Thursday, 24 November 2011

What on earth is an Abbey Ale?


The Val De Sambre Brewery in Wallonia, whose tripel
on the sunny morning I visited in 2005 was rather gorgeous

What on God’s fairly decent earth is an Abbey Ale? I only ask as I am currently involved in revising the style guidelines for a major beer competition. And given the flux in which beer styles are involved — or maybe the stasis that they are fixed in — I think it’s a fairly decent question to be asked.

Abbey Ale? Leffe obviously, in the same way as we think of Guinness as an Irish Dry Stout or maybe Stella Artois as a, er, um, I don’t know…continental lager, macro lager, generic lager? Leffe is a beer, an Abbey Ale, sorry, that I was introduced to in the late 1980s and I rather enjoyed. Probably lapped up the candi sugar sweetness and the fat and flabby character of the alcohol (rather like a gut hanging above the belt as anything over 6% in those days was seen as rather risqué), and possibly the herbal flintiness and a sense that this beer might rather enjoy canoodling up to the pork steak and cream sauce that my mate reckoned was the bees knees in Brussels at the time. I also always enjoyed the Leffe Tripel whenever on holiday down in the southwest of France; there was a sense of the sweetness being held back, almost a very enjoyable dry chalkiness on the palate that made it a wow with fried chicken.

But then I have tried Leffe in the past couple of years and it’s reminded me of a childhood sweet that we used to call a Spangle — sweet, sweetingly sweet, yes the fatness of the alcohol is there, but there is a medicinal tang that I associate with the smell of one of the sprays that my rugby-playing teenage son dons before a match. It’s also a brittle sugar candy, seaside rock sort of nose, herbal I suppose, but not that pleasant. A default beer perhaps, like Staropramen (of which I had a half last night that reminded me of cider) or Guinness (here’s an interesting question — would I ever consider John Smith smoothflow as a default beer, of course not, I like beer but there are limits, it’s a bit like meat, I avoid McDonalds like the plague).

So I get back to the original question: what is an Abbey Ale? Is there such a thing? Trappist is an appellation — it covers dubbel and tripel and very strong dark beer. Abbey? It seems to be 5-6% (but then looking back at my notes I find Silly Brewery making a 9.5% one), sweetish, gold in colour with reddish hints, but then it could be a brighter gold or a darker gold. In one French brewery I was given one with rice in the mix, which gave it an almost ethereal lightness of touch, which didn’t work for me. So is it a marketing device? On the label the picture of a fat cheery monk or a sombre looking abbey and the promise of heaven in a bottle seems to be a popular device. Marketing then. That’s the way my thoughts are going. Which means that a lot of other beer styles could be seen as mere marketing devices. On the other hand, the story behind a beer is important. If you get too fundamentalist in an anti-styles fashion then we might all just live in the Repo Man universe where cans are entitled meat, fish, whatever: minimal and monochrome.

Maybe the idea of beer styles is a sort of poetical development — a need to categorise, like the need to paint or write in different ways and then codify it. And yet having said all this, I’m still not sure what an Abbey Ale is. Is there such a creature?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A pub is a pub is a pub


A pub is a pub is a pub. In the cellar bar I go, in the area around Prague Castle where tourists refugee themselves about during the day, but when the light went on Monday night and the mist came down like the proverbial wolf on a flock of sheep, it became quiet and mysterious. Magical Prague, footsteps on the cobbles, a shadow hurrying by on the other side of the street, the watery yellow light of a bar or a hotel. And so I came to U Hrocha — in English the Hippo. A cellar bar, or if you want a man cave with honorary women, smoke everywhere, the robust cuisine of Czech food (six men stabbing away at a big platter of pork in the centre of their table). Beer? PU on tap. Décor? Nicotine yellow paint, arched ceiling, stone. This is the pub as a hideaway or if you want a concert hall with the noise of people (men with the honorary women) enjoying themselves. Walk in, there are looks and then people carry on with the business of the very opposite of sensory deprivation: chew, slap, slash, eat, the men are eating, the women are eating, Svejk is eating. Beer in the glass, a glass full of beer, snow white soft foam on the top of the glass. Drink. A pub is a pub is a pub.  

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Camden Town Brewery


A scrap of paper in my hand is all I have as a memento of my visit to the Camden Town Brewery — and the significance of this scrap of paper is? I haven’t returned from somewhere promising peace in our time or waved it at the crowds waiting for me in Croydon airport (as was). On the other hand it has a small quorum of words that I jotted down as I went round Camden Town Brewery today, where the British Guild of Beer Writers held their committee meeting (committee man Mark Dredge also works here hence the invitation). A brief collection of scribbles, blue Biro ink, seasick in their rhythm. RAILWAY ARCHES (though I don’t normally  write in capitals, this is just for effect) — the first two words stretch themselves languorously like cats getting ready to move to another side of the sofa. Railway arches. There are five railway arches in which the brewery is located — glass, protractor shaped, a mirror image of the brick arch, stretches over the front of the brewery, while above in the station (Kentish Town West and overground, the idea of which seemed to bamboozle at least one committee member) the sounds from the trains are gentler and more restrained than you would expect if the brewery was further along the line. Light is let in rather than expelled, all the better to appreciate the gathering of stainless steel equipment in the space beneath the arches. The lager — halfway house between Helles and Pilsner we are told — has the clarity of gin, though is obviously of a different colour. Ooh look there’s a bitter lemon note on the nose, while the palate sways sexily beneath its bittersweet character. I like the characteristically Munchen bitter finish. Gorgeous and this is a beer that emerges into the world, heavy lidded and sultry with sleep after 28 days in the tank. As the meeting progresses, Mark tops up our glasses. The Wheat Beer is a sensation — banana custard, softness, friendliness, fatness from 5% alcohol, no cloves, but it’s definitely bring your dirndl time. Next up the stout, nitrogen giving it an espresso coloured head of foam; mellow roastiness, toast in the afternoon perhaps, milky mocha coffee, while there’s a controlled hint of herbal inspired sourness that emboldens the taste buds to bow down before this grand design. Finally, try the Pale Ale, which is immeasurably miles better than I have had before — almost carrying an erotic charge that only a whiff of the hopsack can give. Oh and we tasted a wit straight from the tank, which had been infused with lemons baked with bergamot oil. I’m in Bruges I sang, much to the consternation of other committee members, but they know what I meant. And you will do when it gets released.
NB I love the fact that there is a brewery in Camden Town. It is a special place for me. I worked there through the 1990s, drank there through the 1980s, saw the Clash for the fourth and final time at the Electric Ballroom, interviewed Alex Cox in an office above the cinema that used to be opposite the tube, drank with Shane McGowan in the Goth pub at the back of Sainsbury’s and tried to prise some quotes from him (without much success) and most importantly of all had my first date with the woman who became my wife in Bar Gansa just off the High Street. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Liverpool Arms Conwy


You know when you’ve ignored a pub for years and then on a whim decide to go in and then you think: what have I been missing? That’s what happened to me recently on a visit to the Liverpool Arms in Conwy. It stands on the quay, several houses down from the Smallest House in Wales, compact, next to the town walls, a fixture of Conwy that I last went in with friends on a summer’s evening some 25 years ago. I’ve just ignored it. And then I was in Conwy on the occasion of the food festival the Conwy Feast (after buying lots of food I made a beeline for the beer tent run by local breweries Purple Moose, Great Orme, Nant and Conwy Brewery, whose California was truly excellent) and I remember that the former Bass head brewer Arthur Seddon told me the Draught Bass in the Arms was pretty good. So I went in. Inside: bare stone, dark black beams, red tiled floor and a small bar in a corner. Two cask beers: Draught Bass and Brains SA. There was a weather beaten sense to the interior and naturally there was plenty of nautical memorabilia. It was dark and comfortable and the sort of place where you could imagine coal fires in the winter when the tourists no longer come. The Draught Bass had a formidable Burton Snatch on the nose and danced its way down my throat. Even though the quay was heaving with people who didn’t seem to have a very good idea of navigation, this felt very much like a locals pub. I felt a sense of settling into the landscape, of slipping into the shadows of pub life, watching people come and go (some woman from Lancashire — or was it Cheshire? — moaning about something or other, a Jackdaw perusing his paper) and enjoying my beer before it was time to go out amongst the people once more. And then later on in the beer tent I meet up with an old mate with whom I used to work on the deckchairs on Llandudno prom — ‘the Liverpool? Great pub, I go there with my dad at least once a week.’ What have I been missing? 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Beers I have been recently sent


Beer, I get sent to me, for consideration, or sometimes if I can’t get to try the beer for a feature, I ask the brewery if they could send me a sample. I trust the brewery; the beer, 90% of the time, is delightful — I’m certainly not a guy who likes every beer. But the result of this is that I have a swathe of tasting notes that I feel I should share, they’re not all in features or books and sometimes they’re so good or intriguing that I would like to share them, hence this post. So bear with me on this.

Dark gold in colour; on the nose a ripe peach skin that has been sitting in the sun for too long; it reminds me of some of the erotic charge that the hop sack brings; there’s also a hint of the snappiness of green apple plus the soft sensual felt-like texture of honey. On the palate there’s honeyed peach skin, a softness of fruitiness (papaya, some lychee and orange skin where the thumb has made the spray come out) and a floral honeyed note that makes me think of honey slathered on fresh white bread — a breakfast beer then. It’s a ripe and voluptuous beer, expressive, yearning, a minor key in a chorus, but then the finish adds a sense of bitter betrayal, crisp, dry, chewy before the fruit and honey returns to take a more mellow bow.

Scrounged a couple of bottles of this from Zak Avery. The nose was sherbet–like (it reminds me of a fascination I have always had with the Arabian sherbet, a soft drink I suspect I would enjoy) with a spray of grapefruit pith; sweet lemon without sweetness. It’s a big beer when taken from the glass — dry lemon, dusty grapefruit, a lack in sweetness, almost medicinal, an expression of the Saaz — it also made me wonder about imperial Pilsner, whether they are experiments or gimmicks or an organic expansion of the genre (see a comment from Doug Odell about his sour Pilsner here). There’s a big lemon sourness that is different from the flinty lemon sourness you would get in a saison. I was not entirely sure about the beer — I don’t know that the use of shedloads of Saaz works. Maybe an imperial Pilsner is an angel with a dirty face.

Don’t know much about these guys, they’re trying to establish themselves in the UK, and in my limited knowledge of where they are — Delaware — I assume that the Alt style of this beer is quite a common thing (vague memories of 1001 Beers’ beers from this part of the world intrude). Unlike Cyrano the nose is not big but there is a spicy pepperiness on the palate, plus a hint of green apple, some crisp ryebread, and the feel of an oily texture. For me this is a typical American interpretation of an Altbier though I think Otter Creek’s is one of the best (that is called Copper Ale, who got there first I wonder?). There is a dry, crisp, cereal-like chewy finish. It’s both chewy and refreshing, sweetish but also with a hint of white pepper; fruit pastilles perhaps in the background; digestive biscuit with a dusting of chocolate. There is also a traditional American hop — which delivers some grapefruit notes. I like this one a lot. Toffee notes came along cap in hand as it warmed up.

First thoughts: this beer owes more to Bavaria than Bohemia, with its snappy bitterness and lacking that voluptuousness that I would expect from a 12˚ Svetly Lezak — a crisp bitter lemon-tinged carbonation but again that high bitter note. It tingles away on the palate, rings away, like a tram clanging its way through some central European city. The carbonation offers a delightful bite of refreshment, a gorgeously crisp and appetizingly bitter mouthfeel that I want to experience more of — I had mine with freshly made spring rolls where the carbonation briefly swabbed the decks of the palate clean allowing the refreshment of the beer to emerge, five spice powder and chilli and all, before the spring rolls asserted their spiciness. It cut through the grease, faced up to the spice, but allowed the spice to have its own moment in the spotlight (I don’t want the chilli to vanish, I wanted chilli to have its own identity, but I didn’t want my mouth to become a gastronomic battle of Stalingrad). On its own, a superb riff on a Bavarian but also a cool fit with a vegetable spring and chilli.