Saturday, 27 September 2014

Beer with a view

A flight of pigeons, Venice echoed, Don’t Look Back, St Mark’s Square perhaps, wheel in the tight space above Christmas Steps, while the backbeats of some dance tune, I know not what, whirl from somewhere amongst the slow, jerky trail of Friday evening traffic down below the balcony on which I sit. A bruised gold glass of English — Bristolian — Pilsner stands sentinel-straight on my table as I watch both birds and cars make their different shapes in and above the space we call a street. I like Bristol’s Zero Degrees, I like the stainless steel vessels, the lagering tradition and the temptation of time; I like the quiescence of a brand that doesn’t really shout but still makes great beer (and wood-fired pizza too). As I sit and gulp my Pilsner, a glass of beer that brims to the rim with Saaz spice and niceness, its brisk and frisky character gambolling on the palate, and its bracing bitter finish putting me in mind of Zatec 12˚, I enjoy the view of an irregular roof-scape of turrets, chimneys and spires and another sip later, and a turn of the head, take in the contrast to the clean and angled shapes within Zero Degrees. Sometimes a beer with a view is all I need.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

In the US for the first time


In the US for the first time in the summer of 96. In Cambridge, on the learned side of Boston, and let’s go for lunch I said to my wife. A scan on the internet had suggested a brewpub, Cambridge Brewing, and in we went. Massive plates of enchiladas, beef slathered with cheese, and a flight of tastings, three beers (pale ale, amber, wheaten), to be followed by a pint of the brewery’s Tall Tale Pale Ale, my favourite, and as I wrote blithely in my journal later in the day: ‘a style of beer which seems to be very popular among the micro-brewing fraternity’. And looking at that day 18 years ago I have also written down Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which I seem to remember being more expensive than the local beers — it was a familiar beer and I vaguely recall feeling as if I was cheating by drinking something I already knew. During the trip I also had beers from Rogue, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Harbour Bay breweries according to my journal. My first American craft beers in America and later on in the year my first printed beer article in What’s Brewing. I now wonder if America was the catalyst that made me want to somehow articulate my own thoughts about the world of beer. Sounds familiar. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

It’s in London

It’s in London and it’s by a canal, a canal whose surface is a skin of softly spoken repression and has a kinship with the flutter of air that strokes and pokes the skin of water and sometimes makes the house-boats bump against each other like beasts at a waterhole.

It’s in London and there’s the tut-tut, looking-through-the-curtains rhythm of machines across the canal, the movement of hi-visibility yellow, the governance of the land as this part of Hackney Wick keeps being developed. 

It’s in London and there’s a van, and a man with another man, clanging kegs and casks, the lion and the lamb, the van picking up beer that’s ready to stake its reputation right out there on the Margate pier that London’s beer arena has become. Crate Golden Ale, a glowing glass of goodness that revitalises a style I, day to day, find so unawesome but Crate Golden Ale turns things topsy-turvy and makes me glad to have found it.

It’s in London and there’s a gleaming glass of dark golden beer, held in front of me, a refreshing zip and spritz on the tongue, an amber-sweet cloud of comfort that reminds me of lying down in a warm meadow, with a sob of hop and a Beretta shot of bitterness in the finish. Truman’s Runner.

And outside in the street a once pub, once called the Lord Napier, stands on the corner, blitzed —a word abroad in the manor 70 odd years ago — with colour and words spread across its façade, jam on toast, now closed, boarded and shut, a sign of the cross to Crate, where the van with the man and the other man with the kegs and casks of beer, the lion and the lamb, pick up the beer.

And somewhere in London, somewhere where the postcode signifies a city, someone sets up a mash tun and boom it’s…

Thursday, 4 September 2014

I’m in

On beer writing, or should that be beer-writing? So what’s in it for me, what’s the tin medal that I can pin on my sleeveless shirt when the day is done? So what’s in it for me to trim down words, throw down words, claw shapes like clown’s eyes and bring words along and place them on a blank white space with the idle hope that they make sense when posted into a box marked media? It’s only beer after all; this is the echo that reverberates through the known universe though I quite like the bounce back I get in the glass I have right now — raspberries, nine grains, pepper, a beer that repelled all boarders on first taste but grew and threw out all manner of intriguing shapes and words (Rubus Maximus if you must know, a deep skittle of musky, peppery,  fruity, tart and embracingly sour notes rolling down the wooden alleyway ready to strike all before them).

Talking? No let’s get this correct, I am talking, am going to write to be perfectly honest, writing then, about why I write about beer. Not, please note, evangelising, converting, offering consent and benedictions about beer — that will be left to the bereft who came briefly and recently to beer and thought a mission was needed, lessons be its name, in the name of the holy mash tun etc etc; no I don’t do it.

It’s an urge and a need to acquire the skill of a surgeon, to peel back the skin of beer, to see beneath, often to recoil and wait for the bus home but also to lie down in green pastures and summon up a total recall of why I started writing about beer and fell in love with it. It’s about miles taken, oceans and seas crossed, cities decanted into a notebook.

You can’t fall in love with beer, you can fall in love with the idea of beer, the ideal, the deal even, the seal that is stamped on your soul when you decide that writing about beer is something you might like to direct your life in the direction of.

And so I think, what do I receive when I ride like Paul Revere in the direction of beer, headlong into its embrace, letting it tread and trace all over my working life? Beer is more than an alcoholic notion for me, it’s a commotion in the soul, it’s the pub as coal, warming but on the verge of being extinct; but when it’s gone people will cry and smart phone their cries. Too late.

Beer writing. It’s people, it’s people who don’t get it right, who do get it right, who go off the rails, who rail against this and that; it’s people. It’s countries and of course it’s the cities and it’s the beers that the countries and cities inspire and fire up in the rush to sundering apart what has gone before.

And if I was being prosaic about why beer moves me enough to spend my working life writing about it I would say: people, the steeple like seriousness that is their history and its roots but there is also the Treebeard-like flexibility of each family who comes along and slaps the instinctive card down on the table and says yes, we are going that way instead of that way. 

In a continuation of the prosaic: beer has people, it has buildings, it has cities, it has countries, it has monarchs, it has a gastronomic tradition, both flitting between high and low and it is also the character at the docks with the much travelled suitcase as well as the stumbler in the station waiting to head off on a journey they’re not sure on as well as the secure-in-his-or-her station as they look through their wallet and worry not a jot; it is beer and it is clear that there is so much more to be said about it. I’m in.

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

Cordiality

‘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.