Friday, 22 May 2015


Water, not any old water, cucumber and mint infused, home alone in a massive Kilmer jar, comfortable at the back of the bar in the Georgian Townhouse, hiding behind the serried ranks of lustrous hand pumps and gleaming taps. Craft water perhaps, fresh tasting, a zingy accompaniment to my glass of High Wire, tzatziki water perhaps, a pleasing draught of difference. Even though I drink a lot of water, I rarely order any whilst in the pub, uninteresting and expensive it is and chlorine takes its bow with tap water but this was glorious, especially as the beers in front of me were equally translucent. As well as High Wire, there were Camden Ink and Pale, Adnams Ghost Ship and something from Redwell, whose name I didn’t catch (I’d had their Bullards No 2 IPA earlier in the day, where aromatics of citra and cascade leapt sprite-like out of the glass). There’s a youthfulness and lightness about the Townhouse, that makes me want to return and study the beers and eat the food (the haddock and chips stirs the soul and stiffens the sinews of gluttony), and as I engulf myself in the High Wire I hear about ghosts and hospitals and voices in the night and the laughter of those who enjoy this pub speak about the time they went to Yarmouth Pier by way of Ipswich town.

I’m in Norwich for the most fantastic City of Ale event (whose organisers treated us to grub at the Townhouse) doing a couple of talks with Britain’s Beer Revolution co-author Roger Protz.
The Georgian Townhouse, a rather lovely place

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

So at 6.30 on a Thursday morning there I was at BrewDog

For how many years I have been visiting breweries I do not know. I would think that Highgate in Walsall was one of my first (Victorian gloom and low ceilings), or was it a flurry of what we called micros back in the venerable days of 1996/7? Impressed? Not really. At first, it was like the school trips to factories (I remember one to Ellesmere Port in particular, the smell of Swarfega and the strange texture of metal shavings), the noise, the smell, warm, spicy, beery, the wet floor, the trip hazard of a hose, the mystery of what malt does and how the hop has its evil way; the man in the white coat, the clip board, the age of the steam train, the cobwebbed vision, but that was then.

Things have changed and I’m at home in a certain type of brewery, whatever the size, usually one whose beer I am keen to devour (Stella left me Arctic cold last year though it was smiles all round when the brewmaster let slip that he thought the beer better dry-hopped as it used to be, a slip of the tongue he rescinded within seconds), and I have always wanted to try and see the brewery as more than a parcel of boilers and vats offering the potential to become as rich as Croesus.

So at 6.30 on a Thursday morning there I was at BrewDog.

It’s: beeps and the whirr of cogs and the deep breathing of a machine that does something or other; the lauter (or is it a mash, my notes say lauter though) tun gleams and glows, embraced in the grip of equally gleaming pipes and rods, not as squat as some I have seen, but sleek and tall, a supermodel of beer ingenuity. More sounds: the water for the mash emerging from its tank, a lapping sound, gentle, a pastoral sound at odds with the steel surrounds and the preciseness of temperature control, the latter a mathematical-like process that works with me standing still and opening sacks, the grain smashed and rolled and ready to spill its secrets into the warm water. Brewing involves waiting, is it a science, an art, a process, or an induction into a mystery? Why does this question itch away at me?

And on this early morning in BrewDog, where we wait before the pilot plant, wait for the system to start, I also think of the dignity of labour, the manhandling of sacks of grain, the graft, the industry, the collaboration between the malt and the water and briefly the senseless of an early morning start (we’d left the hotel at 6am). The water and the grain embrace, shake hands, US and Soviet soldiers meeting at Torgau in April ’45, while Nick the brewer turns the grain and the water, turns and learns and unfurls someday beer. As I stand there in the company of collaborators Matt, Brad and Jonny, I then imagine I might be in the bowels of a space ship with the hiss of steam, the hum of the engine, the clang of a tool on metal, all of which seem to occur in a strange vacuum of waiting. There seems to be a lot of waiting in brewing.

As time passes the big brewery, through a couple of doors, comes to life, the clinking parade of glass bottles in their slow serpentine crawl, down-to-earth visions of hi-viz jackets as staff check temperatures, wort flow, hop inclusion and god knows what else in this scientific theme park of a brewery. The columns of the kettles rise to the ceiling, a hi-tech, spindly version of the more rounded, variegated pillars that I recently observed in an Italian cathedral, and everywhere a labyrinthine network of pipes; how can the human mind comprehend such a maze? The canning line has an element of the fairground as cans pause on a slope for a second before rushing on their way, in a manner that suggests a big dipper. Outside we find ourselves in a forest of maturing tanks, in which an unwary traveller might get lost, more beer, a sign of BrewDog’s unyielding growth (and next door another brewery is being built).

And later on across the road, we go to a nondescript warehouse, a big garage, an unromantic looking sight, where 300 or more barrels rest with all manner of beers sleeping the sleep of the just, some ready for now while others ripe for blending. I try a snifter of Anarchist Alchemist, a 15% triple (or is that quadruple?) IPA that has been in an oak barrel since 2011: soya, salt, are you my umami, marmite, brett, farmyard, sherry, easily one of the most expressive wood-aged beers I have had for a long time.

Back at the brewery, bustling, full-pelt, the tap open, a James McAvoy lookalike with a glass of Punk, we try Born to Die, a huge, Humvee-hopped 8.5% imperial IPA, assertive, juicy, fresh, savoury and bitter, a beer to be drunk within a month or so of its inception, a complete contrast to the sleeping giants in the barrel warehouse. There are other beers, conversation, the ever-present sighs and whoops and cheers and clangs and sine waves of the brewing giant a couple of doors away and once again I can see why some choose the path that brewing and beer offers. As I have said before, beer is a part of the way one can live one’s life, a gastronomic choice, that excites me as much as food, literature, music, sport, love, fun, laughter and everything else that makes up this complex puzzle we call life.

I along with Matt, Jonny and Brad were invited to BrewDog to collude on a beer, which we hope will be ready in a couple of months; it will be a tripel-style flavoured with peach and apricot, accompanied by a gentle sourness. We have called it Peach Therapy and I am looking forward to trying it.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The long dead cohabit with the restless living and the beer list just keeps improving

Mercato di Mezzo, Bologna. It’s calm and careful, gustatory, as a Sunday evening of couples promenade with late night kids in tow, delighted as mum and dad lift a glass to toast some fortune or other (but the laughter will be stilled when the reveille is called in the morning), and then I spot a chef grilling, the word calamari pinned somewhere on the stall, followed by the fairground-tough aromatics of fried food elbowing their way through the elegant air, calamari, prawns, gloved in batter, crisp and salty and dotted with lemon juice. I order and then grab a table and look across and see the sign for Birra Baladin. I keep an eye on my food and order a glass of Super Bitter, as far from a traditional bitter as can be. The imperious wave of a conductor (Toscanini rather than the metronomic tick-tock of von Karajan thank god) brings the scent of deep, rugged, sensual orange marmalade to the nose alongside a spear thrust into the side of bitterness; almond, marzipan and sweetness on the palate start their descent to be cut off by an assertive bitterness, sticky almost, a big beer that beams in with a missile-like accuracy on the salty, citrus, crunchy, still briny impact of the seafood. As I crunch and sip, I sift through the weekend and recall the bitterness of White Dog’s American Pale Ale at Saturday’s farmers’ market, beneficially bitter, robust and yet mellow. Then I remember Friday night and the barman (and brewer) in Birra Cerqua, where at the back of the small bar there stands a kit of Italian-built stainless steel, while fermenting vessels cower behind opaque glass panels to my right (I told you it was narrow). A glass of Q-Ale, made with German malt and English hops I am told. It is pale gold, hazy, bittersweet and refreshing. ‘We brew on Sundays.’ Another result of this work is the rye beer, earthy and erudite. Back to Sunday, the day when the brewers of Cerqua are busy, the dominant vibe of Mercato di Mezzo as I look about are glasses being raised, the aromatics of fried fish, the deep undercover agents of cured meat and aged cheese and the empty, thin-sounding, TB-cough of an empty coffee carton as it rolls off on the empty floor. Later on, it’s time for Green River, another one room bar, a place that could have been a butchers’ (yet there is no smell of blood in the air), or perhaps it was a tailor’s, where each morning a mournful man washed the portico-shaded front of his shop with the dedicatory air of a penitent, or perhaps it was just another bar. Green Petrol from Brewfist, a Black IPA, smooth, robust, roastiness leashed, citrus flutters amongst the darkness, an ideal metaphor for Bologna, where the long dead cohabit with the restless living and the beer list just keeps improving.

Monday, 20 April 2015


What’s that you’ve got in your glass, I ask Magic Rock’s Stuart Ross. Salty Kiss comes the reply, with incan berries added at three weeks and then aged in Tequila barrels for about three months.

We’re at the launch of Unhuman Cannonball at Craft Beer Co in Islington and it’s good to catch up (I first met Stuart when he was at the Crown Brewery in Sheffield and we bonded over our love for Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, which is the only home-brewing book I have ever read with the intensity I usually accord to Hemingway).

He offers me a taste. It’s vinous, delicately sour and lightly salty, there’s a background hum of sweetness and I can just about taste something Tequila-like in the background.

Later on, next day, I’m thinking about the beer and how some drinkers would taste this and say that it wasn’t beer; then I start thinking about the variety of flavours and different directions brewers are now heading in, whether it’s about making their own interpretations of Gose, adding all manner of ingredients, letting this or that yeast in, or replicating their favourite hangover cure in a sour way (when I was interviewing Beavertown’s Logan Plant last year we were talking about Lemon Phantom Sour and he told me it was based on ‘that wonderful hangover cure, Lemon Fanta!’).

If you’re of a traditionalist persuasion, whether it’s keg or cask, then these might seem non-beery flavours, a strangeness in the way brewing is being done, a wayward exclamation of the arts and crafts of brewing, the cliffs of god that need to be climbed on your knees when a nice comfortable escalator will do. Go away, you might want to say.

On the other hand, such flavours and cravings are here to stay, but immersion in the sanctuary of beer can send one off on a crass course towards thinking that everyone, just everyone, thinks the same.

At tastings I have seen people who know their own minds about Pilsner Urquell, Doom Bar, London Pride or Peroni express surprise at their first experience of Saison Dupont or Westmalle Tripel and actually rather enjoy this experience, and with this in mind it’s easy to forget that when you chat and collaborate with those of a similar ilk, that not everyone has their palate calibrated into this brave new world of flavour, for that is what it is — a brave new (rediscovered, some might say) world of flavour, a grave bold cure away from what some might recognise as beer.

And after I taste the Salty Kiss, I return to my Unhuman Cannonball (lemon-gold in colour, juicy, bracingly bitter, forward facing in its grapefruitiness), another beer that traditionalists might care to dismiss — and then I think back to the tasting I had done earlier in the day when someone had asked me what constitutes beer? There and then, aloud, I had mused that beer is an alcoholic beverage made with malted barley, hops, yeast and water but that it might include other grains, and could have spices, fruit, vegetables or meat extract within, and might not have hops or might have more hops than was thought decent, or it might be aged in wooden barrels or even within clay (as I tasted a couple of years ago in Rimini from Birra del Borgo). 

And that is what I like about what is going on in beer at the moment — brewers might not always get it right but the search for (or the rediscovery of) different flavours and aromas is a great thing. Musicians and writers and bakers and builders use traditional forms to express their soul but if they discover a new way then it’s right that they take that path. Brewers can do the same.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


…And there are times when I don’t know what words to clink together when it comes to beer (and its accompanying spheres of conflict, comfort and crumbling ideals); and there are times when I don’t know in what way words should follow each other. Should it be a pre-ordained path of understanding? Should there be understanding at all? After all, words come into the world unformed or perhaps uninformed about the path that they should follow — that understanding is the plan of the writer, or is that more the slow camera pan of the words of the writers the writer has read that form themselves into squares, at arms length, Frederick the Great’s giant guardsmen assembling, an understanding of human form. That beer in the glass there, the one that glows on the table, whose colour suggests the sun of the Mediterranean, what should I make of it, how should I approach it? How do you do? What’s your name? Shall we dance? Or should I just engulf myself in it, let it take me over and wait for the next one to pass?

Is it just a liquid in a clear glass, or is it something more amenable when it comes to understanding? The flavour, the aroma, the feel of the liquid on the tongue, the stroke on the throat, the taut line when a fish is caught, what does that mean when the beer is drank. Enjoyment for sure (unless of course it’s a beer whose only lure is a bright, fluorescent light, a clowning glory, a false story that all will be well if only the drinker picks this beer), the swell of the ocean, a mighty movement on the palate, a realisation that here is something that makes you remember why one day, long ago, you chose to add beer to that happy band of companions that shall always be at your side until the day the great ride is done (the deep well of literature, the soaring peaks of music, the deep wine-dark breadths of the sea, the earthly powers of mountains, the companionship of history, the simplicity of friendship and love, the faithful pleasure of the table, the immortality of sport, the instinctive bond with canis lupus familiaris).

And on that day beer, and all the notes that appear on its own chromatic scale coming together in as many different ways as there are days in a life (the people, the places where beer is drank and made, the parade of flavours and aromas, the nothingness with which one grapples with to understand its place in the world), became embedded in my life and yet there are times when I still don’t know what words to clink together when it comes to writing about beer. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Elgood’s Coolship Dark

And yes, that’s a Staro glass,
it was given to me by the local curmudgeon,
who has thankfully left the area
Aged, received in December, sent to me from the brewery in lieu of an article on British sours that will appear in All About Beer soon, late December, and when it’s poured it’s still and limpid in the glass reminiscent of the kind of pond that poor old Ophelia drowned herself in (and which Millais put onto canvas), and as a digression I recall the first time I read Hamlet I thought what a ditherer he was, couldn’t make his mind up about anything, give me Falstaff or even Malvolio anytime — very dark chestnut/mahogany in colour, like a stained, ancient piece of furniture that’s been in the family for centuries. An agreeable handshake of dark stout like sweetness, burnt notes, treacle (or is that toffee?) alongside the angular, yoga poses of sourness, all making for an initially uncomfortable introduction but then it’s all ok, the kind of feeling you get when you settle into the yoga pose and know that what you are doing has got to be doing you some good. There’s a mustiness and earthiness on the palate, as if I had just gone into an old stable on a hot summer’s day and caught the aromas of horses and their actions long gone, but there’s also a grapefruit-like acidity, a stout-like boisterousness, a long day dawning of quenching zestiness; it’s a dirty beer, a beer that slinks along with a scowl on its face, a beer that kicks up the dust in the road (the mood of Dos PassosUSA perhaps), a beer that ululates to be matched with a big fat sweating pungent slice of Stilton or maybe it’s a beer that can be enjoyed on its own, a lonesome pine of a beer, that highlights the day as the sun moves across the sky. I rather like it.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Bière de garde 2005

Back in the late autumn of 2005 I visited the bière de garde region of northern France for a What’s Brewing article — I thought I’d bring it back to life and also remind myself that it’s time for me to get out there again (I was in Lille in 2012 but that was for this). You might have to excuse certain phrases that I wouldn’t go anywhere near now, such as ‘weighing in’ — cringe.

I’ve never met a landlady like Beatrice Maerten. Along with her husband, she runs a guesthouse in the French Flemish village of Boeschepe, on the edge of the hop-growing area that stretches north from Steenvoorde over the Belgian border to Poperinge.

This is a house of beer. Each room is named after a Trappist or Abbey classic, while if you call ahead you might even be offered a beer dinner. I stayed for one night and had St-Sylvestre Biére Nouvelle as an aperitif, while Annoeullin’s exquisite L’Angelus accompanied a ham and cheese crepe, followed by a beery carbonade. Post-dessert contemplation came with a bottle of St-Sylvestre’s stately strong-armed ale Gavroche. There were more surprises. ‘I thought you would like this,’ she said next morning, handing over a bottle of Westvleteren 12. Beats a Blackpool guesthouse any day.

As most CAMRA members will know, beer rather than wine is king in Northern France. Here, biére de garde has long been the name to drop, even though the term is more of an umbrella for the varieties of beers produced by small and large breweries in the region (of which there are approximately 30), than any specific style.

Garding is unique to the area. It means to lay down a beer for a specific period of time, almost similar to German lagering. It stems from the time when brewing was a seasonal activity and beers had to last throughout the hot summer months. These days, anything up to four weeks post-fermentation garding seems to be the norm. Another USP of these beers was the use of warm-fermenting yeasts that gave the beers a fruity, ale-like warmth.

In this strip of land that runs from the coast towards the southern edge of the Ardennes, breweries look to Belgium, as well as their own history, for inspiration. There are spritzy, fruity blancs, rich and deep ambreés, honey-hued blondes and spicy, mind-blowing Christmas ales, the latter unveiled with all the razzamatazz of Beaujolais Nouvelle.

Yet, try finding some of these beers in bars whose exteriors are festooned with signs for the multi-national babble of Amstel, Stella and Jupiler. I asked one small brewer if he sold his beer in the bar across the road from him. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘sometimes’.

Over at Brasserie Duyck, whose Jenlain heralded the biére de garde revival in the 1970s, Raymond Duyck seemed a bit downbeat. There used to be a Jenlain café in Lille, but that is now closed, though the Paris one still remains. He would like to open more of this sort, he said, then told me of the difficulties caused by InBev hoovering up the distribution right to French cafés. ‘This means that there are only about 30% of cafes we can sell to.’

Yet, despite these concerns about outlets, in a journey round a selection of brewers in the north of France, I found a still thriving brewing culture, that was going against the grain of multi-national, rice-based, cold-fermented, quick-brewed ersatz lagers.

Daniel Thiriez at the Brasseire Thiriez bar
For a start when I visit Brasserie Thiriez in the small village of Esquelbecq, which can be found outside Wormout, owner Daniel Thiriez tells me about his plans to expand, such is the demand for his excellent beers.

Formerly a human resources manager for one of the big supermarkets, he started brewing in 1996. He had long nurtured visions of brewing, but was also in search of the good life. ‘I wanted to be independent and live in the countryside,’ he tells me over a glass of the superbly hoppy Etoile du Nord, a fruity blonde with bitter highlights. This is his bestseller, alongside La Blonde de Esquelbecq.

‘This building used to be a brewery until about 60 years ago, but when I bought it there was nothing left, though some of the older people in the town remembered it.’ Now it is home to a gleaming stainless steel kit. The beer, which is mainly in bottle, is garded for a minimum of two weeks, though Thiriez is a bit unsure about the whole tradition.

‘For me it is difficult to say what is biére de garde. I cool my beer and leave it for a couple of weeks, which is when the quality improves. I did do experiments with four weeks but didn’t notice any difference.’ Make a trip here if you want to buy these excellent beers.

Biére de garde historically had its background in the farming community and this tradition is maintained at Brasserie Ferme-Beck, near the town of Ballieul. As the farm is approached, hop poles are a fairly obvious clue as to what the Beck family farm. They also grow their own barley, raise livestock and have gites where those with a rural bent can muck in with farm activities if they so desire. They have been brewing since 1994.

One beer is produced, the stunningly hoppy 7% top-fermented Hommelpap. When I visit I am taken around by Dennis Bergkamp lookalike Dany Beck. This is a small operation, but the beer has a bigtime earthy hoppiness with a burly resiny character. It’s dry and spritzy on the palate with a hint of refreshing lemony citrus fruit. It’s very moreish and can be had on draught at the bar that is open at weekends (check during winter months). Bottles can also be bought. Dany recommends that the bottles be drunk within a month or so of purchase.

A murky misty morning saw me in the village of St-Sylvestre, a strip of houses, shops and bars along the main road between Cassel and the A25 southwards towards Lille. The brewery straddles a side road in the centre of the village, opposite the church. I am met by Francois Ricour, whose grandfather took over an already existing brewery in 1920. This is the home of Trois Monts, which along with Jenlain is seen as one of the great biéres de garde. It is a blonde beast of a beer, weighing in at 8.5%, with a rich, smooth, ripe fruit palate and a warming, fruity finish.

The brewery itself is a mixture of new and featureless storerooms and a bottling line (every brewery of a certain size in northern France is proud of its bottling line), alongside the old brew room with its copper mash tuns, lauter tun and tiled floor and walls. Other beers produced include the aforementioned Gavroche, Biere Nouvelle and a Noël, while Lux du Moulin and Hoppeland Bier are brewed solely for the local market.

After a lunch-stop in Lille at the Omnia brewpub, which used to be a porno theatre but now attracts a hipster crowd who gorge on local dishes such as potjevlesch (a terrine of rabbit, pork, chicken and veal), washed down with the house specialities such as a marvellously refreshing blanc or the rich ambrée, it’s over to Douai.

By a railway bridge on the outskirts of this town, several massive cylindrical vessels mark out the site of Gayant, local dialect for giant. And giant this brewery certainly is. It brews a lot of beers of varying character, but the bestselling beer of France’s second largest independent brewery is the wonderful Goudale. Weighing in at 7.2%, it is often described as a wheat beer, though with an aromatic and perfumy nose and a bready, caramel, spicy, bittersweet palate it is closer to a Saison or even an Abbey beer.

As mentioned, Jenlain is the beer that springs most to mind when discussing biére de garde. Brasserie Duyck can be found in the middle of the small village of Jenlain and the whole range of beers sampled at a café in the centre of town. Ambrée is the classic, with deep herbal aromas and a big mouthful of hops and spice before the dry and bittersweet finish. The brewery’s Biére de Noël is a souped up Ambrée with an orange, Cointreau-like palate, while the Blonde is one of the brewery’s most complex beers with fresh citrus fruit, crunchy breakfast cereal, peppery hop and a hint of toffee making its presence felt.

Brasserie Bailleux is one of the smallest breweries in the area, but has been enticing lovers of local beer since its inception in 1989. Hidden away in the verdant Avesnois area, at the small hamlet of Gussignies-Bavay, it is attached to a restaurant, set up in the 1970s by Roger Bailleux. ‘My grandfather had brewed for several different breweries so it felt right to do this,’ he says.

The 7% Cuvee des Jonquilles is the brewery’s signature beer, a luscious blonde with an assertive bitter finish, with plenty of nods and winks to the tripels of neighbouring Belgium. There is also a beer influenced by the Saisons of Wallonia and the inevitable Noël. Fermentation is for one week, followed by a fortnight in the cool room, before bottling takes place with more yeast to form a secondary fermentation. Then another week passes before it is ready to go out to the public. In this hidden away haven of good beer, the time-honoured tradition of garding is maintained — and for that we should give thanks.