Heineken experiments with the soul (of its beer)!

“A flying crow always catches something”. These winged words (excuse me for the cheap pun) are often used by Gaius Voûte, CEO of Bier&cO and thus my boss. Beside the fact he’s a daintily chap we mainly know him for his aphorisms like the above, acquired in his domestic and abroad years. “Romeo Delta” is another one which you won’t get, or ‘Fish where the fish are’. Back to the flying crow (me) and the catch (a good story!).

h41_2Some of you know I’m an active beer geek – amongst other I’m a moderator for Untappd, a Social Media phenomenon. As such one of ones tasks is to moderate the database and check new entries on their validity. In doing so I noticed a new beer pop up around Christmas, mysteriously called Heineken H41. The comments read things like ‘A remarkable beer, full flavored for a lager.’ and Experimental beer, not yet released. New type of yeast. Should be released on march 2016 in selected countries.’ Some check-ins were at Heineken Experience. Pictures showed bottles with label stating H41 as well as ‘Limited Edition’, ‘Lager Exploration’ and ‘Full tasting special lager brewed with rare yeast from Patagonia’. By this time, you can imagine, I was itching all over and made a run for the Experience – where I was told to take the VIP Tour.

h41_1The Heineken VIP Tour is € 49 and returns a guided tour, including a tasting of five beers from the Heineken brand family, as well as some cheese pairings. Fun and well worth it, but it was indeed topped with a tasting of a bottle H41! And yes, it was confirmed to be a test. It was made very clear pictures were not allowed, nor taking a bottle: all were counted. Sneakily I made two pictures after all, and now we know this is the beginning of a series – as well as this beer is brewed with a rare yeast recently discovered in Patagonia on 41st South (ah! hence the name!) and 71 West. This yeast ‘gives the lager beer a full taste, with spicy notes, balanced by subtle fruity hints.’ Signed: Willem van Waesberghe, Master Brewer.

h41_3The flavor of H41 was overwhelming, particularly for a lager. At first I thought I was dealing with a Zoigl, or Keller beer – you know, these farm-fresh beers you need to drink as fresh and soon as possible. The maltiness stood out big time, but soon after I felt completely lost: spiciness, fruitiness as if it were an Abbeystyle Blond! The fullness was retained throughout, lingering nicely….this could not be a lager! Those are fairly simple and straightforward, rather flat, and taste varieties are caused by the malt bill (sticky rice beers, light corn brews) or hops (flavor-free like Jupiler, or almost pungently crisp, like Jever). There was a moment I could swear on tasting lemongrass, while the spiciness persisted. Could this totally unusual flavor come from the yeast used? It had to be. So what was Heineken on to then, as they always proclaim their proprietary A-yeast to be It, when they decided to start brewing with some South-American oddity? And, more importantly, under the Heineken Brand? Normally they’d rather eat their hats than let anything be Heineken but Heineken! Alas, the press service was unavailable. Willem van Waesberghe, who’m I’d met recently when he showed me around the brewery, introducing Heineken Extra Vers, did not want to comment when I contacted him, saying only “I was getting very close to Heineken’s secrets now”. (Now, having read this blog, he’s still not confirming or denying anything – he only said “he had read the blog with great zest and lightly proud“.) And then I remembered a story I heard in Freising, Germany.

In Freising Weihenstephan has been brewing beer since 1040, which makes it the oldest brewery in the world. On the same site one finds the brewing faculty of Munich University – together with its compeer in Leuven the centre of brewing knowledge in Europe. Weihenstephan Brew Master of then, Frank Peifer, conducted experiments with the brewers of Sam Adams using manipulated bottom-fermenting yeasts (these yeasts work with low temperatures, as opposed to top-fermenting yeasts) and created Infinium: a bottom fermenting beer of over 10% ABV, quite a revolutionary accomplishment. He told me about a possible revolutionary discovery, being the ‘missing link’ of lager yeasts (bottom fermenting) which had been unable to be found in nature, or as a wild yeast. This story goes way beyond me, but apparently an Argentinian researcher had stumbled onto something special.

2015-12-29 12 (1)Patagonia is largely in Argentina. So I Googled ‘Patagonië + gist’ and was swamped in hits from 2011 stating Saccharomyces Eubyanus, the predecessor of lager yeast, originated from cold Patagonia.. Some more Googling led to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on the matter. Do read it for yourself because I wasn’t done Googling and finally found a site stating ‘Heineken buys patent to Patagonian yeast.’. And so the circle seems pretty round!

Water, being the main ingredient in beer, determines the flavor (minerals, or iron). Of course the malt bill plays a big role here (dry, sticky, creamy, sourish) as does malting (smoke, for example). Malting also determines the color. And there’s hop, a flavor profiler that also creates storability of beer. But yeast is ‘the soul’ of every beer: nothing quite determines a beer’s identity like yeast does. Thus it is no wonder brewer’s keep their yeasts secret and guard them with their lives: every mutation may be the brewery’s end. Yeasts are being stored in special ‘Yeast Banks’ across the globe so a problem in the brewery doesn’t necessarily mean the end of it. Yeast, in short, is the Alpha and Omega of brewer and beer. And Heineken has always cherished it’s A-yeast, isolated and propagated by Dr. Elion in 1886. Now they start toying with H41.

2015-12-29 12Heineken seems to have embarked on a revolutionary exploring: what do other yeasts do to ‘the’ recipe? Because all evidence seems to suggest H41 is exactly like regular Heineken, except for the use of Saccharomyces Eubayanus in stead of its proprietary Heineken A-yeast. The side of the bottle states ‘Heineken’s Master Brewers are creating the new Heineken Lager Explorations by playing with one core element: the yeast. Changing the yeast gives a spectrum of new tastes. Discover H41, the first beer of the series.’

Wow.

If you want to try this H41 for yourself, I suppose all you can do is to take a Heineken Experience VIP Tour or to be patient until March, according to this Untappd check-in. One thing is for sure: this is a daring and unprecedented revolution within Heineken. Could it, after investing in Lagunitas and launching Heineken Extra Vers, be thé answer to Craft Beer? Time will tell, as Gaius Voûte would say – wise words.

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