Monday, 23 May 2016

Could

I could be this. I could be that. I could be this. And that. Could I do this, could I do that? Could have been a contender. Could have scored that goal, ran that line, made that hit, smashed that ball. Could have left that drink, could have gone home. Could have grabbed the last bus. Could have called a taxi. Could have left the pub when I said I would. Could have joined the forces. Could have worked harder at school. Could have thought before opening my mouth. Could have run for the bus. Could have married her. Could have called my father more. Could have learnt how to speak French. Could have learnt how to say goodbye. Could have learnt how to say hello. Could have turned a blind eye. Could have left the island. Could have pined. Could have wined and dined and could have refined the argument (but I didn’t). Could have made this beer, could have sold this brewery, could have kept this worker, could have spoilt, could have soiled, could have toiled, could have boiled. Would I have sold the brewery? I would sell the brewery. The brewery could. Could have knelt and spelt and felt my way towards the future, the couture that would hold me, that would gild and gold me. Could have. Could have whirled around the world. Could have whirled and whirled until the world came round to me, but instead. Instead. I am the man who sold a world to bring the world in my whirl. Could/can/will you forgive me?

Friday, 13 May 2016

31 litres of lager in 24 hours

Much as I love this beer
I doubt I could have
matched Maurice Healey
 in a boozing contest
One of the books I am currently working on is an anthology of some of the best writing on beer from across the centuries and featuring writers from around the world. This is something I found in a wine-focused book called Stay Me With Flagons, which was published in 1940 by Maurice Healey. This is from the chapter headed Beer and Cider
     
‘Lager seems to owe its otherness to the method of its fermentation. When after the last war I was trying to get beer for the troops in Germany I got one letter which spoke of “our by-a-special-process-top-and-bottom-fermented-beer.’ I felt it must be good with a description like that; and I ordered a consignment. It was good. English beer, on the other hand, is apparently only fermented form below. Also, hops are supposed to play a large part in English beer; I do not think that lager contains hops, but it usually betrays the presence of more than a touch of garlic. I know of no scientific reason why lager should demand icing to be served in perfection, while English draught beer is undoubtedly harmed if its temperature is brought down to anything below what would be described as coo. Our beers are more potent, also; ‘One over the right’ is a phrase to indicate drunkenness, whereas I have myself put away 31 litres of German lager  in one twenty-four hours, without being conscious of any evil effect. I may add that this statement so shocked the editor of The Listener that he twice cut it out of my contributions to a teetotal controversy in the columns of his paper. But there is really nothing to it. The late Father Tom Finlay, one of the wisest of men, once told me that when he as a young Jesuit went to Munich to pursue his studies, the Master of Novices addressed the young arrivals in friendly warning: ‘You will like our beer,’ he said; ‘and you will perhaps be tempted to drink more of it than is good for you, not knowing its powers. Well, I would counsel you to set yourself a limit, and not to exceed that. You may not know what limit to set yourselves; my own limit is 17 litres a day, if that will serve you as a guide.’ So I think that a tourist on holiday at a more mature age need not be ashamed of having merely doubled this minimum.’

Monday, 4 April 2016

Gustatory in their joy

On my desk as I type, a bottle of Cloudwater’s Aus Hopfen Weisse, just finished. It was juicy and tropically fruity, full of passion fruit and banana, plus a peppery spiciness and a grown up lemon-brushed bitterness in the finish; a fascinating beer that managed to hold my attention all the way down the glass. Later on, I will take myself down to The Bridge Inn, dog in tow, and order a pint of Punk IPA, whose tropical fruit lushness (lychees and papaya) and malt sweetness contrasts with an almost Bachian counter-pint to the buzz-saw bitterness on the finish. If I have time I might also have a pint of Jaipur, whose lusciousness and lubriciousness puts me in mind of TS Eliot’s lines at the start of the fifth part of Little Gidding, What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Three great beers, gustatory in their joy, whole-hearted in the way they splash and spring about on the palate, enablers of taste and tailored to fun, enjoyment, consideration and a beseechment to a life well led. Oh, and for those who care about such things, one is served from a bottle, another is keg, and the final one is cask. As if it really matters.

Also on my desk, newly arrived in the post, still smelling of the printers (that fresh, brand new aroma that must be partly paper and partly the glossy, wet umami of ink), a size somewhere between A5 and A4, with a cover that sports a grid of colour photos and images pertaining to beer, is something from CAMRA called Shaping the Future. As everything is a project these days, it’s called the Revitalisation Project, a review, an exercise, a download of thought on the way CAMRA is going in during a time zone of beers that demand the attention and the attrition a man walking into a pub (unless of course it was a Belgian pub) in the 1990s would have thought a purity of fantasy and fancy.

From my limited understanding it’s all about where CAMRA goes now. Does it embrace all beers or remain what it set out to do when it started — promote and defend cask-conditioned beer. Does saving pubs fit in and other things?

To be honest, I’ve been as enervated by the announcement of this review as much as the whole EU referendum circus — bored and not really bothered. So why write anything? I suppose as a member, contributor to the excellent Beer magazine and CAMRA Books author, I should try and articulate something about it all, but the motivation is not there. I suppose I should have a look at the website and fill in the survey in the same way that I will drag myself down to the polling booth on June 23 or whenever it is (it was hammered into me when growing up one should always vote, suffragettes etc) and vote, but as the three beers in the first paragraph demonstrate, I’ve long stopped worrying where my beer comes from, whether its makers designate it craft, cask, bottle-conditioned, chill-filtered, pasteurised (well maybe not in this instance), or if it is served in a gourd or from the polished skull of a captured Frankish knight. Mind you, I still harbour a dislike for handled glasses and nonics, which are the work of modern-day devils with the aesthetics of the man who designed the cardigan.

But to get back to the project that CAMRA is putting forward, good luck to them and good luck to those who have long geeked off in a different direction. I’m just going to have a beer and think and talk and write about what it tastes like, what it does to my life, how it accompanies Beethoven, Eliot, a game of rugby or football, a conversation with a friend or a farewell to a friend or just maybe a moment of transcendence; how it props up an economy, how it defines a region, a district, a country, a way in which one lives a life; how it conducts itself in the presence of food and how it looks when it’s spilt on the floor and lapped up by a dog. And maybe that’s what my future is shaped like.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Homage to Barcelona

It’s a beer that reminds me of a mint chocolate, an After Eight perhaps, or maybe a mint-flavoured Aero. It’s minty but not gormless in the way the mint flavour comes through. There’s a smoothness, a spiciness, a childishness, a warmth and a swarm of thoughts produced by this beer that I’m drinking at the Barcelona Beer Festival, not long before I chair a tasting and conversation about cask and keg with Brian from Stillwater Brewery and Joe, head brewer of Garage, which is based in this city of cities. The beer? Oh it’s from Brooklyn and something like 9.5 or 9.7%. It’s called Old Fashioned Traditional or something like that and I actually rather like it but the co-founder of Garage, James Welsh, doesn’t. He pulls a face and turns down another sip. Still there are plenty of other great beers in this festival, which is held in part of the old boatyards, where Philip of Spain (he of the singed beard) built the Armada apparently. Up at the front of the vast arched space, on a stage, a young guy in braces, continually updated a massive blackboard of beers and rung a bell whenever a new one went up — expectant faces wait for this bell as if it was a warning from the nave of beer awareness.

I’ve always loved Barcelona (even though its football team seem to love putting my football team to the sword regularly). It’s a city in which I have always felt at ease, a place that is cool without being off-putting, that has wonderful food (I adore that market off the Ramblas) and architecture and now it seems to be a possibility that it might become a beer city. At the festival, which had crowds queuing to get in, there was a mixture of people, young, old, male, female, families, serious geeks, lads on the craft lash, and the odd brewer; I visited several bars, including Kaelderkold, not far from the Erotic Museum on the Ramblas, a narrow, wasp-waisted space that was holding a tap takeover by Garage on the Friday night. A babble of voices, all languages, beers being poured with a smile, a rock’n’roll sensibility, a blackboard of beers that included Garage’s Merlot Sour, which was gently sour and tart, the ghost of a wine barrel haunting the glass (and let us not forget Napar as well).

Then we went back to Garage’s bar, where at the back a shining brewery and a handful of barrels announced their intention. This time I had the Pale Ale, which had the assertive savoury scent and sensuality of its American hops. This was a beer that said: here I am and here I am to please you, which it did. And while we drank and talked, there was one name that hung over us, especially as it had been written on a blackboard at the back of the bar: Steve Huxley, a Liverpudlian who had settled in Spain years ago and set up a brewing school and some people call him the godfather of Spanish craft beer and as you can see from the photograph above he is highly revered and mightily missed. He died several months ago. I wish I’d met him.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Conversation on a train


On a train. Taunton to Bristol. First stage of a journey to London with a break in between in Bristol. Laptop open, searching for an opening para for an article that is already late, interviews done, theme agreed with inner manager, but searching for an opening para. Blank page in front of me, pristine white, waiting for the footprints of the muse that bite the hand that feeds it. What’re you writing mate, Scouse voice, opposite chair, big fella, bald, open face, his mate on the other hand, eyes half closed, fighter’s face, seemingly on the edge of sleep. Writing, I say, my job, trying to get it started, I tell him the theme. Why don’t you just start it with did you know or not many people know this. I smile, not really that sort of piece, need inspiration, given that I’m writing about beer, which is what I do as well as write on travel. You permanently on the lash then, innocent query, no malice. Not really, do a lot of travel, drink beer, but spend most of my time at a desk with a laptop. He speaks. You know what my favourite beer is? Hobgoblin. I love it, can drink loads of it. Went there once, to the brewery, I say, in Witney Oxfordshire, then owner took us out to taste the beer in a pub and it was off. Not really my sort of beer I say, but I don’t want to say that I feel Hobgoblin is a collaboration between the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz and a caramel-flavoured gush of insignificance. Why should I? He loves the beer, I don’t but we’re talking about beer, striking up a conversation about pubs and beers and then briefly and bizarrely Bicester’s shopping outlet, which I visited once and bought a reduced price copy of a book on stouts. Do you read he says, have you read Chicken Soup for the Soul? Best book ever. I say no but have heard of it. Not really my kind of book I want to say. Oh I must go as Bristol is here and so I shake their hands, wish them a safe journey back to Liverpool and leave the carriage with no opening para but instead having experienced a shining and gleaming 30 minutes of conversation that I usually get in the pub. Railway carriages are the new pub?

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Rather a beer than a biscuit

Like most people I know, I have never been able to plough my way through the pages of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. To me it’s too dense, too self-indulgent and too microscopic in its attention to the mind-numbing details of Proust’s life (though this doesn’t mean I’m a dolt: Ulysses has been my favourite novel for three decades). I do agree that it’s a classic of 20th century literature and the world would be a bleaker place by its non-existence, but sadly I’ve realised that I’m never going to finish it before I die and that there will be other much shorter books that I can dowse myself in (this bittersweet realisation is reminiscent of that pivotal time in one’s life when for instance you realise that a game of five-a-side football is something you cannot take part in anymore or that the offer to train with the local rugby club’s veterans is 10 years too late).

On the other hand…

Like many people the one thing I do have a clue about, regarding the three million words that the lugubrious-looking novelist put down on paper in his cork-lined bedroom, is that somewhere in the book the narrator dunks a biscuit into a cup of tea and sets off a whole chain of what would be called involuntary memory (hell there’s even a Wikipedia entry for on this subject). Hold on a minute though, a biscuit in a cup of tea? That hardly seems the style of an aesthete and a man who seems (from the perspective of a century later) to have the personality of an exhausted oyster who’s taken to its bed for the rest of its natural life, while breathlessly (in his case literally) picking through the minutiae of the social lives of his upper class pals. He’s not exactly Joe Sixpack or whatever the biscuit eater’s equivalent of a blue-collar beer drinker is, is he?

The truth is that the narrator (who is supposed to be Proust) delicately (he’s always going to be delicate) dunks a Madeleine in a tisane of lime flower (herbal tea in other words) and then starts remembering his young pampered life. This Madeleine is more of a soft, sweet sponge than a biscuit but somehow it’s designated a biscuit over in France (the same problem exists in the categorising of beer — Black India Pale Ale is one that gets the purists going). Meanwhile the cup of tea is something someone looking for a dairy- and caffeine-free attitude to passing through life would order — think fruit teas and you’re there.

It’s all very genteel.

This involuntary memory not only ended up in Wikipedia a century later but it often looked like it had crystallised or set in stone a literary process that has encouraged writers to use all sorts of items to suggest time travel back to when they were children (or even further if they’ve read Tristram Shandy). And of course the word Proustian is used to describe such a process (I hold my hands up — I’ve done it many times).

However, it’s not such an absurd proposal. I’ve been returned to my early 20s and the hopeless crush I had on someone when smelling a similar perfume to the one that my object of love wore during a long ago summer. The whiff of this bathroom-fresh, slightly soapy fragrance never fails to take me back in time. For instance, the smell of this perfume helps me to re-imagine the clack of balls on the snooker table in the bar of the Ancient Druids, a pub in Cambridge that has long been knocked down (it existed in an area called the Kite, which was levelled to provide a shopping area called the Grafton centre; the band I was in used to rehearse in a squat a couple of doors down). I can even remember the crush at the bar on a Thursday when the dole cheques for those who were living on people’s floors were handed out — this money would then fuel a night’s binging. The perfume is almost like a step terrace of remembrance, with one aroma leading onto a memory that leads to another memory and so on. The aromas of perfume, wood smoke, barnyard, ripe bananas and — perhaps somewhat more radically — electric fire all can reach backwards into the past and grab a day for our consideration.

Yet it’s Marcel Proust and his soggy biscuit (sorry I mean Madeleine) that blew the starting whistle for how the smallest of sensations can trigger a rash of memories. He has been inducted into a psychological hall of fame where his precious Madeleine is perhaps the only sustenance or foodstuff that is best for recovering the data of our lives.

There are other ways don’t you know.

As someone who writes and talks about beer for a living, I would argue that beer is as good as or even better than any biscuit when it comes to bringing the past to life in the context of day-to-day living. If Proust’s Madeleine allied itself with a tisane to bring back the past, then a glass of beer’s ally is far stronger — the pub and beers we drink within its walls and the people we drink with.

And this is what Rather a beer than a Biscuit is all about.



Pause a moment though, let me gather some thoughts and try to make sense of what I have just written. What is a biscuit, for instance? It is a commonplace piece of edible sweetness, a diurnal treat, a tooth crunching, tea- or coffee-dipping confection that comes in all sorts of styles. Something that children look forward to and infantile weight-obsessive adults devour on what has is known as their ‘cheat day’ (it basically means a day when they gorge themselves silly on biscuits and cakes and the next day it’s back to the latest diet until the next ‘cheat day’, it all sounds gratuitously infantile and celebrities love to endorse it as if it’s the most sinful thing they ever do, which of course we all really know isn’t).

The biscuit can be both egalitarian and elitist (so can beer for that matter). It’s a matter of great concern to some folk. To use the language of the rabble-rouser on both left and right: those people who might be deemed posh are commonly thought to have their biscuits delivered to them on a tray, while the rest of us make do with the packet. Such hardships we poor folk suffer. On the other hand there are posh biscuits in funny wrappers with more than a touch of Downton Abbey about them, which non-posh people can get from the local Co-op. Snobbery and nobbery seem like ideal handmaidens for biscuits. I wonder what literary history would have remembered about Proust’s theme of involuntary memory if he’d dipped a couple of Gypsy Creams or Hob-Nobs (or whatever late 19th century France’s mass-market biscuits would have been called) into a cup of Tetley’s tea (or whatever passed for Tetley’s in his part of France). I’m not sure we would have been regaled so much about memory though I believe that the whole idea of involuntary memory would have been picked up just as fast by another writer: I imagine Hemingway during his time as a war correspondent in Spain in the 1930s rhapsodising about the surrounding smell of cordite that would have been transporting him back to the First World War battlefields in Northern Italy, where he came up with his glorious novel A Farewell To Arms. Then there was Orwell who recalled the smell of wartime Britain (and the BBC in which he worked) and managed to conjure up the deadliness of 1984. And I speculate on all of this because of biscuits and I have even got to beer yet.

My personal history with biscuits took in all the usual suspects when I was a child: Bourbons were ideal to dip into the milky, thin, skin-topped coffee that was served at the Liberal Party coffee mornings my grandmother sometimes took me to. Mark & Spencer’s Golden Crunch was another favourite: a small round syrup-gold biscuit with a rough, sandpapery top reminiscent of the cracked surface of salt flats in the Americas and a smoother, but still pitted base. They were delicious. Chocolate digestives were pretty cool as well, though the oats in them meant that teeth soon became gritted with bits. These childhood favourites then gave way to soft flexible chocolate cookies or Wagon Wheels, which as I remember were chocolate coated biscuits, round of course, with layers of spongy marshmallow. As I grew older, I wanted a room at the top and started to eulogise the more sedate and genteel Bath Olivers and selection packs at Christmas (from M&S of course) — biscuits were cool and luminous in the attraction they had to me. On the other hand I didn’t like Rich Tea, which seemed to suggest long boring Sunday afternoons when it was raining outside (so bourgeois, so boring, so redolent of the UK in the 1970s), while Fig Rolls just seemed unpleasantly medical with a suggestion of roughage and regular stools.

That’s my relationship with the biscuit, but what about the history? Whilst beer has a heritage going back to the Sumerians and the Ancient Egyptians what about the biscuit? When did the biscuit come into being, when was it called a biscuit, when did it become part of the day to day incentive for good behaviour and sitting in the bay window of life, watching all the world whiz by? Why do most of us have memories of biscuits, of biscuits of different kinds, whether it’s those domino-shaped, chestnut-coloured, sugar spotted Bourbons, sickly infantile, ridged, powdery custard creams, pink wafers (more controversy, some people regard them as cakes), Hob-Nobs or Gypsy Creams? It’s anarchy out there in the world of biscuits.

First of all then it seems to me that I should comb out some crumbs from the table that hosts the history of the biscuit. Drum rolls please. Apparently we owe a great gladiola-waving sweep of thanks to the Italians for the origins of the word biscuit as it comes from the Latin panis biscoctus, when means twice baked or double cooked. And it was during the Middle Ages when the panis biscoctus emerged. ‘Twice baked’ suggests that the biscuit’s dough would have been as hard as Conan the Barbarian on a Friday evening with too much beer within him; unless it was soaked in water rather than the beer that Conan was chucking down his neck. Pliable it would not have been. Given the state of most people’s molars during the Middle Ages I wonder why people distended their mandibles over these panis biscoctus. I can hear the sound of broken teeth tinkling down through the centuries. This digression on hard tack biscuits brings me to another digression: ship’s biscuits, which were made to feed sailors on their long journeys to find other worlds that were rumoured to exist. At the same time the Scots had oatcakes, about which Jean Froissart eulogised in his Chronicles (he’s welcome to oatcakes, for in my modern experience without a stinking Stilton or a molten Pont l’eveque spread upon the oatcake’s unyielding Calvinist surface it is about as much fun as winning first prize in the hunt for a human coconut shy). Elsewhere across the world, I have no doubt that various people were thinking up various different styles of biscuits, all with the raw materials of flour, water and whatever provided them with sweetness, usually honey (bit like brewing in the Middle Ages really, when various herbs provided the bitterness that hops would eventually come up with).

Down through the centuries the biscuit has evolved to become the sweet treat that keeps dentists wealthy, healthy and wise to this day. And as I am ostensibly writing about biscuits and beer, I find it fascinating that when I started writing about beer one of the words used to describe the taste of a beer was its biscuity character. What that means is the malt character, the sweetness, the graininess, the crunchy texture and the dryness that you will find in plenty of beers, especially of the old school bitter style. Biscuitiness is good in the evaluation of beer, but when I was editing and writing 1001 Beers You Should Try Before You Die I was told that instead of using biscuity I should used cracker-like, which meant something more to American readers. Biscuits and beer seem to keep rubbing each other up the wrong way.



Now for beer, my great passion, my great receiver (and sometimes when a flashy label turns my head, the great deceiver), the drink and the culture about which I have weaved my life around in the last few years, in a way that no one could have done with a mere biscuit (or maybe they could have— the world is full of surprises, for instance some people like the colour purple). What is it about beer? Why does it play a much larger role in people’s lives than a plate of biscuits? On the other hand how important is beer beyond its capacity to liven up an evening’s socialising or provide a refreshing glass of cold liquid with which to accompany a viewing of a football match on the TV?

I’ll try and answer by going back in time. When I first tasted beer I was 12 (or was it 13?). I would sniff the glass of Mackeson Milk Stout that my father accompanied his Sunday lunch with at his mother’s back-to-back when my brother and I would see him at the weekend. I tasted it a couple of times and down through the years and I can still recall my recoil at what I now know was its roastiness (though I also now know that Mackeson’s roast character is a pretty mild creature). My grandmother enjoyed a glass of Guinness with her beer and Yorkshire pudding though its acridness would put it totally beyond my pale until I went to Dublin in 1985. Then there was Double Diamond, which I only encountered in a way that didn’t go down well with my mother.

As was common with many boys of my age (early teens) my younger brother and I would hang out with a bunch of other lads of roughly the same age on an open sports ground that was fringed with trees (I remember the crab apple tree and how I made a face when I bit into one of these apples). Throughout the holidays this was the place where lads put their coats down as goalposts and indulged in a frenetic game of football (one of the lads who turned up one day went in goal and I couldn’t get the ball past him — about 13 years later my late father called me up to ask if I was watching the FA Cup Final between Everton and Manchester United; the boy whom I failed to kick a ball past was playing in goal for Everton: Neville Southall). There was a cricket club pavilion at the top of the field, a decrepit, falling down building that was often burgled, while attempts were made to set it on fire as well. Next to it was the scoring hut, which also suffered the attention of those with a mission to vandalise. The reason that I tasted Double Diamond was that someone had broken into the clubhouse, dragged out a full crate of the beer, drank it on the spot and left the dregs for me and my brother and a couple of friends to drink. Which we then did. All I can remember is that it tasted like the smell I used to breathe deeply of when passing the pubs in town (and when I was growing up pubs were forbidden territories, places where grown-ups gathered, places whose engraved, opaque glass kept the world outside, including us kids, from observing) — it was a smell of beer and tobacco, though beer had its own unique smell that later on I came to recognise as a mixture of sweet barley malt and spicy, even floral hop. At the time it was just beer to me.

And the reason I got into trouble was that as we were drinking the dregs from these bottles a policeman turned up and questioned my brother and I about the theft of the bottles (the two friends were free to go — their father was a policeman). As this interrogation was happening, friendly but firm, my grandfather, an ex policeman, passed by and was told what had happened. When I got home my mother was livid and made the two of us drink a glass of salty water — she said in calm tones that it was not a punishment, but a concern that we might have been poisoned and that the salty water would make us sick and bring up any toxins in our body. We weren’t sick.

As I got older, other beers passed through my life: Long Life, a canned lager that was, as the name suggests, meant to have a long life; there was Ansell’s Mild, an insipid kind of beer and nicknamed the skinflint’s ale by us lads in my local in Llandudno, North Wales; Greenall Whitely, Stone’s Keg, Wrexham Lager. Later on in college I enjoyed Greene King IPA though not Abbot (it gave me a ferocious hangover) and Courage Director’s; I also loved Holsten Diat Pils (I could drink a lot of it and still come up smiling the next day); and then a genuinely delicious beer, Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, a golden-coloured beer with a fluffy meringue of a head, something that my friend Keith and I hoovered up with great glee whenever we met in the King’s Head in Llandudno.

In the mid 1980s cask beer started to become important, but life changed forever when it came to beer after reading Michael Jackson in the Independent and being given his New World Guide to Beer for Christmas. The whole world of beer was opening up to me with Bavarian wheat beers and bocks, Czech Pilsners, Belgian strong golden ales, barley wines from the UK and the USA. It was like poetry and the list of beers that I wanted to devour before I shuffled off the mortal coil was getting larger. And then about 10 years after this epiphany of sorts I decided that I wanted to ease my way into writing about beer, it was something that fascinated me, it was something that I felt I could say something about, uncover something, bend the language to write about beer in a way that Jackson was doing. I wanted to become a beer writer.

That was my relationship with beer, but what about people’s connection with beer?

As might have been suggested by my experience, beer both fascinates people and fashions itself around their lifestyles, which is something you do not get with the biscuit. During the great days of mild consumption, working men in the industrial areas of south Wales and the Midlands drank pints and pints of their chosen ale, in their own clubs or community pubs, roistering, reckoning on their lives’ work and readying them for the day after tomorrow. Beer was a part of their daily life, as common as bread and butter, steak and kidney, bacon and egg or the rent.

Beer also encourages debate. Everyone who drinks beer seems to believe that the beer they enjoy is the best and they will take to websites, social media and heated conversations in pubs to prove the point. On a more parochial rather than confrontational level, others believe that the beer they used to enjoy was much better in the past, as I discovered at http://www.retrowow.co.uk/retro_britain/keg_bitter/60s_and_70s_beer.html.

According to Mickey, who wrote in November 2012, ‘I was a teenager during the early/mid 1970s and was “weened on” Double Diamond & Watney's RED barrel and still miss drinking those beers in 2012! Pubs in England since the 1990s only sell ''real ale'' and it tastes TERRIBLE so i don't bother going into them anymore, i wish i could still buy a nice pint of Double Diamond or Watney's RED barrel!’

A suitably energetic response emerged on Boxing Day a month later from Kez of Challacombe (incidentally a village a few miles from where I live, whose pub the Black Venus I have written about).

‘Mickey (24/11/12) You are very much off your head, the very reason the keg beer of the 1970's have all disapeared is because it was tasteless fizzy bilge. There are now over 1000 breweries in this Country, and the CASK ales produced are by far the best ale this Country has EVER had. The quality, the strengths, the diversity, and now Real Ale is here to stay because it is simply the best. I remember drinking Trophy Bitter, Tankard Biter, Worthington E, Double Diamond, Albrite etc, they were just awful.’

Look at that exchange of words and the undercurrent is CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, the consumer group that was formed in the early 1970s and is generally seen as the saviour of traditional draught beer. The arguments their members waded into were epic: for instance, Watney’s, so beloved of Mickey as quoted above, was reputedly so stung by the nickname Grotney’s in CAMRA’s newspaper What’s Brewing that they allegedly felt that Red Barrel — their baby, their big time Charlie, their blockbuster — was fatally undermined by the constant use of the name in the cartoon. Other breweries would voice their displeasure, but years later, providing they were still in existence, would be holding hands with CAMRA attempting to stem a new tide of problems.

I’ve never heard about anything similar for the biscuit, whatever its variety. Though, if you had the strength to do it you could consider the biscuit’s class nature. Was it the well-dressed sweetmeat on the sideboard, only to be brought out with the best china or like beer did the variety of biscuit have a different time, a different place and a different mood to be used? If beer was a reward what was the biscuit — a show of wealth, a pretension to social advancement, or was it a reward as well? Which then leads to another contrast to beer and the biscuit — beer is undoubtedly an adult aspect of our lives, it can make you drunk if you drink too much, it has an adult taste (well the bolder flavoured beers do), it can mark a rite of passage in a life like going for the first pint with your father or mother, it is drunk in the company or other adults. Hold up a glass of beer in the air and toast a friend, a sporting occasion or just the joy of life and you are an adult. On the other hand, as I have mentioned before, a biscuit is positively juvenile, it is a treat, a reward (‘who’s a good boy then?’) that dogs as well as humans get and in the case of yo-yo dieting celebrities a sin and a well-deserved treat, that is not without some element of danger or sin.

Sin is something that few of us are aware of. We are in a post-belief age, a schizophrenic-like age where people profess disbelief but also like to pronounce themselves as spiritual. The clued-in beer-drinker, if pressed on their immortal soul, will mention beers made by Trappist monks and English beers that have been fermented and matured for seven days and thus blessed on the Sabbath, or maybe they will talk about the magic of fermentation. Beer, unlike the biscuit, can have a metaphysical life.



When we talk of beer, we talk of lager (which then divides into a variety of sub-sections including Dunkel, Helles, Marzen, Pilsner, Bock, Schwarzbier and so on), a bitter (or pale ale), a mild, an IPA (though some would say that this resides in the bitter camp), a stout (and a porter), a lambic, a Weissbier, a Gose and so on. In the manner of an ancient shape-shifting god, beer displays many faces to the world; it’s Joseph’s bible story in that it has a coat of many colours; in the way we humans categorise the ages of our dogs beer crosses a wide spectrum from soft and sweet to bitter and bracing to dry and dusty to wild and sour. Yet there are differences. A Czech Pilsner (or světlý ležák in the Czech demotic) such as Pivovar’s Dobranska Hvezda 12˚ has sweet toasted grain, a slight pepperiness and delicate Saaz-derived floral notes all vying for attention on the nose. The palate has a hint of fruit pastilles, a slight sweetness and a long lasting dry and bitter finish. On another level, let’s have a taste of Pivovar Kácov’s Hubertus Premium 12˚: the nose pulsates with expressive Saaz lemony notes alongside an undercurrent of grain. The palate is fresh and elegant, with an expressive lemoniness chiming with a grainy, cracker-like firmness. The finish is crisp, dry and bittersweet. Both beers come under the same style umbrella but they are different — one has a bittersweet character and the other is drier.

Bolder flavoured beers also have their differences. Colorado Ithaca Imperial Stout from Brazil is as dark as a moonless night and topped with an espresso-coloured head of foam; the nose marries bubblegum, sweet apple and toffee, while in the mouth there are notes of berry fruit, toffee and milky coffee plus a creamy mouth feel and an assertive bitterness in the finish. On the other hand Emelisse Imperial Russian Stout, which comes out of Holland, is also as dark in the glass though it has smoke, roastiness, smooth alcohol, mocha and soot on the nose; the flavour is a multi-layered adventure of smoke, ripe plums, chocolate, coffee, soya sauce while there is a bracing bitterness in the finish that also has some sweetness.

Can the same be said about the biscuit? The only change in taste is when different ingredients are added, such as chocolate or spices (and of course different shapes are made). For a start a biscuit, whatever shape it is, always possesses an element of sweetness, a variable texture of crunchiness and the ability to dissolve when dunked into a cup of tea (or tisane of lime-flower if that’s your bag). I’m leaving savoury biscuits alone here — they are totally different creatures, made to have slivers of cheese and bumps of pate deposited on them and certainly not dunked in cups of tea.

However, where biscuits have the edge on beer is in the real 3-D world — biscuits come in all shapes and sizes: some the same size as a medallion that men with too much back hair wear around their necks, others such as cookies are large enough to cause pain if flipped into the face of a misbehaving adult. In-between we have chocolate covered biscuits, round in shape, but lumpy in the face they turn to the world; biscuits with small holes in them, which are sometimes filled with a synthetic jam-like sweetness; then there are biscuits with larger holes in the middle (which always set me off considering the Greek word Omphalos, meaning the navel of the world, and in turn brings me a memory of Buck Mulligan using the word in the early pages of Ulysses); square biscuits; multi-layered biscuits; triangular biscuits and ones shaped like letters now and again. However, no matter what their shape, they have a uniformity of sweetness that they cannot escape from. One last thing about biscuits though, something that you cannot do with beer: they are collaborationists, quislings, willing to transform their material being and shape, which is what you do when you dunk them in tea. Which once more brings us back to Marcel Proust and his memories and the infuriating hold that the biscuit has on the memories we have.

But I, sitting with a glass of beer in my hand, or glancing at one standing alone, gleaming and burbling its bubbles to the world, on the well-polished table in front of me, would much rather have a beer than a biscuit. This glass of beer, whether being drank in a hobo bar next to a country railway halt in the middle of Europe or a northern English pub where last night’s football result still smarts or a Pacific coast brewpub where the klaxon call of sea lions on the dock outside add their own sense of cacophony, is more important to me, more suggestive of what I have experienced in my life, more elective in how I would choose to spend my life, than a biscuit, whatever its shape, sugariness or absorbent qualities when dipped into a cup of tea like a suspected witch in early modern England. This beer and the atmosphere in which I consume and contemplate it has the power to shift time, tilt time, take me back, take me forwards, rake up the still warm embers of remembered moments, remove me to towns and cities that I visited, call up faces and voices of those with whom I talked, and best of all the flavours, the colours, the contours, the entourage of taste, smell and sensation that a glass of beer brings with it. All of which is why I would rather, any day, any time, anywhere, have a beer than a biscuit.


And with that in mind, I must admit I have to feel sorry for Marcel Proust; it must have been murder in that cork-lined room with only a biscuit and a tisane for company.


If you have got this far congratulations, this was meant to be part of an essay on memory and beer, which may or may not be expanded on in the future for a Kindle essay, but for now here it is.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Witbier

I have of late turned my back, consigned to the lumber-room of precious memory, marked down as moderate and minding my own business, that sweet child of Belgium, the witbier, the spicy, fruity, refreshing beer that I first tasted, as did many, when someone suggested I try a hazy pale beer served in a chunky glass. Yes, Hoegaarden, though now this beer is undreamt of, unkempt in my mind, and part of the past as a foreign country. I last had it in the late 1990s, when it was juicy, orangey, silky and refreshing. And then its soul fell off a cliff. There have been other witbier moments along the way: 11 years ago on a sunny July afternoon at Du Bocq and a glass of Blanche du Namur was an easy drinking, engaging, uncomplicated companion chattering away in the glass. More grown up and with a sense of broodiness that would have suited Macbeth in one of his more lucid moments, there is the creamy and luscious Blanches des Honnelles from Abbaye du Roc. And yet, the Belgian witbier and those versions made by breweries from all over the world have remained in the memory room, locked up and forgotten. What went wrong?

As ever and in search of untying the ropes that had tethered my tastes, I went In search of new sensations, the rapaciousness of an avalanche of hops, potent potentates of dark beer, irregular shapes thrown by this yeast or that yeast or that sour bug bugging away in the wood. The witbier became an irregularity in the world of my beer drinking. And then this weekend, as if it had never been away there it was again and I remembered how I had forgotten that I knew when made at its best the Belgian witbier was an elegant, cheerful, uncloistered, friendly, thirst-quenching troubadour of a beer, something to be calibrated and celebrated when it came to the palate.

And the beers that reminded me, were kind to me even though the style had been left all alone as if waiting for a bus that never came? They were both from the Americas: Allagash White, smooth and flirty in the dance its spice and fruit made on the tongue, throat catching in the thirst that it quenched, a beautiful beer; then there was C5 Saga Ale Blanca from Mexico, which was sent to me with several other Mexican beers, though this was the stunner amongst the bunch. With a coriander spice and pepperiness, edge-of-palate sourness and Orangina-like fruitiness it brought in a big searchlight of summer to the dank and dark January night on which I tasted it. Both beers reminded me of the beauty that could be a Belgian witbier and it’s to my shame that it’s a beer style I’ve neglected for so long. Sometimes, in the rush for nirvana and newness we forgot the sturdy, the survivor, the subtlety and surprise that a beer we thought we knew can still bring.