Wednesday, 20 August 2014

105 words in praise of beer

I’ve drunk beer in Brattleboro and Burlington, taken it too in Boston, in a bar in upstate Maine, but not in New York; I’ve drunk deeply in St Petersburg, fleetingly and fearful in Moscow, searched for it in Krakow, dialled it in in Prague, Plzen, Cesky Krumlov and Chodovar; I’ve devoured it in Munich, inspected it in Berlin, caned it in Paris, lost myself in it in Dublin, fed on it in London and let it in in Milan, Rome and Bologna, discovered it in Malaga, Zagreb and some small village in the Dordogne — and do you know what, it’s never let me down.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Jilly Goulden, lager and Westmalle

It seems to me that there’s a lot of anger and irritation rippling through the beer hive these days, easy offence being taken about this label or that or whatever, while exasperations erupt because a competition result went one way and not the other and heaven forbid if brewers don’t do what the zeitgeist is telling them what they should do. However, after looking at wine writer Jilly Goolden’s lager piece in the Mail today I’m tempted, just briefly, to join the hive. Why? I’m not bothered about the fact that the paper asked a wine writer to dissect lager (I’m still waiting for the wonderful world of wine to let a beer writer prattle on about premier crus), I mean it’s been going on for years and who am I to say who a commissioning editor should commission; the issue that has caused a disturbance in the force for me is the addition of Westmalle Tripel in a piece about lagers. I think there’s a clue in the beer style, Trappist Ale. There will be some who say that it’s good to have beer in the newspapers whatever tripe people write, but I’m not sure about that. On the other hand I’ll be suggesting a wine column, I hear Chateauneuf du Pape is a gorgeous summertime spritzer, full of brisk, bubbly emotion, light on the palate and ideal with prawns. Mild rant over, I’ve left the hive.

Friday, 25 July 2014


‘Of the various impressions that I carried away from this Exhibition (the Brewers Exhibition 1910), one in particular I treasure as an abiding memory. Cordiality — that seemed to me to be the dominant note of the show. When I find among teetotallers the same bonhomie, good humour and friendliness that I discovered among my brewer friends, I shall begin to think that the creed of total abstinence has something to say for itself, But I fancy I shall have to wait a long time.’ 

Brewers Gazette 1910
This was inspired by the fact that I have spent the last two days judging beers at two different competitions, in the company of a variety of beer writers, brewers and publicans. Over a century on after the above was written nothing thankfully seems to have changed — there still exists an admirable sense of cordiality when beery folk come together. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Turns loudspeaker from the past on

There is nothing new under the sun, as I think most people with an interest in beer know — this is from the County Brewers’ Gazette 1902 — couple of things come to mind, someone was thinking about beer is the new wine at the start of the 20th century, while the hops used in IPA were a bit of a moveable feast (and given I’m about to spend the day judging beer at the second round of the World Beer Awards, that’s a lot to think about). 

‘We have already mentioned that the Belgian beers are from a very interesting class. Among them will be found a curious beverage known as Gueuze Lambic, which is brewed in a very novel manner, the wort being placed into yeasty casks, and fermentation set up by many yeasts, wild or otherwise, that may be available. The finished Lambic, when mixed with sugar, has a flavour somewhat resembling cider. Another variety of this beer is called Kricken Lambic, and is flavoured with cherries. It has quite a vinous taste, and the manner of serving it — the bottle being placed in a wicker basket — is also suggestive of wine rather than beer. Faro — the beverage of the working classes in Belgium — is also shown, together with many beers of the Munich and Pilsener type. Sweden sends a porter, which resembles the London type, and was brewed, we understand, from Messrs. John Plunkett’s Dublin malt.

‘The samples of Indian beer represent the manufactures of Messrs. E Dyer and Co, of Lucknow and Solan. The India Pale Ale of this firm, which is brewed on the Burton system, with the aid of ice, from English and German hops and Indian barley, was a very creditable production indeed.’

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Brewery fresh

A dog, a chocolate coloured Springer, bouncy and boisterous, straining at the leash held by a man leaning at the bar, attention on his paper and pint, greets a woman who makes a fuss and gifts him a treat. There’s a rumble, a polite clang perhaps, as a man pushing a porter’s trolley upon which a cask reclines, Cleopatra-like on a divan, enters the door of the pub, en route to the cellar. He’ll be back with another in a few minutes, taking his time to cross the street back to the brewery, from whose tall chimney I’d seen smoke, Vatican-white, twist and rise before entering this pub, which is just across the road. At the back of the bar, recumbent, less Cleo, more Bolt in the blocks, ready for the start off, I scan a quartet of casks, from which my glass of Sussex Best Bitter comes. Oh how I do love this beer that comes from the brewery across the road, with its pungent, sulphury, musky nose and bittersweet, citrus, deep rich palate; how I do love this beer with its broad, almost monochromatic sense of bitterness and hoppiness, though there’s a friendly malt sweetness that stops its deep booming nose from being the beery equivalent of that bit in the Magic Flute where Sarastro’s bass seems to descend into the pit. Meanwhile at the table, where the windows overlook the sluggish Ouse, the sound of birdsong drifts in through the window as well as — gleefully I note — the occasional scent of the boil, tendrils of weeds outstretched in the river’s current. The dog lies down, excitement still for a moment, the man at the bar continues with his paper and glass of cider, while around the fireplace, whose deep seats at each end were once a mash tun, a man and a woman, elderly, having taken an exit from their shopping, turn to each other and toast the day with a glass of Sussex Best Bitter. Quietly, unobtrusively, I join them. Meanwhile, the noise of a porter’s trolley rumbles through the room again, as the man from the brewery across the road brings in another cask for the cellar.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dreaming and drinking

I believe in the redemptive power of a glass or two of beer, the power perchance to dream when the beer and its outrider of alcohol changes my mood, makes me think but slows down the sudden blink of thought, and links the grey skies, beneath which I drink my beer in a pub garden that for the last 20 minutes has been talismanic in its silence, to a memory, a painting, a piece of music, a mood in a novel (for now I’l take Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony but on another day it might be Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir or TS Eliot’s bequest for you and I to go). I do believe in the resourcefulness of a glass or two of beer that drops the labels and the clutter and swings open the shutters on another way of viewing the world, whether it’s the frayed gold of a shorn field of barley or the faraway band of green and brown of hills I’ll never walk. I do so believe in the hand on the shoulder that a glass or two of beer brings, the coiled spring of words sprung, the eternal and vernal drive towards the herd of friendship that a glass of two of beer can bring, the connected words, the did you know and what was it like when and the how are you and the would you like another, the whirring of words, seeds in the air, the release of which a glass or two of beer begins. That is all why I do so justly, undiluted and unjilted believe in the redemptive power of a glass or two of beer. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Are you a beer man or a cider man?

Are you a beer man or a cider man? Stentorian and fruity, in the sunny river-facing space of the pub in which I sat,  the words floated over my shoulders and disturbed my reading of an old copy of Granta about death and dying. My father enjoyed his beer, came the reply from the woman behind me. Her husband (I presume) said that he preferred wine but was enjoying the glass of cider, for after all aren’t we in cider country (even though I had my back to them I can sense a theatrical wave of the hand). I have always seen pubs as something akin to those pre-radar concrete sound detectors from the 1920s that were thought ideal to pick up the drone of approaching aircraft, reflectors of sound from the people around. It’s one of the most entertaining parts of pub life and I’m sure my own voice often becomes part of the saloon bar song. Are you a beer man or a cider man?