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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Champagne beers: they're lovely!

It strikes me that, for a beer blog, I don't actually write much specifically about beer itself on here. Partly that's a conscious decision - there are roughly a gazillion blogs providing reviews and analysis of favourite beers and I'm not sure we need another one.

But hey, it's a beer blog.  The reason we're here is that we enjoy drinking beer.  And every so often, beers come up that are too remarkable not to comment on.

I've always loved 'champagne beers'.  Up to now there have been too few of them to attempt anything so anal as defining the 'style', and I'd resist that even now, because I think the inspiration of champagne, the selective application of some champagne ingredients and/or processes, signals a creative approach that combines classiness and elegance with a wonderfully liberating playfulness, and I would resist at all costs attempts to stifle that with anything so boring as a style guide.

But there are certainly enough of them around now - all different - to suggest, if not a style, than a loose coalition, a movement, a trend.

The first one on most people's radar was Deus, still magnificent, a Belgian Tripel matured with champagne yeast in champagne caves, using the traditional methods of remuage and degorgement, where during secondary fermentation, the bottles are turned and angled so the yeast collects in the neck, where it can be frozen and extracted.

Simpler - in both process and flavour - is Kasteel Cru.  This is simply a lager fermented with champagne yeast, and while as such it's easy to dismiss, it has some merit - it's light, spritzy and has a grapey hint, a great aperitif that prompts re-evaluation among people who 'don't like beer'.

There are other Belgians who have followed Deus' lead, most notably (for me) Malheur Brut, which is possibly even better than Deus.

But I've recently been given three new champagne(style) beers in quick succession, and they each make me very happy indeed.  In no particular order...

Infinium, by Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan

Roll up! Roll up!

Samuel Adams is a brewery that understands the value of special, premium packaging, but can sometimes err into gaudy rather than premium.  This one stays on the right side of the line, but only just - with the result that it looks magnificent - like it was created by some insane genius who lives within a travelling funfair invented by Terry Gilliam.  Whether your initial reaction to the following image is a laugh or gasp probably reveals something deep about your psyche:

Brewers by appointment to Dr Parnassus
But what about the beer?

The press release is full of superlatives.  German Weihenstephan is 'the world's oldest brewery', and this collaboration has 'shattered industry preconceptions of the limits of the German purity laws', by remaining faithfully within those laws to produce a beer that's 10.5% ABV that will be in 'selected outlets for discerning consumers prepared to pay vintage champagne-style prices.'

I was lucky enough to be sent a bottle.  It made me want to wait for a special occasion to open it, but I couldn't - I gave in, celebrating the fact that I was at home for once on a Sunday (the Beer Widow would argue that this is an event rare enough to celebrate with vintage Krug.)

It pours an amazing, alluring bronze colour, beautiful and rich.

It has complex nose of caramel, that biscuity vintage champagne aroma, with a hint of sherry sweetness. It's one of those rare, special beers where you enjoy nosing it so much, you almost forget to drink it.

You should though.

On the palate there's banana, lemon, caramel, perfectly judged winter spices and a brief, intense sweetness before a nice champagne-like dryness and a hint of earthiness at the back.

It's classy, elegant and sophisticated, yet fuller and bolder than other champagne beers I've had.  It's available in a mere two outlets in the UK: Vino Wines in Edinburgh, and Inspire, a cafe bar in Coventry.  Utterly random, but there you go.  More info is available from Branded Drinks.

Bowland Artisan Gold
If the location for an artisanal champagne beer surprises you, the quality of that beer will surprise you further still.  Bowland is a microbrewery some miles north of Burnley, Lancashire, which has been doing a good job of crafting quality ales since 2003 (its Admiral Best Bitter was named Champion Best Bitter of Britain in the recent SIBA awards, and I reviewed it on the Vlog from those awards).

Bowland brewer Richard Baker decided the only way he could absolutely guarantee perfect beer time after time would be to produce a top quality bottled beer.  He wanted to use bottle conditioning, but didn't want to leave a sediment - and that made him think of champagne-style secondary fermentation.  Baker studied champagne methods in depth and reproduced them as closely as he was able, and this is the result:

You want premium?  You got premium

It's a remarkable beer.  It has all the refinement and complexity of any other champagne beer - though perhaps not the dense layers of flavour - at a low (for champagne beer) ABV of 5.7%.  I'm afraid I didn't make too many tasting notes on this one, just lots of adjectives like 'classy' and 'elegant'.  The mix of noble and new world hops gives it a lot of fruit, but it's held in check by a smooth dryness.  I felt I was wasting it, enjoying it in front of the TV with a bowl of pasta, and I was very sad indeed when I finished the bottle, because it's very quaffable despite (or probably because of) its structure and complexity.
 


Richard Baker told me, "I am hoping that Artisan Gold will help to open up the minds of people in Britain to the fact that beer is not just for swilling down in back street pubs up North (although there’s nowt wrong with that!) but that there are craft brewers all over the country producing a wide range of beers that we should be massively proud of and that there really is a beer for everyone if they just opened themselves up and gave it a try."

It should certainly work.  Served in a glass like the one above, it's one of those beguiling drinks you can't pin down into a category.  You may not even be certain it's a beer at all.

Artisan Gold is available only from Northcote Manor - the Michelin-starred restaurant a few miles from the brewery - the brewery itself, and the online shop, where you can buy it mail order for £15.99.  

The price tag made me hesitate, and that made me think - I'd pay that happily for Deus, at 11.5% ABV, but was hesitant here because the beer is only 5.7%.  Fascinating, because I don't know about you, but I like to think I'm above paying for alcohol units, that for me, it's all about the quality of the beer.  I always bang on about how quality is not necessarily linked to ABV.  With Artisan Gold, you're paying for the time, the care and attention, the method, and the experience of a beer that is easily worth the price tag.  It may require you to overcome a prejudice you may not even have been sure you had, but it's worth the effort.


Chapel Down Curious Brew Brut


This isn't quite the same deal as the previous two. But I include it here to show the breadth of champagne(style) beers.

By the standards of Infinium and Artisan Gold it's more of an everyday drink.  But by the standards of draught lager - which is how we should be judging it - it's just as special as the previous two.

Chapel Down is one of the leading English wineries, based in Kent.  Their wines are seriously good, and if your experience of English wine stretches as far as fruit wines that are half a step away from home brew, you need to shift your frame of reference south, to the Loire valley and the champagne region - Kent has a similar climate and terroir, and Chapel Down wines easily stand alongside their French cousins.

The thing is, the MD of Chapel Wines is a former beer man, having worked for Whitbread and Heineken (full disclaimer: he's an ex-client and current friend of mine) and he's been dabbling for a few years with getting winemakers to approach beer with a wine sensibility.  Bottled Curious Brew Brut, Admiral Porter and Cobb IPA are all well worth seeking out, each with a winey twist.  Now, Brut has been revamped and launched around Kent on draught.

It's a premium strength lager, lagered for a decent length of time, and brewed with sparkling wine yeast.  As such it's along similar lines to Kasteel Cru, but the end result is quite different.  It's a fuller, more assertive beer, more fruity and rounded, that grapey sweetness getting a much bigger stage to show off on, but still reined in at the end by a crisp dryness.  Refreshing and satisfying, the true test of it is that it feels vulgar drinking it from a pint, as I first did.  Get it in the correct half pint glass, and it's a lovely halfway house between beer and sparkling wine in every way, and proved to be the perfect aperitif before dinner at the winery's excellent restaurant last weekend.

It's currently brewed by Hepworth's, who do a lot of contract brewing, but Chapel Down is considering commissioning its own brewery alongside the winery just outside Tenterden.  If the current sales growth continues, that should be happening pretty soon.


So, that's some seriously fancy drinking right there.  And I've just remembered why I don't write as many beer reviews as I should.  It's 12.19, and I'm now gasping for a beer...


14 comments:

matthew turner said...

I’ve tried a few of these Champagne beers myself and apart from one, whose name escapes me now, were all excellent, and in the end I’ve always come away feeling happy paying the sometimes hefty asking price. Living just 10 miles away from Chapel Down, I got the chance to try it a week or two back and thought it was great, certainly different to what you’ll normally find on draught around this neck of the woods.

Neil, Eating Isnt Cheating said...

Weird timing Pete, literally just picked up a bottle of Kasteel Cru this weekend! It was reccomended by the bloke in my local beer shop. He described it in a similar way to you and at around £1.70 for a 330ml bottle it was definately worth a go.

Melissa Cole said...

Kasteel Cru is always a great event opener, served in a champagne flute, I've had several people ask me what the yummy wine is - which always gives me a warm fuzzy feeling!

Have to disagree on the Infinium front though, I thought it was horribly unbalanced, cloying, thick and nothing to recommend it.

DeuS is always such a joy and stops just on the cusp of being a little too sweet, a little too spicy, a little too everything!

However, with Infinium I just don't think it's just shouty, in an 'I'm a super-imperial-ballsy-big-amazing lager, look at me!!!' kind of way.

I'll be interested to hear what others think about it and whether it's just that I'm not big on sweet beers.

That Chapel Down beer looks fun, nice disclosure on your behalf as well - hope the writing weekend went well x

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Just a small thing, according to Joris Pattyn in 1001 Beers, Malheur Biere Brut was first, with Deus coming shortly afterwards, the coincidence of them being in the same town is amazing…
another good champers beer is Eisenbahn’s Lust from Brazil, while I find Kru Casteel pretty good with asparagus, with the light sweet acidity cleaning the palate so as you can taste the asparagus. Always think when it is tasted on its own that it is has a Moussec character, I’m not worried about owning up to strong beer so wouldn’t mind seeing an imperial Kasteel Cru.

Jeff Alworth said...

What, no Miller High Life? A gross oversight, surely.

Ghost Drinker said...

I've always described Kasteel Cru and Deus to people in car form. Kasteel is your Ford Modeo - perfectly good beer, does what is required, a beer for everyone. Deus is you Lambo! Something not for the everyday drink, (although I wish it was) something a lot more special. One to show off to the friends.

If that made any sense I'll be pleased because most times I don't really know what I'm even on about ;)

Ed said...

I thought 'curious brew' would be getting a mention soon. I liked their champagne beer but kasteel cru was rubbish.

Birkonian said...

It's strange that although my wife has taught me to love Dom Perignon and Krug (yes I know there is an ulterior motive) and I spend a lot of time drinking in Belgium, I've never quite 'got' the champagne beers. Maybe it's time to try again.

Rob Nicholson said...

You're a tease Pete! Dangle the carrot of Infinium just to discover it's as rare as rocking horse s**t ;-)

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Down here, and increasingly exported to the States is Moa Methode. A New Zealand Pilsner that is bottle fermented with champagne yeast giving it a good whack of Belgian (perhap Saison) characer.

DJ said...

I would consider myself a budding beer snob but I hope I never get to the point where I would happily pay £16 for a bottle of beer, however good it is. I don't believe it could be ten times better than a bottle that sells at £1.60 a throw. This may make me sound like a heathen but I would rather that than be pretentious.

Pete Brown said...

DJ,

If you don't want to pay that much for beer, that's your decision - no one is going to call you a tight-ass - it's a lot of money to shell out.

But if I decide that I do want to spend that much, does that make me pretentious? Really?

It's only pretentious if the beer isn't worth that much, if it's all show and image. Is it pretentious to pay £25 for a bottle of wine, of £30 for a bottle of malt whisky? Id the beer has been carefully matured for months, representing a significant investment of time, storage and labour, and that manifests itself in a product that is substantially different to other beers, for the life of me I don't see how it's pretentious to price it accordingly.

DJ said...

Pete,
I don't doubt that beer which is substantially different to other beers warrants a higher price tag and I don't doubt the costs of time, labour and storage need to be reflected in the price. But at that price I do not believe the consumer can get a level of satisfaction that justifies the outlay. I don't think I would ever spend that amount on a beer and afterwards think I am glad I didn't spend it on 4 or 5 top quality beers instead. Maybe pretentious was the wrong term but you are buying in to image much more than substance at such a high price. (except you didn't because of course you got it for free)

Gary Gillman said...

I don't think any wine is worth 10 or 20 times what another is either (or whisky). It comes down to, do I wish to pay what is requested to experience that particular taste? Pete wishes to and I can't blame him for that, and he will experience something interesting, even special clearly. But I can understand too someone declining the experience due to the non-optimal price-quality ratio.

One thing about Champagne-style beers I've been wondering about though: what makes them different from the strong bottle-conditioned beers of tradition?

From the first bottle-conditioned beer I ever tasted, I always thought they bore a close connection to Champagne, the maturation processes and yeast-influenced palates are very similar. The connection is brought much closer home with beers at 10-12% ABV. Isn't a pale Trappist beer of that strength essentially similar to these new beers if we abstract out packaging and promotion?

Gary