Friday, 28 September 2012

Who wants a unified theory of beer?

Years ago I used to earn a few quid (a very few quid) by proof-reading book manuscripts from an esoteric publishing house in Dorset. One of the books I seem to remember posited a grand unified theory of everything that not only brought in science but also spirituality and otherworldy happenings. Apparently this was a bit of a Holy Grail in the New Age community — sort of like Stephen Hawkings and ghost stories and levitation all in one. 

When I hear figures high up in the beer marketing industry talk in similarly swivel eyed evangelic tones, I guess I am hearing pleas for a unified theory of beer — it’s all beer and we must support it all to beat off the big bad wolf of tax, neo-prohibitionists, wine drinkers and the nanny state. There is no such thing as bad beer. I beg to differ. Yes there is and it’s not just those beers with sweetcorn on the nose. There are cask beers I regard as poor, while some craft keg can come across as chilled hop juice. However, bad beer or not it’s up to people to make their choice. I won’t be looking in through the windows of their homes and pulling a face at them. 

The upcoming Independent Manchester Beer Convention is one of the most exciting beer events for ages (and sadly I cannot make it). However, looking at the beer list, if it were embracing a unified theory of beer, the convention would also be selling John Smith, Carling, Newcastle Brown Ale, the usual suspects of cask beer and remaindered bottles of Animee, which it isn’t. I hope that the convention will kick off a new model of beer festival (operating in tandem with the more conventional ones), and it also has a pleasing and refreshing bias in the beers it has picked. No unified theory of beer here and rightly so.

And while I’m in beer philosophy mode, my only comment on how to define what craft beer is: it’s like defining love. You know when you’re in love, you don’t need a guide or guides to tell you so. I know that London Pride isn’t craft (which doesn’t mean it’s bad), but the Past Masters series is, while every new brewery that claims to be craft isn’t but some might just be. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

There once was a barrel

The barrel stands, a one eyed elephant god, an Oliphaunt that haunted the Hobbits so much, a sentinent god ready to surprise or is it a god long ago turned into stone, its graven image now made use of by Aylinger? Metal bands encase it and hold its spirit in, leaving it bulging at the belly; its one eye looks raw and crusty, giving me a sense of sadness; but wait there is its brassy brass font that speaks for its individuality, its specialness, but also its lonesomeness. It’s Aylinger’s Fest beer, a spicy, minerally, tangy kind of beer, handled from a wooden barrel in a place that gives me a respite from the madness of the Oktoberfest. Yes please I will have another one — and the barrel shall continue with its devotional life affirming sense of being. 

Friday, 21 September 2012


The brewkit at Minipivovar Labut 

Three brewpubs in northern Bohemia in one day and they all share something that strikes me: the use of the brewing kit as a showpiece for the drinkers and eaters. Instead of a band making a racket, there’s a copper faced stainless steel kit taking centre stage in the bar or the dining room, and when the brewer works the drinker or diner can amuse themselves by watching someone make the beer, the ancestor of which is already in their glass. At Minipivovar Labut in the beautiful town of Litoměřice, the kit is behind the bar, a silent irreproachable presence as the barman pours glasses of the two-year-old brewery’s fulsome 10˚ pale lager and its bounty of banana custard and bubblegum that is their Weiss. Onwards to the edge of town and the Hotel Koliba and Pivovarek Koliba, where the kit stands in a dining hall that has been turned into a hunting lodge where antlers and horns and stuffed game birds (as well as the odd agricultural equipment) decorate the walls as if the room was vying to be some sort of homage to St Hubertus. It’s a small kit, producing 200 litres at a time, but what brings a smile to my face is that as it stands on one side of the room, its presence reminds me of a drum kit or even a strangely perverse organ, at which the brewer/musician entertains people while they eat and drink. ‘Do people come and ask about the brewing,’ I say to the brewmaster Ondrej Klir. He nods as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. We escape this Valhalla to taste his beers in the fermenting room beneath and I find his Czech-American Pale Ale a striking mash up of bright hop notes and floral aromas and one of the better pale ales I’ve had in the current climate of Czech new wave brewing (at tomorrow’s Slunce ve Skle festival at Purkmistr in Pilsen we shall find out how far this new wave has come). And finally we end up at the town of Usti nad Labem at Na Rychte, a traditionally boisterous restaurant and brewery where the kit stands like a rock opposite the bar, a rock on which the voices of the roistering drinkers and diners crash upon like waves upon the shore. This is a 1000-litre kit on which the brewer Martina Valternova produces several excellent beers including a superb 12˚ pale lager, which is as good an expression of the Saaz hop as I have had for a long time. There’s caramel sweetness on the palate and a ringing singing tingle of bitterness and dryness wrapping up the finish. I found that it’s the perfect chaperone to a plate of roast duck, red cabbage and peculiarly cone-shape dumplings that are a speciality to the region I am told. And while we eat, the kit stands sentinel in the dark wooded beer hall ambience, ready and steady for the next brew. Ready for showtime. Who needs musicians, magicians or a comedian when you can have a brewer weaving their own particular kind of magic?  
The cones, the cones

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Racing post

Racing pub I think as soon as I enter, let’s study the Racing Times, keep an eye on the telly, Great Yarmouth, where’s that, by the sea I seem to remember; remember remember the ghost of the smoke that once drifted through the impure air, but let’s turn to the roast joint, a more amenable aroma, sitting as it does in a glass cabinet, in which it keeps warm. This pub is full of noises: the scuff of shoes on the well sanded floor, a local reading the DT and clearing his throat with a great rebel yell of impending emphysema, while others at the bar exchange confidences in the manner of a serenading Louis Armstrong. I see a picket fence of fonts for the likes of Murphy’s, Sagres, Stella, Heineken while Greene King IPA and Brakspears Bitter do the cask swing. I also see a big hunk of cheese (Cheddar yellow, a bouncy kind of cheese perhaps), tomatoes, roast spuds on a plate with roast meat. I also see: racing prints, fine art in the manner of, on the wall. I taste the Brakspears; it’s fresh and has that feral, rustic, hedgerow deep Churchillian growl of bitterness that I always associate with British hops. Meanwhile, matey by the door eats his roast and spuds and already drives his memory into the future by reminiscing about his forthcoming trip to Madeira (club sandwich and chips and a few glasses of wine and me and the missus are sorted) that kicks off tomorrow (and I’ll be in a week on Friday to tell you all about it). This is not the sort of pub in which I want to spend the rest of my life but I like its raffish, Irish, old fashioned, dig-in-the-ribs, mind-the-locals, Paddington-is-a-funny-old-place, I’m-a-security-guard-but-I-live-in-a-mews kind of character that I seem to remember in 1980s London, a time when old pubs became cocktail bars but somehow ones like this one seem to survive. Racing pubs I thought when I first entered, how wrong was I.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Beer culture

Beer culture? What is beer culture? Some might argue that it’s about the liquid in the glass and the approach that the brewer has taken and how the drinker conjoins with it. It’s perhaps about what the brewer has done within the cloisters of the workplace, the ideas that have created the beer; it’s the experiences, the memories, the everyday life, the homework and the rote learning all distilled into the brew; some brewers might be like inspired songwriters or clever wordsmiths such as Paul Heaton and others like session musicians who turn up day after day and play the same sequence of notes (not necessarily a bad thing as some of the best musicians in the world are sessioneers).

As for the drinker, is beer culture about how they approach the beer in their glass, how they have a relationship with it, how they treat the world when they think about it or drink it or place a plate of ribs in front of it or sit in an armchair closeted from the world, the glass to hand. Others might throw in the environment in which the beer is drank, the ambience of the place where the beer is enjoyed (or maybe isn’t enjoyed), the glare of the light that moonwalks across the stage of whatever drinking space in which the drinker happens to enjoy their beer.

Is it also about the words that are exchanged about the beer like tokens of affection? Or maybe, on the other hand, the words about the beer, whether in the hand or in someone else’s, are like missiles thrown at the police during an inner city riot. Beer’s like that, it encourages words to be tossed about, chucked up in the air, stamped on the floor, taken through the gutter and hung out to dry. Words soothed and smoothed like soft fur, fed on ripe corn, fattened up for slaughter and then they’re gone.

For others beer culture is the route beer takes to get from the people who make it, through the hands of the people who encourage people to try it, en route touching the hands of people who pay for the space in which the beer is made and the face that it shows to the world, before finally the beer laps into the glasses of the people who will pay for it — a journey perhaps with brightly coloured scraps and flags left at various stations along this passage calling out to people that this beer will make them more than they are.

And of course there’s the fury and the fire of the campaign, the broad bland outstretch palm smile of the evangelist and the educator, the sorter out of the wheat from the chaff, the ones that aim to bring order to the world of beer culture in the same way perhaps an art teacher would have loved to teach Picasso how to paint. There’s the time lord in search of what was lost and is found again, an arrow of time flying backwards and forwards. And finally there is the culture of beer culture, the historiography, the methodology, a place where beer culture is dissected like a frog in a school laboratory. 

So what is beer culture? 

Friday, 14 September 2012

Bohemian Rhapsody (ahem)

Last year I spent a week travelling around southern Bohemia by bus and train, visiting bars and breweries in an attempt to get to the nature of the beers of the area. Ironically enough, next week I head off to the north this time. Last year my trip ended up at the The Sunshine in the Glass (Slunce ve skle) Beer Festival at Purkmistr Brewery, Pilsen, and this year I will do the same on September 22 (before I travel to Munich for an Oktoberfest assignment). My report on last year’s journey is in tomorrow’s Telegraph Travel but you can read it online here. As for the beer festival, if you can make it I would as it’s fabulous and features the best of what I call the new wave of Czech brewing (but those in the heart of it, such as Evan Rail and Max at Pivni Filosof, might call it something else), more details here

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Another beer in in another country

Three police officers wander into the bar, nonchalant, not in need of any information, just with the aim of sitting down and ordering a drink. Glass of water for one, coffee for another and a schooner of beer for the other. A cat strolls past, ambient and distracted in its poise, while an elderly couple make their way along the atelier-like balcony above the pub; the Levi’s blue light from a torch is their only guide. Ah here comes my beer, a half-litre of darkness with a massive espresso coloured head, the sort of head you want to dive into with the abandonment of a dolphin and emerge with a Franz Josef beer moustache. It’s all liquorice, toast with plum jam, mocha and a grainy bit of bitterness in the finish with hints of chocolate truffle. It’s a very accomplished beer this glass of Tomislav, which according to Rate Beer is a Baltic Porter, though the nearest body of water to the bar in Zagreb where I am having a drink is the Adriatic, so an Adriatic Porter it is then. Earlier in the evening yet another brewery, the brewpub Zlatni Medo, a German beer hall lookalike, all dark wood with square cut furniture, the brewing equipment encased in its own space as you enter from the front. The first brewery I have ever been into where a massive bearskin sits atop one of the stainless steel brewing vessels (though the brewery’s name translated is golden bear). The Pilsner is unfiltered and has an unmistakeable Saaz spicy lemony character, though somewhat muted. It’s a clean beer, with a medium body, a halfway house between Czech and German and rather good. With roast potatoes, beans and the pub’s own home made sausage (juicy, bridging salt and meaty sweetness, with a chunky yet pliable texture), it’s a robust and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the muscular gastronomic attractions of Zagreb. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Hail Hayle Bay Honey IPA

Here’s the delivery man with a large package, it’s beer mate he says without too much surprise, as he’s a regular. Yes it’s beer, a mini cask of Sharps’ Hayle Bay Honey IPA, which I cannot wait to try but given that it’s 10am I think I’ll wait a few hours. And I did wait and then spent Friday and Saturday in contemplation. I liked it, I liked it a lot, I liked the glorious contrast between the pungent sexy aroma of the hop and a more delicate lycee note that brought to mind the sort of sketches Picasso used to knock out on the back of a napkin (I once met someone who had one but then he’d lost it in the war). It’s a rough and refined nose at once, one you could argue represents the character of its maker. It’s a bittersweet, robust, chunky beer, sometimes rough and ready and then gentle and persuasive. It’s a tropical fruit celebration such as ripe mango and lycee and a delightful breakfast platter of brioche sweetness. It’s got a swagger and strut that reminds me of those films of Jagger onstage at the end of the 60s, or maybe go back further in time to sweet Gene Vincent. This is a beer with attitude, an altitude, a big rocker of a beer that mashes up sweetness and suaveness and the sexiness of ripe fruit skin all in one glorious go. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Perfect Pub

What’s my favourite pub? What are my five favourite pubs? What makes a pub perfect? Would you like another pint? If you want to know a bit more then why not have a look at today’s Daily Telegraph, page 19, in which I have written about the perfect pub — or go to the article here.