Thursday, 29 March 2012

Rye mild west at Arbor Ales

If the song remains the same then you’re listening to the same song all the time, but if the beer remains the same then the beer remains the same. Sameness and variety both have their uses within the frenetic and febrile world of beer — sometimes I would like more of the same but at other times (and I must admit that this happens more and more) I want something different. This is the something that Arbor Ales (along with many others of its ilk) have cottoned onto. On the day that I arrive at the brewery in Bristol, the sun is shining, as if to bless the day’s endeavours. I’m there to brew a beer, once more into the mash tun in the name of creativity (as well as beery ego let’s be honest — Pete Brown has written elsewhere about how brewing a beer with a friendly brewery is akin to a rock journalist getting on stage with their favourite band, and why not?). 

The idea emerged a couple of months ago when I met Arbor’s Jon Comer for several beers at the brewery’s Three Tuns in the Hotwells area of Bristol. And the beer we were brewing? I had long harboured the desire to produce a rye mild, something that would make use of this most excellent grain (I used to enjoy O’Hanlon’s rye beer as well as Rye (I)PAs from Founder’s, Terrapin and Bear Republic). I envisaged a low-gravity beer with plenty of body and just to make it interesting have it dry hopped with Tettnang hops. 

For the record 50% of the base malt was mild malt, 25% rye malt and the rest Munich malt; then we added some crystal rye, oats and caramalt. Tettnang Hersbrucker was chucked in at several stages and I think we boiled for about an hour. The abv will be about 3.7% and Jon’s initial tastings suggest a big malty presence. I tasted the hopped wort after it had been chilled and I hope that the spiciness of the rye will still make itself felt. I’m looking forward to seeing what the dry-hopping will do. It will be available soon so I’d welcome comments on it.

But then is it a mild? If you want to know what I think here is something I wrote for a Beer magazine debate a couple of years ago, which I suspect started my thought process that would lead to Arbor Ales’ Ryeteous Ale, as we have decided to call it.

Are milds really milds these days?

Sitting at a table judging a selection of milds at SIBA’s National Awards earlier this year, one question kept cropping up — ‘is this to style?’ We had creamy milds, slightly hoppy ones, sweetish ones, grainy dry ones and ones with plain chocolate on the palate and nose. One had a hint of white pepper on the nose. Is this so bad?

A recent What’s Brewing correspondent claimed that the current Champion Beer of Britain was not a mild because it was too hoppy. I would disagree. In the shifting ever-restless world of beer styles nothing remains exactly the same and nor should it. And while we should respect that mild has its perimeters, maybe it’s time to recognise that they are seemingly wider than we thought, thus allowing brewers to make their own mark.

If we didn’t favour such a promiscuous attitude towards beer styles then we wouldn’t have the current crop of IPAs (go back 30 years and apart from White Shield anything with the word IPA would have been as weak as, er, a mild). Furthermore, we wouldn’t have, for better or worse, golden ales, double IPAs, chilli stouts and coffee porters.

A style category for mild is imperative (as for dropping the name from the brand that’s a different mash tun of amber malt), but it shouldn’t be based on what it was like in the ‘good old days’. A beer style is there as a starting point for innovation and experimentation — you have to learn what something is before disassembling it. Even Tracey Emin probably got an O-Level in art before she started rearranging beds.

Beers change, beers develop. All beer styles in their way should be moveable feasts (though maybe not as crazily amorphous as saison). And if this broad new meaning of mild brings new drinkers to the category then all the better — now where’s that glass of triple hopped, double fermented, black pepper spiced mild?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

I don’t like curry or lager

I’ve written about this before. Those people who say: ‘I don’t like lager.’ What sort of lagered beer you ask, don’t they like? Bock, dunkel, keller, rauch, helles, Pilsener, tmavy lezak and so on. Having just finished reading Lizzie Collingham’s Curry (instead of being paid for my OCB articles on hop varieties I asked for a selection of OUP books and this was one), I am struck by the similarities of the lager-loather with the curry-phobe. ‘I don’t like curry.’ Well what sort of curry don’t you like? A korma, a dopiaza, a bhuna, etc etc. You get my drift. You might have made this connection as soon as you drank a glass of Arctic-cold, tongue-piercingly carbonated ‘lager’ produced in an industrial estate with your dish of Anglo-friendly madras or vindaloo (Portuguese in origin by the way) so apologies for stating the bleeding obvious. On the other hand the bastardisation of what it means to be lager or curry demonstrates the way this country gobbles up food and drink styles, chucks out the subtleties and the complexities and serves up a one-dimensional, infantile palate pleasing version that won’t frighten the locals. And with that in mind, thank god that the American-influenced beers are being produced by smaller artisanal breweries — I shudder to think what a Double IPA from Magor would taste and sound like.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Bristol beer

Last month I wrote a piece on the Bristol beer scene for the Western Daily Press, which was printed at the start of the month. As far as I can see it’s not online so I thought I would post the article as I filed it to the newspaper (don’t think it was changed much), mainly because I think there’s a lot of good stuff happening out there at the moment and — personally — I’m off to Arbor Ales to brew on Friday, a rye mild dry hopped with Tettnang with possibly some Golden Naked Oats in the mix…

Milk stout is the beer style that time forgot. Think about that bottle of Mackeson tucked away on the lower shelf in the pub, usually in the company of the equally obscure Gold Label Barley Wine. Mackeson is seen as a beer for the elderly, a nostalgic beer (‘by golly it’s good for you,’ said actor Bernard Miles in a 1960s TV advert), utterly forgotten. Or is it?

Back in 2006, Bristol Beer Factory had other ideas when they released their Milk Stout in time for the Bristol Beer Festival. They were obviously doing something right as the 4.5% newcomer went on to win beer of the festival. This creamy dark delight is now a regular in their portfolio.

‘We found out that the Ashton Gate Brewery produced a milk stout at the beginning of the 1900s,’ says Bristol Beer Factory’s Managing Director Simon Bartlett. ‘When Georges took over the brewery the Milk Stout was one of the beers, possibly the only one, that they kept brewing. We thought it would be a great idea to revive the style.’

Even though most would argue that Bristol is first and foremost a cider city (recall the furore over Blackthorn’s recipe change in 2009?), it also has a formidable brewing heritage. In the late 18th century, Georges was sending porter to Ireland and over the next 150 years became a major regional force as it devoured the city’s breweries. This included Ashton Gate in the 1930s, and as fate would have it Bristol Beer Factory is based in the brewery’s former fermentation block. Georges were then bought out by Courage who themselves left the city at the start of the 21st century.

There was plenty of other brewing action. The real ale revolution of the 1970s saw the creation of Smiles and Butcombe, while in the 1990s Bath Ales (paradoxically located in Bristol) brought their own sense of beer style and pubs to the city. The city of Bath got in on the action in 1997 with Abbey Ales.

Now there’s another wave with Bristol Beer Factory, Arbor Ales and brewpub Zero Degrees leading the charge, (while Ashley Down Brewery came into being last year). Over in Bath, Abbey Ales continue to rule the roost, while surrounding areas harbour Great Western, Cheddar and Dawkins. Local beer and brewing is on a roll.

There is a wonderful diversity of beers being produced. Zero Degrees is a brewpub in the American model — stainless steel aesthetics, brewing kit on show and great modish food including fantastic pizzas. The beers include a dark lager, a well hopped Pale Ale and a Bavarian wheat beer amongst others.

Bristol Beer Factory and Arbor also look westwards for their inspiration, towards the American craft beer brewing revolution, which has influenced beer lovers in the UK and throughout the world. For a start this influence means lot more hops. It also brings experiments — beer aged in whisky casks or beer with various fruits added.

This influence was notably seen last year when Bristol Beer Factory produced the ‘12 stouts of Christmas’. This include a variety of themes on the ubiquitous dark beer — a couple were matured in whisky casks; another was infused with raspberry, while the chilli chocolate stout was a luscious success.

According to the brewery’s Business Development Manager Andrew Cooper, the 12 Stouts of Christmas was one of the reasons the company won ‘Best Drinks Producer’ in the BBC Food and Farming Awards. ‘They said that they loved the idea, but also our involvement in the local community and the sense of looking forward and our attempts to grow the beer scene in Bristol.’

Arbor Ales opened in 2007 after network engineer Jon Comer took redundancy and decided to make something of his home brew habit. ‘I was commuting to Reading and had had enough,’ he tells me as we sit in Arbor’s Three Tuns in the Hotwells area.

‘The idea to start the brewery was born in the Hobgoblin pub in Reading, which a good friend of mine was running at the time. I'd taken a small barrel of my beer down for him and it ended being served up to the pub regulars. The beer disappeared in no time followed by plenty of calls to quit the day job.’

He was originally based in a Bristol pub but the brewery has recently moved to an industrial estate in the Lawrence Hill area. Jon does the majority of the brewing, while brother-in-law Namaya Reynolds looks after the pub side of things (Arbor also own the Old Stillage in Redfield).

‘My brewing philosophy is simple,’ says Comer in between sips of his nutty Mild West. ‘We brew beers we like drinking ourselves. I never look at the price of anything that goes into the beer until after I've made it and need to work out how much to charge for it. The main aim is to keep things interesting, both the beers themselves and the work involved in making them. I'd get bored to death making the same copper coloured beer week in week out.’

Some of the experiments have included a 500-minute IPA, where hops were added to the boil over eight hours and 20 minutes, which Comer says was ‘pretty exhausting’. There is also the so-called Freestyle Friday. ‘This is when we rock up at the brewery and ask ourselves what we are going to brew.’

With all these breweries chasing a tough market you would think that they would be at each others throats. It’s a fact of business life that beers have to be sold, but there is also a sense of community, which manifests itself in so called collaboration brews.

Last year, Arbor, Bath, Bristol Beer Factory and Zero Degrees collaborated on a strong Belgian style Tripel. It was well received. This year, the four of them are joined by Weston Super Mare’s RCH — at the time of writing there are rumours of an American-style Double IPA, once again for the Bristol Beer Festival in March. (They subsequently produced a stout)

‘Mostly it's just for a bit of fun,’ says Comer. ‘But it’s also an opportunity to learn a few tricks from each other. The big collaboration we're doing with all the other Bristol breweries is something a bit different as there are so many involved. The aim here is to showcase the Bristol brewing scene and draw some attention to the great beers that are being produced here.’

And what about Bath Ales, those relative veterans of the brewing scene? They have not been sitting still. They recently opened Beerd in Cotham, a modern beer bar serving a mixture of real ale and keg draft beer from around the world. The focus is on good beer whether real ale or keg, though forget about Watney’s Red Barrel making a comeback. The keg beers of today are flavoursome stouts, IPAs and lagers.

‘We do three keg beers and we are currently experimenting with a wheat beer and a non matured lager style,’ says Bath Ales Managing Director Roger Jones. ‘The decision is dictated by the saturation of cask beers and the demands of more experimental younger beer drinkers.’

These are exciting times in beer and Bristol is riding this wave. It’s a city that has not always been that well known for beer with Smiles Best, Courage Best and flat Draught Bass (as served in the Star in Bath) being particular favourites. No one is taking anything for granted.

‘There is still a perception in Bristol that beer is yellow, cold and fizzy, or brown, warm and flat,’ says Jon Comer. ‘A lot of education is needed and it is a battle we will continue to fight. I’m pretty sure we won’t win the cider battle but we will win the ‘beer education’ battle’.

Five of the best
Arbor Ales Breakfast Stout, 7.4% — As dark as a moonless night with a creamy, mocha-like character on the palate. Has real coffee beans and chocolate in the mix.
Bristol Beer Factory Southville Hop, 6.5% — Dark gold with ripe peach skin and grapefruit on the nose; a big blast of tropical fruit and citrus on the palate precedes a lingering bitter finish.
Zero Degrees Pale Ale 4.6% — Aromatic, lychee like in its fruitiness alongside a juicy malt character. A fabulous thirst-quencher or drink with one of Zero Degrees’ excellent pizzas.
Bristol Beer Factory Raspberry Stout 7.7 % — Sticky black molasses on the palate are counterbalanced by a juicy raspberry fruitiness; there’s also a tartness that works very well with the earthy sticky sweetness of the strong stout.
Bath Ales Dark Side 4% (on keg) — Think roast coffee beans with hints of chocolate on the nose, while the creamy palate also has a bittersweet character edging towards mocha and chocolate.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Albion Conwy

The guys are in their red rugby shirts and singing Sospan Fach and Hymns and Arias, and me and my mate and brother want to join in because we know the songs from school but we’re unsure about our Welsh, but I also want to chat (I am a stranger to the pub, even though I have strong local credentials). I ask the barman: have we won a Grand Slam or something? But this is not about the match, glorious as it was, it is about the Albion in Conwy, a pub whose decor is unique. Why? It is one of the most unspoilt pubs in Wales and was recently taken under the collective wing of four local breweries: Conwy, Purple Moose, Bragdy’r Nant and Great Orme. Collaboration. And whisper it gently but this is also a craft beer bar — there are beers from the quartet of local pubs, plus a couple of guests and Freedom dark lagers. The architecture is superb, pre 1914 with a gratifying sense of the homeliness of a great pub. It’s craft in the sense of how we used to know craft, in that people have shaped its environment, have laid claim to its environment, are part of its environment, are creating the environment — it’s organic in that sense and as one local said to me: ‘it was crap before but now it is part of Conwy and I, for one, are so loving that Freedom Stout.’ I will be back there in the autumn. 

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Kreft beer

The debates that surround beer are pretty lightweight in the context of the world. Craft or kreft? A pint or a half of even a third? In the latest issue of the brilliant Beer, two chaps debate the pint versus the two/thirds — lads I couldn’t give a monkeys, my engine remains cold: I want a pint of Otter Head but would rather a glass of Duchesse de Bourgoyne, what’s the problem? In the Guardian a few weeks ago the saintly Ben McFarland told us it was time to ditch the pint glass. Why? Yes, good glasses look good but surely it’s up to the drinker if he wants a half or a pint of Anchor Porter or 6X?  Let’s have a choice. On this occasion I suspect the hand of a commissioning editor looking for a fire in an abandoned tenement building that he can call the end of civilisation? Or maybe it’s the wine drinkers of beer drinkers’ demon lore that have taken fright? Or maybe it’s just the cultural cringe of this country? Or maybe it’s a quiet news day in the saintly kingdom of N1? 
What is it about British (I ask myself if it is English but really think it’s anyone in the English-speaking isles off Europe) cultural mores that throw out this you’re-either-with-us-or-not argument that for me chucks a dead diseased camel down the wells of debate. Chill. But then beer is relatively uncontroversial and worth a few slaps around the rhetorical face: imagine the debate around more weightier subjects: capital punishment or not, gallows or guillotine, sharia or chocolate? 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Things I like about Belgium

I spent most of last week in Ghent researching a gastronomic travel feature that included a visit to Gruut (love the fabulous Brune), various restaurants, churches, bars, sweetshops and a ‘nibbling’ tour, but here are five things that make me love Belgium so much
  • In the Belga Queen, after I have finished my glass of Boon Kriek (memorably matched with cured trout and a blue cheese sauce), the waiter asks if I would like a glass of draught Rodenbach because it comes from his home town. ‘It would make me very happy if you had one.’ And it made me very happy and went well with the shrimp croquettes, while the Boon Mariage Parfait was a dream on the right side of the bed with the Charolais tartare.
  • Then there are the two middle aged women in the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi where I go for a restorative lemongrass soup — one is drinking Westmalle Tripel and the other is drinking Orval. No big deal, no need to go on about women and beer, it’s a given — where did we go wrong in this country?
  • Then there is the guide who takes me on a gastronomic tour around old Ghent on Tuesday morning and tells me how her grandmother is a big lover of Westvleteren and that she uses two cars (and two separate license plates) so that she can get two cases of beer when they are available; about how her dad comes from Poperinge and likes Hommel and about how her mother loves Westmalle Tripel and might have had one not long after she was born (the guide that is). At 11am, after we have visited a butcher and a cheesemaker and she says how about a beer…
  • When I arrive at my hotel, the manager is having a drink which is Chimay Bleu, I don’t see many hotel types in this country doing that (oh and isn’t having a coke with a meal a sort of infantile breast-sucking gestural reaction — I noticed a couple of English-speaking corporate types doing it).
  • A man and his marital problems and his lovely dog buys me three Rochefort 10s in the pub and that is what pubs/bars/whatever are about — stories, beer and instant friends. 
Oh and on the way home at the Raven in Bath, the landlord goes around offering a meat pie free because an order was mucked up. Art Brew’s Monkey IPA is a decent English-style IPA as well. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

Courage Imperial Russian Stout

I want to go camping with this beer. It’s like the camp fire when the wind blows the smoke in your direction as you sink into that Moby Dick sense of noble aristocratic monstrousness that greets you with the great outdoors. There it is: burnt toffee, the sense of the outdoor and old climbing boots, crabbed and fossilised in the doorway of a mountaineering pub; the security of dark malty flavours, your mother holding you close, the security of childhood about to be smashed with the violence of a Joe Orton play: the woody stick sniff of the first camp out, the grownupness of burnt currants, the espresso I’m-an-an-actor of foam on the top of the glass, the complete Crackerjack (it’s Friday!) of surprise that this beer, two months old in my cellar, has brought. This is the beer that should show you up to your bed, before the ladies retire, before I turn in forever, a rat-a-tat of coffee beans, dark chocolate, vanilla pods, charred oak, mocha ice cream, burnt toast, creme brulee and an earthiness that was so ferocious I had to stop our terrier going to ground. Simply said this is one of the best beers have ever had in my rather short life (Is it artisanal? For once I don’t care). Over and out. 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

St David’s Day celebrated in beer

As it’s St David’s Day and I’m Welsh I thought I would eat a metaphorical raw leek and throw a casual American-style salute to five current favourite Welsh beers. First up would be Otley O8, a lush bomber of a beer which offers banana and even banoffee notes on the nose, while the character that chimes on the palate is chardonnay-like, fat and plush, though thankfully lacking the soaked oaked character that drenches and drowns the chardonnay of today’s Poundland wine culture. Breakfast grapefruit adds to the zest with a rich, luscious finish that makes me want to join the Men of Harlech in defending Rourke’s Drift. Of course, there’s also Saison Obscura and I really would love to try Odessa, but one mustn’t be greedy. 

Last week I went to a Brains beer and food dinner in London, with a menu devised by Melissa Cole, who also managed to coral three former rugby players (Tom Shanklin, Rob Jones and some English bloke, Jonathan Webb) onto stage for a bit of an after-dinner do. For me the stand-out food and beer match of the evening was Milkwood with a ham hock terrine — the creamy, aromatic beer (which has rye crystal and Golden Naked rolled oats in the mash) wrapped itself around the saltiness of the terrine and acted as a platform levering the flavours to a higher level. However, delicious as it is, my current favourite amongst the Brains oeuvre is their Dark, which always makes me think that Santa’s just fallen down the chimney leaving a cloud of soot everywhere — along with creamy chocolate and coffee beans coated in dustings of milk chocolate; a truly magnificent beer. I do enjoy a few jars of Brains Black as well. Looking forward to see what their micro plant will come up with. 
When I grew up in North Wales, the local beer was Wrexham Lager, which I would have with a dash of lemonade before moving onto Stones Keg (with a dash of lemonade) or even some cocncotion from Ansells (with a dash of lemonade). Now, there seem to be breweries all over the place with four of them within half an hour’s drive of my mum’s place. Purple Moose are resolutely old school, producing a fabulous selection of bitters: strong, golden, best and light.I do like Dark Side of the Moose, but for that favourite beer moment I recall a glass of Glaslyn at the Albion in Conwy (recently reopened with the aid of Conwy, Purple Moose, Great Orme and Nant breweries) — a blast of tropical fruit and resiny hop on the palate underlined by a base of grainy, biscuity malt, while a great bitter finish rolled around the back of the throat, a voice echoing in a cave, where perhaps Arthur and his knights still sleep. 
Great Orme and Conwy make brilliant beers, with Telford Porter and Welsh Black amongst those I would happily spend an evening getting to know, but it’s Mwnci Nell from one of the newer North Walian breweries Bragdy Nant that currently I would place as my rhif pedwar beer. It’s a strong-armed, hefty big hitter of a dark bitter that drinks far too easy for its 5.5% strength (some would call it a porter but I’m not bothered as it is delicious). 
And as I write all this I realise how unfair and childish the whole list thing is, so for the final beer I will just say a couple that I have enjoyed in the last 12 months have been Rhymney Export and Waen Porter House Blue, the latter being a porter/stout hybrid (to my palate but I am not going to split hairs about it) with a slight sweetness at the end thanks to the addition of fresh blueberries, some of which are added to the mash and others at the end of the boil. I thought it fabulous served alongside a chocolate fondant with bucks fizz ice cream, which was part of a beer and food matching dinner Mark Dredge and I did at Kilverts last year. So plenty to think and drink about (and I’ve not started on my favourite Welsh pubs: Bunch of Grapes, City Arms, Penrhyn Arms, Kilverts, Pen-y-Gwryd for starters) — Dydd Dewi Sant hapus i pawb.