Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Friday night pub crawl in London = great fun

Talk about an auspicious entry into a pub. Outside on the wall, pure Kentish Town brick, leaning against it, there’s a lad with a couple of coppers talking to him, blood trickling from his nose, his face a mask of shock. Friday night fever, plenty of pubs in the vicinity, lashings of whatever gets you going: someone said something about someone else and someone got a nosebleed with the aid of someone else’s head. Move along now nothing to see, move along. Which we will as we want to get inside the Southampton Arms: ale, cider and mead house of this parish. And we: on the final stage of our four-part trek to launch Otley’s Saison Obscura last Friday night.

Visits had already been taken to:
The White Horse, where we saw Oz Clarke (that’s him right with Nick Otley) and I kept badgering him for his thoughts on SO (and then White Horse Dan came along for a few beers).
The fantastic Cask where a lad with a Russell Brand barnet shimmied through the crowd glasses in hand.
The rumbustious Rake where I stood in a small group, turned to Rakeman Glyn and asked ‘I thought Reluctant Scooper was here’; bloke next to me said, ‘I am’.

A busy, brilliant night of great people, great beer and the rare chance to get a glimpse of London pub life on a Friday night. I chat away in the glorious space of the Southampton with its gorgeous selection of beers and ciders and pork baps and ask someone why he prefers a handled mug to a straight glass, a London predilection I noticed in the Jolly Butchers — here almost with panic I asked for a sleeve for my beer, can’t bear jugs myself, but I understand they’ve been taken up by thirstysomethings in the same way as pipe smoking and corduroy jackets were encouraged by 1950s hipsters; I suppose it’s that old playground game of subversion, take something with a dodgy image and get it associated with the coolest of the cool; as Brucie would say, ‘good game, good game’. In the same instance of which I thought that thought, he answered: ‘I like it’.

And then I discuss with a couple of cider-drinkers what they think of the Otley (I don’t really know what they said as my handwriting was starting to desert me by then and the scrawl in my notebook suggests that I was being controlled by an entity from ancient Sumeria). A bit of a daft question when you think of it, but Nick Otley saved the day and bought the sisters a glass each. They seemed to enjoy it and something was said about Guinness but then outside at closing time I spotted one of them being as sick as a dog. That’s cider for you.

And amidst all this I still find time to look about and ask myself: why do we congregate in pubs? Why are we drawn to them? I know why I do (I enjoy the mood and ambience of those pubs I like, allied along with good beer, decent, interesting folk and food, and a location that takes me out of myself), but that itch of a question still persists — why do we get into a room with dozens of strangers (maybe the odd acquaintance) and drink beer, cider, wine, whisky, whatever, experience a decent level of inebriation (not too much, not too little), maybe have a bite to eat and discover that time passes with a modicum of ease.

The right pubs are heaven, the wrong pubs make us like balls being flipped about in some mad game of pinball, bouncing in through one door and exiting with great speed through the other. I’ve been going to pubs since the age of 15 (sorry Mum), and they’re second nature to me. I can spend ages talking about pubs, about their reputations (someone asked me the other day if I still visit a particular Exmoor boozer, I said no, I’ve done my time in that place), about the people who prop up the bar (see said Exmoor hostelry), and about the phenomenally strong ciders or ales you could get, the whole vibe.

But there are also times like Friday night when one strips away the familiarity and normality and sees the pub in all its naked functionality — it’s a room or a series of rooms, an ersatz home; it’s where we drink beer, where we chat with people whom we wouldn’t invite into our homes, spill our secrets (well some), enjoy the sort of comedy between characters that would cost a fortune to see if on the stage. It’s familiarity, ease, a difference from home, and yet similarity, people, the excitement of what might happen (nosebleed, come back for a coffee?, party?, I’ve bought half a pig) and the crestfallen feeling next morning of what might have been (should have decked him, should have gone back, should have gone to that party, should have bought that pig). I still don’t entirely know why I like pubs, but I know I do. It’s as if trying to write about understanding the feeling is like making stock: boiling ideas, desires, likes, attitudes and hopes down and down until I get to the core reason of why I like pubs. It’s a continuous process but I’ll get there.

Girl being sick in on the pavement, lad waking up with a swollen nose, a desperate need for a triple espresso at 8am, listen to me all of you: and in the evening (or morning if you’re a member of the 9.30am Spoons club) I/you/we all know that it will start all over again.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Otley’s Saison Obscura — launched on Friday

Name of the beer is Saison Obscura, the one I brewed in the company of Otley a few weeks ago. Launching it, Nick Otley and I are going on a pub crawl on Friday, starting at 3pm in the White Horse, 5pm at Cask Pub and Kitchen, 7pm at the Rake (where I also hope to try Glyn’s Motley Brew, I think it’s called, didn’t know he was a closet glam metaller) and 9pm at the Southampton Arms, Kentish Town. Please come along and join us. The genesis of all this comes from the British Guild of Beer Writers do at Brewwharf last summer where I cheekily asked Nick if I could come and brew. I suggested a saison and the idea developed from there. 

What we have come up with is a dark saison, which I tasted at the start of the month at the Bunch of Grapes, the brewery’s murderously magnificent pub in Ponty. I found it had a flinty, lemony nose (sweetshop lemons was the phrase in my notebook) trending towards sherbert; it was bittersharp and snappy on the palate, with a whisper of orange (there’s dried Curacao orange peel in the mix) while the alcoholic strength of 5.5% gives it some weight; oh and there’s a black pepper catch at the back of the throat. I really loved it and was really over the moon (home brewing was never a strength of mine, I flunked both chemistry and physics, I don’t have a scientific bone in my body). Matt at the brewery really pushed me on the brew: I thought it would be a case of saying try this, try that and let them do the work. But no I had to suggest the percentages of different malts (5 plus wheat malt) and hops (3); and as well as the orange peel black pepper was added. We talked about fermentation and maturation as well (this has given me the bug for brewing, so if anyone would like to do a rye mild …). If you’re around please come and join us, tell us what you think, whether it’s bad or good, and let’s just talk saison. For instance, should it be dark? On that point I can point to three people whose opinions I value.

Steven Pauwels at Boulevard Brewery (with whom the godlike Jean-Marie Rock at Orval did a collaborative beer some time ago, an imperial Pilsner I seem to remember, I was shown the empty bottle): ‘Saison beers are the perfect “trash can style” for brewers that experiment with Belgian beers. There are no rules, yet everybody has an idea of what the beer should taste like.’
Phil Markowski at Southampton Brewery and author of the fascinating Farmhouse Ales: ‘That's the 10 million dollar question, what is a “real” saison. You could argue it is a special brew (perhaps brewed on a farm but how many are actually still brewed on farms, any?) made for a particular season, perhaps with ingredients that echo a particular time of year. They are hard to define and that is essentially the point. Saison is loosefull of individual expression, the “anti-style” beer style.’
Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn: ‘Modern saisons are pale, but I think we must assume that many were relatively dark and even possibly smoky until the mid-1700s at least. So perhaps it is not a style that lends itself to orthodoxy, but rather one that originally existed to answer a question – “what can I brew that’s nutritious, refreshing, tasty, and will last for at least a year in the cellar?”’

Here are my thoughts on saison in general, a beer I have always enjoyed, at AAB.

So whatever goes seems to be the thing with saison, hence Saison Obscura — and if you can manage it I do hope you can join me and Nick for one on Friday (it’ll also be on at the Bunch of Grapes that night). Oh, Nick and I will also be Facebooking and Tweeting about the beer during the crawl using the hashtag #saisonobscura, whatever a hashtag is — and I might even try a live blog. Oh and that picture is ’Arry from Otley, their young Italian brewer who is totally passionate about beer and brewing, now where have I come across that before…


Monday, 21 March 2011

Jack & Ken

Jack is Jack McAuliffe, whose New Albion kicked off the US small brewery boom back in 1977 (and then lasted until 1982 — Maureen Ogle’s fascinating Ambitious Brew charts the rise and fall on pages 291-299). Ken is Ken Grossman who continues the dream with Sierra Nevada. Jack & Ken’s Ale is a celebration and collaboration between two pioneering souls (the series also included a mashing of tuns with Charlie Papazian, Fritz Maytag and Fred Eckhardt). This beauty appeared at my door, like an orphan in storm, begging to be allowed in, sometime in the autumn. Christmas and New Year passed it by and — truth be told — it could have sat in the cellar for ages, King Arthur asleep until his country’s call, or just a beer in hibernation, until an inner voice said: it’s spring, it’s beer, now drink it. Which I did. Black barley wine was the subtitle, apparently an homage to some powerful grog that New Albion came up with. First thoughts: in the mouth it’s luxurious and creamy, a version of luxury and exclusivity (Louis Vutton, Rolls-Royce, a berth in first class on the Orient Express); now back to reality and less dreaming. The nose pulsates with a spirituous swag bag of chocolate, mocha coffee and Sambuca while a spike of dry grainy barley cuts through the air like the swish of a pirate’s cutlass. The palate is a condundrum, bearing contrasts: creamy cold espresso, ripe dark plumy fruitiness, fruit gums steeped in alcohol and dusted with chocolate, while some dry, sooty, smoky notes add a hard edge to the generously chewy finish. If there’s a black barley wine style then I must admit it seems to me that it shares rooms (en suite of course) with our old friend the Imperial porter, but that argument’s for the medieval philosophers amongst us who rack our brains night after night deciding how many angels one can detect on a pinhead. A worthy tribute to Jack McAuliffe this, but even more pertinent: it’s just one big bruiser of a beer of which I wish I had two, just to see how it would develope over time. So if seen, snap up, double up on the snap up and then let it seep into your soul.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Port Street Beer House and Cantona stare-alikes


Indie rock fans on the Veltins. Young guys with wispy beards, trying to stare like Eric Cantona, a look that says ‘I’ve got a glass of IPA is Dead and I’m going to drink it’. Student girl at the bar laughs when she says to no one in particular how good her glass of My Antonia is. At the back of the room, there’s a table with four blokes, after work beer men, dedication writ loud in their disdain for fashion, pint of whatever he’s having. Moravka for me mate. Look around: there are lads in here wearing the sort of blue, white-edged windcheaters that normally blend in with white pumps, flicking through the beer menu, oohing and aahing and ordering Infrareds all round. Meanwhile, in this space in which the architecture is of a hip and happening bar — smartly sanded floorboards, reclaimed perhaps, soft light on the cusp of going harsh, austere seats and tables, the very shock of the post-modernist new, two floors — I’ve joined the Eric Cantona stare-alikes with a glass of BrewDog’s IPA is Dead, Sorachi edition, which I don’t care for that much (and I’m probably alone): soft pungent hop, bitter shrieks of a banshee in an old Irish country house at the back of the throat, unbalanced, reminiscent of old footage I once saw of an experimental wartime tank with too large an engine that landed on its side. German I think it was. Still, you have to try this things and I guess I’m alone in my disinclination to order another glass. If I shut my eyes I think I’m in some new craft bar in the US or even Belgium (minus food of course), but I’m in Manchester, at the Port Street Beer House, which fortuitously was only a couple of doors away from where I was staying that night. 

Marble Arch, a wonderful place, was where I’d earlier dined on battered poached egg and Marble Chocolate (in a glass). I do love that place with its touches of Victorian/Edwardian high drama especially something that I never noticed before: a couple of old pics of a starchy middle aged couple, he perhaps a university big wig and she just happy to bask in his shadow; next door to her, a black and white etching from the 1950s of a flat capped bloke with pint in hand. Is this a deliberate placing? The democracy of the pub in action? Then there’s the joy of people watching with Pint in hand: a couple of students on a date, she almost embarrassed to be ordering beer; at the bar two sporty blokes, one a newcomer to the bar who asks have you got anything like Tetley, while a postman taking a break from the nearby exchange curses the moment he spilt beer on his trews. 

But back to Port Street, it’s new and smells new, is almost self-consciously new, and ironically enough — after Cask, the Rake, Euston Tap etc — it’s not the shock of the new, it’s just new. And I like this newness, and then I wonder maybe this is part of a new wave that won’t be permanent. Further furrowing of the brow: is this a problem? 

With our pubs we want a continuity, an ossification even, because the majority are linked to their communities and their communities have been there for centuries in one way or another — we want our local to have some link with those who have been before even if the place was a dive before it was jazzed up (it’s like a pub that spent 20 years on the scrap heap: you conveniently forget that and hark back to how it might have been on VE night or when Queen Victoria died, even though it was perhaps crap then as well). Something like Port Street BH works in a city, where there are fewer roots and links and life is fast flowing, especially places with plenty of students coming and going. Port Street BH has no sense of history; you do not walk into it and admire the friezes or imagine what happened here on Christmas Eve 1954. On the other hand, Port Street BH is like being handed a blank sheet of paper (or even empty shop) and told to come up with a concept; it’s like writing: before the word there’s an empty space, it’s one’s duty/job/inclination/urge/desire to conquer that space and fill it with words. In that sense, the creators of Port Street BH are just like writers.  

And so, what am I trying to say? I visited an ale pub with some time on its hands earlier on in the evening and found it dead boring (despite a goodly number of taps) and not the sort of place I wanted to linger, I am not going to go into the details, I am sure that there are plenty of people who like it, but it was wasted on me and reminiscent of why I avoided plenty of London pubs in the 1980s. For that reason I can only applaud Port Street BH to the hilt and urge you to live for the moment and grab a beer amid the aroma of newly sanded floorboard. 


Monday, 14 March 2011

St Austell’s CDA

Some bottles of St Austell’s Proper Black arrive in the post, for which I am very thankful. Had heard that Proper Job was going to get the Black India Pale Ale treatment so am grateful for getting the chance to try this little fella out. Just like the bottled Proper Job it’s strong, in this case 6%, so you can drink several. 

So, the naming of the beer first: Cornish Dark Ale or Black IPA? Who cares, the brewery has Black India Pale Ale on the label, but given that the idea of a BIPA seems to have been plucked out of the air back in the 1990s by Greg Noonan at the Vermont Brewing Company I don’t feel like getting involved in any style wars. Maybe it could be argued that this ‘style’ is similar to a saison, in that it’s a beer upon whose palette the brewer goes for whatever colour he likes (and after all, when brewing the dark saison with Otley recently we drank several Steel City Black IPAs the other night to work out how to get the dark colour without turning it into a stout). A moveable feast, perhaps? 

First thoughts though: toffee on nose, followed by a sherbet-like spritziness; old fashioned memories of sweetshops (and you don’t have to be an ancient to appreciate what I mean, there are plenty of themed museums that feature old style sweetshops these days): Everton mints, humbugs. There’s also a light hint of liquorice, plus pineapple or maybe pineapple-flavoured boiled sweets. Plus that nice blast you get when put place your nose in a hop sack at a brewery (and I appreciate that not everyone has done that but on the other hand a lot more beer fans have than haven’t I would warrant a guess, so hop sack stands). 

On the palate: there’s a fruity toffee character almost, alongside a subtle roast bite, some coffee beans, giving me a bit of an espresso hit without the jangled nerves; the bitter finish goes on and on, an elongated spiral of throat drying bitterness. There’s also a delicious citrus orange juiciness moping about on the palate as well. BIPA or CDA? I don’t know, but on the other hand, let’s say that this is a well-made and particularly pleasing beer with a Bach-like counterpoint between its restrained roastiness and funky citric fruitiness. Ok?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Otley Otley Otley. Oi Oi Oi.

Couple of weeks ago, I fetched up in Pontypool Pontypridd, at the Otley Brewery to try the dark saison I helped to brew a few weeks before. It really met my expectations — a flinty, lemony nose, sweetshop lemons even with a trend towards sherbert; sharp, bittersharp and snappy on the palate, some orange peel, and a black pepper catch at the back of the throat. I loved it and I felt myself and brewer Matt had created a little bit of Wallonia in Wales. We also tried four different bottled versions that had been dried hopped: the citra gave it a pungent lemony nose, it was a bit too sweaty, sort of changing room after a few games of squash; the soriachi ace didn’t work either; hallertau gave it a Pils-like nose and it was dry on the palate with a slight pepperiness on the finish; while Columbus muted the beer. Just a little experiment but good fun all the same. The beer, which still hasn’t a name (I like Saison Obscura), will be launched in London on March 25 when Nick Otley and myself will be hitting the bars where the beer is on sale and talking about it and tasting it with anyone who’s interested — naturally we will be tweeting and blogging our way around so you can find out where we’ll be. So far we have the Rake, Southampton Arms, White Horse and Cask involved — it should be fun. Oh and while I’m on the subject of Otley my review of their marvelous Bunch of Grapes is in today’s DT and you can read it here.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Don’t forget the honey (or how nice is my Bracia)

Had Thornbridge’s Bracia at the British Guild of Beer Writers dinner a couple of years ago. I felt it was the best beer on the table, but hadn’t had any since. And now I make its re-acquaintance and I just had to wax lyrical about it. Soothing, smoothing, creamy, rustically roasty, burnt and burnished are the words that flash onto the screen of my mind. And look at it: beneath its crown of espresso white foam, it is the darkest beer I have seen for a long time. It’s a big beer as well, a big slab of a beer. Coffee beans, chocolate, almond paste, alcohol, fiery bitterness with a tongue-tingling bite on the end of the palate; but I also think sambuca, chocolate coated coffee beans, honey — the bitter bite of chestnut honey. The chestnut honey adds a herbal-like sweetness to the beer, a breakfast honey coated toast character. This is a beer that really stands up and declares itself — it is impeccably made, an imperial stout porter style with honey adding a restrained sweetness to things. It’s the beer world’s equivalent of a sauternes albeit with hops and roast barley; it’s a sumptuous coffee cup of a beer, a dessert beer, a beer that I reckon would man up to a creamy, salty, stinky, sloppy blue cheese that oozes across the plate like an oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Or maybe, more prosaically, even link arms with a dish of baklava and serenade the palate with a sweet song of reflection; it’s a beer that demands of me study and contemplation for its liqueur-like qualities. Stunning. I think I like it.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Brains Black, navvy boots and post-industrialism

‘You’d drink beer out of a navvy’s boot, you would.’ Said elegantly though with a bitter bite, it seems to me. A man with a neat beard, eyes half-focused, laughs as he passes over a pint. A pint, a glass, a draught, of Brains Black, passed over, into my hands, via the hands of Wilco the beer cupboard and shed guru. Around the murmur of the crowd, the background mood music of cocktail jazz. A year on from inception it’s a birthday party for Brain’s Black, a Welsh stout that can more than hold its own against another popular brand that I usually have a pint of Sunday lunchtime at whatever rugby club my son is playing at. This is my first time and it’s rather a luscious drop. Bible black (I had to say that, though I’ve left out heron priested shore), creamy, espresso foam atop, smooth mocha character, easy drinking, keg (and so what — Brains, where were you at the SIBA craft keg comp a fortnight or so ago?). So here we are, upstairs at the Yard, the former home of Brains, St David’s night and all that, in a slick re-imagining of the post-industrial age with the innards of the former brewery on show alongside a scatter of ironic flourishes (video of a log fire anyone?). A slick modern space but another direction that the pub has to take to get people through its doors, a bit like Brains Black really, another way to get people into drinking great beer, whether keg or cask (and there’s plenty of that especially as Brains Dark is one of my favourite milds). As for the navvy’s boots, I shall labour in vain to find one, but much as I hate to say it: we’re in a post-industrial age.