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The British aren't coming - Is this our message to the world?

Never mind the football - how competitive is the beer? The World Beer Cup has just taken place, and I was one of four British judges (three of us Yorkshiremen), among a total of 70-odd, from nine countries. Between us, over two days of working 9.0-5.0, we tasted 1,173 beers from 379 breweries in about 40 nations:

Lagers with the hoppy perfume of Pilsen, in the malty mode of Munich, or with the more minerally dryness of Dortmund; wheat beers with Bavaria's banana-ish yeast character, Berlin's biting tartness, Belgium's coriander and Curacao; about 20 styles born in the British Isles. British beers are increasingly emulated elsewhere. I was pleased to see an English-style Pale Ale from Japan, a Scottish Ale from Mexico, and an Imperial Stout from Sweden ... but where were the British breweries? I was ashamed that only five British brewers entered, with ten beers. With such a small squad, we did well to pick up two medals.

The World Beer Cup takes place in the United States. "It's like the baseball World Series. Only Americans are allowed," one myopic British brewer whinged. I told him that the World Series was named after a newspaper, and that you have to enter competitions before you can win them.

The two British winners are both small, rural, breweries making styles of beer from elsewhere in Europe.

One of our winning breweries is Melbourn Brothers, of Stamford, Lincolnshire, This is a steam-powered brewery producing winey-tasting fruit beers in the style of Belgian Lambic. When the brewery was revived three years ago, I was the only journalist invited to see it, and subsequently wrote about it in The Independent. I have not noticed any articles elsewhere. The company is extremely shy of publicity.

John O'Hanlon, on the other hand, is from the Southwest of Ireland, and undoubtedly, kissed the Blarney stone. He was born into a family of publicans, worked in his aunt Mary's pub in Ballybunion, County Kerry, then came to seek his fortune in London. He found himself running brewpubs for Firkin.

When he was "steady enough" he started his own pub, O'Hanlon's, in Roseberry Avenue, just before Islington really hit its stride. "I felt the area was going to do something," he recalls. He wanted to add a brewery, but there was no space. "Someone told me you could rent space cheaply under railway arches. That's how I finished up brewing in Vauxhall."

His beers proved popular and, once again, he needed more space. He decided to sell the pub (which still serves his beer), and concentrate on brewing. The space proved distant: his brewhouse is now in a 1940s hay barn on a 350-year-old farm in Whimple, Devon. "We decided on a lifestyle change," he says, laughing at the cliché. "It's green; it rains a lot; it's in the southwest. It reminds us of Kerry."

The grass may well be greener. In a local West Country competition, he recently won awards for several beers, including a Rye Beer. The use of rye, in addition to the usual barley-malt, imparts a bittersweet, minty, spiciness. Then there was a national award for his Wheat Beer, which is refreshing and citric, but light and restrained, in the Anglo-American style. Now comes an international award.

The World Cup beer started out as an Irish-style Dry Stout in the vein of Guinness, but has been progressively rounded. "That's the great thing about running a small brewery. With a very small batch-size, you can experiment," observes O'Hanlon. It is a statement of the obvious, but the principle seems to escape the attention of most small brewers. Seeking perfection, O'Hanlon added more styles of malt, such as the crystallized type, and found Stout sales increasing, especially with the more discerning drinker. "A good, solid, chocolatey, dry stout," I wrote in 1999. As it became more distinctive, he wanted to seal the difference.

It was a recollection of his childhood in Ireland that gave O'Hanlon his winning formula. He remembered how cattle-dealers who had drunk too much on market day laced their Stout with Port next morning as a "corpse reviver". Thus emerged O'Hanlon's Original Port Stout. How much of the wine does he add? "A softening measure," he reveals. The beer starts very roasty and dry, becoming silky smooth, then revealing a sweetish, fruity hint of Port.

Entering the beer in the World Cup was costly: about 300 to courier the required 18 bottles. The beers had to be hand-labelled to meet state and federal regulations. With paperwork, and packaging, it took three days to get the beers on the road, "We wondered whether we should be spending this money on something so speculative." The brewery has already had an approach from a well-regarded importer.

This story was published in The Independent, 8 June, 2002, four days before the medals were handed out. Melbourn Brothers won not one but two medals: a gold for its strawberry beer and a silver for its apricot. It has since added a cherry beer to the range. Britain's other medallist, O'Hanlon's Port Stout picked up a silver. Complete results.


Published Online: JUNE 13, 2002
Published in Print: JUNE 8, 2002
In: The Independent

- Beer Review - Editorial

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