02 July 2010

Mothers of the revolution

Session logoTom and Jeff at the Lug Wrench Brewing Company blog are in charge of The Session this month and have asked us to write about "craft beers inspired by homebrewing". It's a growing issue here in Ireland, with most of the recent spate of start-up breweries having grown from homebrew operations -- the guys behind Clanconnel, Trouble and Dungarvan all came to the business via hacked picnic coolers, plastic buckets, cornies and the like, and they won't be the last. Increasingly, as the Lug Wrench guys say of themselves, drinkers are discovering beer connoisseurdom through making their own beer and experimenting with the myriad flavours and textures that can come from manipulating different varieties and combinations of malt, hops, yeast, and whatever else you fancy throwing in to see what happens.

I always find it strange that someone would turn their nose up at a homemade beer -- made for drinking pleasure alone, untainted by economic concerns -- while regarding anything else homemade to be of superior quality to the pre-packaged factory-made alternative. Homemade beer, like homemade food, is only bad when the maker gets something wrong. Tales of hotpresses (airing cupboards; linen closets) and kilos of table sugar are beer's answer to lumpy gravy and rubbery steak.

Ireland's new breweries are merely reflecting a global trend which started in the US where the craft beer revolution went hand-in-hand with the growth of home brewing -- backyard breweries turning out compromiseless beers which in turn were either aped by the commercial micros or themselves became commercial beers when the home brewer turned pro.

Over in Europe, something similar happened, especially in places where the beers were blandest. You'll find an ex-home brewer at the helm of Italy's Del Borgo, for instance. And of course, in Scandinavia you can't move for former amateurs working full or part time at getting their beers onto the market, and the resulting quality and diversity speaks for itself.

I'm marking this Session with one from Norway's Nøgne Ø, again a brewery with domestic roots. Specifically, it's Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout Highland Edition, a gift from Knut Albert. It pours thick and treacly, leaving a dark mocha head. The aroma had me immediately questioning the wiseness of putting it in a post next to Tokyo*, as it's very similar -- vanilla, chocolate and cherry liqueur richness. In fact, BrewDog get name-checked on the label as having assisted with barrel procurement (though a shame the Nøgne Ø guys didn't do them the courtesy of dropping the e from "whiskey" on the label copy). It's different from Tokyo* on tasting, however, as one might expect given that it's under half the strength. You get lots of big rich roasted flavours and more soothing silky chocolate, finishing quite bitter -- a touch metallic -- from some very generous hopping. Being ex-homebrewers they of course tell us exactly what hops they chose: big old American Columbus, and a fine job they're doing.

It's a gorgeous beer: satisfying and tasty yet completely drinkable. Any brewer would be proud, whether they'd crafted it for themselves and their friends, or merely lashed it up for the money.

This Session is quite timely, too, as yesterday marked the day Ireland's online home brewing community officially transformed itself into a full-on craft beer campaign group (website coming soon; when Barry gets the finger out), tasked with carving out a sustainable niche for native microbreweries, delivering choice and quality for the drinkers. It goes without saying that providing a forum -- virtual and real -- for home brewers will remain a cornerstone of what the group does. It's hard to imagine a beer revolution taking place without the people who brew their own to drive it.

So here's to the home brewers, their compromise-free beer, their commercial ambitions and their game-changing effect.