terms of raw ingredients and processes. Would it really be in their interest to rip out the heart of these beers and brew them as they brew their major existing brands, which have been haemorrhaging market share?

It’s not all one way traffic though. To give credit where credit is due, the majority of craft brewers will never be able to compete with the big boys when it comes to consistency. I know from speaking to numerous landlords, bar managers and beer distributors that they are more often than not let down with the consistency and quality of craft beer, particularly when it comes to carbonation and clarity.

Despite being extremely proud of the craft beer revolution in the UK I often shy away from ordering a new craft beer unless I’m damn sure it’s going to be a good pint and opt for a safer bet at the bar or bottle shop and go for an established craft beer or a decent German beer.  Often craft beer can be not just hazy but actively soupy, flat and/or oxidised and people are expected to pay a premium for these beers. In addition, some newer craft breweries are concentrating heavily on marketing without paying the same attention to the quality of their beer something they could probably learn from the big boys.  So, for the customer it can only be good news when and if the big brewers continue to run the breweries they have purchased the way they were before and beer quality is maintained and widely available.

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