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Coors Big Beer Day

by Tom Cannavan, 12/04

After 200 years of almost settled history, the 21st century brought troubled times to the great Bass brewery in Burton on Trent. First, the brewery was bought by Interbrew (now known as Inbev) the giant Belgian-based brewing group who own Stella, Becks and Hoegaarden amongst others. However, the Trade Secretary at that time instructed Inbev to divest themselves of most of the former Bass businesses.

The buyer was Coors, the Colorado brewer, who took over the reins of this, one of the UK's most historic and important beer businesses and some of their brands, including William Worthington's.     

Today Coors dominates the Burton-on-Trent skyline, it's chimneys towering over the town. Part of the industrial-scaled brewery complex is an excellent visitors centre and museum, incorporating the museum brewery, an intriguing micro-brewery housed, along with its shire horses, within this vast complex. The museum brewery turns out just 30 barrels a week or so of the premium India Pale Ale, Worthington's White Shield, as well as the occasional small run of specialist beer, like a recent (and delicious) 8% chocolate beer made for Thorntons.

   Whilst the sale of Bass to a large US company best known for its lager was greeted with dismay, the museum and retention of the White Shield tradition shows that Coors have some sensitivity to the Bass history. Brewer Steve Wellington was lured out of retirement to make White Shield again, and has been indulged with an almost autonomous role including his own small but perfectly formed bottling line for just 1500 barrels per year - literally a drop in the ocean compared to the oceans of Carling, Caffreys and Coors Fine Light made on the site.

Another fascinating project that suggests Coors has genuine beer-loving fire burning in their soul, is The Big Beer Day. The day is part of an intensive beer appreciation programme that they have been running for "customer facing" employees (i.e. the salesmen, administrators and middle managers who don't necessarily need to know a lot about beer to do their jobs). The Big Beer Day kicks off with breakfast and finishes close to midnight, with a comprehensive programme of beer lessons, exercises, games and competitions spread throughout the day.

I was invited to join in on a Big Beer Day recently and found the programme to be a lot of fun, and extremely informative to boot. The tone of the day is set immediately, as instead of tea and biscuits at registration, mugs of Horlicks, malt loaf and Marmite on toast are served: get the connection?

The instructional part of the day kicked off with an interactive timeline tour through the brewing process, conducted by brewers Lee Threapleton and Alex Barlow (shown right, Alex's passion bubbles over as the brew reaches the conditioning tanks).

From malting the grain to finishing the product, we got to smell and taste a variety of malts and hops, see the mashing process, and learn the intricacies of yeast's role in beer flavour.

We moved on to learn the theories of beer tasting; a slightly undignified hour during which the assembled guinea pigs had to don blindfolds and have a series of unknown liquors dropped onto their tongues to represent all the components that make up a beer's identity: sweetness, sourness, astringency, alcohol, carbonation and so on. The rest of the day would be spent putting this theory into practice.

Following a buffet lunch, where an array of dishes could be matched with half a dozen beer styles, our first tasting of the day also introduced the joys of spider plotting.

   Spider plots are extremely telling tools for applying an analytical methodology to tasting. The components of the beer are assessed and judged to be more or less prevalent, by their position on one leg of the chart. So a beer may score high on sweetness, but low on spiciness for example. We completed spider plots for various beers, and by drawing our charts on transparent film, they could be overlaid to compare with others on the day. In this case, we could also compare with "standard" charts from one of the world's top professional beer tasting panels in Copenhagen.

We were joined by Rod White, Coors Development Brewer, who led the team that relaunched White Shield and created Coors Fine Light for the UK market, for a continuing series of exercises tasting both Coors beers and samples of their class competitors. I was impressed by the open and frank discussion by both the brewers and the class, on the strengths and weaknesses of each. When spider plots are completed for three broadly similar beers in a class - say Carling, Fosters and Tennents lagers - it is fascinating how the smallest differences and similarities are illuminated.

After a tour of the museum and White Shield micro brewery with brewer Steve Wellington (dragged from the brewery pub, pint in hand) the day concluded with a seven-course beer and food matching dinner.

The Big Beer Dinner

Chicken and Sweetcorn Chowder
This thick, creamy soup, studded with chunks of chicken meat, was matched with Worthington's Creamflow, a widget-dispensed, 3.6% ABV beer. The beer has a very creamy quality, slightly sweet character and no real rough edges to speak of. It did match this soup very well, making a luxurious combination in the mouth.

Asparagus with a Lemon Hollandaise
Coors Fine Light was chosen to match this dish. Fine Light is a 5.0% ABV lager, specifically made to be crisp
and citrussy, and it did a really good job of cutting through the richness of the Hollandaise and refreshing the palate. It was also delicate (some would say bland) enough not to clash with the asparagus, a challenge very few wines could meet.

Red Onion and Garlic Tart
Worthington's White Shield was actually used in sweating down the onions for this dish, but served along with it, I felt the beer's complexity, body and beautifully bitter finish was slightly dulled by the sweetness of the red onions, and could perhaps have done with a bigger, earthier, more robust food match.

Pork Escalope with Leeks in a Creamy Mustard Sauce
Another combination that would defy most wine-matching experts, this was paired with Grolsch, really quite successfully. I find Grolsch has quite a pungent, herbal character as well as sweetness playing against decent hop levels. That combination sat well with the fried pork and leeks, and cut nicely through the mustardy sauce.

Hot Chili King Prawns
Served absolutely ice cold, Carling lager was Coors choice here. It was a sensible choice, given that the Chili really needed a gulpable, cooling draught, though in truth the beer added very little to the food.

Apple Strudel with Raisins
The inspired choice here was Gulpener Korenwolf, itself a spicy, sweet-sour wheat beer from Holland, that was the perfect match for the spices and fruit of the Strudel, adding an edge of extra interest with each mouthful. A match made in heaven, the crisp finish of the beer also cut nicely through the buttery pastry.

Brie, Port Salut, Stilton, Cambazola, smoked cheese, mature Cheddar
A small selection of beers included White Shield, Thornton's Chocolate Beer and Rodenbach. This proved that some beers go very well with some cheeses: the chocolate beer did a Port-like job in standing up to the Stilton, with its bittersweet flavours, the White Shield was gorgeous with a chunk of cheddar, and the wonderful sour beer from Rodenbach made a very interesting and luxurious combination when sipped along with the creamier cheeses.

Coors, as a multi-national US company who have parachuted in to the spiritual home of British brewing, will have a fight on their hands to be accepted by defenders of Britain's beer tradition. Their mass-market brands like Carling and Caffrey's will do little to win over the sceptics. But I was impressed by what I learned of the company's commitment to beer, and its staff on this day.

The brewers themselves are passionate beer fans, spending most of the breaks in the day discussing favourite beers and styles. The Big Beer Day programme is an excellent induction into beer appreciation, led by genuine enthusiasts. That even the non-technical staff of Coors are imbued with this understanding, is an excellent initiative.

Coors Visitor Centre
Horninglow Street
Staffordshire DE14 1YQ
Tel: 0845 6000 598
Open every day, 10am to 5pm


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