Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Beer Festival

There are happy faces, there are faces that have happiness etched upon them like streaks of charcoal on a canvas and we know what will happen next: colours will concur and art will embed itself on the canvas that was once blank; there are shrieks and creaks of joy as a new beer is sampled, an elderflower note here and a boisterous and bolshy hop character there — mosaic, citra or maybe it’s centennial (while those beers with goldings, EK naturally, and perhaps fuggles, smoulder and shoulder their hurt in the background). There are tables full of people, beer drinkers not consumers please, in front of me, the time is edging towards 1pm and it’s time to take on the happy flight of opening the mouth and engaging with drinkers, one of the best parts of being a writer who makes beer as part of their beat. The Winchester Beer Festival it is, they asked me if I’d like to do a tasting, take myself into the world of a speaker and take people through a series of beers, all of which I linked to Britain’s Beer Revolution. I’ll be honest: speaking in public is easy, standing in front of a bunch of people is such fun, especially with a glass in the hand; I did it first as a kid, not with a glass, some crap in school, and then when in a band it was so easy to engage and so I find myself doing beer tastings and beer talks and I do love them. Back in Winchester, I’m announced as an expert which I quickly tell the assembled I’m not, just a journalist who got impatient with the way beer was being portrayed and thought he’d have a go. And the next hour ebbs and flows, a tide of words, glasses lifted, amber, blonde, midnight black, questions asked, answered, clasped to the chest, this is the way beer goes, this is the way beer goes. Thanks for coming, enjoy the rest of the day, it’s time for a drink or two. Until next time. 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Devonshire Arms

And there I was in a pub, the sort of pub in which I felt at home in as soon as I slipped in through the door, and across the road, in the distance, the big building that once housed Ind Coope’s brewery stood, reminding me of Ozymandias and his ruins and the end of things and Burton’s decline, while directly across the road, the Herculean conical containers of Molson-Coors towered over the road, like a crowd of nosy parkers looking across the garden fence, but in the Devonshire Arms I felt snug and occupied with the matter in hand, a glass of beer and an ambience that geared me up for an hour or two of escape. And you can read my review of this Burton gemstone in today’s Daily Telegraph here.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Remaining fascinated with dirty beer

Dirty beer, of which I have written before here and here, but it remains a subject that fascinates me. Not so much murky and muddy, but a beer with corners, jutting elbows, noisy children, a plot that requires some thought. Not easy. Good though, dirty beer is good, a bit like Iggy Pop’s Gimme Danger, uneasy but also easy to understand. Certain hops give dirty beer a character, maybe something like Chinook or Amarillo, but used in a way that makes them drinkable and memorable. Some fermentation processes as well, maybe those that give us the likes of white IPA, saison and sour. Naparbier’s Back In Black, for one, is a dirty beer, with its intense level of dryness, an ululation of roastiness, a flutter of deep orange pungency, and a bumpiness, a meatiness, a sweatiness that draws you into the glass. It’s adjudged to be a black IPA and eminent in its dirtiness. Bristol Beer Factory’s Belgian Rye is another one, uneven in a good way, rich, grainy, vinous and adventurous in its dryness. I like this idea of beer being dirty. After all, there was a literary movement in the 1980s called Dirty Realism. It’s not about inept brewing, it’s about beers whose aromas and flavours change and challenge, make you think, make you drink and make you clink the glasses of good fortune together. Other dirty beers come from Kernel, Beavertown, Orval. Beers with a certain swagger, a take-me-or-leave-me kind of approach to the world. There’s nothing wrong with clean beer though. The bottled beers that Sharp’s produce, beers such as Atlantic Pale and Dubbel Coffee Stout, they always seem clean, full of flavour and character but nevertheless clean. However, at this moment in time what I want are dirty beers.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Beer judging

Beer judging, a swirl of the beer in the glass, a discreet sniff, a sip, a spoonful perhaps, a swallow, then carefully writing down the evaluation, discussing the beers, a brief eruption of laughter, a flurry of conversation, then back to contemplation, while the stewards bright and cheerful flit about and it’s ‘good morning table 8’. A judge puts the glasses of beer in a semblance of order, slightly higgledy-piggledy, another has them in a regimented line, while the brewer next to him has his gathered together, huddled together as if they discussing an urgent secret. Yet another has his glasses in an arc around his notebook. This room in which they judge in the National Brewery Centre is a place that resonates with the past of brewing and beer and pubs — retired wooden inn signs hang from the ceiling like regimental flags in a chapel, The Merry Minstrel, the Railway. A measure of past glories, names consigned to history, memories of a simpler time perhaps?

In this space where the judging takes place at the International Brewing Awards and mindful of the sense of silence the chief of judges sits on a chair, alone, silent, watching, observing like a father prior keeping an eye on his younger charges. And then the murmurs seem to have stopped and I am aware of a silence, a sudden silence as the judges laser-beam their concentration on the job in hand. The silence passes and small bush-fires of conversation flare up, ‘this is the one I have a problem with’, ‘it could be a conditioning issue’, ‘it was in the middle that I thought that there was some slight diacetyl’, ‘this is my favourite’, ‘overripe fruits’. And now the chief of judges is off his chair, patrolling the tables, words here and there, the watchful father and as the morning goes on the conversation ebbs and flow and I’m put in mind of some lines from Arnold’s Dover Beach: ‘Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,/ Listen! you hear the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/ At their return, up the high strand,/ Begin, and cease, and then again begin.’

Today though the time for contemplation and evaluation is gone and the medals are due to be announced and the mood will change to one of jubilation and commiseration and meanwhile most of the judges have flow, returned to Portland, Cornwall, Patagonia, Bavaria, while the beers they judged, the ones that win, will gleam and preen themselves for this is the moment of their glory. Brewing champions indeed.

Brewing Champions, my history of the International Brewing Awards will be published in the next few weeks. 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The International Brewing Awards

Beer judges back in the 1920s, they’ve changed a bit since
Like cardinals in a conclave, coming together to elect a new pope, the brewers gather, pens poised, whispers rising to the rafters with the assurance of curls of smoke, their concentration all too evident as another sip of beer is taken and tasted and adjudged as to whether it might be classed a champion. It’s the International Brewing Awards once more, here in bleak but beloved Burton, a competition that stretches back three centuries, all the way to 1888 when the 10th Annual Brewers, Maltsters, Distillers, Mineral Water Manufacturers, Licensed Victuallers, Caterers and Allied Trades National Exhibition and Market (snappy title indeed) was the venue for what an unknown scribe in the Brewers’ Journal wrote: ‘A very happy idea was that of Messers Gillman Spencer Limited, who had a competitive exhibition of beers brewed with their patent rice and torrified barley malts. Over 100 brewers responded to the invitation with the prospects of substantial prizes apparently having proved an incentive not to be neglected. The awards gave general satisfaction and were fully appreciated by the fortunate winners.’ 

And now as it ever was, the brewers remain in the judging chair (though beer writers have occasionally dipped in and helped out including Michael Jackson, Roger Protz and Mark Dorber), men and women from all over the world, including Portland, Patagonia, Bavaria and Cornwall; and in a room at the National Brewing Centre they sit, their faces a collective mask of concentration, noting this, noting that, the eternal patience of the beer judge, carrying on a tradition and securing and anchoring a competition that began when Victoria was on the throne. For three days these week, the brewing world is in Burton and the town is all the better for it.

I’m here keeping an eye on things, a guest of the competition’s organisers, but there’s another aspect to my visit — I have written a history of this competition, Brewing Champions, which should be out in the next few weeks, I’m rather pleased with it. And when the judges go home, the hundreds of beers in bottles, cans, casks and kegs will be thrown open and shown to the public at the International Festival of Beer, which starts on Friday. Roger Protz and I are there talking and tasting on Saturday, followed by Stephen Beaumont. It should be great fun, do come.

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Beer as a luxury item? That’s right, the drink you love, the drink you linger along with and look to to provide a guide on how to pass through life, a good friend, a pal, a paid companion (for when you hand over some money to the bar-man you are paying for the companionship of a glass of beer) — a luxury item?

For a moment let’s ponder on the meaning of luxury. Sometimes luxury is a catnap, time off from an arduous life, a snatched moment with a loved one, or it can be the possession of something that might make you feel good and gives you a platform from which you can observe the rest of the world and hope that they see how good things are for you, a miserable, pale-faced attempt at elitism oh-do-look-at-me-up-here-on-the-catwalk. 

But back to beer as a luxury item? If you believe this website luxury is about expensive beer, expensive processes, expensive ingredients and possibly taking the punter for a long ride around the houses and back again. It’s about the money, about the honey that glides down the throat and sweetens the soul of the beer-inclined one who harbours a need to stand on the platform and stir up and stare at the rest of the world.


Chocolate can be luxury, as well as smoked salmon (not the one bought in the Co-op though), but fruit pastilles and coley cannot be luxury, unless perhaps the coley has been smoked in a smokehouse on the edge of the earth in which case the smoking process and the place in which it took place is the luxury item but what we eat is still the fish that my grandmother always reckoned was fit only for cats. Fruit pastilles equally have no chance at being anything other than fruit pastilles, unless perhaps they are served in a tube of pure gold, but then the tube is luxury (how vulgar a tube of gold seems though) but the pastilles aren’t. Rare beef is a luxury as is lamb coming from a flock located on an island with unusual seaweed, but on the other hand this breast of chicken that that I have just bought from the supermarket in order to be breaded and go into a sauce is not a luxury. It is a commonplace piece of food that can be made and served any time during the week. It’s all very complicated this idea of luxury and I haven’t even started on suitcases. 

So perhaps luxury if we think about beer is scarcity as well as isolation and showing off good fortune; the scarcity of a grain or a hop or its price which means that the scarcity devotes itself to the brewing process and in the process turns the beer into a luxury. Or does it?

I don’t think beer is a luxury item, unless of course in the case of the fruit pastilles you have the bottle in which it is served made out of a valuable luxury item (such as a dead animal I suppose) and then it becomes a luxury item but there is still the beer, whether it is delicious or not. So the whole point of a luxury beer is something that would make you feel better about yourself or even higher on the evolutionary stakes than the person who says that Beavertown or Hook Norton or De La Senne or Carling is the drink for them. So as you caress a bottle of beer that cost you more than a case of something you would normally drink then are you doing luxury? Or is the one-off, rarely brewed, showed-off-on-Twitter bottle of Double IPA or the one made with ingredients sourced from Holland & Barrett that is an act of luxury? Or is luxury best left to those who fancy standing on a platform and spying on the rest of us? Answers on a fur-lined papyrus postcard please and btw I rather enjoy coley when making Thai fish-cakes (for myself that is, not next door’s cat). 

I’m just pondering on things at the moment, trying to work out ideas in the public sphere, reading and writing my way through a variety of things, bit like a mental workout, with beer in hand.