Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
I'm sure many of us have been in this situation, you take your bottle of carefully rested bona-fide CRAFT beer from your fridge that you've been looking forward to since a quarter past breakfast. You crack the top and smell those sweet aromas as they creep over the bottles rim and you prepare to delicately pour the golden nectar into your carefully selected beer receptacle but then IT STRIKES. A thick cascade of gloopy, yeast sediment erupts from the depths of the bottle and before you know it the bright beer you were looking forward to is instead a sea of beige and is blighted by a yeasty tang.
Some bottle conditioned beers, yesterday.
I've seen some people actively pour the yeast sediment into their beer, it's not bad for you, in fact in small amounts it's actually quite good for you but it's not to my personal tastes. The above recently happened to me with a bottle of one of my current favourite local beers, Redchurch Great Eastern IPA and despite the blight I still drank it and it was pleasant enough but I've increasingly found I've preferred IPA, my favourite style of beer, to be bright and clean in order to really appreciate the fusion of malt and hops. This yeast-tastrophy, if you will, got me thinking about bottle conditioned beer, which breweries are choosing to use it and why they are choosing to release their beers in this way.
Recently I was invited on a tour of the Meantime brewery in Greenwich (which I will elaborate on in greater detail in a future post) and one thing brewer Rod Jones said during the tour that really struck a chord which me was that 'Brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.' I agree with him in part, once the yeast is pitched you really are at the mercy of these microbes but it is the brewer that selects the yeast strain and cultivates it from batch to batch keeping it free from infection in order to produce consistent batches of beer. Another thing I found interesting about Meantime brewery is that all of their beers are tank matured for at least four to six weeks before release so that they are allowed to carbonate naturally. The advantage of this is that they do not need to add extra yeast to their bottled beers and as they release all of their draught beers in kegs there is no need to worry about cask conditioning their beer.
There are drawbacks to this method of carbonation, if your beer is lying in tanks for almost two months you can't sell it and for some smaller breweries who are chasing invoices and trying to make ends meet it's simply not financially viable. If beer is cask conditioned or force carbonated it can be sold into the trade almost instantly quickly generating much needed revenue. Another drawback is that modern beer styles that are heavily dry hopped generally need to be made available to the consumer as quickly as possible as those essential hop oils that give the beer it's flavour quickly start to break down and fade away so maturation is not useful in this case. So what to do if you don't want to mature your bottled beer for over a month to get the carbonation right but you don't want to send out flat hop juice?
Well beers such as Thornbridge Halcyon are fermented under pressure to generate extra carbonation and very lightly filtered so a tiny amount of yeast still makes it into the bottle and makes sure you have bubbles in your beer, ultimately when served chilled giving you a finished product very similar to something served under Carbon Dioxide from a keg.
This makes a lot of sense to me, if you are selling force carbonated keg beer then surely you would want to package your bottles in the same way as for me the whole point of bottling your produce is to give the home drinker beer that tastes as good as it does when served on draught. So I'm confused when breweries such as The Kernel, who key keg their beer for draught use, choose to bottle condition rather than carbonate the beer while it's still in the brewery. For me, the whole idea behind bottle conditioning is to try and emulate the taste and mouth feel of cask beer, not keg. I attempt to look after the bottle conditioned beers in my stash with the same care a cellarman might look after his casks, bottle conditioned beers aren't quite the same as casks, the sheer volume of the cask is the biggest difference but hopefully you'll see the point I am trying to make. The dangers with bottle conditioned beers are similar to those with a cask, not just the risk of a particularly yeasty pint but I've had a few experiences with bottle conditioned beers that simply haven't conditioned properly and have been as flat as a pancake that's been steamrolled a few times for good measure. Don't get me wrong, I love Kernel beers just as much as the rest of you, I've just spent far too long thinking about how they package them.
Essentially, like with cask, when bottle conditioned beer leaves the brewery it's likely to be not quite ready yet and brewers must just hope that the beer conditions properly before the crown cap is shucked. I can understand why a lot of young breweries need to do this, it means they can sell more beer, quickly and not go bankrupt but I again ask the question if you are making American style beer that you only sell to bars in kegs why are you bottle conditioning and not force carbonating? I want to be able to drink your beautiful beer as soon as I get home from the offy or on the train or in between innings when I'm playing cricket and have just been bowled for a duck, I don't want to wait 24 hours for the bloody yeast to settle!
DISCLAIMER: I don't work in the beer industry, I don't write about beer professionally but I do read a lot of books, drink a lot of beer and have formulated my own opinions. This is not the gospel according to bottle conditioned beers this is just the musings of someone whose ego is inflated enough to warrant actually writing his thoughts down. Many of the beers I love and drink regularly are bottle conditioned and I will continue to drink them all the same but not on the bus home. Ultimately my motives for writing this post are selfish, I hope you don't hold it against me.