Monday, 14 November 2016

Resin. Pine. If a lion could speak.

Do you know what this guy is saying? Me neither.
Resin. Pine. I type in these words, my laptop resting on a pine table, which actually smells of nothing (apart from the beer I spilt on it a few minutes ago and the aroma like the day will soon pass away). These are words whose meaning has been gnawing at me for a while, not exactly the eagle pecking away at the liver of Prometheus but still gnawing away; these are words that are liberally thrown out like corn-seed for the birds when it comes to describing aromatics on a certain type of beer, usually an Imperial IPA (or Double if you so wish). Today I have drank deeply of a beer that I am certain hits the resin/pine bell with the same certainty as a prop forward wielding a hammer on a high striker in an out-of-town fairground. However, I’m puzzled. What does it actually mean? Heaven knows I’ve used it enough but I’m beginning to wonder if it is just my inner xerox reading about the resiny character of an Imperial IPA and then going on to faithfully repeat it? Am I reading the text or is it reading me? Or is it a weakness on my part? I have judged extensively in Britain and Europe and often been told by fellow judges that they have a genetic disposition for diacetyl or oxidisation; I do not doubt them. Do I lack a genetic disposition for resin or pine?

For initial guidance I turned to a file with tasting notes going back to the late 1990s. In 2000 I was at Adnams with the then head brewer Mike Powell-Evans. We tasted a test brew of Fisherman’s Ale (a replacement for Old Ale, which itself was replaced by, er, Old Ale) and the word resiny popped up. In July 2002, whilst researching my first book West Country Ales, I used the word resiny as part of the description of a beer called Speckled Parrot from the Hayle-based brewery Wheal Ale (it was based in a bird park, hence its name). Also in the same year I used it in a description of Fuller’s Vintage when I tasted several one Monday morning with John Keeling.

Then there was this from my Big Book of Beer in 2005 (the italics are my contemporary emphasis): ‘Hoppy aromas are fruity, resiny, aromatic, citric, peppery, herbal, spicy, lemony and floral. It’s possible to pick out Seville orange marmalade (sometimes even lime), tropical fruits such as lychees and passion fruit, resin (think varnish).’ That is what I believed at the time, even though the idea that varnish, a sticky, chemical-smelling creature you paste over the floor-boards, could have a warmth in the aromatic stakes, seems kind of odd. I know the connection when I smell it but there has to be a better word or is it somehow beyond our reasoning?

Then there’s pine. Sometimes it makes me think of a chemical cleaning fluid for the loo, an exaggeration of what we think as pine, almost in the same way a drag queen is supposed to exaggerate certain aspects of femininity — and then this leads me onto considering that a lot of descriptors we have for beer are linked to artificiality or synthetic recreations; fruity aromas and flavours are closer to the sweetshop or artificial flavourings than the real thing, for instance, when we think of raspberry do we think of the raspberry artificiality we might get in a cheesecake rather than the real thing picked from the garden in the summer, but then does it matter? (An afterthought: raspberry sours get closer than any old common or garden raspberry beer)

I would say it does. Despite writing my first article about beer 20 years ago (though there was little in the way of pine about then), it still bugs me, puzzles me, tears away at me like an itch; a twitch almost in the gap of the curtain of my knowledge. Maybe it’s like the fruity, malt and hoppy descriptors I started reining back on 12 years ago (after many late night discussions with other beer writers about the paucity of the language we used); but then on the other hand I do wonder if infinite breakdowns of the flavours a beer conjures up on a writer’s tongue (woodruff, bay leaf, white pepper, freshly laundered sheets, uncle Tom Cobleigh’s just polished shoes for instance) might be too off-putting to your casual type starting to dip their toe into the indie scene; it’s almost as if the beer is deconstructed into a sum of its parts that lacks romance (and I do think beer can have romance).

And so going out into the field and trying to understand resin and piny I headed off across the road to one of Exeter’s four Spoons and ordered a couple of cans of Sixpoint’s Resin. The nose was soapy, rich and herbal (perhaps bay leaf and sage), while I was reminded of a Bakewell tart-like spiciness (and almond creaminess) plus a sweetshop-like herbalness (cough mixture, liquorice, mint humbugs) and of course there was the obligatory grapefruit. Was I in a forest full of pine trees after a rain shower (in my limited experience whilst out shooting a few years ago I can recall a freshness, a one-note freshness unlike the broad symphonic cascade I get from Imperial IPAs deemed to be piny)? I don’t think so. Was I on my hands and knees daubing floorboards with varnish? Perhaps. I enjoyed the beer however.

Yet I am still left bemused by the resin/pine conundrum and think about Wittgenstein’s assertion that if a lion could speak we would not be able to understand him; that is how I feel about the lion in the glass when it comes to Imperial/Double IPA and its claim to be resiny and piny. I don’t think I can always understand what this lion is saying. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Beer writing


I’ve always been an advocate of beer writing, that it can be valid as film, music or food writing (there are even beauty and luxury journalists these days for heaven’s sake) and this belief is in concrete, physical form with Beer In So Many Words, the anthology of beer writing (right) that I have edited and which is out next month. I’ve just received a copy of it and even though I’ve written about a dozen books I still have that excitement on receiving a copy of a new book. There are some great writers in it from the current wave of beer writing, both from the USA and the UK; we also came across some little gems on beer and pubs that I’d not seen before, such as Hemingway’s PR letter for Ballantine, Ian Rankin on the pub and Ian Nairn on CAMRA and cask beer. I’m very pleased with it and I hope that the writers inside its covers (those still alive that is) are equally pleased. And yes, there is definitely enough good writing out there (and in the future) to think of doing a second volume if this sells well enough. 

I haven’t really lost my mojo when it comes to this blog given the paucity of content in the past few months — when I’ve been writing all day the last thing I want to do in the evening is write, or maybe I’m just getting lazy, or maybe I feel that I have said everything I want to say. Maybe not with the latter, I still have plenty of words but it’s just a case of ordering them into something that resembles sense. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

Celeriac

Say hello to my little friend
Here is a fillet of celeriac, yes you read that correctly, a fillet of celeriac, which has been smoked, then seared before being braised and presented on the plate, with the grace and elegance of the finest bit of steak. It’s tender, earthy, salty-sweet, malleable, wrong-footing the senses, sending a message whose meaning is clear: what’s the big deal?

Celeriac and I have always had a turbulent relationship. It’s a rough looking brute of a vegetable, a knobbly near globe, a rough-skinned creature with pallid, sick-room coloured flesh. Mashed with roast pheasant or wild duck, yes please, but otherwise, especially grated, I think I’d rather leave the room, but on this evening, in a small restaurant in Brixton, Salon if you must know, there’s the dawning of a new day, the reconfiguration of a relationship, the reconsideration of a long held belief.

And here is now a beer, matched with the celeriac and its other companions on the plate, steamed rainbow chard and pickled walnuts (the latter two words always bring a childish smile to the face, it’s as if I was listening to some low comedian telling a bawdy story which end in the words pickled walnuts).

In fact, there are two beers on the table, one of which is a Sticke Alt from Harpoon, while the other is Baba Black Lager from Uinta. American beers then, which isn’t a surprise as the dinner I’m at has been organised by the Brewers’ Association with the grand idea of demonstrating that beer and vegetarian food can be ideal partners on the dining table (not a new idea, I recall discussing similar matches a few years ago with a beer drinking vegetarian). There are other dishes and other beers, all of which work well, but it’s the celeriac that astounds and atones for its previous wickedness.

The caramel chewiness of the seared steak alongside the rich malt character of the Sticke Alt was an intriguing combination, as if the beer was searching to pick out new flavours (I think of the fingers of a multitude of searchlights roaming the sky during an air-raid); there was also a sweetness about the celeriac that seemed to be intensified by the beer and even during the odd moment a hint of umami, that event horizon of flavours, slipped in and added its own savoury sense of leisure. I tried a few sips of the Baba, which highlighted the earthiness of the chard, but it was the Sticke Alt that married itself to this dish and turned what on paper would seem like a dreary assemblage of plants into something more over-reaching and intense on the palate.

I rather like celeriac. At the moment.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Orange

Orange: such an easy and lazy term to be handed over onto paper or the adjudicator when it comes to classifying the colour of beer. This is dark orange, this is light orange, this is bruised orange; or you might want to suggest that this is orange that has become detached from the very idea of orange (or maybe you’re just colour blind by now). I recall the saffron-yellow-verging-on-orange robes of the Hari Krishna types who used to thread their way along Oxford Street, banging their drums, selling their cassettes, offering free food to those who wanted it; this was a vivid orange, an orange, allied to my understanding of what the HK types tried to sell, seemingly wanting to be seen as spiritual, sacred, clean and pure. Didn’t work though, it just looked gaudy, peculiar and not to be taken seriously. 

So where does orange stand when I classify the colour of a beer? The long, wasp-waisted glass that stands next to me as I write is full of a beer I would suggest is orange in colour, but a dark, battered, bruised, tanned, autumnal kind of orange; an orange that has been around, Iggy Pop perhaps, leathery and lined, doing somersaults on the stage when Ron and the rest of the Stooges grind out the riffs and make the noise. And then it leads me to think: can you drink a colour? Can I drink orange and what would I expect when I drink a beer that is this battered and bruised shade of orange? The rich sweep of sweetness, the child-play of citrus, the haunted castle of Christmas, the recoil on the tongue and the slight rictus that tartness takes to the mouth. Kia-Orange, Fanta, Outspan; I write out their names for better or worse and think of how with these names (or brands if you prefer) orange is a terrible beauty born, a sweetness, a cheat, a fleet-footed villain of instant gifts, those GIFs that gift thumbs-up to those who need that gift of assurance. But then I return to the beer and un-bewildered by the orange I switch to the smoothness that the beer bestows on my tongue, a smoothness that is — yes — spiked with a citrus shadow reminiscent of orange, adjoined to a crispness allied to malt, and a long dry finish that suggests a con-trail spreading across the blue sky on a long hot summer’s afternoon. Can I drink orange? I suspect I can. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Romantic


Whoever said brewing was romantic? Perhaps it’s the notion of brewing that’s romantic as opposed to the reality, in the same way we think of warfare as being ceaseless carnage where in fact those who have seen warfare suggest that it’s mainly boredom leavened with moments of pure fear and pain. And so looking at this photograph on a cold November morning in 2005, we can see Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre, which makes one of the most memorable beers in Europe, Trois Mont, a beautiful and elegant beer that I have drank deeply of for many years. It’s a boring imagine, wet tarmac, red brick, metal tanks, steam from that morning’s boil while I suppose the sight of the local church at the end of the street does add some romance, in the sense of community. On the other hand, perhaps the snap of some of the brewing equipment does have a certain resonance in that envelope of feeling that I like to call my soul; it’s a vision of industry, a vision of intent, a vision of part of the journey that Trois Monts makes before it ends up in the glass. Some perhaps brewing is romantic after all. 

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Bitter

I’d forgotten about bitter, forgotten about that citrusy-slow build of sweetness, the words of toffee and hop spice, the crosstown traffic, the blistering bitterness, the dryness, the siren call of English hops, the warp and waft of the raw materials, the full body, its common touch (at which I have unforgivably sneered), the monstrosity, the leviathan, the well water hoisted, the sheer sheerness of it all. And as I delved further and further into my glass of Gadds No 3 I realised how much I’d forgotten about bitter and how much I had missed it.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Hop sack

Occasionally, sometimes, when there is an r in the month or when there is a moon that is suggestive of a time I never really knew, I find myself wishing I’d never put my head (or was it my nose?) into that first sack of hops. That I had never been beguiled and bested by the flurry of aromatics emerging out of the sack, the rough, textured Hessian sack into which a cluster and concentration of dried hops were packed, squeezed and suffocated into, expressing their individual identities cone by cone. Was it at Moor Brewery in late 1996 when I was writing my first piece for What’s Brewing? Or perhaps, ironically, given what the brewery was best known for, Highgate Brewery in 1997? I can’t remember, but all I do have a certainty about is that from this moment (of which I have little recollection) I was possessed of a passion for the aroma of hops, not a love as that is something for life, but a passion, a lust perhaps, a kindness and a benevolence towards the aromatics that hops bring to my sensorial world. Since that time I have sniffed my way around a world of hop sacks (and even crushed up hop pellets in order to smash up the aromatics and let them play their way to my brain).

I thought of this journey, this Jedi-like awakening as I stood in the brewery at Redwell on Saturday morning, while Dave Jones, the head brewer, worked out the hop ratio for a beer he was brewing called Hop Rocket. Chinook was one of the varieties engaged, Centennial perhaps and I stuck my nose into the container that was holding the first wave of hops. The aroma was green, chive-like, tropically fruity, pungent, musky even. We discussed hops, we discussed malt and what malt could do, we discussed beer and coffee beans and like a circle we kept coming back to hops. ‘Try this,’ and I was given Bullards’ Summer Ale, which is also brewed here. Whatever your thoughts on a brewery buying the name of a long gone brewery and brewing beers with their name attached to them and with little link with what the beers tasted like (I think British brewers are confident enough now to be able to celebrate the past, their forebears, those that came before them and besides as Jeff Alworth here argues maybe not everything in the past was good), I found this beer to be exemplary: juicy and bursting with flavour, with the kind of bitter dry finish that clangs away with the insistence of a warning bell. And once again I was drawn to the persistence of the hop sack and its influence on my senses. Oh how I do love the hop sack but sometimes, just sometimes, I have doubts on whether it was a good move on that long distant day when I let myself be led to the hop sack.