Monday, 19 November 2018

Barley wine

A well-made barley wine is a thing of beauty, a palpitating, purple rose of a beer style, enchanting and heart-felt and made for sipping contentedly by the hearth, while outside the elements screech and preach like the Harpies of legend. A well-made barley wine is proof that the gods are on our side and are sending thunderbolts in all directions celebrating the proof that malt does more than Milton can to justify their ways to us down here on earth. I had a barley wine in my glass in front of me on a damp and drizzly night towards the end of last week, where even the Harpies stayed at home and watched reruns of the Bake-offs featuring Mary Berry. I was in a pub as well, not in my favourite armchair, as drowsy as a dog whose day has been spent chasing rabbits and wading through marshes; I was in the Grapevine, in the we-all-like-to-be-beside-the-seaside town of Exmouth, an evening in the pub, in the company of licensee Ollie Bainbridge, who also brewed the barley wine at the back of the building in his Crossed Anchors brewery. It is a handsome looking bottle, 750ml, with a wax topping that looks like Vincent Price should turn up and start delivering a soliloquy from Edgar Allan Poe. However, instead of Price, who I know is dead, but he did once play a dead man who was kept alive by hypnosis in low budget version of a Poe story, so who knows, Ollie tells me about the beer: ‘I am a big fan of allowing malt to express itself,’ he says as he cuts through the wax, ‘We brewed it in August and Jonny Mills helped me design and brew it. It was a 12-hour brew day and we did a double mash. We used Maris Otter, crystal and chocolate malt, alongside a hop variety called Warrior. This was Jonny’s idea, it gave a very clean and bitter hoppiness.’ 

I saw and I drank the beer and let it conquer — it was as dark as the depths of an old forest where the ghosts of Varus’ legions fell, though gleaming crimson tints at the edge suggested hope. Complexity swirled out of the glass: chocolate, dark fruit, toffee, cherry (cherry liquor even), whilst each taste brought in more chocolate (truffle perhaps), cherry, an alcohol warmth and hints of coconut and vanilla. The bitter finish was firm yet gentle. I took another sip. And another. 

Well-made and not afraid of resting in the shades, Big Red (as it is named) is a well-made barley wine and a thing of beauty. I now need a night of wild elements before I open my bottle. 

* 1000 bottles were brewed with 100 being for sale; the rest will be aged. Next year’s vintage will see 100 released as well as 100 more from 2018, and so on. 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Always had an itch to write

Pub just off Old Street, where I occasionally drank
when I worked around the corner in the 1990s for a magazine
that you would get free in WH Smith if you bought a CD or video
Always had an itch to write (I really wanted to say ever since I was a youngster but it grated on me as all cliches should), a scratch that never stopped, a catch of the breath, the handle that paid out words whenever the correct numbers came up, the boots on the ground, the sound of words clanking and clinking and gleaming and teeming like industrious termites. I always had this urge to write. I was perhaps nine or ten or it might have been younger or older when I would read a book and thought, ‘I’d like to do that’ (not ‘I can do better than that’), perhaps in the manner of the young would-be brewer or cheesemaker who saw a process that they wanted to get involved in. 

Made-up football teams, fake folklore and then long letters to friends from college with made-up characters carrying on with outrageous schemes; lyrics (and the musical stuff), diaries, the feast of fecklessness that constitutes trying to write fiction, and at last being paid to put words together about this band or that band or whatever was happening and whoever was paying. I was writing. 

I don’t know how many words I have written over 30 years, I don’t want to know how many words. But they are still there, these words, swerving all over the place, heaving out somewhere into deep space — is it beer this week or travel or a pub trail that you can do from a train, or perhaps whoever wants some words and is willing to pay for them?

I read late into the night, dreaming of going south in the winter, but knowing I never will, unless it’s an event in Borough; I thread thoughts together and then lose them, invariably, immediately, lacking the consolation of caring about them. Then sometimes the words stick around like good, caring, gentle friends, and you are bolstered and castellated and secure against whatever ails you. That is being a writer, you can spend the currency of words like a Howard Hughes who cares about nothing, for there are always more words, but after so long do they mean anything? 

Beer deserves words; deserves sense and sensibility, clarity and also chaos; deserves the quiet moment, but also the noise of disagreement, a disbursement of amusement, the shake-down and takedown of Goliath, the slow, soothing moment of quietness, the momentum of noisiness, the frequent prod and jab against the mighty (and the night), the right way, the wrong way, the railway and the highway, the gateway, the weight of words, the sleight of hand, the three-card trick, the three chord wonder, the longing and the pondering, the sling-your-hook, the hoot of laughter, the slaughter of the innocents. Beer deserves words, as mighty as an overture, as tenacious as the teeth of a terrier, as heartfelt as a squeeze of an elbow, as clear as the universe, as sheer as a rock face before which you tremble and then aim to climb. Beer needs words. Deserves words. It’s all about beer. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

Darkness visible

Na Parkánu
I spend a lot of time in pubs and bars. I find them conducive to thinking; I find them an encouragement to mulling over things in my mind; I find beer acts as a Tesla-like conductor of ideas; I find that beer factors itself, all on its own, as a tester of theories, a lesser known philosopher whose name is absent from the history books. It’s also a place where I talk with friends, acquaintances and strangers (and also tune in and out of conversations with the obsessive sense of the radio ham), a loosening-of-the-larynx kind of place. 

Given that I spend a lot of time in pubs and pubs, I noted something that has occasionally badgered away at me, when I was silent and contemplative in Na Parkánu in Plzeň. This is a pub that I first visited in 2005, a Pilsner Urquell pub where the beer is as fresh as the ideas that emerge from the kind of think-tank where all barriers have been lifted with the ease of a well-oiled sprocket. I looked around. The waiters prowled, not as leonine as those in U Fleků or as CCTV-aware as the ’kobes in Cologne or Dusseldorf, but still possessed of a 360˚ vision, superhuman in the way they could spot a drinker with a parched throat in need of respite. Elsewhere groups of drinkers sat at the brown tables, on brown chairs, beneath brown panels and I started to wonder, to ponder, to mull. 

What is the attraction of dark wood in a pub, especially as it is so international, or at least European (and I include British within this term) in scope? Why do so many people (me included) find it comforting to sit in a space that is brown, oppressive to some, but cosy to others? 

The first thought that attempted to answer this question was that these wooden wombs are perhaps reminiscent of the dark forests from whence we came, where we all felt the same and during a time before electric light, a time when perhaps, disregarding tales of monsters and demons, we were more comfortable with the dark. An ancestral memory perhaps? Another thought tip-toed along, light and airy, just about deigning to add a certain something to the conversation. Was it the onetime dominance of wood in building materials and we’ve just become used (rather than programmed, which sounds a bit odd) to this dark interior, as it is something that speaks to our soul, makes us feel safe even.

Later in the day I visited Pivovar Chodovar, in the west of Bohemia, a family-owned brewery standing on terrain that is home to a big belt of granite (obviously that effects the water, but I’m not talking about brewing today). The entrance is through a tunnel that was laboriously cut through granite in the 19th century, or maybe earlier. The restaurant/bar is within this complex of dark stone and sombre wood and on the sunny day I visit it somehow acts as a cool bunker away from the hot sun, in the same way it provides warmth and comfort on a cold winter’s day. 
The restaurant in the rock as Chodovar

I guess what I trying to discover is why we crave and find comfort in this dark spaces even on a day when the sun is high and the air beneficent with warm zephyrs from the south? Heredity, ancestral, protective, comfortable, hidden or maybe I should just continue to enjoy this appetising, fulsome, lithe and lissom yet muscular pint of Pilsner Urquell I had in front of me, its gleam of orange and yellow a direct contrast to the dark fittings that surrounded me. How yin and yang, just like our moods when it comes to the pub.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

My Milk Sour Chocolate Tripe Tripel

Here’s a nice pic of some real hops being sorted
Are home-brewers the real craft brewers? Untrammelled by the need to sell their beers or place them in front of the drinking public, who will then decide whether to buy or not, home brewers can make what they like without fear or favour; their beers also remain close to the original maker, so there is no concern about parties further down the line of distribution making a hash of serving them. True, if they enter competitions, then the beers are judged by their peers, but there is no concern for trends, financial constraints, indifferent bar staff and the fickle nature of beer geekdom. Is this the nature of true craft, of authenticity even, this isolation, this solo path, that the home-brewer, like a wandering monk sworn to discard all earthly pleasures, takes? 

If it is so, then why does a home-brewer then decide to become a commercial brewer, to be sewn into the fabric of the market and drinkers’ trends that some could think are a stifling clamp on creativity (‘what do you mean, my Milk Sour Chocolate Tripe Tripel wasn’t popular? The dog and my mum liked it. Ok, here’s my Sunny Delight, I mean NE IPA. Sigh.’)? What would have happened if Martin Dickie had remained a home brewer after his tenure at Thornbridge or Evin O'Riordain had stayed in the world of cheese and solely shared his beers with his confederates in the London Amateur Brewers? I suppose someone else might have come along, but Martin and Evin entered the market and this someone, who never came along, remained the unknown home brewer who stayed at home, his or her name unsung and invisible on a par with the composers and poets that we never ever heard of because they also remained silent at home.  

Are those who keep journals and diaries, untouched by the whims of editors and the dictates of space, the real authentic writers? Those who make music in their bedrooms, bake their own bread, or even train online to be front room lawyers, the real practitioners of their craft? What is authentic? What is craft? What is it that motivates the home-brewer, the home-baker, the home-writer and the home-lawyer to make the transition from this meditative silence of home to the noise and disruption of the market?

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Ever fallen in love with a beer you shouldn’t have?

We fall in love with the wrong people, the destructive people, the people who want to shine in the flames of ruined towns, the people who want to lock the door and never allow anyone in ever again, the people who don’t actually know you exist, the wrong people. Do we fall in love with the wrong beer? Is that possible? Should it be possible? What is the wrong beer? If I fall in love with a pale barley wine and drink far too much of it tomorrow and the day after and the day after and eventually I find myself rummaging through bins in the big city in the search for food having spent all my money on this beer, is it the wrong beer? Or am I just the wrong person in the wrong (or even right) place? What about that beer that confers on me the sainthood-like confederacy of being joined to something that I swell with pride about or that I feel makes me walk a bit faster and a bit taller? Is this the wrong beer? Is this the sense of pride? Can the beer that you have fallen in love with and shouldn’t have be the wrong shade in the glass, a chestnut brown that gleams like Bruce Forsyth in his prime, or shimmers like a dream that you are desperately trying to return to at 5am, aware that the alarm will soon be barking in your ear like the dog you had when you were a child and sometimes still miss? There have been moments when an exemplary Best Bitter has been that beer, a hangover, an old makeover, a bothersome beer, though it doesn’t do as much for me as a Franconian lagered beer with its layers of flavour and pleasure and recognition that beer can be something more than this sin of wrong-doing. Should it be a beer that everyone drinks, a beer that screams and howls like a crowd-pleasing guitar solo, but you really know that you feel a little bit smaller on drinking it, letting yourself down, letting your friend down, letting the person who used to get excited about artisanal and smallness down, like a stricken Zeppelin falling to earth, Wagnerian in its fire and fury? A duplicitous DIPA, all flails and fury, stripping the tongue like a barbarian in training, gilding the tonsils with illustrious hails of hop curiosity and after far too much glasses of good-natured insobriety toppling the Gulliver of a drinker you have become. Have you ever fallen in love with a beer you shouldn’t have? 

Wednesday, 25 July 2018


A tram passes by with a sound like a half-hearted roar from a bored lion; the Danube seethes and swells with the rhythm of a massively erratic heart; a family sit on the steps below me, drinking pink champagne as if toasting the progress of this mighty river. 

Would you like a beer, I ask myself. Yes, comes the reply, as if it from the malevolent dummy that toyed with Anthony Hopkins in Magic, though my inner voice has a little more benevolence. Gellért Hill rises across the river, a big cheese in Buda, and I reach it across the Liberty Bridge, which looks like it was made with a Meccano set. 

I’d been told of a cellar, its name simple: Keg. I found it on Orlay Street, a brick-lined space with a long bar (and yes there were Edison lights) and a digital display of the beers on tap; 33 taps btw. What did I like? Well, I couldn’t resist Mad Scientist’s Liquid Cocaine, which was an energetic DIPA packed with hop synergy and a resiny dry finish (a little bit of Budapest that was forever Portland perhaps?). 

I wondered what the Portman Group would make of the name. 

I also enjoyed the softness and calmness of Fóti Pils (a brewery that Evan Rail wrote about in the last edition of 1001 Beers) and then I stepped out back into the heat and sun of a Budapest June and just around the corner noticed the Hotel Gellért Gyogyszallo, which with its balconies, turrets and towers looked like it had been carved out of the hillside. 

Later on, like many a beer tourist I went to Élesztő, a potent ruin pub in an old yard, with a cracked glass roof, bare brick walls, wooden tables and chairs, a worn concrete floor, a tree growing in its middle and there was yet another glass of Liquid Cocaine. I like this beer. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The gravitas of originality

Even though years have passed since I read Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author, I still ask myself who is writing when I form words into sentences and then separate them by paragraphs. Is it me, being original, is what I have written influenced by the people I have met, the landscapes I have travelled, the beers I have drunk and my general approach towards the world? Or am I just a channel for the words of other writers — and if so, who were they channelling when they wrote? This thought returned to me after the latest issue of Original Gravity went to press last week, when I was editing one of my reviews on the Tasting Notes page. I had written about how the beer’s bone-dry finish ‘lingers like a police informer in a dubious cafe in postwar Vienna’. In thinking about this, I wondered if I was being original (I’d just finished the first volume of The Demons by Heimito von Doderer, where a lot of the characters drink and talk in Viennese cafes, though there are no police informers as far as I know), or was I channelling an image/a phrase from, say, The Third Man (both the film and the book)? Who was writing? Me or someone else? Or was this the sum of all my cultural influences and not original at all? At the moment I have no answer and it all might seem a bit navel-gazing, on a par with wondering if this beer or that beer is craft or a Twitter poll asking if respondents have special drinking clothes. However, I suppose in the same way that some beer-orientated writers are transfixed by such moods and thoughts, I still remain fascinated about where words come from, especially when I write about beer. I know where beer comes from (the land), but I am not sure where words come from — and this endless fascination and sense of inquiry and need for clarity is what keeps me trying to make sense of the world of beer, whoever’s words I speak.