Saturday, 22 October 2016

Beer writing

I’ve always been an advocate of beer writing, that it can be valid as film, music or food writing (there are even beauty and luxury journalists these days for heaven’s sake) and this belief is in concrete, physical form with Beer In So Many Words, the anthology of beer writing (right) that I have edited and which is out next month. I’ve just received a copy of it and even though I’ve written about a dozen books I still have that excitement on receiving a copy of a new book. There are some great writers in it from the current wave of beer writing, both from the USA and the UK; we also came across some little gems on beer and pubs that I’d not seen before, such as Hemingway’s PR letter for Ballantine, Ian Rankin on the pub and Ian Nairn on CAMRA and cask beer. I’m very pleased with it and I hope that the writers inside its covers (those still alive that is) are equally pleased. And yes, there is definitely enough good writing out there (and in the future) to think of doing a second volume if this sells well enough. 

I haven’t really lost my mojo when it comes to this blog given the paucity of content in the past few months — when I’ve been writing all day the last thing I want to do in the evening is write, or maybe I’m just getting lazy, or maybe I feel that I have said everything I want to say. Maybe not with the latter, I still have plenty of words but it’s just a case of ordering them into something that resembles sense. 

Monday, 22 August 2016


Say hello to my little friend
Here is a fillet of celeriac, yes you read that correctly, a fillet of celeriac, which has been smoked, then seared before being braised and presented on the plate, with the grace and elegance of the finest bit of steak. It’s tender, earthy, salty-sweet, malleable, wrong-footing the senses, sending a message whose meaning is clear: what’s the big deal?

Celeriac and I have always had a turbulent relationship. It’s a rough looking brute of a vegetable, a knobbly near globe, a rough-skinned creature with pallid, sick-room coloured flesh. Mashed with roast pheasant or wild duck, yes please, but otherwise, especially grated, I think I’d rather leave the room, but on this evening, in a small restaurant in Brixton, Salon if you must know, there’s the dawning of a new day, the reconfiguration of a relationship, the reconsideration of a long held belief.

And here is now a beer, matched with the celeriac and its other companions on the plate, steamed rainbow chard and pickled walnuts (the latter two words always bring a childish smile to the face, it’s as if I was listening to some low comedian telling a bawdy story which end in the words pickled walnuts).

In fact, there are two beers on the table, one of which is a Sticke Alt from Harpoon, while the other is Baba Black Lager from Uinta. American beers then, which isn’t a surprise as the dinner I’m at has been organised by the Brewers’ Association with the grand idea of demonstrating that beer and vegetarian food can be ideal partners on the dining table (not a new idea, I recall discussing similar matches a few years ago with a beer drinking vegetarian). There are other dishes and other beers, all of which work well, but it’s the celeriac that astounds and atones for its previous wickedness.

The caramel chewiness of the seared steak alongside the rich malt character of the Sticke Alt was an intriguing combination, as if the beer was searching to pick out new flavours (I think of the fingers of a multitude of searchlights roaming the sky during an air-raid); there was also a sweetness about the celeriac that seemed to be intensified by the beer and even during the odd moment a hint of umami, that event horizon of flavours, slipped in and added its own savoury sense of leisure. I tried a few sips of the Baba, which highlighted the earthiness of the chard, but it was the Sticke Alt that married itself to this dish and turned what on paper would seem like a dreary assemblage of plants into something more over-reaching and intense on the palate.

I rather like celeriac. At the moment.

Thursday, 14 July 2016


Orange: such an easy and lazy term to be handed over onto paper or the adjudicator when it comes to classifying the colour of beer. This is dark orange, this is light orange, this is bruised orange; or you might want to suggest that this is orange that has become detached from the very idea of orange (or maybe you’re just colour blind by now). I recall the saffron-yellow-verging-on-orange robes of the Hari Krishna types who used to thread their way along Oxford Street, banging their drums, selling their cassettes, offering free food to those who wanted it; this was a vivid orange, an orange, allied to my understanding of what the HK types tried to sell, seemingly wanting to be seen as spiritual, sacred, clean and pure. Didn’t work though, it just looked gaudy, peculiar and not to be taken seriously. 

So where does orange stand when I classify the colour of a beer? The long, wasp-waisted glass that stands next to me as I write is full of a beer I would suggest is orange in colour, but a dark, battered, bruised, tanned, autumnal kind of orange; an orange that has been around, Iggy Pop perhaps, leathery and lined, doing somersaults on the stage when Ron and the rest of the Stooges grind out the riffs and make the noise. And then it leads me to think: can you drink a colour? Can I drink orange and what would I expect when I drink a beer that is this battered and bruised shade of orange? The rich sweep of sweetness, the child-play of citrus, the haunted castle of Christmas, the recoil on the tongue and the slight rictus that tartness takes to the mouth. Kia-Orange, Fanta, Outspan; I write out their names for better or worse and think of how with these names (or brands if you prefer) orange is a terrible beauty born, a sweetness, a cheat, a fleet-footed villain of instant gifts, those GIFs that gift thumbs-up to those who need that gift of assurance. But then I return to the beer and un-bewildered by the orange I switch to the smoothness that the beer bestows on my tongue, a smoothness that is — yes — spiked with a citrus shadow reminiscent of orange, adjoined to a crispness allied to malt, and a long dry finish that suggests a con-trail spreading across the blue sky on a long hot summer’s afternoon. Can I drink orange? I suspect I can. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016


Whoever said brewing was romantic? Perhaps it’s the notion of brewing that’s romantic as opposed to the reality, in the same way we think of warfare as being ceaseless carnage where in fact those who have seen warfare suggest that it’s mainly boredom leavened with moments of pure fear and pain. And so looking at this photograph on a cold November morning in 2005, we can see Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre, which makes one of the most memorable beers in Europe, Trois Mont, a beautiful and elegant beer that I have drank deeply of for many years. It’s a boring imagine, wet tarmac, red brick, metal tanks, steam from that morning’s boil while I suppose the sight of the local church at the end of the street does add some romance, in the sense of community. On the other hand, perhaps the snap of some of the brewing equipment does have a certain resonance in that envelope of feeling that I like to call my soul; it’s a vision of industry, a vision of intent, a vision of part of the journey that Trois Monts makes before it ends up in the glass. Some perhaps brewing is romantic after all. 

Saturday, 4 June 2016


I’d forgotten about bitter, forgotten about that citrusy-slow build of sweetness, the words of toffee and hop spice, the crosstown traffic, the blistering bitterness, the dryness, the siren call of English hops, the warp and waft of the raw materials, the full body, its common touch (at which I have unforgivably sneered), the monstrosity, the leviathan, the well water hoisted, the sheer sheerness of it all. And as I delved further and further into my glass of Gadds No 3 I realised how much I’d forgotten about bitter and how much I had missed it.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Hop sack

Occasionally, sometimes, when there is an r in the month or when there is a moon that is suggestive of a time I never really knew, I find myself wishing I’d never put my head (or was it my nose?) into that first sack of hops. That I had never been beguiled and bested by the flurry of aromatics emerging out of the sack, the rough, textured Hessian sack into which a cluster and concentration of dried hops were packed, squeezed and suffocated into, expressing their individual identities cone by cone. Was it at Moor Brewery in late 1996 when I was writing my first piece for What’s Brewing? Or perhaps, ironically, given what the brewery was best known for, Highgate Brewery in 1997? I can’t remember, but all I do have a certainty about is that from this moment (of which I have little recollection) I was possessed of a passion for the aroma of hops, not a love as that is something for life, but a passion, a lust perhaps, a kindness and a benevolence towards the aromatics that hops bring to my sensorial world. Since that time I have sniffed my way around a world of hop sacks (and even crushed up hop pellets in order to smash up the aromatics and let them play their way to my brain).

I thought of this journey, this Jedi-like awakening as I stood in the brewery at Redwell on Saturday morning, while Dave Jones, the head brewer, worked out the hop ratio for a beer he was brewing called Hop Rocket. Chinook was one of the varieties engaged, Centennial perhaps and I stuck my nose into the container that was holding the first wave of hops. The aroma was green, chive-like, tropically fruity, pungent, musky even. We discussed hops, we discussed malt and what malt could do, we discussed beer and coffee beans and like a circle we kept coming back to hops. ‘Try this,’ and I was given Bullards’ Summer Ale, which is also brewed here. Whatever your thoughts on a brewery buying the name of a long gone brewery and brewing beers with their name attached to them and with little link with what the beers tasted like (I think British brewers are confident enough now to be able to celebrate the past, their forebears, those that came before them and besides as Jeff Alworth here argues maybe not everything in the past was good), I found this beer to be exemplary: juicy and bursting with flavour, with the kind of bitter dry finish that clangs away with the insistence of a warning bell. And once again I was drawn to the persistence of the hop sack and its influence on my senses. Oh how I do love the hop sack but sometimes, just sometimes, I have doubts on whether it was a good move on that long distant day when I let myself be led to the hop sack.

Monday, 23 May 2016


I could be this. I could be that. I could be this. And that. Could I do this, could I do that? Could have been a contender. Could have scored that goal, ran that line, made that hit, smashed that ball. Could have left that drink, could have gone home. Could have grabbed the last bus. Could have called a taxi. Could have left the pub when I said I would. Could have joined the forces. Could have worked harder at school. Could have thought before opening my mouth. Could have run for the bus. Could have married her. Could have called my father more. Could have learnt how to speak French. Could have learnt how to say goodbye. Could have learnt how to say hello. Could have turned a blind eye. Could have left the island. Could have pined. Could have wined and dined and could have refined the argument (but I didn’t). Could have made this beer, could have sold this brewery, could have kept this worker, could have spoilt, could have soiled, could have toiled, could have boiled. Would I have sold the brewery? I would sell the brewery. The brewery could. Could have knelt and spelt and felt my way towards the future, the couture that would hold me, that would gild and gold me. Could have. Could have whirled around the world. Could have whirled and whirled until the world came round to me, but instead. Instead. I am the man who sold a world to bring the world in my whirl. Could/can/will you forgive me?