The British beer industry has an oxidised, over-conditioned, possibly-infected elephant in the room. Frankly, sometimes, it is hard to imagine there is room for anyone in the ROOM other than the ELEPHANT.

Look… good beer needs to be a) GOOD, b) kept well, c) served well. Sadly given the failure of at least one of these factors in MOST CASES you’re unlikely to experience “GOOD BEER”. Ah, beer NIRVANA… where can it be found? My current answer: move to another country.

I’m a bit sick of it all to be honest. I jumped into the industry on a platform of giving a real utter fuck about quality. Here I am now with a 9C coldstore (warm?!) for cask and a 4C coldstore for keg/bottle/can. I don’t do (spend) this flippantly – I do it because in my own tests it REALLY FUCKING MATTERS.

But the British? They care not. They drink the brand. The breweries, they sell to who’llever buy. Sales channel… quality…? These things mean nothing to the British Craft Brewer… they’ll sell their yeasty end-runnings to your poor demented grandmother if they can get a quid out of it.

And the publicans are actually worse than the brewers.

Kwality is all in the brand. And the best you can hope to do is build a “brand” to sell to ABInHeineMolsenThingamy.

My value is as nowt to both brewers and publicans. I may as well be a bucket-chain as far as beer quality in the UK is concerned.

Craft Keg?

Does the term “craft keg” get on your nerves? It sure gets on mine… it seems to have surfaced out of corners of the industry where they’d not know “craft beer” if it leapt out of the bottle and smacked them on their suit-trousered backsides.

"frozen belly-wash" - CAMRA What's Brewing August 2013

“frozen belly-wash” – CAMRA What’s Brewing August 2013

What’s more we now have a large number of publicans who’ve latched onto this to the extent that “craft beer” is, to them, defined as “non-mainstream keg beer”. Reasons for this are manifold. Certain larger distributors and breweries are now pushing “craft” strongly – but under that moniker putting forward nowt but a small selection of national/international beer brands that are in keg format only (i.e. Camden, Meantime, Sierra Nevada, etc). It is these salespeople who’re doing most of the “informing” across the wider industry at the moment – in my area at any rate. To back this up certain high-profile breweries have tried to jump on the bandwagon producing their own “craft” ranges – and we see things like Greene King Nobel Lager and Charles Wells / Dogfish Head DNA in keg pushed as their “craft offering”…. Then there is a very noisily vocal CAMRA minority – grasping for something to fight against they’ve targeted “craft” as clearly being the enemy – as being “fizzy bellywash”. There is also BrewDog, undoubtedly the UK’s most successful “craft brand” – who used the craft rhetoric back when they did mainly cask beers but have been a keg-only brewer for some time now so people looking to them see the “craft brewery” => “keg beer” link.

Finally there is us… those of us who fell in love with the craft beer ethos years ago. In a hipsteresque-fashion we jumped on the bandwagon before it was cool… for the fun ride… only to have let the wagon be taken away from us. We can’t see who’s driving it now but we know they’ve taken several wrong turns and sometimes we just wish they’d pull over so we could get off.

We’ve failed to protect the simple ethos that “craft beer” is all “good beer”, we’ve let our own terminology run away from us.

Can we rescue it? I’m not optimistic. Then again we do have loads of regional level breweries whacking “craft” on their cask pumpclips… maybe they’ll “save” it for us.

I currently find myself in the position of selling what I consider to be craft beer to pubs. I do avoid using the phrase myself, but inevitably when I talk to a new pub it will come up. Most people in the industry have heard the phrase “craft beer” by now and my experience is that for most of them it is about packaging more than it is about beer. I have convinced a few otherwise – but they come around reluctantly, as business owners the idea that craft beer is “non mainstream keg beer” fits a neat product niche and that is hard to shake. I come along and say that the cask beer is also craft and they look at me like I don’t know what I’m talking about… some flat out disagree, and say they’ve been told what “craft beer” is by so-and-so (big distributor or big brewer) and thus clearly I am wrong. I think it is that “neat product niche” versus “vague idea that some beer is good and some isn’t” that is the downfall here… the former requires no real further thought, the latter requires a whole lot more mental overhead on the part of the publican & drinker. (Any psychologists handy? There are probably psych papers on this sort of thing.)

I will continue to fight my corner on this matter… and I’ve decided to use the phrase “craft beer” more often in fact, making it clear that all the beer I sell is craft beer. No matter what container it is in. With and without my CAMRA hat on…

Elderflower Saison Fizz


Elderflower – © Tony Hisgett

This is a log of the production of my first ever “Elderflower Fizz“. Every year I know when elderflower season has hit because I get terrible hayfever as soon as they’re flowering – although it doesn’t seem to be the elderflowers themselves causing the problem but something else producing pollen at the same time (current suspicion is barley). We’ve used elderflowers in jellies before and I love the flavour and have long wished to do something more with them – always to find the flowering is over before I get a chance. This year I was determined to brew up an elderflower “fizz” – and I did… I read many “recipes” online as research, quite a few of them were downright scary. Paraphrasing massively: “mix it all together in a bucket, leave it 4 days, bottle it up, make sure you release pressure every few days”. Bottle bombs! :-| I have taken a more beery and scientific approach… here’s how it was done:

Deflowered elderflowers.


Day 1 – frolic in the meadows and along the hedgerows:
It’s the 30th of June – a beaut warm sunny day, so we go for a walk away from the roads and collect 60 elderflower heads. When we get home we deflower them – a slightly tedious process using fingers and forks, but it considered best to minimise the amount of “stem” in the mix. We achieve a yield of about 165g of flowers from our 60 umbels. The flowers are placed in a clean plastic container, 2 litres of boiling water is poured over, and a tablespoon of lemon juice added to reduce discolouration. This mix is covered, left to cool, then popped into the fridge for 4 days to steep.

Day 3 – make saison yeast starter:
In the early AM: Make 1 litre of 1040 yeast starter using 105g of cane sugar and add a vial of Saison II from White Labs. I picked this yeast for two reasons: first is it was simply what I had to hand – recently bought for a planned beer brew; second I thought a “funky” yeast would be good to add a bit of extra flavour to something fermented simply from sugar.

Day 4 – early morning – cool saison yeast starter:
Place yeast starter in fridge to encourage yeasties to settle to the bottom. (It turned out to have dropped to 1030 in about 18 hours and the amount of yeast had built up nicely.)

Day 4 – evening – put it all together:
Decant clear liquid from the yeast starter to sterilised container and cover. Refill the original yeast vial (sterilised) with yeast sediment for later re-use – this is purely so I have some Saison II to culture up for a subsequent beer brew. Rinse the rest of the yeast sediment into the decanted starter liquid. Cover and leave aside to come to to room temperature.

Heat  2 litres of water with 2.3kg of sugar and the rind of 2 lemons until simmering. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain in fresh juice of 4 lemons and the elderflower liquid, rinse flower pulp with 2 litres of water, then with clean hands squeeze out all the liquid you can. Cover this mixture and let cool to about 30ºC. [I believe I should have used less lemon juice, but many others who’ve tasted the fizz seem happy with the acidity – it has a bite reminds me of rather grim Western Australian Chardonnay.]

Fermentation Vessel full of fermenting elderflower fizz

Fermentation Vessel

When cooled pour the liquid through a sterile sieve into a sterile fermentation bin. I did this from a good height to help introduce some oxygen. Top up to 15 litres with clean, preferably well aerated, water. Wait for temperature to drop to about 20ºC before pitching in yeast.

Original gravity: 1074

Let this sit in a suitable spot to ferment away, my fermentation happened in a range of about 20ºC to 24ºC.

Day 9 – early morning – prepare champagne yeast addition:
At day 9 I’ve noticed that the gravity hasn’t shifted much over the last two days so it is time for the next stage. I’ve chosen to add a champagne yeast to chow through any remaining sugar to yield a “dry” end product. Create a 1040 gravity yeast starter as per day 3 and into this pitch a sachet of champagne yeast.

Day 10 – evening – champagne yeast addition:
At this point the mixture has had 6 days fermentation time.

Stable gravity with Saison II: 1042 (~4.2%)

Pitch in whole 1 litre champagne yeast starter and take a gravity reading so we can calculate the ABV yielded from the next stage of fermentation.

Champagne yeast OG: 1040 (watered down slightly by starter)

Day 15 – a status update:
Gravity check, now 1017 so approximately 7.2%. Has gone very cloudy now – hopefully a sign the yeast is still eager, would like this to come out quite dry.

Final Gravity

Final Gravity

Day 24 – prepare for bottling:
The gravity is stable and very low now – it is time to bottle!

Final Gravity: 0998 – wowzers – beastly yeasties!

This means we have about another 5.5% ABV from the champagne stage, giving a strength of approximately 9.7% before bottling.

Siphon, or otherwise move, the liquid into another vessel (anything suitable for bottling from, a pressure barrel is what I had handy). The aim is to leave all the trub behind. The de-trubbed liquid is then refrigerated overnight to encourage even more yeast to drop out. Note: weight of the liquid is 15.3kg – assuming approx 1kg = 1 litre this lets me calculate how many bottles to get ready.

Bottled Elderflower Fizz

Bottled Elderflower Fizz

Day 25 – bottling day:
To the pressure barrel add 190g of brewer’s sugar melted in 200g of warm water for priming. The aim is for just under 4 vols C02 – a robust “fizz”. Stir gently and then bottle it! Now a waiting game begins…

A good fizz had built up after a couple of weeks and since then it has been tried by a few friends of ours as well as ourselves. (We tested it on ourselves well in advance to ensure it wasn’t poison!) Everyone seems to like it a bit better than I do, including Kat. I find it a bit too sharp for my tastes – and would aim to add half as much lemon juice next time perhaps. However several other independent opinions are positive – or maybe they’re just being nice ;)

My own tasting notes, made on October 3rd – about 2 months after bottling:

Glass of elderflower fizz

Glass of elderflower fizz

  • Eyes:
    • Colour is a pale straw, almost crystal clear.
    • Constant bubble streams rise through the glass.
  • Nose:
    • Yep, distinctively elderflower – not overt, but distinct.
    • There is a saison “farmy” note too – not sure you’d pick it without knowing to expect it.
    • Too much of a “boozy” note, à la sniffing a bottle of meths.
  • Mouth:
    • First to hit is sensation rather than taste: fizz prickle, lively carbonation.
    • Flavour is perfumed, kind of soapy really.
    • Sharpness akin to a rather astringent Chardonnay.
    • This is backed by a “woody” spice which almost makes up for missing body.

Thoughts: it needs less “meths” aroma and maybe rather than less sharpness it needs more body – a source of tannic acid perhaps? Something like that to balance it out. The saison yeast has helped here – I think with just champagne yeast it would have been really harsh on the tongue and nose.

Well – despite some misgivings I consider my first attempt at a “country wine” style of thing to be a success. Next year perhaps a couple of tweaks… cheers!

Elderflower Saison Fizz from Yvan Seth on Vimeo.