Friday, 30 November 2012

Breathless awe

For me Elizabeth David remains one of the most compelling food writers ever (despite the fact that I think her influence might have been detrimental to postwar beer). I read her books constantly and this morning while flicking through An Omelette and a Glass of Wine I started reading this essay about Edouard de Pomaine, a French food writer and scientist. According to David he was not a fan of fancy French cooking and described Homard à l’amércaine as ‘a cacophony…it offends a basic principle of taste.’ However, what really interested me was the rest of the paragraph from David: I rather wish he had gone to work on some of the astonishing things Escoffier and his contemporaries did to fruit. Choice pears masked with chocolate sauce and cream, beautiful fresh peaches smothered in raspberry purée and set around with vanilla ice seem to me offences to nature, let alone art or basic principles. How very rum that people still write of these inventions with breathless awe. My point? If you substitute the word fruit with beer then you might get what I’m driving at. There’s a fine line between innovation and novelty and sometimes I don’t think some brewers get it. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012


Don’t really know Kent. Seen more of it from the window of a Euro-star than anything else, though went through Canterbury many years ago and saw it through the glass of a ferry-bound coach. Never been to Faversham but I have been to Whitstable; I managed to avoid the oysters; never been to that seaside place where whelks are definitely the dish to die for either. Been to one brewery. Back in 2006. It was Westerham Brewery for the MOS Live magazine; wasn’t used in the end though they paid me handsomely and sent a snapper out there (it happens, ‘the mix isn’t right’, ‘our competitor just ran the same story’, ‘the editor doesn’t like men in beards’ etc).

‘It’s a wet, grey winter’s day in the heart of rural northern Kent. The trees are bare and lifeless, buffeted by a freezing wind hurling itself straight from Siberia. The fields around Grange Farm at Crockham Hill are ridged and furrowed, waiting for the first shoots of spring. Ahead of me lies an elegant Queen Anne farmhouse and behind it a jumble of barns and stables. A brace of horses are led steaming to their quarters after an early morning gallop. It’s a timeless, comforting scene – a little piece of old England untouched by modern life.’

So that was my vision of Kent and the article continued.

So Kent, why Kent? I recently bolted down Gadds’ Dogbolter with the ferocity of a man whose first name is Thirst. I’ve enjoyed Shepherd Neame’s Celebration. Kent continued to hove into view with the arrival of Shepherd Neame’s Double Stout and IPA in the postbox (the postman won’t deliver to the door anymore because of our dogs, one of which, a 10 year old horror of a Parson Jack Russell, has a penchant for biting packages). Two beers, both of which I am told are just the first of the brewery’s trawl through the archives.

In the silence of a late Sunday afternoon, I poured a glass of the Double Stout and it was a soothing and smooth cranial massage on the temple of the weekend’s end. I loved it. I loved the chocolate (milk) and creamy coffee nose; I also loved its undertone of raisin/current fruitiness. I loved the luxurious mouth-feel with more chocolate, coffee and dark fruit. I loved its darkness and its sense of the earth at night. I look forward to more.

As it happened Westerham also sent me something of Kent, a mini keg of British Bulldog, which I haven’t had for several years — but looking at my tasting notes then I espie: ‘Earthy, oily, citrusy, hint of tropical fruit, cereal crunchiness in background. Dry, bitter, hangs onto the throat.’ I have yet to open it but I will be interested to see what I get. I was also sent a mini-keg of Spirit of Kent, which, during the summer, became the brewery’s first permanent beer for several years; it uses nine different Kent bred and Kent grown hops. This I did breach last night, aiming to bring some Kent to the dark Exmoor chilliness of night. There was a distinct swing of the compass about the nose, as it touched all points citrus sweetness (mandarin), earthiness and pungent hop sack. The palate carried a refrain of similar mandarin sweetness (orange jelly for adults), a muscular earthiness (think big Burgundies), a slight of almond and a dry bitter finish. A Spitfire garnishes the pump clip and I can think of no better analogy for this beer than the purring beauty of that aircraft’s Merlin engine when in full flight.

So do I know Kent? Probably not, but it’s a bit clearer now. 

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Shakespeare’s Local

Last week my review of Pete Brown’s Shakespeare’s Local appeared in the books pages of the Daily Telegraph, which you can read here. As is normal it was cut to fit the page but I thought it might be fun to let people read the whole review, so here it is.

Shakespeare’s Local
By Pete Brown
384pp, Macmillan (RRP £16.99, EBOOK £9.85)


This is a book about a pub: the George Inn in Southwark. The George has been around in one form or another for five centuries. Hidden away off Borough High Street, with the Shard piercing the sky to its front, it’s especially unique in being London’s last galleried coaching inn. I’ve been there several times: it’s a rickety old place, listing like an ancient ship of the line, its galleries tipsily overlooking the yard where tourists drink deeply of Ye Olde England. Charles Dickens drank here, as did Dr Johnson. The Globe was just around the corner so Shakespeare probably popped in, which why we’ve got this catchy little title.

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers and has three beer-centric books to prove it. His last one was Hops and Glory, in which he transported a barrel of India Pale Ale to India on a variety of boats (to replicate the 19th century trading route). It was a unique tale of leaky casks, banana boats, mid-ocean madness and lots of beer. It won him Beer Writer of the Year 2009, but this time, this London-based Yorkshireman hasn’t strayed too far.

Why the George? It might be a survivor but it’s not the oldest London inn. It’s not the most historic either. However, Brown choose it because as he writes early in the book: ‘there are arguably more celebrated pubs…but if you are going to focus on the story of one pub, you’ve got to pick the one that tells the best story.’

And stories he tells. Princess Margaret came for Sunday lunch in the 1960s with the Bishop of Southwark; the newspapers wagged fingers as only they can after the Princess and her group seemed to carry on way past closing time. Winston Churchill dined here, bringing his own port though he met his match in redoubtable landlady Agnes Murray, who served from 1871 until 1934.

‘He once turned up for dinner with a bottle of quality port, explaining to Miss Murray that on his last visit there was none. She served him with a quiet smile, and then presented him with a bill, which included “Corkage: one shilling and sixpence”.’

So did Shakespeare visit the George? Brown believes so, but he also writes: ‘did Shakespeare perform plays at the George? Much as it pains me to say so, probably not.’ You could argue that the book title is somewhat of a red herring as it suggests that the book might be a keenly argued thesis on Shakespeare’s relationship with the George. It’s not. Think Julie Myerson’s Home instead, applied to a pub and written in Brown’s matey, down to earth slightly tipsy man at the bar style (his footnotes are hilarious).

It’s lively and exuberant, a literary version of a cracking pub crawl. It recounts the history of the George and its people, but also delightfully digresses to the social history of Southwark while celebrating those who have walked and drank in its streets over the centuries. From puritans to prime ministers, princesses to poets, the George has seen them all. Though I’m not sure I’d have liked a drink with 18th century regular, the poet Sir John Mennis: his speciality was writing about flatulence.

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Belgian beer

In a high-ceilinged wood-panelled room, tall windows overlooking the frenetic human chessboard of Grand Place, a man talks: ‘Belgium is a small country that likes to conquer with beer and food.’ There is then talk about Pils being on the decline in the country and craft beer sales starting to grow; the backslapping continues with news of the success of beer exports. This then starts me off thinking and recalling several other strands of thought from people I had tapped into over the past couple of years: is Belgian beer sitting on a time bomb? The following couple of days judging at the Brussels Beer Challenge while talking beer and drinking beer and being beer reminded me that there might be something in the future of Belgian beer that needs to be addressed in the near future (or it might even be addressed now, as those in the Belgian brewing industry in that room were well aware of the issue). 

For those for whom beer is an infrequent source of either refreshment or liquid pleasure, I would guess that for them Belgian beer rests on a nest of laurels laid there by the likes of Leffe, Chimay, Stella and Kwak (nice glass, that would look good on the sideboard mum, perhaps next to the faux wineskin gran brought back from Spain in the 1970s) plus whatever sweet gueuze you can get in those tiny shops that dot the centre of Brussels (this is Belgian beer in the same way visitors to Munich during Oktoberfest probably see Paulaner as representative of Bavarian beer). Outside the city, beyond the trails of tourists checkmating their bodies around the Grand Place, more enterprising brewers are throwing in hops, inculcating yeast strains, aging and withering their beers, turning them inside out and op, applying a variety of grains and spices and then selling their wares to America and other parts of Europe rather than to the local café, where the regulars like their Jupiler. I think I first was aware of this trend when visiting one small brewer in 2006 and learning that the majority of his beers went to the US.

There are some great Belgian breweries, both craft and longer established, but I sometimes feel that the country is eclipsed by what is happening elsewhere and that some of its more established brewers are happy to sit back, look at their fob watches and think ‘we are Belgian’ in a German or Czech manner, but after my sojourn in Brussels I’m starting to have these thoughts: might Belgian beer find itself in a bit of a pickle if overseas’ markets collapse?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


What is the sound and vision of the brewery? The humming round-and-round-we-go nnnnnnnn of the python coolers, a spinning top of ambient Eno-esque sound in perpetual motion — the sharp clink of bottles as a silent woman lures the beer in and traps it with a deft appliance of a crown cork — over there look, the ragged, tattered banner of steam escapes from a vent in the stainless steel container that we call the HLT — two plastic bags (once they held grain from Tuckers Maltings) of used hops slouch teenage-style on the concrete and add a welcome bright banana and pineapple disturbance to the air about them. I only see it briefly when adding a pestle of partly ground black peppercorns, grains of paradise and dried Curacao orange peel into the copper, but the rhythmic Jacob’s Ladder of the boil, the repetitive climb and decline of the hot liquid that one day will be cool and fermented, strong and spicy, dark and downsized into a glass and eager to create an impression on the palate of a drinker whom I shall never meet.
A few minutes I had on my hands whilst assisting with another brew of Otley’s Saison Obscura and a scrap of paper on which to allow a few words to meander on the nature of what constitutes a brewery. Every impression of a brewery that I visit is different. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Win a copy of Britain’s Lost Breweries and Beers

Good lord a competition, the chance to win a copy of Chris Arnot’s superb Britain’s Lost Breweries and Beers. I got sent one and thought it might be nice to get the publishers to give away a couple — I did it for Home Brew a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely book, nostalgic in its recollection of breweries and their beers long gone, but on the other hand it’s not dewy-eyed and the author makes the point that currently we’ve never had it so good in our choice of both British and global beers. It is also a social history, a recollection of memories, a compendium of both black-and-white and colour photos (then and now) and the beers that made the likes of Simpkiss, Fremlin’s and Vaux such favourites with the home crowd. These were breweries at the centre of their communities, employing hundreds of locals and sending out beers up and down the county (and in some cases further afield) to their own pubs. There are 30 breweries remembered and I have tried beers from 11 of them (this includes Tolly, Morrell’s and Hardy & Hanson’s) and even managed to visit two of them (Young’s and Gale’s), though I once turned up in Oxford several years before Morrell’s closed in the hope of getting in but the gates were shut. With such a vibrant brewing industry whizzing up and down the land, it’s important to remember those that went before — and this book is a crucial aid in not forgetting.
So if you would like to win a copy, just email me at with the answer to this question: where did Tamplin’s brew? First two to email me win.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The surrealism of steel

This is where Duvel is brewed. It’s a space that reminds me of both a factory and a weird imagined space age emporium; high windows let the light in, but on the evening of my visit they keep the night at bay. There are metal pipes and tanks, a forest of pipes, a tenacity of tanks; a capacious submarine with its turbine and torpedo tubes and for just a moment I imagine the pitch and sway and roll of the sea, before coming to the hop store, where despite the tightly packed intimacy of sealed foiled packets, cardboard boxes, the aroma of the family of hops that Moortgat uses is a fragrant friendly ghost drifting through the air. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Brussels Beer Challenge results

A weekend spent in Brussels, tasting beer as part of the jury for the inaugural Brussels Beer Challenge; 30 or so judges from the UK, Europe, China, the US and Canada; 35 beers on Friday morning, 37 on Saturday (the results are here). The massed ranks of ambers parading across Friday morning, a well-organised drill of warm toffee, lemon sherbet and — sign of the times indeed — US hops. Amber is a type of beer that has often eluded me with its commonplace reliance on malt and its anonymous fruitiness; but the tasting that I took through 20 of these beers on Friday morning produced a greater appreciation even if I scribbled notes such as ‘primitive’, ‘very safe’ and ‘uninspiring’ besides some of the beers. On the other hand, one of my favourites had warm toffee on the palate, while the nose of the table’s winner rang and chimed away with the light tones of US hops (it was our winner and can be revealed as Caldera Ashland Amber ). And one of the things that I learnt from this excellent competition was that it’s ok to spit. Even though I’ve been judging beer for years, I rarely use the spittoon, adhering to the old saw that to properly evaluate the beer you had to swallow. This time I was able to taste more of the beer, holding it in my mouth, swilling it about and then spitting. I loved the moment it spent in mouth as a variety of flavours ebbed and flowed and were recorded before the liquid was jettisoned. It’s just as well: Saturday morning saw our table being presented with a nefarious host of dark beers, including Baltic Porter and Imperial Stout. Sometimes it’s good to let go. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012


Stuart Howe at Sharps sent me a bottle of DW, which he had brewed in collaboration with the late Dave Wickett. I thought I’d drink it. I’ve had it when it was younger but this was older and had had time to settle. On the nose, a filmic contrast between a scowling, tough, dockyard dweller, neckerchief wearing, shoulder bulging, granite-like hardness Belgian and a Jean Genet type, implacably bald, beret-wearing, muscle-bound with a sailor hat atop: there is a  yeastiness, fruitiness, peachiness; a peach dessert sweetness on the nose; a dessert wine Muscat swipe on the nose, a dirty troll like dig into the hop sack on the nose; it is vinous, vine-like, Vinland-like, Varus vs the barley hordes, my big fat barley beer, the idea of the Rhine as a boundary between wine and beer;  sweetness, dessert wine London clubland, the femininity of Muscat. 

And so I drank it. Fatness, sweetness, dryness, sweetness I was only joking, smokiness, peachiness, round ripe peaches, the dryness of the mouth’s assault on the ripe skin of a peach, the release of juice, an RSM of hop bitterness bawling from across the parade ground to keep all things in order; the marmalade sweetness glides across the brioche like breadiness and big fat uncle Charlie — just about keeping himself in order — bawls along, saying all the wrong things, but we all know we love him. And it all ends as it should end: with a big alcoholic wave of papaya, pineapple, Billy Smart big top ring sawdust dryness and then a wonderful world tucks you into your bed.