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.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Border country

And so James at the Beer Cellar bar in Exeter asked me this yesterday

And then I replied


I wasn’t entirely serious, I was looking around the room, which has books piled up everywhere and hunting for a title that would be both esoteric and perhaps make some sense. And there was a Batsford book called Welsh Border Country. Obviously I dropped the Welsh, which would make even less sense. This morning, I thought about it a bit more especially after reading Boak & Bailey’s monthly newsletter, which featured their commentary in the aftermath of a social media scuffle following their blog post on the possibility of Beavertown being made ready for sale at some stage. 

Border country? I like border areas, where two lands shuffle up against each other and you get the best of both. I would never return to live in Wales, but the borders would have its attractions. With beer writing, it feels as if on one hand there is the old traditional campaigning side of beer writing on one side of the border, nurtured in the once scared halls of CAMRA and now mutated to writing about diversity, brewery sellouts, why this beer festival is a game changer etc; on the other side of the border there’s the fanciful notions of beer, the poetic side of things, the sensory writing, the people watching, the personal experiences within the context of beer. Both have their validity and maybe someone somewhere will inevitably argue that beer writing is more of a federal state with a variety of identities. That might be true but for the moment my thoughts are in the borders. 

Thursday, 15 March 2018


can’t remember where
this was, but I am sure
it is in the Czech Republic
Pilgrimage. What do we think of when we think of a pilgrimage? How about the notion of faith that turns settled feet into restless bipeds that tramp on the dust and the gravel and the sand to god-knows-where: the Ridgeway, the Quantock Hills, the crash of the waves and the pebble-dash drag of the beach where no one goes and the rounded, well-greened bleakness and one-two, one-two of the Wiltshire Downs. Or we cross over the Channel into mainland Europe and discover the Camino de Santiago, which marks out the route that a saint’s remains travelled and is now a modern route to redemption and revival. Is this what we understand by a pilgrimage and more importantly if I think on going on a pilgrimage is this where I am going? 

In its most basic terms, a pilgrimage seems to be defined by the tread of feet and the smell and sound of all around, whether it be pilgrims, the city streets or the smells of the countryside in heat. It is about following a path that the righteous once trod, that those frightened by the glory of God now have a need to pass along. It is about a return to simplicity, an escape from the city, a need to get guilt under control, or maybe just a greed for walking or biking or running a long way.

Pilgrims? They are those that follow a path that shimmers (or perhaps glowers) with the certainty of glory, but this is a glory that comes wrapped up in the bondage of bleeding feet and blasted muscles. There is a tiredness about a pilgrimage that brings to mind for some a forced march, a route march, which leads us back to punishment again. So does this mean that a pilgrimage is pain, is punishment, or perhaps the need for an indulgence for something that we think we might have done wrong? 

So, what have been my pilgrimages?

I have been offered a massive tin mug of strong lager at midday in a Bohemian brewery six kilometres from the border with Bavaria and suddenly decided that the two former principalities have much more to say to each other over a beer than their querulous history would suggest; I have watched boxes of sharp-tasting cherries being added to a lambic to encourage the beer to breath and live again; I have wandered through the noise, the lights, the people and the heat of the Oktoberfest in Theresienwiese, a destination incidentally that I had arrived by train from a trip to the Bohemian hop lands. I have sat in the cloister-like quiet of a Saturday afternoon pub in Sheffield, a glass of beer in front of me, idling the hours away, being visited by a dog, exchanging pleasantries with a man who had just clocked out and feeling snug, safe, kept from the storm and possibly a little indulgent. 

This is not a pilgrimage for those soldiers or agents of the state who are in search of those who have done wrong (apparently), but it is about those who follow a path, sometimes obediently, and at other times hot with the lust of glory and discovery. Some chap called Jesus is reputedly to have said that he was the light and that led us to read stories about being led astray as we followed the light, usually into a mire or a bog of our own making, but the pilgrimage when beer speaks is a different journey, a restless quest, a celebration of ritual, a holiday of simplicity, a voyage into the unknown (who visited the Senne Valley before gueuze became a ritual?) and an illumination of questions that have been held for too long. 

I’m off. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

What do I see in a glass of porter?

What do I see in a glass of porter? A barista-influenced cream-flow foam, 2-cm high, undulating in its surface, collapsing slowly, like the Roman Empire, a province at a time. What else do I see, a dark, dark, dark blackness, a dark night of the soul, a night in which the old moon is dead and the new is waiting to be birthed, a darkness of invisible hands and beasties imagined and conjoined, the lacing of the foam as it subsides coating the glass like a congenial virus, a puzzle of foam, a query, a cantankerous head of foam refusing to vanish. So what does it taste like? Burnt toast with a thin layer of butter and marmalade that suggests acridity, fruitiness and sweetness and then within nanoseconds there is a dryness that crackles and cackles like a coven of witches rehearsing for Macbeth; there’s a chewiness, an appeal for mastication, as well as a creaminess suggestive of softness and childhood. And what does it taste like? A cover disturbed, aromatics of mocha, chocolate, toast and fruit (cheap marmalade if caught from the other end of the breakfast table). Someone, and I cannot recall who, suggested that this beer could be closer to porter’s original outlook on life. I’m not sure, I will leave that to the beer historians and their soaked volumes of statistics from a time that went long ago. Whatever, it’s a damn good beer, unflinching in its approach to acridity, and dense in its character on the palate. Oh and I’ve been drinking Burning Sky’s Robust Porter.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Links

The Links. I used to go for riding lessons at a stables opposite this pub when I was a kid. It has been here since 1898, but the stables went in the 1970s and a massive estate lolls and luxuriates where the horses once pranced, but the Links remains. This was a pub that was never on the circuit when I lived here or when I came back. It was too local perhaps, too manly, too boring in its beer choice (Lees) — but over the past few years I have been dropping in now and again and, on a recent visit for a family funeral, on the way into town for the wake, I dropped in and had a formidably refreshing MPA and later on the way back a pale lager from Regent, a brewery I once visited and thought ecclesiastical in its design. La Trappe, Moonraker and Manchester Star were also advertised, and, even though I was later told that the latter two were’t around, the choice (or the attempted choice) was a great example of how even my home town (where I grew up drinking Strongbow or lager top) has caught up with the times (it even has two breweries, Great Orme and Wild Horse, located close to where my father tried to set up an engineering business when I was a kid — it failed, inevitably). As for the Links the floor around the mainly solidly wooden bar was tiled, there were blanquettes, as buttoned-up as a gin-soaked vicar silent in his obsession, a bit formulaic, taken from a catalogue, perhaps, a sense of the senselessness of suburbia in the surrounding drinking areas, Welsh being spoken (a rare sound in my home town), and ‘make it a Christmas Day to remember’ posters scattered about. However, as a hurricane (I think it might have been Brian) raged outside, the bar felt like a fortress of Monday evening solitude, as glasses gleamed and the chrome at the bar-top shone with a ghostly kind of light and the memory of my late sister-in-law swung back and forth like the wind-swept inn sign in Treasure Island. I will go back when I’m next in Llandudno

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A coaching inn in Topsham

Rat-a-tat. Ding-dong. Clip-clop. Here’s a train of horses sparking in the yard. Words that faded away at childhood’s end. Bow-wow, plip-plop, giddy-up. At the Globe, an old coaching inn in Topsham, in the small bar, on a beneficent Sunday lunchtime, while the rest of the place gets on with munching much of their Sunday lunch, I sit and return to a past I never knew in the company of a bottle of St Austell’s Big Job in my glass. Wooden floor, panelled bar, low-beamed ceiling, sound of coffee machine, hiss hiss, locals talking, laughter, the genteel gentility of an elderly couple with their wine at the end of my table (there’s a string quartet at 4 in the church across the road), dogs, chat, laughter once again, and a Gerry Adams lookalike with a Devon rogue to his language. It all reminds me of the Angel in Grantham in 1987 (or was it 1988?) when I first became aware of the lure of the coaching inn, as scrubbed up and polished an icon as it has become (especially the Angel). But here in the Globe I get a sense of what I first felt, a lapse into the past, a drop into history, not only mine but one that spans several centuries, whether imagined or real. There’s a mythic sense of a past that wasn’t probably that good — no money for starters, dreadful food, awful conversation — the honeyed tone of a theme park, Westworld, what-would-have-happened, alt-history, nostalgia, especially if it is Sunday, but still the lure of something that was once in this space makes me think and then I stop. And take another drink and bring myself back to now, which is where I want to live and the dog by the bar wags its tail and the elderly couple head off to their concert and I think it is time to have another beer (and is that the metallic sound of horses’ hooves in the courtyard? Probably not). 

Tuesday, 12 September 2017


Red barley was used to make this beer,
it was chewy, full-bodied and rather enticing
After a visit to Carlsberg a couple of weeks ago I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. When various people at the brewery talked about the need to recall their origins, you know Emil Hansen, the good works of JC Jacobsen and so on (which suggested that they had forgotten who they were — as the last time I was there was in 2011 for the launch of a sodding advert and a meal), I thought, can I trust what you say; when I drunk a beautiful single malt lager that had been produced on their experimental kit, lightly fruity, delicate despite being 5%, uncomplicated but damned in the way it went down my throat, which was then followed by a beer that had green unripe barley as part of the mix (estery, grassy, clean), I thought about trust, would these beers ever see the light of day beyond the room we were in; and then there were certain phrases from people that acknowledged the revolution that craft had brought about, with almost like an air of sackcloth and ashes about it, mea culpa and all that, and as I drank the Jacobsen Yakima IPA in the brewery’s brewpub, I also thought about trust. And then several days ago Anheuser-Busch sacked several hundred employees from the High End subsidiary and I wondered what they thought of trust. I hope I can trust Carlsberg, I met some good people, and I respect the role it played in the development of beer in the 19th century, and I enjoyed the 1883 Vienna-style Dunkel-style beer that they are rolling out in Denmark (but not here), but I keep thinking about trust.