Monday, 1 June 2020

Roger Ryman — an appreciation

Roger Ryman with Brian Turner (left)
and Alastair Gilmour (right), when he was
the British Guild of Beer Writers
Brewer of the Year in 2006 (see the official
citation is at the bottom)
This is not an obituary of Roger Ryman, whose death was announced at the end of last week. It is an appreciation of someone I had known for nearly 20 years. I first met him at St Austell in 2001, whilst researching my debut book West Country Ales (though we’d spoken over the phone before this). We got on well and over the years I went back to the brewery many times, had beers with him in various places and always contacted him if I had a question on the brewing process (I found an email from 2006 where I’d asked him about lautering when I’d come back from visiting a couple of Alt breweries). I remember when the news came through that St Austell had bought Bath Ales, I rather cheekily emailed him to ask if he would sort out what I then perceived was a diacetyl issue with some of their beers. He took it in good heart. He took me around the newly commissioned brewery in late 2018, I was fascinated by it and you could also see the quiet pride he took in overseeing the project. He was one of the great brewers of the last couple of decades and is rightly hailed as the person who put St Austell on the national beer map (I also think he had a valuable ally in the shape of former Managing Director James Staunton). Here is the profile I wrote of St Austell with a particular emphasis on Roger’s influence for Britain’s Beer Revolution, which was published in 2014. This is my appreciation of him. I will miss him.

Here comes a double IPA, bruised gold in the glass, sharp and zestful on the nose alongside a blast of tropical fruit (ripe peach/apricot skin perhaps). A sip from the glass and a further run of tropical fruit on the tongue, a big boost of bitterness with a juicy malt sweetness holding it together while its long tail-end finish of bitterness seemingly goes on forever and ever. This is a beast of a beer, whose heart beats wildly on the American west coast. You can almost hear the waves bearing the surfers to shore. Or can you? There are waves and surfers close to the brewery from where this beer emerges — we’re not in southern California but southern Cornwall. 

Big Job is crewed ashore at St Austell, the august family brewery that is definitely part of the British brewing revolution. There’s a delicious irony at play here — back in the 1990s St Austell (or St Awful as they were known then) would have been seen as just another brewery treading water as beer sales fell and pubs closed. Yet the brewery is still about and rocking the beer world. What happened? Two words: Roger Ryman. 

Late in 2014 and I’m at St Austell with the 
two Rogers (thanks to Susanna Forbes for this)
Back in 1999, a tall, gig-rowing, rugby-playing Lancastrian took on the top job in brewing, that of a head brewer. He’d come from Maclay’s in Scotland, hardly a den of seething innovation but he was iron-like in his resolution to change things at St Austell. 

‘When I was interviewed for the vacant Head Brewer’s job,’ recalls Ryman, ‘I made it clear to the MD-in-waiting James Staughton of the opportunity that I saw for the company. The business had a solid estate of pubs and a strong regional identity, while the brewery itself, although not modern, was housed in a structurally sound granite building, and not threatened with imminent physical collapse. Why would this brewery not be successful? I was clear in my ambition that with the application of good brewing practice, innovation and focus on beer brand development I could see no reason why it could not double its sales in ten years, own a nationally revered cask ale brand and sit proudly at the top table amongst regional and family brewers.’

If history, as James Joyce had Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, then Ryman was the alarm clock for St Austell. Granted they had a heritage going back to 1851, but what Ryman did was merge its traditional values with a modernistic approach that continues to drive the brewery forward to this day. 

The beer that made Ryman’s name and drew drinkers to the bar was Tribute, a luscious insurgent of a sparkling ale first brewed in 1999 under the name Daylight Robbery (a reference to that year’s eclipse). In his words, ‘it was a modern pale ale characterised by significant late hopping with US and continental varieties’. He used Fuggles from England, Styrian Goldings from Slovenia and the American hop Willamette with the result being a zesty, citrusy, juicy beer with a boisterous bittersweetness. 

However, important and successful as Tribute was (and remains), Ryman, supported by Staughton, has pushed to make St Austell one of the most successful and dynamic English breweries (it is said that some family brewers, when wishing to reinvent themselves, talking of ‘doing a St Austell’). A friendship with Karl Ockert from Bridgeport Brewery in Portland, USA, led to the birth of Proper Job, a sessionable strength (4.5%) American-style IPA. He did nano as well with a small microbrewery that can produce 10 firkins each brew. ‘It offers me,’ he says, ‘as head brewer the opportunity to get out of the office and back to sleeves-rolled-up-brewing. There is nothing better than a Sunday in the micro-brewery concocting a new recipe — no meetings, no e-mail and no phone calls!!’

There has been a fleet of beers produced over the years, some of them blazing a trail across the sky never to return others taking their place in the pantheon of St Austell greats. Dark beer? Then how about a smooth stout based on a 1913 recipe or that controversial style Black IPA with Proper Black. Lager? There have been both Czech and German lagers produced, as well as a Bock complete with billy goat image on the label, while beers from the wilder shores of brewing have included barrel-aging, souring and the addition of all manner of fruits and herbs. Early 2014 saw the emergence of Tamar Creek, which Ryman described as Flemish sour red ale that had been matured in oak barrels with Cornish cherries. The finished beer was polished and pleasing and pulsated with a tart, vinous character on the palate. 

These days St Austell’s beers take the drinker on an exhilarating voyage around the modern world of brewing, a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without Roger Ryman’s innovatory approach along with the stellar support he received from James Staughton and, of course, his team on the brewing floor. 

‘St Austell Brewery have been brewing beer for 160 years,’ he says, ‘and we plan to continue brewing beer for another 160.’ 

A blurry shot of Roger Ryman at Thornbridge in 2007 after
the wood-aged beer seminar I organised for the
British Guild of Beer Writers — that plastic bottle at the end of
the table contain’s Greene King’s 5X, which the then head
brewer John Bexon had sent up to taste.

British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year, 2006
St Austell’s Roger Ryman has brought a very traditional family brewer into the 21st century (making the old nickname of St Awful totally superfluous), made a success of Tribute in the guest ale market, introduced beers such as Proper Job, a Cornish Weisse and Admiral’s Ale, firmed up old favourites such as HSD and Tinners, as well as used his small micro-brewery to explore styles of beer not usually seen in companies like SA — Czech dark lagers, wood-aged barley wines, a luscious coffee beer, a Cornish Heavy and his refreshing take on a Kolsch amongst others. He is also the driving force behind the annual Celtic Beer Festival, which celebrated its eighth anniversary at the weekend — an event that celebrates beer and brewing’s connections with the local community. If you haven’t been to visit it then I suggest you do so now. All this, while still producing popular beers such as Tribute. You could say he works in a space where the pragmatism of regional brewing meets the innovation of craft brewing. He is our Brewer of the Year. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Wednesday Beer — St Austell Proper Job

St Austell in 2002, I dunno what the car is
I have had a long relationship with Proper Job, first drinking it when it was released in 2004, developed by St Austell’s head brewer Roger Ryman after he’d spent a month’s sabbatical in Portland’s Bridport Brewery (sadly no more, though during my only visit to the taproom in 2015 left me thoroughly underwhelmed). His inspiration was Bridport IPA, which is probably why the beer in cask and bottle was 5.5%, though the former was soon reduced to 4.5% to be more acceptable to British sessioneers. 

It’s a mainstay of St Austell’s pubs, of which there are several in Exeter (my son used to work in one during vacation), while the bottle-conditioned 5.5% version is very much a supermarket sweetheart. My initial tasting notes of the beer back in the 00s are of a Carmen Miranda-like fruitiness, pineapple, melon and guava with a striking bitter finish bolstered by a sweetness that perhaps is a characteristic of beers and palates in the southwest. I still think it’s an excellent beer, though have recently wondered with some bottles I recently bought from Aldi (how funny that going to the supermarket now has the same risk as driving a 550cc Kawasaki at 100mph on the M6 as I used to do until a near accident calmed me down) if the Carmen Miranda fruitiness had been muted somewhat. Now, it’s in 440ml cans, not bottle-conditioned, but still fresh and fruity and Carmen Miranda is still flying down to Rio, all manner of tropical fruit embedded in her hat. 

And while I’m thinking about Proper Job, I would like to raise a glass to Big Job, which I always had a couple of bottles while visiting (or should that be embarrassing?) my son when he was working at the quayside pub in Exeter. And now, even more thoughts crowd in on me — I do miss St Austell’s Admiral’s Ale, which was launched in 2003 during a British Guild of Beer Writers trip to Cornwall that I organised. This was chestnut/russet in colour with lush toffee/caramel notes balanced by a juicy citrusiness. It was a beer of which I drank deeply over the years, but it doesn’t seem to have been around for a while (there was a Big Admiral at the 2016 Celtic Beer Festival but nothing at the one last November). 

It is funny but understandable that during this time of Covid-19 a nostalgia seems to pervade through the soul of beer — I have read of beers that are missed (some before I began drinking), the moods of pubs in the 1970s and before, breweries that are no longer around and what their products would have been like and breweries such as Boxcar, Anspach and Hobday and Five Points doing up and doing over mild and bitter as if it never went away. All of which makes me ponder (with the thought of a glass of Proper Job later), maybe beer is more about nostalgia than we think and maybe in this time of Covid-19 we need that nostalgia. 

Friday, 8 May 2020

Travel stories — the Vale of the White Horse

Thirty-one thirsty years ago in the middle of July I went to a wedding in the Vale of the White Horse. It was not a great time for me. I had split up with a girlfriend and the idea of celebrating a marriage was the last thing I really wanted to do. However, it was the marriage of my mate with whom I used to play in the same band, used to write songs with and with whom I once shared a musical vision that never took us anywhere (but on the other hand it did help me with writing oddly enough). We’re still friends, though we haven’t written a song together for a long time. 

I was staying in Goring-on-Thames and the wedding was in a small village called Aston Tirrold, in the non-conformist church where my mate’s father was minister. I walked from Goring to Aston, over the Downs in a suit and well-polished shoes beneath a gorgeous July sun and thought of how 100 years before my ancestors in Wales would have walked over hills to weddings and funerals similarly dressed. I felt connected. 

Despite the emotional turmoil I was then going through I felt a real sense of tranquility in those hills (and later that year I even thought of moving out that way), but apart from the wedding my main memory of the day was arriving at the village pub, which according to Wikipedia was the Chequers and is now the Sweet Olive gastropub. 

Here I met my mate, his brother who was the best man, and a couple of others, who sadly I can’t remember. I don’t remember the beer either, I don’t remember what I drank, but it was beer — but what I do recall is the quietness of the front bar, the murmurs and the conversations, nervousness in the ascendancy perhaps, the comfort of the bar, and then as I write this I recall the previous night when I had arrived from London and we had all gone to a pub by the Thames and drunk Brakspear’s and I thought how wonderful it was to live in a place like this where pubs like this were on the doorstep and were so much better than the pubs I knew in London. 

Then it was time to go to the church and then the meal and that evening there was a spare seat next to me and I was told that the married couple’s friend couldn’t make it as he had been invited to a party on a boat on the Thames. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Wednesday Beer — Augustiner Helles Lagerbier Hell

It is now nearly two years since I was last in Germany and nearly two years since I had a large glass of the pristine Augustiner Helles in front of me, a beer whose pale golden sheen suggests a sprightly nature, a fine-minded creature that glistens in the glass like a drop of golden sun; a fawn, perhaps, in a sun-dappled glade in a forest, scattered bursts and trills of birdsong the soundtrack. I love the lightly toasted grain on the nose, the spritzy hint of bitter lemon on the palate and the appetising dry finish that also harbours a rerun of the saintly and dainty lemon note. For me this is a quenching, refreshing and satisfying bittersweet beer best drunk in a one-litre Maß, which is how I last had it nearly two years ago at that wooden cabin-like bar that Augustiner Brewery has at the entrance to Berlin’s Schönefeld airport, a weird juxtaposition of Alpine/Bavarian rusticity standing in contrast to the slickness of Schönefeld’s bland airport chic. I always try and have a final beer here if I have the time and even though it is not Bavaria it feels just right to drink this wonderful beer as a farewell to a country I know I will want to keep going back to. Sure, if anything from Schönramer were on offer it would be an almighty tussle what to drink and I would probably drink beers from both of them and hope that I had an aisle seat on the plane (mind you, when in Berlin you go to Foersters Feine Biere to drink Eric Toft’s beers), but for me there is an iconic and symbolic nature to my final beer on German soil — this is a beer that I have drunk both in bars in Munich and Berlin, but also from the bottle, bought from a corner shop and swigged as I join other pedestrians in their street drinking or on a railway platform waiting for a train to Regensburg from Nuremberg in 2015. It is an everyday beer, an easy-going crooner of a beer, undemanding but always demanding of my attention such is the completeness of its aromatic and flavour profile. I know I can probably find bottles of it in the UK, even now, but I shall wait until I am next in Germany, whether Berlin, Munich, Bamberg or somewhere entirely new and then shall drink deeply of it, Maß glass in hand. 

A log cabin in Berlin

Monday, 4 May 2020

What is it that I like and love about beer?

Oh, hello old friend
I often ask myself in the manner of an absent-minded professor what is it that I like and love about beer? Given that the question is delivered with the vagueness and insouciance of this absent-minded professor I don’t bother with an answer. However, I’ve just asked myself the question again and the inner voice is more questioning this time, urgent and curious, interrogative and even insistent, the absent-minded professor replaced by someone better attuned to a job of asking questions and wanting answers, an Oxbridge examiner perhaps? 

So the first thing I have to do in order to answer this question is to pour myself a beer, which today is Jaipur, cans of which have been a major sustenance during the past few weeks. I can sense an anticipation in holding the can, an anticipation that is chatting like a canary about the beer to me before I have even pulled the ring-tab. 

The sound of the ring-tab being pulled is next, a psst, the slightest resemble to the sound of calico being torn and if I put my nose close enough to the opened can I can identify the aromatics of ripe apricot skin, ripe mango and a suggestion of pineapple. It is not sweet though, slightly musky, pungent and adult. 

So why does that appeal to me? Perhaps it’s a childhood memory of tinned fruit, whether a single variety such as mandarins or fruit cocktail, both of which I used to insist for pudding instead of the much-disliked rice pudding and anything involving semolina (the latter was common at my primary school, usually served with a skin on top, which used to make me feel sick and I once told my teacher that the doctor had said I could be excused semolina, as well as mashed potato, custard and beetroot). 

As I pour the beer, listening to the light fizz as it bunches in the glass, its snow-white collar of foam pushing upwards, I can sense a slight salivation in my mouth, that anticipation once more, but also perhaps there is a slight expectancy of the beer’s influence on the mood, expectancy of a lift in the mood, which is what a 5.9% beer will probably do. After all, the alcohol in the beer is a drug and drugs enhance our moods. So would I have this anticipation if I was opening a can of Special Brew, which is even stronger? Here, I have to return perhaps about 30 years to the only occasion I drunk Special Brew — all I can remember is a sweet gloopiness (nothing to do with Gwyneth btw) and feeling a bit lost after a couple of large cans. I think it might have been an experiment at the time, which I didn’t repeat.

The expectation of the beer possibly has links to the places where I drink beer, the pubs and the bars, where the prospect of an evening with friends, sociability (remember that?), stories being told, jokes being exchanged (usually in the guise of stories rather than the here’s another one, you’ll like this kind of joke party), people and events remembered, sharpens the thirst. I can still recall the cold crisp edge of the first beer of the night at dimly remembered social gatherings from years ago when the thought of analysing a beer would have provoked a rather bemused look from myself — and as a downside, the bloated belly feeling at the end of the night, six or seven pints in, when your mate would bring back a couple more pints to finish before chucking out time and all I would want to do is go home and go to bed (and especially not go for a curry). 

I still have that expectation whenever I have my first beer in a pub, especially if it’s a favourite or an imperial stout/porter/sahti from a brewery I am fond of. There’s that thrill of discovery as well as the comfort of welcoming back an old friend who you haven’t seen for a long time. So going back to the Jaipur I have poured what do I feel about it now that I am ready to drink it. There’s that gleaming golden familiarity of the beer in the glass, the crispness and lush fruitiness, the bitterness and that feeling of satisfaction that usually elicits an aah, as if your soul was sitting back in a comfortable armchair. There’s a completion about the beer from the nose to the finish, but I’m still trying to understand what it is that draws me to beer in a way that wine, cider and various spirits don’t. As well as the flavour and the mood enhancement (two or three cans later, the world looks a brighter place even though grey clouds slumber like resting sheep over Exeter), there is the cultural association, the pub, the brewery, the people who drink it, the origin story of the beer, the tale told of Michael Jackson easing out a reticent Martin Dickie and Stefano Cossi’s thoughts on the beer when they first brewed it and even the colour of the can, which somehow reminds me of the orange football strip that Cruyff played in.

Having thought this far, I don’t think I can really answer the question I posed at the start — yes, culture, taste and mood enhancement are important, but there is something more that underlines my association with beer. Something metaphysical perhaps, something mystical, something beyond my reasoning, but I am going to keep asking the question and see what answers I come up with.      

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Wednesday beer — Westmalle Tripel

The first Belgian beer I ever drunk was Stella Artois. I was 15, it was in a hotel in Ostend during my first holiday on the European mainland. I can’t remember much about it but I did like it (I recall a little off-licence right next to Harringay Station in the late 1980s that used to sell little bottles of imported Stella, which I loved. I didn’t know that it used to be dry-hopped then, which perhaps explained my brief devotion to it). 

It was during this time when I really started to enjoy beers from Belgium. First of all there was Duvel, thanks to a friend who worked in Eindhoven (I know it’s not in Belgium but he introduced me to it, and one night we had eight bottles, which is not to be recommended if my hangover the next day was anything to go by). Other beers followed: Chimay, Dupont, Orval and Hoegaarden, the latter being hard to avoid in early 90s London. Since then I have been over many times, visited breweries, interviewed brewers and remain devoted to many of its beers (though my love for Belgian beer is not blind, there are some stinkers). 

I was last over in November and am currently hankering after Belgium, especially as I recently bought a copy of The Belgian Beer Book, by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker. It’s massive, full of lots of lovely photos as well as plenty of text on the beers, bars and drinking cultures of both Flanders and Wallonia. When it arrived last week, I just sat there, flicking through the pages, and my thirst for Belgian beer continued to evolve and has since taken me by the hand and led me to my Wednesday beer, Westmalle Tripel, bottles of which I have been getting delivered from Exeter’s fantastic bottle shop Hops + Crafts

Trappist brewing for me is a collaboration between the sacred world of Cistercian monks and the profane one of commercial brewing, a bridge between the spiritual and the temporal. After all isn’t brewing just another form of prayer, doing the same thing, day after day, with maybe the odd change of words or recipe? And for me, Westmalle Tripel is one of the most generously flavoured and elegantly structured of this union of beers, a corn gold apparition that shimmers in its Grail-like glass beneath a well-blessed billowing head of snow-white foam. There is lemon, barley sugar and a siren call of sweet orange on the nose, while on the palate there is rich orange, a hint of peach, malt sweetness and a Mousse-like mouth feel, before it finishes with a sprightly hop tingle that makes me want to dive straight back into the glass. 

I visited Westmalle five years ago. Actually, a correction: I visited the onsite cafe/restaurant but the closest I got to the brewery was on an autumnal walk around the site with a group of judges from the Brussels Beer Challenge. Apparently, some of us were jumping in the air with the aim of seeing over the wall and getting a glimpse of the brewing kit. Maybe this is how I got the photo below — I should have bought a stepladder. Next time I will, unless, of course, I’m allowed in the brewery.

Monday, 27 April 2020

When you go to the pub

I think they’re open
You go to the pub to meet people or get away from people, but when you cannot go to the pub you sit in the kitchen, or in the back garden or perhaps in the front room, where shelves and shelves of books might be your only company. But the ambience still works as you pour yourself a glass of something from Duration or Lost and Grounded or Thornbridge or whoever’s beer you have in front of you and the characters from the books emerge from their word-ridden hiding places and begin to chatter and charm and put a balm on the harm that being locked up in at home can inflict on your soul.

You go to the pub to try out beers from breweries whose ethos or output is appealing to you, whose judicious mix of hops and malt and well thought out regime of fermentation is a wonder and worth spending money on. But when you cannot go to the pub, you go online and find the beers that you like and love and spend some money and hopefully bring a smile to a brewer’s face. And as you sit there with a book and the characters spring out of the pages with the agility of acrobats you say to yourself softly, that this isn’t bad, but you still miss the pub.

You go to the pub as a home from home, somewhere soothing and comfortable and whether you’re on your own or with a band of like-minded souls, you are home. But when you cannot go to the pub and you’re stuck at home, you try your best to give your home a comfort zone similar to the pub, whether it’s getting stuck in on Zoom or crunching out the words on your laptop with those who want to talk or shout or rave or just pretend to clink glasses with the object of sociability in mind. Or maybe you just listen to the stories and tales and histories that emerge from the books and characters you are spending your time with.

But when you eventually return to the pub it’ll be good not to forget what it was like when you couldn’t go to the pub and maybe, just maybe, you’ll not take things for granted again and give thanks to those invisible folk who kept you company during these trying times.