Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Zlý Časy and beer help me slip the bonds of surly life

Rambousek Tmavý Speciál, oh you’re a beautiful beer, a selfless shadowy shaman of a beer, a sirens’ call to the senses of a beer — and that swish of a sound in the corner is the sound of my senses being thrown all over as I sally forwards to the bar to order another tall, lean glass of this raven-black, earthy-chocolate, autumnal-smoky, creamy beer, whose appeal and feel nails me within this bar for far longer than I’d planned. But then I’m in Zlý Časy and oh Zlý Časy you are one of my most beloved bars in mainland Europe — oh don’t worry Moeder, Arendsnest or Ma Che I still love you lot to bits, it’s just I’m in Prague at the moment.

This is a beloved place where I can sit or even skulk in the basement bar where I always feel at home, a homely space where drinkers gather about the bar with the air of those for whom drinking beer is an urgent and important business, as it is for me on this night when like the attraction of the peste in Camus’ best book I cannot let Rambousek Tmavý Speciál go (or can I just briefly?).

Around me, all are engaged in the buying of beer in preparation to the drinking of beer, a variety of beers, including the magnificent Pivovar Matuška, where I had spent a fascinating afternoon that day in the company of brewer Adam, for whom there are three things in the world: ‘baseball, beer and my girlfriend.’ It’s good to hear that beer folk have something beyond the world of the glass.

But back in Zlý Časy, I briefly turned my back, on Rambousek and grabbed a glass of Brauerie Griess’ Keller, a beer serpentine in its service from a small wooden barrel that sat on the bar, a benevolent uncle from across the border in Bavaria, a sweet malt nose, a dry and bitter finish, an elegant style of herbal aromatics, though its bitter finish at which (and with) I kept smiling time and time again reminded of a beery back-slapping bawdiness.

But oh Rambousek Tmavý Speciál it’s time for another glass and as I pounce on its raven-black, earthy-chocolate, autumnal-smoky, creamy essence drinkers about me continue in the urgent business of buying beer, while a guffaw of a laugh from the man on the next table reminds me of the sight of steam from a newly awoken train, intermittent signals that something is happening outside in the world. The evening passes, voices rise and fall like waves before they crash onto the shore; there is no climax here, just a continuous rise and fall that eventually comes to an end with the calling of last orders, an event that causes nature to crack and sunders the natural world, the world of the pub shut down and brought to its unjustified end. But on the other hand, I want to enjoy Rambousek Tmavý Speciál on another day or evening like this and so I head out to get my tram and remind myself that for an evening I have slipped the bonds of surly life.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A book shaped like a bottle

World Bottled Beers. I’ve never done a book like this before, a book shaped like a bottle, slipped into the pocket easily, but shaped like a bottle. But then I’m a writer in love with words so for me the words are what matter with this book that’s shaped like a bottle. There are 50 beers in this bottle-shaped book, beers from around the world, beers that have shaped the way I view and drink beer and beers that I have always loved. It’s not an easy book to write because I find it hard to pick 50 beers and there’s another 50 beers waiting in the wings and then another, but then I tell a lie, a beer book is always an easy book to write because you keep telling yourself that you’re being paid for writing about something that often comes upon one like a divine wind, reeled in like a fish on a hook. This is a book of words and images, a list if you like, oh yes it’s a list (so look away now), a book, bottle-shaped let us not forget, that features such stars as Magic Rock, Camden, Kernel, Birrificio Italiano, Stone & Wood, Lost Abbey, Stone, Grado Plato and of course the beer before which I lose all reason Orval. This year has been a book writing fest (or test) with a Revolution, a bottle-shaped hole in my soul, 50 contributions to 1001 Restaurants, and in the next couple of days the final filing for the history of the International Brewing Awards — yep, writing about beer, food, travel and how they all combine for a pre-match huddle can be such fun. Sometimes. 
The bottle-shaped book seems to have a life of its own, it feels a bit like where’s Wally sometimes, as it flits around my bookshelves. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Beer Mormons will want their addresses

Reading comments about the New Yorker cover where someone with a hat on his head and a smirk on the face presents a beer to someone else is a bit depressing; it’s the New Yorker for a start, which is one of those magazines that I didn’t know was still going (and besides who has the time to read it?). I think it’s great. It’s beer and it doesn’t look fusty. It’s not got people getting legless and it represents beer as something more than wallop. However I don’t understand why it needs to be dissected and its inaccuracies pointed out with such a weird fervour. The magazine is not part of beer culture, and those people who see the cover won’t realise that there exists this tribe of people who weep over beer style inconsistencies and argue with themselves late into the night over beer; on seeing the cover they might start thinking about beer for themselves and although they might not go for a beer whose hop constituent compares to the amount of ordnance dropped on Dresden they might be encouraged to invest in something other than a beer that vaguely resembles something ants spray over each other for fun (however I just realised that beer Mormons will want their addresses so that they can knock on the door and ask them if what they are drinking is craft or whatever and can they have their dead relatives names for inclusion on the craft register?). 

So the next thing — does this mean that craft beer or whatever you want to call it is recognised? Possibly but there seems something needy in the necessity of so many people who blog about beer to make clear their displeasure about it — it’s as if they want to censure every independent media’s comment on the ‘craft beer community’. I presume the NY is independent and doesn’t seek to show its comments or cartoons on various events to every ‘community’ out there? I must admit, given the hysterical response to the Let there be an app out there or whatever it’s called (which I haven’t seen not because I’m against it but because I’m rather busy and it also has no bearing on the writing on beer that I do — I’m quite interested in people rather than ad campaigns) and the raft of complaints about the New Yorker cover, it feels like those in beer want to be treated special, that they should have the right to look at every ad campaign and mag cover that mentions beer. Hey we’re a community (everyone’s a community these days, even the cannibals down the road). It makes beer people, of whatever intensity they inspect beer with, whether it’s flighty and flirty or with the devotion of a monk looking for angels on a pinhead, look rather strange. For the record I thought the NY cover great, but it’ll be forgotten in a week or so, apart from those who communicate about beer. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

No more

No more can I faithfully transcribe the voices of the pub — I cannot bring to the written word the laughter and the humour and the lap and the dance of people’s voices and the ebb and the flow of the currents of debate and relay the way in which people relate and create late into the night. No more can I faithfully transcribe the voices of the pub — the peal of words chiming away like the call of the church come the morning after, the wink and the nod of lovers, lowing and throwing shapes in the half light in the corner, the Spandau-like burst of words cutting through the air and the sudden sharp gleam of light from a glass of golden beer that jets through the murk in which I find myself late at night in the gloom of Leuven. No more can I faithfully transcribe the moods of the pub — the glance shared, a glare or a snare, a head on a shoulder, a yawn or a clown, a bore or maybe, just maybe, the core of conversation in which we find either poetry or a dysentery of words. No more can I faithfully transcribe the voices of the pub.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Because it tastes good and smells enticing

Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories is one of my favourite cook-books, full of great recipes, musings on food and dotted throughout the book with compact capsules about some of the author’s favourite chefs and cookery writers such as George Perry-Smith and Elizabeth David. However, as I browsed through it this morning in search of something for the weekend I came across this paragraph that opens the introduction; it occurs to me that if I substituted brewing for cooking, beer for food and drunk for eaten then I would have my manifesto for beer.

‘Good cooking, in the final analysis, depends on two things: common sense and good taste. It is also something that you naturally have to want to do well in the first place, as with any craft. It is a craft, after all, like anything that  is produced with the hands and senses to put together an attractive and complete picture. By “picture”, I do not mean “picturesque”: good food is to be eaten because it tastes good and smells enticing.’ 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Two books on beer in the next month, out there; one, November 17, World Bottled Beers, is a song of praise to 50 great beers, of which I will write further; the other, tomorrow’s the day, co-ordinated and co-written with Roger Protz, Britain’sBeer Revolution, a snapshot of now, David Hemmings at the lens, profiles of breweries and beers featured, the likes of which include the likes of Siren, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Kernel, Fyne, Meantime, Fullers, Adnams, London, blogging, barley and plenty of people. We’ve tried to be vivid in our writing, tell the tales of the men and women who stand aside the mash, driven to derive flavour and savour from the beer they make.

It’s a book about revolution in which the old is overthrown, the new is brought in, amid the noise and chaos of the mob, the execution of the ruling classes, the constant rumble of the wheel of revolution as new victims are sought, the dissolution of the dissonant, the death of the dead. Well sort of.

Our revolution: a greater demographic of people drinking beer, drinking all kinds, unaware and unabashed whether it be keg, cask or drawn straight from a pumpkin; the Sven the Unready beard, the radioactive winkle-picker, the psychedelic short back and sides, the Dresden shepherdess drainpipe, who cares, I certainly don’t, the stuff I’ve worn in order to belong (jeans ribbed and unwashed for a year, for instance); the Sensurround of flavour, the taking apart of tradition and the snap crackle and pop of aroma; and then the digs at the old, the daubs of the walls of the old, the hauling in of the tribes, beer revolution.

It’s also about evolution: gradually, unperceptive, glacier smooth in its passage, the new beers and brewers emerge, the big parade passed by, an easy going emergence, here we are, saison, stoutly done, no fuss, no furore, here we are, new beers for old.

It’s also about devolution: we want to do a Belgian Quad so we’ll do it our way if you don’t mind, if it’s all the same to you, thank you very much; a Victorian mild, an oatmeal wild, a sour-smiled gyle, we did it our way. Devolution max.

Elocution: here’s a Pilsner, a Spezial, a Kellerbier, a Rauch, a Bock, a Dunkel, a beer that has nowhere to hide, the received pronunciation of brewing and beer, the hardest challenge a brewer can surmount, lager. 

Britain’s beer revolution has many faces, and no doubt some of its children will be devoured, but there’s no going back now.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


I have seen these beers at the break of day. Commonplace, grey, staid and staying in the memory (for the wrongest reasons); a flash and a flush of bubbles on the tongue, a brisket of carbonic acid house on the roof of the mouth, the brief guff of sweet-corn on the nose (shake-a-leg there), crooked lagers croaking for customers in need of non-reflective refreshment. And it’s in this pub there and where these beers grimace at the bar-top, beery yobs leaning at the counter, come-and-drink-us clowns leering and cheering the nature of brinkmanship. And it’s to this pub I retire for a final beer before the night completely begins its progress towards the end. At the bar-top, having scanned the scowls of low-browed brands, a factory-handled Farange of brands that abandoned their homes in Burton, Glasgow, Northampton early one morning, I order a Guinness, a simple action, a stout that is purely one act, one note, irreversible in its decline, but now, at this time of night, in this part of town, it’s a beer that sounds chimes within the soul. Five minutes pass, the beer poured, the foam soared and then stopped and then topped and then passed past the sour-faced brands of crooked lager and I invest myself with a table and chair in the midst of this big chubby-faced club of a pub in which I feel myself both home and alone. A scattering of men, yes it’s mainly men, swapping tales of turmoil on scaffolds, down-he-went-broke-his-leg-like-it-was-an-egg, in a Yorkshire brogue, thick, yeasty, tarry-voiced, a contrast to the draught of Happy emerging like air from a juke-box that stands, hands on hips, bold as brass, beneath an altar-like scene of TV screen, upon which Gareth Bale, Alice-band intact, gurns and turns and shoots…but doesn’t score. Ah, the Guinness, creamy and in the theme of stout, watery coffee, a finish that fails to find a backer, a funder, a clouder, but in this ineluctable moment there’s something about this pub that brands me to it, that makes me want to join in and sing with Pharrell. Happy.