Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Beer

Beer is the best long drink in the world. It is the most convivial alcoholic drink. It is the glass that cheers, that heals the tears, and oils the wheels. It is the best. Let a thousand beers bloom.

Hold on a minute.

I have read and written words to this effect many times — and many times have I failed to think about the meaning. If you like beer and write about it and occasionally read about it then I wonder if it gets too easy to imbibe the words and phrases without thinking too much about them. ‘Long drink’ always sounds so trade and industry and clunky, as if it were designed for the sort of magazine that tries to make cement mixers sexy (Cement Mixer World perhaps). It’s a set of words carelessly used, bandied about like business cards at a convention, dumped from a great height, shattered and then reconstituted into sentences, lazily used, like a desultory swipe of the hand against a fly on a hot, draining summer’s day. I know because I do this time and time again.

And yet beer is my favourite drink after water and the only alcoholic beverage that I regularly drink (occasional red wine, a one-off in autumn, and some cider and that’s it). So as Lenin wrote: what to do?

First of all: I asked myself the question — what do I like about beer? Sat and pondered, looked out of the window, took a sip of a beer (Young’s Special London, which I had in a glass for the first time in ages and thoroughly enjoyed), rolled it around my mouth, enjoyed its bitterness and the weight of the alcohol (6.4%), inevitably wishing I had bought more. And so first of all I thought: I like beer because of its versatility. It’s a beer that I can make vanish down my throat with the minimum of fuss, perhaps when I’m hot, thirsty or just enjoying a wet, bittersweet, gently carbonated pint of cask bitter (it could be Rambo-hopped or not, it depends on my mood and the surroundings in which I stand or sit) or a brisk yet swoon-like swallow of the best světlý ležák. On the other hand I also like beer because it can sit alongside me like a faithful hound, a pat on the domed, noble head now and again translated into a sip or even a swig, a beer that keeps company with whatever book I am reading (currently Now All Roads Lead to France). Barley wine perhaps, or a beer that has gone through the valley of the shadows and been reborn into something else.

Secondly, I grew up drinking beer: Holsten Pils, Stones Keg top, Greene King IPA, more Holsten Pils. You could say that I got used to the relative sweetness of beer (as opposed to wine’s acidity); I got used to large pint glasses; I got used to drinking in pubs rather than bars (I remember feeling rather lost in Soho’s French House in 1983 — the only beer they had was a small bottle of Carlsberg, unchilled). So there’s a cultural aspect to beer for me: it has framed the sociability of most of my adult life (though cocktails in the early 80s and wine during my periods in France ran it quite close). I’ve gone through the whole wine-makes-me-posh phrase back in the 1990s and I still enjoy a glass of good French wine, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out.

Thirdly, why do I like beer? Or do I love it? Love sounds peculiar, but then as well as loving our wives/husbands, children, parents and pets, we love goals/tries scored by favourite players, a piece of music, a dish, a view, a feeling, a bodily sensation. So I suppose we can say that we love beer. So why do I love beer? Maybe it’s a habit; in the same way I like a cup of tea in the morning or a bacon sandwich on a Saturday morning. Nothing wrong there. I also like the buzz, the lift that alcohol gives, the loosening of thought, the quickening of speech in which I often imagine words to be like seagulls riding the winds above the changing tide, the visual stimulus and the hit of adrenalin (something similar I get from physical activity).

Fourthly, I like the flavour, love the flavour, something that links to the sense of bittersweetness that has been with me since my mid-20s when I started to drink beer slowly without pulling a face. In all of the varieties of beers that I drink there are elements of sweetness, dryness, bitterness, fatness, a moussec-like mouth feel, acidity, harmony, integration; the sense of an orchestra seamlessly sliding into a Schubertian symphony, only in the mouth rather on stage. It is pleasure, it is joy, it is uplifting, it is love, it is restful, it is engaging, it is infuriating, it is mournful, it is as part of life as is roast duck, pad Thai, paella, Yorkshire pudding, oyster tempura, the sight of a hillside wood sashaying in the wind, the fierce spearing of heavy rain on secure roof tiles, an old book, a smile from a loved one, a child’s laugh, a dog curled up on the lap, a city street at dawn, Edward Thomas’ poems, Vaughn Williams’ London Symphony, the sound of a Tornado flying over our valley. I could go on. It’s life. Beer as part of life? Hmm, beer is life, not beer is my life, beer = life, beer/life.

(at this juncture I stared out of the window and watched fluffy, mucky grey-white clouds spreading in from the west and thought about nothing in general)

Beer. I don’t know. It’s very hard to sum up beer, which is possibly another reason why I like/love/enjoy it. How about: Beer as one valuable, beautiful and endearing part of this complicated system we endure that we call life? Somehow I don’t think it will be on a poster somewhere near you.



Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Beneath Bologna

Bologna. Ambling up from the station, the town centre a target. Two friends embrace on a crossing, while a patient taxi driver waits — the amiable anarchy of Bologna. A middle aged man cycles by whistling accompanied by the staccato clack on heels on the marble floor as a woman rushes by — late for her train perhaps? Sound is all around. Conversations, melodic highs and lows, echoing beneath the high ceiling porticoes, dashed and splashed with the unsigned frescoes of the city’s artists. In the old city centre, Osteria del Sole — bring your own Mortadella and bread and cheese and order a glass of Theresianer Pils and listen to people talk: students discuss ways in which the world can be saved; couples pick at each others’ lunches, the intimacy of familiarity; the Goth/rock chick barmaid hands out a chopping board and knife; original artworks by patrons can be seen rolled out on the walls; the chatter, the clink of the glasses, the debates, the integration, the deliberation, the lack of the iPad.


Later that day, a stroll out of the centre into the Birroteca La Tana del Luppolo (which apparently translates as Lair of Hops), small, a shop that is now a bar, to be found in a precinct like area. Above the wooden bar, the chiselled, hewed, carved, birthed from the earth wooden bar, an empty barrel hangs, its fangs forever drawn, a signifier that beer is the diet here. Two dogs engage in the corner, a small funny bundle of pup fur and a Dachshund cross. Blanche des Neiges, Birrifico Italiano Cinnamon Bitter and La Rulles Estivale on draught while lots of bottles hover in the fridges. Big open window, the street passes by and I’m told it was a home brew shop before it went into selling beer at the bar. And to come there is a story that includes BrewDog, Flying Dog, La Senne, St Feuillien, Rochefort, Thornbridge and Brewfist who have been or will be turning up and the following night Agostino from Birrifico Italiano will be there as well. And then sitting there with my glass of Cinnamon Bitter I’m thinking about how during the day I visited the place where the canal that was part of the network that used to vein its way through Bologna emerges into daylight on Via Malcontenti, a hidden part of the city, a place where fast flowing waters cut through a frayed, crumbling, naked part of old Bologna before vanishing beneath another street and no one knows of its existence — and I think how like this subterranean network the beer culture of Bologna is. And I like that.




Thursday, 25 July 2013

Impermanence

The beauty of Teignworthy’s Edwin Tucker Victorian Stock Ale 1999 (12%) is that you cannot get hold of it anymore. Why is this a beauty? It’s because it’s similar to a play or a piece of music that is only heard several times, not recorded and never played again and then just remembered fondly by those who were there. It’s about impermanence and shining brightly for one moment, an antidote to an age where everything is recorded for the posterior of posterity and — sticking my neck out here — beers like this are perhaps the closest brewing gets to a flash of light seen far out at sea, or a flurry of words or musical notes once heard but always remembered. This was brewed in 1999 when my son was one year old, when the farmhouse we then lived in ran out of water briefly and when I joined the British Guild of Beer Writers. It’s about deep malt-forward flavours, the influence of age and oxygen, the stillness of the beer, the sherry like sweetness, the strange marmite and sweet orange marmalade combo that allays any fear of the unknown on the nose; it’s about thickness on the palate, a fudginess, smoothness, creaminess, all of which allows the saltiness of cheese to bring a different note to the song that is being sung. It cuddles and comforts an aged Edam, confronts and then contours itself around an equally aged Cheddar, while for the slices of molten, slipping-into-the-abyss, slide-over-easy slices (if you can call them that) of Pont l’Eveque, it is as natural a fit as James Joyce was to being a chronicler of the ineluctable seesawing of life and all its constituents.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A minute in the life of a pub

videoWhen I review a pub, I like to listen to its soundtrack, to the background mood music of voices as people make their passage through the pub; I note both the dissonance and the melody of their voices, the stories and the gripes, the gossip and the sideswipes, the general chiff-chaff of everyday living in the pub. It’s a rich and satisfying experience — one of the more memorable moments was when I was in Barrels in Hereford and the barman dropped some plastic glasses. One of the old boys enjoying his lunchtime pint immediately shouted ‘Sack the juggler!’ This discovery of fragments of other people’s lives is for me one of the great attractions of a pub. At other times the sound of the pub is ambient and random, humanity’s version of radio traffic. That also has its appeal. Last Friday when I was in the pub later on in the evening I recorded a minute of pub noise: words are scattered about the bar like confetti at a wedding, while voices rise and fall, coming and going like the tide, urgent, measured, quick, understated, all at once. This is a minute in the life of a pub.  

Friday, 19 July 2013

Colour


Colour. The colour of beer, the pale blonde straw gold ale that brightly garnishes the clear nothingness of the glass; the sombre Sunday-best respectable Methodist brown of a pint (it has to be a pint, the pint has to be a pint) of bitter aloof in the same clear nothingness of the glass. There is another aspect of colour though, the colour (or even colours) that encourages, aids even, the consumer — that’s you and I and the man over there plus that woman at the counter — to make the informed choice over whatever we want to buy. For example, my morning coffee comes from a packet that has a sunlit yellow swab of colour on the front, I like it, it appeals to me, is it the main reason I buy it? I don’t know, but the appeal of the colour is on the same level of attraction as the price (£3 in the local Co-op) and the style of coffee (Americano it says, whatever that means, but I know it doesn’t me get too gibbery) — I can’t exactly remember who makes it, that’s pretty irrelevant. So how important is colour?

The reason I take this brief excursion into the realms of colour is that the other day I received a press release from Tring Brewery that trumpeted the news they had launched a new look for their beers’ pump clips, using in their words ‘applied colour psychology to appeal to beer drinkers…the brewery has rebranded, starting with its pump clips, unifying its look and increasing its appeal to new and existing customers. The beer names are derived from local characters, literature of legends with new illustrations produced to represent these stories and reinforce the brewery’s connection with the locality.’ You can read more about it here

As you can see from the image, the shield-like clips feature soft muted colours of leaf green, cherry red and a dark caramel orange. There’s a cartoon frog, a landscape that suggests to me far and away and this iconic British World War II poster, while the dog is a bit Black Bob. Ok, these are not hipsters’ labels, not designed with designers and ironic flat caps in mind and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re homely and comfortable, mirroring myths and legends of the area — not everything has to be edgy. I don’t know what to think to be honest, as coffee packets aside I can be blind to design. 

Far more important though, what do the beers taste like? That I cannot say either, as I haven’t tried them but I do have a bottle of their Tea Kettle stout in the cellar, which was to sent to me, and I look forward to trying it (I like the fact that more breweries are making stout). Tea Kettle? Apparently Tring’s home county of Hertfordshire is shaped like a kettle, presumably that is why the label has a splash of what I would call light charcoal grey. It’s nice to drink in colour. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Not my kind of day

August 1 is IPA Day, when you can ‘join beer enthusiasts, breweries and bars across the globe in a collective toast to one of craft beer’s most iconic styles: the India pale ale’. You can raise a toast in a favourite bar (or crumbling bedsit or palatial penthouse) or roast your way through the grid of social media using the special hashtag. Without sounding like a sourpuss I find the whole concept of any day set aside for any beer or anything else infantile and shallow (I occasionally get press releases telling me that National Vegetarian Day or National Incontinence Day are incoming, they go straight into the bin). For me it’s infantile and shallow because it reduces what is a great beer style that has mutated and divided over time, thus giving us a multiplicity of meanings of IPA, to a ‘look-at-me’ status; it’s cheer-leading of the most facile sort; dumbed-down drinking (no doubt the playground hollering of ‘whoop’ will feature a lot). I know people won’t agree with me, but so be it.


Why not celebrate IPA throughout the year? You don’t need a hashtag or special badge on your twitter feed to do this. I’ve been drinking the stuff since the 1990s (or I could say the early 1980s if I include Greene King) and like all sorts — ones that I particularly remember are Freeminer’s Trafalgar in the late 1990s, Goose Island, Stone Ruination, Punk IPA and even eventually understanding and enjoying White Shield (though I think Hook Norton’s Flagship runs it a close second). I don’t need August 1. Like dogs, IPAs are for life.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Craft keg’s summer?

Is this the summer of craft keg? Could this be the summer when craft keg hits the mainstream craft drinking culture or at least gives the impression that it does? As the sun continues to shine, could those who drink cask beer completely ideology free occasionally switch their allegiances to a colder and more carbonated beer, albeit one they perceive to have as much flavour as the cask that they normally drink (we’re talking Camden rather than Carling). 

I have personal memories of the way a long sunny spell hit cask in the mid 1990s. In my diary from 1995, an entry from early August, it reads: ‘went to CAMRA beer festival thing tonight, lots of beers off. Thought not best time for bitter.’ The next night I went again and wrote: ‘It’s bloody too hot to drink bitter but I did my best.’

I would hope that all kinds of beer profit from the warm weather, which should drive greater amounts of people to the pub (this is not about craft keg vs cask, which is a tired old argument that should be bedded down once and for all). Unlike the 1990s, I believe there is a greater awareness in the trade of the need to maintain a constant and correct temperature, but reading here and here resurrected old concerns. Meanwhile in my own experience I can point to the weekend when I did a tasting at my local of Brains’ Three C’s Son, a saison hopped with columbus, citra and centennial. This unfiltered and unpasteurised saison was served from a keg font and went down a storm (especially with the CAMRA members that turned up); when I returned on Sunday looking forward to drinking more, none was there. Cask By the Horns IPA was fine, but I would have preferred a colder, sharper, refreshing beer.


There are caveats, though. Craft keg is a minority taste, mainly available in craft beer bars and saddled with the reputation of being an expensive treat, so Carling drinkers are unlikely to switch over. Craft keg also needs to be looked after with as much dedication as cask; last year I had a beer from Mallinson’s in one of London’s craft beer bars that had all the liveliness and sprightliness of a catatonically-inclined Methodist. On the other hand, Fuller’s has developed a pretty decent craft keg lager with Frontier and in London Camden and Meantime are ubiquitous (ok that’s London, but there are opportunities for craft keg throughout the country). I’ve had good craft keg in Bristol, both at BrewDog and Zero Degrees, while I’m sure others around the country can point to similar experiences. 

So could this be the summer of craft keg? I don’t know but if enough noise is made it might be remembered as such — not everyone was a hippy in whenever the summer of love was. 

I do know that if I was writing this for the Publican’s Morning Advertiser I would be advising licensees not to go overboard with lots of cask hand pulls and look at trying at least one good craft keg font to keep the cask beer drinkers happy.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Some

I don’t like the word some. It’s vague, it’s easy, it’s soft, it’s indifferent, it’s lazy, it’s foggy, it’s murky; it’s such an easy word, a word that I would have banned despite the fact that I’ve used it too many times (and I’m not in the infantile business of banning things) — some hops, some hints of this and that, some ware over the rainbow etc as in the artefact of shopping; some times, some where, some thing. And yet…some times I use the word some as carelessly as once upon a time I would have used the word hoppy or malty. 

So what’s the point of declaring war on the word some? I like the idea of reducing the language in which we write about beer, like one would reduce a stock or boil a wort for a long time as I was once told about when asking how Gale’s Prize Ale was brewed (and incidentally I have just drank the last beer of mine that I got from Gale’s, the Trafalgar Ale from 2005) back in 1998, when I was starting to write about beer. I like the idea of a sparse, lean, yet fit language about beer, the kind of language that drew me to Hemingway in my early 20s (later on I loved Raymond Carver, who had his own struggles with alcohol), the kind of language that if mirrored in beer might be a saison, an austerity of beer that makes me feel good about myself, that makes me think that I have to work harder to like the beer that I pour into my glass. It’s amazing how far you can get when you think of the word some.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Writing about beer is like…

Writing about beer is like dancing about architecture. Can’t remember who wrote that, if anyone ever wrote it, or did someone write that writing about beer is like painting with concrete? I’ve seen stuff that says that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but I’m sure there’s a similar reference to writing about beer, but I’ve got better things to do with the heedless rush towards extinction that we give the title life to check that out. Or maybe it’s just some clever dick that said it on their blog or somewhere.

I write about beer, write on beer, write with beer in mind, write with a beer to hand, drink beer and then write about it; I go to pubs and write about pubs and what people say in them and what they eat and what they drink and what the pub looks like; I write about breweries and what they look like and about the beers they make and about the people who work there and about the history of the brewery that stands wherever it stands. So I write about beer and am pleased and proud and punch drunk to write about it. I don’t dance.

Do wine writers feel the need to analyse what they write about, to defend what they write about, to bat off half baked jokes about the best job in the world, thus implying that the beer writer is permanently pickled (if that was the case I’d get nothing done). Of course not, their trade has a history going back a long time, there’s a reverence and a religiosity about what they do, but hold on a minute you could also say that Alfred Barnard was writing about beer, that Julian L Baker was writing about beer, that Andrew Campbell was writing about beer, so writing about beer does have a history, albeit a history that is hidden.

It’s no longer a hidden history though: this year sees the 25th anniversary of the founding of the British Guild of Beer Writers, whose first meeting was in a pub (the Horniman, Hay’s Wharf, you can read the minutes here). As far as I know none of the current members know how to dance to anything, never mind architecture, but they do know how to write about beer, to write about pubs, to write about breweries and for that I give much thanks to the Guild.


I’m the Secretary of the Guild but this post came about because I had the first line and wanted to see where I would go with it rather than any desire to plug the Guild, that’s the beauty of blogging, you never know where you’re going to end up when you start with that empty page and a sequence of letters that eventually form words that eventually shift themselves into sentences. It’s a bit like making music, which brings us around to dancing once more. 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Epiphanies

I like epiphanies; I like the way they come out of nowhere, bolts of lighting delivering self awareness, a realisation of something I wasn’t aware of before and how this awareness has added to the quality of my physical and mental life. 

I remember being in what was then Virgin’s flagship store in Marble Arch when Anarchy in the UK was being played — it has just been released and sounded disturbing but also exhilarating; at last I had my own Beatles, Who and Rolling Stones I thought. Then there was Max Bell’s review of Unknown Pleasures in the NME, a mention of the Doors sent me scurrying to Andy’s Records and I got the last copy in the shop. It’s still on my iPod. 

In beer there have been epiphanies, which in retrospect I could have got from books or fellow writers, but it that isn’t as much fun. 

There I was on the French-Belgo border in the autumn of 2005, visiting bière de garde breweries for a feature and as I shared a glass of Cuvee de Jonquilles with Roger Bailleux, owner of Brasserie au Baron, I realised that my whole notion of bière de garde was wrong.

As I wrote at the time: Yet, trying to pin down the meaning of bière de garde is like having to sculpt Rodin’s Thinker with blancmange. The definition is wobbly. The beers of Northern France, because of their proximity to Belgium, have their fair share of spicy blancs (known as witbiers over the border), citrusy tripel look-alikes and even fruit beers (La Choulette’s Framboise is a splendid example). There are also big and beefy ambrées with spicy, earthy hoppy notes, as well as pale ales. All also romp home between 6-8.5%, so they’re not for the faint-hearted, and are ideal partners for the local robust cuisine.

I thought of the next epiphany last week when I was drinking a glass of tank Pilsner Urquell at the White Horse after a weary day judging at the International Beer Challenge. I remembered my visit to Pivovar Dobrany in a town a few kilometres outside Pilsen and the time when I realised that many 12˚ svetly lezak were of the Pilsner style, but because PU got there first and was still regarded with some affection no Czech brewer used the word (as opposed to brewers throughout the world).

Here is what I wrote in my piece in All About Beer. Dobranska Hvezda is the 12˚ svetly lezak (light lager), a superlative beer with sweet toasted grain, slight pepperiness and delicate Saaz-derived floral notes all vying for attention on the nose. The palate has a hint of fruit pastilles, a slight sweetness and a long lasting dry and bitter finish. A light bulb flashes on in my head. I ask Petruzalek if what we are drinking is really a Pilsner style, bearing in mind the closeness of the historical brewery (I didn’t know then that he had worked there until 2003). The answer, translated, comes back. ‘All these beers would be adjudged to be a Pilsner style, because of the way they are made.’

A couple of paras down, I then wrote: Eager to discover more I communicated with Josef Tolar, formerly brew master at Budweiser Budvar (Czechvar). I asked him how he would define a Pilsner, was it the same as svetly lezak? His reply was short and succinct: ‘the Pilsner style is really svetly lezak in the Czech Republic.’ Budvar’s bottle labels in their home country bear the legend svetly lezak, make of that what you will.

Ok, straightforward simple stuff (and you can argue that Budvar and a Pilsner are different to each other), which no doubt most people know but what I enjoyed was finding out for myself, this is why beer and travel are mutual allies; you have to get out there. Beer is not an armchair sport. There have been other epiphanies: back in February realising how good Italian brewers had got when I judged a flight of DIPAs at the Birra del Anno in snowy Rimini; the connection between Bavarian and Bohemian beer after a glass of tank fresh Spezial at Pivovar Chodovar, something that I am still researching and obsessed with. 

The continuation of epiphanies long into the future fills me with glee for when they cease I may be dead. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A voyage with a glass of beer

The Schlenkerla is in the glass, mahogany brown, burnished, as if it were an ancient piece of furniture polished with the patina of age and the hands of generations that have been before. And above, as if in a more frivolous contrast with the solemnity that the beer’s colour suggests, the foam is espresso white, taking me briefly to Milan, Leipzig or Zagreb, where I’ve had some of the best ever coffee. The assertive aroma of smoky bacon or maybe smoked herring lifts out of the glass, appetising, mouth-watering, muscular, earthbound. Even though I’ve yet to go to Bamberg I’m taken there with this expressive beer, and somehow I can imagine, visualise, through the words I’ve read and the photos I’ve seen, myself in a small tavern, the sound of the latch key click, the creak of the door, the solid dense wooden furniture and the anticipation of the beer that I actually have in front of me in a pub in Prague. Time to drink: the beer is smoky, leathery, chocolaty, smooth in the mouthfeel, bitter in the finish, chewy even, satisfying and for me one of my favourite beers. I know for some that it’s a challenge, but oddly enough I took to it immediately when first tasting it in the early 1990s, while on the other hand it took longer to get used to lambic. It’s a beer that, wherever I drink it, takes me on a voyage to places visited and yet to visit. I wonder where I will go when I eventually drink it in Bamberg.