Monday, 28 September 2009

In which the Sex Pistols make me think about the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution as regards beer

Watching a reunited Sex Pistols concert in a Belgian hotel room (me that is not them), I am reminded about the need for consistency in beer; it’s an appalling concert, polished, cynical, well-played and attempting to be of its time 1977, but really belonging to now. They might as well have been an act on the X Factor. BrewDog say that their beer is for punks, but I wouldn’t have thought that they would want this bunch of pogoing, face-gurning nostalgists (both band and audience) drinking the stuff. Apply this sort of revivalism to beer and you have the mindset that uses visions of a golden age to sell its products — or even more depressing the dreary parocialism of a letter writer in the current What’s Brewing who lambasts CAMRA and Protzy for picking a ‘quite hoppy and bitter’ mild for its champion beer, ‘When I started drinking in England 50 years ago, the mild tasted mild and the bitter tasted bitter. Now we have an award-winning mild that tastes bitter. Can Camra still be taken seriously’. I mean, the words ‘too much time on his hands’ spring to mind.

I say all of this after five months of editing 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die (out next spring, be the first to disagree with the choice!), in whose pages there will be a goodly amount of fantastic IPAs and Porters, beers with a long history that, however, I would rather drink now than 150 years ago. I would far rather a beer where the brewer knew what to do with Brett than some beer in the 19th century when it varied from week to week and this variation wasn’t controlled — but then that is part of a larger conversation about beer, which occurred to me at a cider seminar in Spain in June.

Beer, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, is expected to be the same consistency brew after brew, while wine and cider have seasonal allowances programmed in. Of course, there are beers that follow that seasonal path but all of us expect our ales to taste the same year upon year — are we missing something here? It’s a wild dream to expect beer to go back to some sort of hit and miss character, but it might make things interesting (and the technology and foresight is there to make it all drinkable). I remember one landlord I know telling me that when he took over an Adnams pub in Walberswick that some of the locals (perhaps trying to put him in his place) used to say that they could tell when the Adnams Bitter had the new harvest of hops and barley as opposed to when they were drinking it a few months later. Beer has pretty much flattened out the variations, even though the idea of vintages is pretty hot stuff. But what if your pint of London Pride, Landlord or Tribute had different nuances from season to season? How on earth would it be sold to us beer drinkers who have been bred to expect consistency — consistency is only expected because the alternative is rubbish, but what about a mindset that expected an Adnams Bitter (I’m just choosing it because it’s a favourite) to be different in October and then in January and then in July — would this raise beer to the cachet of wine as much as the whole Vintage bottle thing? Imagine it: Tesco’s bring you BrewDog IPA October 09. I suppose I’m talking anarchy in the UK when it comes to brewing, but the sad fact is that we (including myself) want our pint of cask beer to taste the same every night otherwise we might have nightmares (the stuff of which for me after watching that concert would involve a geriatric John Lydon doing a duet with Mick Jagger).

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I’ll meet you at the sign of the Red Barrel (not)

You see this hanging from a wall in the Wallonian town of Tournai and you look around to see if the Tardis is lurking about. Never drunk the stuff myself (was on lemonade and Robinson’s Crush in its heyday) but the legends linger — was it really as bad as everyone says? Was it the spam (the meat not the offers of millions of quid from some dodgy individual) of beer? How we laughed about it in school, though didn’t know why and when it was time to step up to the plate of heroic drinking Red Barrel had vanished in a puff of smoke, like a baddie in a fairy tale. Which makes it all the more intriguing to see this sign in this beautiful town in the centre of saison county (discovered a new favourite, Tournay Noire from Cazeau, who also produce an elderflower-infused saison — at a speciality beer bar populated by Goths and metallers…).

Is Watney’s Red Barrel still available and if so could it spark off the same retro-beer movement that over in the US has drinkers, the sort you would normally expect to linger over their craft beers, ordering the corn-fed Pabst Blue Ribbon as a sort of act of rebellion or defiance against the accepted order of things?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Alloa, Alloa

I like Williams Bros Ceilidh. They call it a lager. Now I don’t know whether it has been lagered and if so for how long, but it certainly tastes and feels more like a Munchen Pilsner than any member of that oxymoron of British craft brewing cask-conditioned lager. It’s the colour of Welsh gold — I hold my wedding ring up to it and the colours match. The nose is sweet and fragrant, gently toasted bread with a slight scent of elderflower and lemon in the background — the beer equivalent of that old Victorian standard Come into the garden Maud; sweetish and soft on the palate, then it becomes lemony midway through the palate; it has a gorgeous rounded mouthfeel before its dry, tantalisingly grainy finish. This is a very good approximation of a Munich Pils (too forthright to be a Helles and not floral enough to be Bohemian) — how wonderful it is to see another British brewer take on lager and produce something creditable. The label says ‘brewed in Alloa’, which if I seem to remember correctly was often seen as a Scottish equivalent of Burton-on-Trent; it was also a place noted for its lagers, so hence the legend on the label.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Just had one of the worst beers I have ever had: BrewDog’s Dogma (named after the crap film perhaps). But it’s not as easy as that. To confound matters it was followed by their Hardcore IPA, which is a wonderful interpretation of a DIPA and the hop bombs keep carpet-bombing my palate as if directed by Bomber Harris, but am thoroughly shocked by Dogma; it’s horrible. It’s like a piercing whistle of a beer with its high shrill notes of powdery guarana (I should know as I take the stuff when I Iay off the coffee) making it utterly unpalatable (in music terms Lydia Lunch springs to mind, no-noise New York rubbish from the late 1970s or free form jazz even). There is honey in it as well apparently, but if bees are vanishing I am not surprised if they are starting to produce this sort of honey. I suspect it’s a gag, a situationist, MacLarenist sort of jape that takes us all for mugs. However, I bought this at Sainsbury’s, and it is one of their beers that has got through to the supermarket’s beer finals. It can’t have been this severe to get through — or who on earth were the judges? On the other hand, maybe it’s a wry comment from BrewDog that whatever they produce it will be lionised. Clever and cynical — art school rock lives.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Keith Waterhouse’s units…

The late Keith Waterhouse was asked how far is was from London to Edinburgh and he replied two bottles of chardonnay. That got me thinking about my own journey times — Taunton to Paddington: three bottles of Broadside; Truro to Taunton: four pints of Spingo. Anyone else ever swap miles for bottles?

Waterhouse, a noted bon viveur, also reached the grand old age of 80, don’t tell the alcohol units police…
For US and younger readers Waterhouse was a noted journalist of the old school, a prolific wordsmith (a nicer word for hack) and all round boozer; journalism sometimes needs people like that though not all of them manage to hold it together like he did.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

80 bob’s worth of style

What is a beer style? Ever since I made what seemed like the enjoyable but career unenhancing switch to beerwriting in the late 1990s I have vaguely followed Michael Jackson’s strictures on the family of beer (and other writers’). Now after years of talking with brewers — both home and away — and others in the business, and reading various articles and blogs, especially Ron Pattinson’s, I am not so sure. Well I am sure that there have to be guidelines but they should be put in place so that you can wander away from them but still use them as a guide. Bit like going off road I suppose, you have to learn to drive before you can rip off over a moor.

When someone says American barley wines are too hoppy so what, rather that than the syrupy o’figs of Gold Label — Greene King call their session beer IPA, does it matter that it is nearly half the strength of say White Shield? Perhaps it does, because IPA is a revered icon and not to be dethroned, or maybe style is distinct from alcohol strength, after all you wouldn’t have a 3% barley wine would you? (on the other hand BrewDog highly hop a mild in How To Disappear Completely). What about lager? Now that is a whole can of Hofmeister? Is Schehallion a decent golden ale or a real ale pilsner (now we’re getting silly)?

Williams Bros 80/- is a case in point — I have been sent some of their beers, they’re good, especially the 80/-. So it’s an 80/- ale but as the only one I know is the Cally one I am not qualified to say if this is in style or not and does it matter? I know styles are also useful for breweries trying to sell their beers to the general public but then on the other hand? Let’s have a look at it.

Dark chestnut brown in colour; espresso coloured head that slowly dissipates. On the nose chocolate, ground coffee plus a hint of resiny hop — a restrained sweetness; almost like a flavoured coffee; there’s the sternness of the coffee bean but a friendlier more fragrant note coming through as well, which I suspect is the influence of the hop. On the palate it’s creamy, mouth-filling, smooth and soothing, mocha coffee-sweetness but also an aromatic vanilla hint, that fragrance again, imagine an imperial version of this — a very luscious beer for its strength, which would be lovely with or in ice cream. I suspect the original 80/- was thinner than this, and with perhaps more roasted notes. Is it in style? I don’t know and I don’t really care.