12 October 2016

New lager for old

Back in the spring I read with interest on a number of sources about a project Carlsberg were doing to recreate an old recipe from their archives. They'd started by isolating the yeast from a lager bottled in 1883 and then, with characteristic Scandinavian thoroughness, had acquired suitable heritage varieties of barley and hops, matched the water chemistry to what the brewery was using back then, commissioned wooden casks to 19th century specs, and even had specially-blown glass bottles created. And the answer to why they'd want to meticulously recreate a beer like this is literally because they can. Carlsberg is the birthplace of modern scientific brewing, its laboratory the first to identify both lager yeast and the darling of the crafterati Brettanomyces, in addition to many other achievements and discoveries over the years. If anyone has the data and resources to pull this off, it's them.

Historical beer recreations always interest me, to the point where I get quite frustrated by modern beers which are "inspired by" -- or similar weasel words -- beers of old. Do it properly or don't claim the heritage in your marketing. This Carlsberg Rebrew takes doing it properly to another level completely.

So I was delighted when Carlsberg's Irish brewing partners Diageo set up an evening where the brewery scientists got to talk about the project and, most importantly, I'd get to taste the beer. The Science Gallery in Trinity was, appropriately enough, the venue chosen. When samples of the beer were first distributed to the crowd it was interesting to observe the effect of appearance on taste perception. The room was dark, the beer appeared dark and it most definitely tasted dark: lots of caramel and even chocolate, a bit like an English strong ale or German doppelbock. Another taster in a more brightly-lit area really lacked the rich dark flavours, though was still undoubtedly malt-forward. Attendees were given bottles to take away so this gives me a chance to examine the beer properly.

It is definitely amber rather than gold, a clear dark red. The carbonation is low and the head no more than tokenistic. At 5.8% ABV it's stronger than any flagship lager is likely to be these days and the strength is very present in the flavour: a warming golden-syrup sweetness. Behind this there's a wholesome bread-like quality, very reminiscent of German bock, though without the hop load. Indeed the Hallertau hops really don't have much to say, imparting only the vaguest of green bitterness. A very faint dry roast right on the finish serves as balance for the sweetness and works with the lager cleanness to prevent the sweetness building unpleasantly as the beer warms: I was able to look after the entire 75cl all by myself.

Like pretty much every other beer critic who has written about the beer I am not wowed by its flavour. "It was … OK." said Martyn Cornell, who also featured in some of the publicity material around the project. To me it's a decent and wholesome medium-dark lager, a comforting autumnal sipper of which there are plenty of commercial examples. But as pretty much every other beer critic also said, it's not about how it tastes, it's about what it is. When brewers of things more interesting than basic pilsner start to recreate old beers with this level of historical fastidiousness, then things will get properly interesting.


  1. Carlsberg weren't the first to identify Brettanomyces, they were the first to publish about it.

    The Carlsberg beer is similar to a couple of old Heineken Dark Lager recipes I got brewed. Quite an easy-drinking beer. Which shouldn't be a surpise as that is what it was meant to be.

    1. They gave Brett its name, though, didn't they?

  2. Anonymous4:18 pm

    I'd have thought Guinness could do this type of thing well, instead of all the meh/frafty Hop House 13, Nitro IPA etc. I read somewhere a few years back that Foreign Extra is more or less true to the original West Indies Porter recipe from 19th C, and now they've got a "new" West Indies Porter, but who knows...

    1. They could of course, although from what I've heard they have nobody in-house who can fully interpret their own brewing records, so they'd need help. But TBH the only thing stopping them is their own opinion that it's not worth their while. I guess they want to appear forward-looking and innovative rather than stuck in the past.