Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Eternal

Eternity captured in a glass. Bubbles, rising, long lasting, forever, a chain forging links between the beer and the drinker; eternal as long as the beer remains in the glass. In the city, in the day, in which I drank this beer, the streets around the Basilica were striped with cheerful anarchy, chaos with a soulful grin, ice cream and coffee, spliffs and sausages, sitting on steps, the act against authority, the nimble mind of revolution, skipping from stone to stone, crossing with ease the river of wine that this city is most often associated with. But back to the beer that is forever in the glass, drunk to the accompaniment of the scrape of a chair leg on the floor by the bar, the bow across the violin, the tuning up before a performance; a reverentially splashed glass of bock (though I could have had an IPA but I chose to drink different). And outside after the day had dropped its head and as I drank this eternal glass of beer the snow began to fall, the streets cheered and then cleared, but for this moment and forever more I had this glass of beer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Chewing the craft beer carpet

Is there someone out there who is angry that Founders has allowed San Miguel to buy a 30% share in their business? Is there anyone out there who is miffed a corporation that makes a series of beers best drank Arctic-cold on the beach in Malaga has bought 30% of Founders? Is there anyone out there who is chewing the craft beer carpet and frothing at the mouth with righteous self-importance?

I don’t doubt there is. If you boil down the geek into a fan and then envisage them as an individual you have actually met rather than relying on stereotypes; if you remember a fan of beer that you have met, an engaging man or woman, someone whose company is pleasing and pleasant until the subject that they are most interested in comes up for air — with others it might be football, steam trains, military uniforms, Komodo dragons or fracking but here we are talking about beer and it will be a subject that once aired becomes an obsession and a passion and a dressage to get them through the day — then you will have a photo-fit of the fan, of the person who might be angry that Founders has sold 30% of its business to Sam Miguel.

On the other hand, I wonder if those with a healthy interest in beer (or maybe even an unhealthy interest) are beginning to get used to such collaborations, beginning to see it as normal aspect of a business growing up; understanding that there is a need for an outfit such as Founders to get an injection of cash under the right conditions. Some fans, especially those who go dewy-eyed at the thought of exchanging a few words with a head brewer whilst bagging a one-off brewed with echinacea or whatever, might feel let down in the spirit of fan ownership, but I reckon the majority of people who drink Founders beers will continue to drink their beers.

For an intriguing aside to fan worship of brewers see Tomme Arthur’s column in November’s AAB.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Landscape

So what influence does the landscape have on this brewery’s beers and the way it carries out its business? How has this land, this flat, featureless, tree-shy landscape been prevalent in the brewers’ collective minds when it came to creating their beers and shaping their pub estate’s planning? In a train carriage I sat, having left Wainfleet, where the aromatics of the morning brew drifted over the platform as if saying farewell, looking onto the flatness of this part of eastern Lincolnshire, a land some might call monotonous, but I find beautiful in the bleak, seemingly barren face it presents to the world. It’s a land of endless horizons; a land stitched with channels of water; a land flattened with vast, dark ploughed, shorn stalked fields, clumps of trees and in the distance, the pillars of church towers and the collected colonies of compact villages.

I think of communities hidden away in valleys, enclosed in by mountains, and imagine that this location keeps minds and currents of thought equally closed. Then I think of this part of east Lincolnshire, in which Bateman’s Brewery has its home, and wonder if the wide open spaces engenders a sense of freedom and a Marco Polo-like need to explore; or conversely, could it breed a need to pull up the drawbridge, to shake a fist at the world and venture into this same world, prickly and pumping up the volume as the beers are introduced into this world.

Of course, the landscape, if it does influence the way Bateman’s views the world, this landscape is just one feature that helps in their direction: the beer market, the beers the brewers drink and read about, the market trends and the customers’ preferences in Bateman’s pubs (of which there are 60 or so I am told and once there was one in Bethnal Green, but like Carthage it is no more) all have an input in the way Bateman’s passes through this world.

After a day spent in the company of Jaclyn and Stuart Bateman, engaged in a tour and time spent looking around the brewery, tasting the beers and gleaning scraps of information from head brewer Martin Cullimore, I’m inclined to think Marco Polo rather than an inclination to pull up the drawbridge. As Stuart Bateman and I investigate a bottle of the barley wine BBB that was brewed in 1975 and then match it with the 2013 Vintage, whose added ingredient included time well spent in a port barrel, we talk beer, brewing, touch on trends, discuss American hops (the brewery were using them in 2003 or even earlier I seem to remember), future beers, a multiplicity of ingredients (black pepper, dried orange skin, cocoa nibs), key kegs (this is booming for them) and fermentation. The BBB has spent 39 summers in this dark bottle, it was a beer that Bateman’s finished brewing in 1975 because demand was descending, but at the time some cases were put away for Stuart Bateman’s 18th birthday in 1978 and then these cases were promptly forgot about until 2010. The beer has aged well, it gleams in the glass with its sleek chestnut-burgundy tones; there’s a sherry-like character on the palate, flighty, light, sprightly, joined by sultanas, raisins, and a touch of alcoholic fire. The 2013 Vintage, whose recipe is the same as BBB’s, is rich and bracing, port-like, nutty, chocolaty and a solemn foil to its ancient cousin.


But let us not forget the workaday beers, the beers that Martin Cullimore and his team produce day in day out: XB, XXXB, Salem Porter and so on. A glass of the session beer XB has a sweetness mid palate and a ring, a chime of jelly-like fruitiness, a delicacy, movement seen out of the corner of the eye, a brush from a feather before its dry sardonic finish. It’s not a boldly flavoured, vividly hopped beer — instead, it’s balanced and ineffable in its attraction. And so in the Red Lion out in the countryside, this flat featureless countryside between Boston and Wainfleet, I sit in a pub that has the feel of a large, comfortable front room, furnished with blanquettes, tables and chairs and comfortable sofas, while in the adjoining restaurant over 40 people have gathered to drink a wake to one of their own, and I drink XB with Jaclyn Bateman and think of how much character goes into this glass of beer. And later on, after a night spent carousing with Bateman’s people at the brewery’s Visitor Centre, this home to old brewery artefacts, ancient brewing books and a massive collection of bottled beers, I now start to wonder what influence people have the way Bateman’s conduct their business and brew their beers.

People, landscape, trends, traditions, tastes: so many influences on the way a brewery goes its way in the world; and I’m still seeking the answers to my questions.

I was invited to the brewery, ate lunch, drank beer and slept it all off in one of the brewery cottages; such is life.

In this cider pub

In this cider pub there is the smell of a dozen ciders slumbering in their boxes, a sweaty, vinegary, sour, wine-like, pungent, otherworldly, half-pleasing, half-repulsive aroma, cheese-like, Parmesan perhaps, the relic of decay in the air allied to the dereliction of daytime duty that drinking cider in this ambience of insolence implies. I order a beer.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Drunk

What does a drunkard sound like? He or she might be incredibly fine in the way the words are chosen, but these same words will betray their state of inebriation: beautiful and gracious make their bows but the presence of phrases such as so clean and oh fuck no presage a descent, a ladder on which the language slides down, untidy, apocalyptic, like a town drunk tumbling down a hill, comical, Laurel & Hardy, Norman Wisdom (and then it becomes sinister when we hear the poke of the aluminium walking stick with its rubber stopper as its keeper Long-John-Silvers their way about the floor).

But on the other hand, let us hear another drunken person, the need to explain Nietzsche, the neediness of the enervated would-be intellectual, the expert on the Hungarian revolution, the rock critic yet to emerge from their shell; the rocking horse too and fro of outlandish opinion that always ends up in a cul-de-sac of the mind; another aspect of the drunkard, the splurge of words, the urge and surge of words that sometimes make sense but more often than not don’t make sense.

So what does this mean to beer, what does this mean to those who drink beer? You can get drunk, merry, smashed, wasted and wanton on beer; beer is not special, beer is not sparing of those that fill their mouths and bellies with its slow flow of sweet, bitter, luscious, sensual, bracing moments; beer like wine like gin like methylated spirits gets you drunk, is no respecter of traditions or trends, is and can be a berserker on the battlefield. 

I have been drunk, you might have been drunk, you might have thrown words about with the abandonment of a child at a kids’ party who decides that the red Smarties have to die, but to look on the bright side of life it’s a state of change, a mission impossible, a missive to the world that the order of things has been upturned, that you are drunk. And that change of things, that revolutionary nature of being, that darkness made visible can be good, a disordering of the senses as some French bloke once wrote.

And then there comes a time like tomorrow, for we are talking about tomorrow, the drunk will be changed, reversed into sobriety, uninterested in Nietzsche, tumbledown Dick no longer, clean and sober and as happy as the eternal Larry.

Until next time.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

There is a certain romance

This is a glass of Christmas Ale, Harveys’ Christmas Ale, as taken in a small measure in the sampling room at the brewery. This is a glass of the powerful, spicy, smooth, sweet, vanilla-almond, nutty, fiery Christmas Ale, which I enjoyed in the company of Harveys’ Miles Jenner, one of the most elegant and urbane brewers I know. The beer is potent and its potential for making me sleep after Christmas lunch is leviathan-like. Outside, while we drink the beer, the men and the women of the brewery are at work: checking the boil, maintaining the fermentation (and look at that lovely rocky head that signals the ascent of Harveys’ Best Bitter, one of the greatest expressions of this English beer style that I know), clanging barrels together after they’ve been steam-cleaned, directing nozzles into barrels in the racking room, the quotidian work of a brewery that those who reason brewing is a romance forget about. 

But then there is a certain romance in a vision of the tower brewery, designed by William Bradford, the same guy who brought Hook Norton to life in the 19th century; there is a certain romance in Jenner’s insistence on sticking to UK hops and the more local the better; there is a certain romance in the nature of the brewing liquor, a hard water that comes from two onsite brewery wells and there is definitely a romance in the idea of the rain falling on the South Downs within which Lewes sits and this rain taking 30 years to percolate through the ground and become the liquid that Harveys draws up for its beers; there is a certain romance about the copper-faced mash-tun from 1954 (bought at an auction after its former owners from Croydon closed); there is even a certain romance about the dome-like copper, which puts me in mind of Jules Verne and 10,000 Leagues beneath the Sea; there is also a certain romance about the story behind the yeast strain that Harveys use, a strain that arrived on the train from John Smith in the 1950s thanks to a brewing chemist on his hols who said that said variety was a good ’un and, which even though it has mutated and mutated over the decades, visitors from the north still pick up what they say is a Yorkshire character on the beers that Harveys brew; and yes there is a romance about the Russian Imperial Stout that Harveys brew, a romance in the three hour boil (as opposed to 75 minutes for their other beers) and certainly a romance in that this beer is going to be aged in wooden barrels supplied by a Portuguese and Crimean wine-makers. So for this moment or two let us remember the romance that exists in brewing as well as the day-to-day work that makes the brewing of beer possible.



Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Zlý Časy and beer help me slip the bonds of surly life

Rambousek Tmavý Speciál, oh you’re a beautiful beer, a selfless shadowy shaman of a beer, a sirens’ call to the senses of a beer — and that swish of a sound in the corner is the sound of my senses being thrown all over as I sally forwards to the bar to order another tall, lean glass of this raven-black, earthy-chocolate, autumnal-smoky, creamy beer, whose appeal and feel nails me within this bar for far longer than I’d planned. But then I’m in Zlý Časy and oh Zlý Časy you are one of my most beloved bars in mainland Europe — oh don’t worry Moeder, Arendsnest or Ma Che I still love you lot to bits, it’s just I’m in Prague at the moment.

This is a beloved place where I can sit or even skulk in the basement bar where I always feel at home, a homely space where drinkers gather about the bar with the air of those for whom drinking beer is an urgent and important business, as it is for me on this night when like the attraction of the peste in Camus’ best book I cannot let Rambousek Tmavý Speciál go (or can I just briefly?).

Around me, all are engaged in the buying of beer in preparation to the drinking of beer, a variety of beers, including the magnificent Pivovar Matuška, where I had spent a fascinating afternoon that day in the company of brewer Adam, for whom there are three things in the world: ‘baseball, beer and my girlfriend.’ It’s good to hear that beer folk have something beyond the world of the glass.

But back in Zlý Časy, I briefly turned my back, on Rambousek and grabbed a glass of Brauerie Griess’ Keller, a beer serpentine in its service from a small wooden barrel that sat on the bar, a benevolent uncle from across the border in Bavaria, a sweet malt nose, a dry and bitter finish, an elegant style of herbal aromatics, though its bitter finish at which (and with) I kept smiling time and time again reminded of a beery back-slapping bawdiness.

But oh Rambousek Tmavý Speciál it’s time for another glass and as I pounce on its raven-black, earthy-chocolate, autumnal-smoky, creamy essence drinkers about me continue in the urgent business of buying beer, while a guffaw of a laugh from the man on the next table reminds me of the sight of steam from a newly awoken train, intermittent signals that something is happening outside in the world. The evening passes, voices rise and fall like waves before they crash onto the shore; there is no climax here, just a continuous rise and fall that eventually comes to an end with the calling of last orders, an event that causes nature to crack and sunders the natural world, the world of the pub shut down and brought to its unjustified end. But on the other hand, I want to enjoy Rambousek Tmavý Speciál on another day or evening like this and so I head out to get my tram and remind myself that for an evening I have slipped the bonds of surly life.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A book shaped like a bottle



World Bottled Beers. I’ve never done a book like this before, a book shaped like a bottle, slipped into the pocket easily, but shaped like a bottle. But then I’m a writer in love with words so for me the words are what matter with this book that’s shaped like a bottle. There are 50 beers in this bottle-shaped book, beers from around the world, beers that have shaped the way I view and drink beer and beers that I have always loved. It’s not an easy book to write because I find it hard to pick 50 beers and there’s another 50 beers waiting in the wings and then another, but then I tell a lie, a beer book is always an easy book to write because you keep telling yourself that you’re being paid for writing about something that often comes upon one like a divine wind, reeled in like a fish on a hook. This is a book of words and images, a list if you like, oh yes it’s a list (so look away now), a book, bottle-shaped let us not forget, that features such stars as Magic Rock, Camden, Kernel, Birrificio Italiano, Stone & Wood, Lost Abbey, Stone, Grado Plato and of course the beer before which I lose all reason Orval. This year has been a book writing fest (or test) with a Revolution, a bottle-shaped hole in my soul, 50 contributions to 1001 Restaurants, and in the next couple of days the final filing for the history of the International Brewing Awards — yep, writing about beer, food, travel and how they all combine for a pre-match huddle can be such fun. Sometimes. 
The bottle-shaped book seems to have a life of its own, it feels a bit like where’s Wally sometimes, as it flits around my bookshelves. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Beer Mormons will want their addresses

Reading comments about the New Yorker cover where someone with a hat on his head and a smirk on the face presents a beer to someone else is a bit depressing; it’s the New Yorker for a start, which is one of those magazines that I didn’t know was still going (and besides who has the time to read it?). I think it’s great. It’s beer and it doesn’t look fusty. It’s not got people getting legless and it represents beer as something more than wallop. However I don’t understand why it needs to be dissected and its inaccuracies pointed out with such a weird fervour. The magazine is not part of beer culture, and those people who see the cover won’t realise that there exists this tribe of people who weep over beer style inconsistencies and argue with themselves late into the night over beer; on seeing the cover they might start thinking about beer for themselves and although they might not go for a beer whose hop constituent compares to the amount of ordnance dropped on Dresden they might be encouraged to invest in something other than a beer that vaguely resembles something ants spray over each other for fun (however I just realised that beer Mormons will want their addresses so that they can knock on the door and ask them if what they are drinking is craft or whatever and can they have their dead relatives names for inclusion on the craft register?). 

So the next thing — does this mean that craft beer or whatever you want to call it is recognised? Possibly but there seems something needy in the necessity of so many people who blog about beer to make clear their displeasure about it — it’s as if they want to censure every independent media’s comment on the ‘craft beer community’. I presume the NY is independent and doesn’t seek to show its comments or cartoons on various events to every ‘community’ out there? I must admit, given the hysterical response to the Let there be an app out there or whatever it’s called (which I haven’t seen not because I’m against it but because I’m rather busy and it also has no bearing on the writing on beer that I do — I’m quite interested in people rather than ad campaigns) and the raft of complaints about the New Yorker cover, it feels like those in beer want to be treated special, that they should have the right to look at every ad campaign and mag cover that mentions beer. Hey we’re a community (everyone’s a community these days, even the cannibals down the road). It makes beer people, of whatever intensity they inspect beer with, whether it’s flighty and flirty or with the devotion of a monk looking for angels on a pinhead, look rather strange. For the record I thought the NY cover great, but it’ll be forgotten in a week or so, apart from those who communicate about beer. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

No more

No more can I faithfully transcribe the voices of the pub — I cannot bring to the written word the laughter and the humour and the lap and the dance of people’s voices and the ebb and the flow of the currents of debate and relay the way in which people relate and create late into the night. No more can I faithfully transcribe the voices of the pub — the peal of words chiming away like the call of the church come the morning after, the wink and the nod of lovers, lowing and throwing shapes in the half light in the corner, the Spandau-like burst of words cutting through the air and the sudden sharp gleam of light from a glass of golden beer that jets through the murk in which I find myself late at night in the gloom of Leuven. No more can I faithfully transcribe the moods of the pub — the glance shared, a glare or a snare, a head on a shoulder, a yawn or a clown, a bore or maybe, just maybe, the core of conversation in which we find either poetry or a dysentery of words. No more can I faithfully transcribe the voices of the pub.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Because it tastes good and smells enticing

Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories is one of my favourite cook-books, full of great recipes, musings on food and dotted throughout the book with compact capsules about some of the author’s favourite chefs and cookery writers such as George Perry-Smith and Elizabeth David. However, as I browsed through it this morning in search of something for the weekend I came across this paragraph that opens the introduction; it occurs to me that if I substituted brewing for cooking, beer for food and drunk for eaten then I would have my manifesto for beer.

‘Good cooking, in the final analysis, depends on two things: common sense and good taste. It is also something that you naturally have to want to do well in the first place, as with any craft. It is a craft, after all, like anything that  is produced with the hands and senses to put together an attractive and complete picture. By “picture”, I do not mean “picturesque”: good food is to be eaten because it tastes good and smells enticing.’ 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Revolution

Two books on beer in the next month, out there; one, November 17, World Bottled Beers, is a song of praise to 50 great beers, of which I will write further; the other, tomorrow’s the day, co-ordinated and co-written with Roger Protz, Britain’sBeer Revolution, a snapshot of now, David Hemmings at the lens, profiles of breweries and beers featured, the likes of which include the likes of Siren, Magic Rock, Thornbridge, Kernel, Fyne, Meantime, Fullers, Adnams, London, blogging, barley and plenty of people. We’ve tried to be vivid in our writing, tell the tales of the men and women who stand aside the mash, driven to derive flavour and savour from the beer they make.


It’s a book about revolution in which the old is overthrown, the new is brought in, amid the noise and chaos of the mob, the execution of the ruling classes, the constant rumble of the wheel of revolution as new victims are sought, the dissolution of the dissonant, the death of the dead. Well sort of.

Our revolution: a greater demographic of people drinking beer, drinking all kinds, unaware and unabashed whether it be keg, cask or drawn straight from a pumpkin; the Sven the Unready beard, the radioactive winkle-picker, the psychedelic short back and sides, the Dresden shepherdess drainpipe, who cares, I certainly don’t, the stuff I’ve worn in order to belong (jeans ribbed and unwashed for a year, for instance); the Sensurround of flavour, the taking apart of tradition and the snap crackle and pop of aroma; and then the digs at the old, the daubs of the walls of the old, the hauling in of the tribes, beer revolution.

It’s also about evolution: gradually, unperceptive, glacier smooth in its passage, the new beers and brewers emerge, the big parade passed by, an easy going emergence, here we are, saison, stoutly done, no fuss, no furore, here we are, new beers for old.

It’s also about devolution: we want to do a Belgian Quad so we’ll do it our way if you don’t mind, if it’s all the same to you, thank you very much; a Victorian mild, an oatmeal wild, a sour-smiled gyle, we did it our way. Devolution max.

Elocution: here’s a Pilsner, a Spezial, a Kellerbier, a Rauch, a Bock, a Dunkel, a beer that has nowhere to hide, the received pronunciation of brewing and beer, the hardest challenge a brewer can surmount, lager. 

Britain’s beer revolution has many faces, and no doubt some of its children will be devoured, but there’s no going back now.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Happy

I have seen these beers at the break of day. Commonplace, grey, staid and staying in the memory (for the wrongest reasons); a flash and a flush of bubbles on the tongue, a brisket of carbonic acid house on the roof of the mouth, the brief guff of sweet-corn on the nose (shake-a-leg there), crooked lagers croaking for customers in need of non-reflective refreshment. And it’s in this pub there and where these beers grimace at the bar-top, beery yobs leaning at the counter, come-and-drink-us clowns leering and cheering the nature of brinkmanship. And it’s to this pub I retire for a final beer before the night completely begins its progress towards the end. At the bar-top, having scanned the scowls of low-browed brands, a factory-handled Farange of brands that abandoned their homes in Burton, Glasgow, Northampton early one morning, I order a Guinness, a simple action, a stout that is purely one act, one note, irreversible in its decline, but now, at this time of night, in this part of town, it’s a beer that sounds chimes within the soul. Five minutes pass, the beer poured, the foam soared and then stopped and then topped and then passed past the sour-faced brands of crooked lager and I invest myself with a table and chair in the midst of this big chubby-faced club of a pub in which I feel myself both home and alone. A scattering of men, yes it’s mainly men, swapping tales of turmoil on scaffolds, down-he-went-broke-his-leg-like-it-was-an-egg, in a Yorkshire brogue, thick, yeasty, tarry-voiced, a contrast to the draught of Happy emerging like air from a juke-box that stands, hands on hips, bold as brass, beneath an altar-like scene of TV screen, upon which Gareth Bale, Alice-band intact, gurns and turns and shoots…but doesn’t score. Ah, the Guinness, creamy and in the theme of stout, watery coffee, a finish that fails to find a backer, a funder, a clouder, but in this ineluctable moment there’s something about this pub that brands me to it, that makes me want to join in and sing with Pharrell. Happy.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Beer with a view

A flight of pigeons, Venice echoed, Don’t Look Back, St Mark’s Square perhaps, wheel in the tight space above Christmas Steps, while the backbeats of some dance tune, I know not what, whirl from somewhere amongst the slow, jerky trail of Friday evening traffic down below the balcony on which I sit. A bruised gold glass of English — Bristolian — Pilsner stands sentinel-straight on my table as I watch both birds and cars make their different shapes in and above the space we call a street. I like Bristol’s Zero Degrees, I like the stainless steel vessels, the lagering tradition and the temptation of time; I like the quiescence of a brand that doesn’t really shout but still makes great beer (and wood-fired pizza too). As I sit and gulp my Pilsner, a glass of beer that brims to the rim with Saaz spice and niceness, its brisk and frisky character gambolling on the palate, and its bracing bitter finish putting me in mind of Zatec 12˚, I enjoy the view of an irregular roof-scape of turrets, chimneys and spires and another sip later, and a turn of the head, take in the contrast to the clean and angled shapes within Zero Degrees. Sometimes a beer with a view is all I need.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

In the US for the first time


In the US for the first time in the summer of 96. In Cambridge, on the learned side of Boston, and let’s go for lunch I said to my wife. A scan on the internet had suggested a brewpub, Cambridge Brewing, and in we went. Massive plates of enchiladas, beef slathered with cheese, and a flight of tastings, three beers (pale ale, amber, wheaten), to be followed by a pint of the brewery’s Tall Tale Pale Ale, my favourite, and as I wrote blithely in my journal later in the day: ‘a style of beer which seems to be very popular among the micro-brewing fraternity’. And looking at that day 18 years ago I have also written down Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which I seem to remember being more expensive than the local beers — it was a familiar beer and I vaguely recall feeling as if I was cheating by drinking something I already knew. During the trip I also had beers from Rogue, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Harbour Bay breweries according to my journal. My first American craft beers in America and later on in the year my first printed beer article in What’s Brewing. I now wonder if America was the catalyst that made me want to somehow articulate my own thoughts about the world of beer. Sounds familiar. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

It’s in London

It’s in London and it’s by a canal, a canal whose surface is a skin of softly spoken repression and has a kinship with the flutter of air that strokes and pokes the skin of water and sometimes makes the house-boats bump against each other like beasts at a waterhole.

It’s in London and there’s the tut-tut, looking-through-the-curtains rhythm of machines across the canal, the movement of hi-visibility yellow, the governance of the land as this part of Hackney Wick keeps being developed. 

It’s in London and there’s a van, and a man with another man, clanging kegs and casks, the lion and the lamb, the van picking up beer that’s ready to stake its reputation right out there on the Margate pier that London’s beer arena has become. Crate Golden Ale, a glowing glass of goodness that revitalises a style I, day to day, find so unawesome but Crate Golden Ale turns things topsy-turvy and makes me glad to have found it.

It’s in London and there’s a gleaming glass of dark golden beer, held in front of me, a refreshing zip and spritz on the tongue, an amber-sweet cloud of comfort that reminds me of lying down in a warm meadow, with a sob of hop and a Beretta shot of bitterness in the finish. Truman’s Runner.

And outside in the street a once pub, once called the Lord Napier, stands on the corner, blitzed —a word abroad in the manor 70 odd years ago — with colour and words spread across its façade, jam on toast, now closed, boarded and shut, a sign of the cross to Crate, where the van with the man and the other man with the kegs and casks of beer, the lion and the lamb, pick up the beer.

And somewhere in London, somewhere where the postcode signifies a city, someone sets up a mash tun and boom it’s…

Thursday, 4 September 2014

I’m in

On beer writing, or should that be beer-writing? So what’s in it for me, what’s the tin medal that I can pin on my sleeveless shirt when the day is done? So what’s in it for me to trim down words, throw down words, claw shapes like clown’s eyes and bring words along and place them on a blank white space with the idle hope that they make sense when posted into a box marked media? It’s only beer after all; this is the echo that reverberates through the known universe though I quite like the bounce back I get in the glass I have right now — raspberries, nine grains, pepper, a beer that repelled all boarders on first taste but grew and threw out all manner of intriguing shapes and words (Rubus Maximus if you must know, a deep skittle of musky, peppery,  fruity, tart and embracingly sour notes rolling down the wooden alleyway ready to strike all before them).

Talking? No let’s get this correct, I am talking, am going to write to be perfectly honest, writing then, about why I write about beer. Not, please note, evangelising, converting, offering consent and benedictions about beer — that will be left to the bereft who came briefly and recently to beer and thought a mission was needed, lessons be its name, in the name of the holy mash tun etc etc; no I don’t do it.

It’s an urge and a need to acquire the skill of a surgeon, to peel back the skin of beer, to see beneath, often to recoil and wait for the bus home but also to lie down in green pastures and summon up a total recall of why I started writing about beer and fell in love with it. It’s about miles taken, oceans and seas crossed, cities decanted into a notebook.

You can’t fall in love with beer, you can fall in love with the idea of beer, the ideal, the deal even, the seal that is stamped on your soul when you decide that writing about beer is something you might like to direct your life in the direction of.

And so I think, what do I receive when I ride like Paul Revere in the direction of beer, headlong into its embrace, letting it tread and trace all over my working life? Beer is more than an alcoholic notion for me, it’s a commotion in the soul, it’s the pub as coal, warming but on the verge of being extinct; but when it’s gone people will cry and smart phone their cries. Too late.

Beer writing. It’s people, it’s people who don’t get it right, who do get it right, who go off the rails, who rail against this and that; it’s people. It’s countries and of course it’s the cities and it’s the beers that the countries and cities inspire and fire up in the rush to sundering apart what has gone before.

And if I was being prosaic about why beer moves me enough to spend my working life writing about it I would say: people, the steeple like seriousness that is their history and its roots but there is also the Treebeard-like flexibility of each family who comes along and slaps the instinctive card down on the table and says yes, we are going that way instead of that way. 

In a continuation of the prosaic: beer has people, it has buildings, it has cities, it has countries, it has monarchs, it has a gastronomic tradition, both flitting between high and low and it is also the character at the docks with the much travelled suitcase as well as the stumbler in the station waiting to head off on a journey they’re not sure on as well as the secure-in-his-or-her station as they look through their wallet and worry not a jot; it is beer and it is clear that there is so much more to be said about it. I’m in.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

105 words in praise of beer

I’ve drunk beer in Brattleboro and Burlington, taken it too in Boston, in a bar in upstate Maine, but not in New York; I’ve drunk deeply in St Petersburg, fleetingly and fearful in Moscow, searched for it in Krakow, dialled it in in Prague, Plzen, Cesky Krumlov and Chodovar; I’ve devoured it in Munich, inspected it in Berlin, caned it in Paris, lost myself in it in Dublin, fed on it in London and let it in in Milan, Rome and Bologna, discovered it in Malaga, Zagreb and some small village in the Dordogne — and do you know what, it’s never let me down.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Jilly Goulden, lager and Westmalle

It seems to me that there’s a lot of anger and irritation rippling through the beer hive these days, easy offence being taken about this label or that or whatever, while exasperations erupt because a competition result went one way and not the other and heaven forbid if brewers don’t do what the zeitgeist is telling them what they should do. However, after looking at wine writer Jilly Goolden’s lager piece in the Mail today I’m tempted, just briefly, to join the hive. Why? I’m not bothered about the fact that the paper asked a wine writer to dissect lager (I’m still waiting for the wonderful world of wine to let a beer writer prattle on about premier crus), I mean it’s been going on for years and who am I to say who a commissioning editor should commission; the issue that has caused a disturbance in the force for me is the addition of Westmalle Tripel in a piece about lagers. I think there’s a clue in the beer style, Trappist Ale. There will be some who say that it’s good to have beer in the newspapers whatever tripe people write, but I’m not sure about that. On the other hand I’ll be suggesting a wine column, I hear Chateauneuf du Pape is a gorgeous summertime spritzer, full of brisk, bubbly emotion, light on the palate and ideal with prawns. Mild rant over, I’ve left the hive.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Cordiality

‘Of the various impressions that I carried away from this Exhibition (the Brewers Exhibition 1910), one in particular I treasure as an abiding memory. Cordiality — that seemed to me to be the dominant note of the show. When I find among teetotallers the same bonhomie, good humour and friendliness that I discovered among my brewer friends, I shall begin to think that the creed of total abstinence has something to say for itself, But I fancy I shall have to wait a long time.’ 

Brewers Gazette 1910
This was inspired by the fact that I have spent the last two days judging beers at two different competitions, in the company of a variety of beer writers, brewers and publicans. Over a century on after the above was written nothing thankfully seems to have changed — there still exists an admirable sense of cordiality when beery folk come together. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Turns loudspeaker from the past on

There is nothing new under the sun, as I think most people with an interest in beer know — this is from the County Brewers’ Gazette 1902 — couple of things come to mind, someone was thinking about beer is the new wine at the start of the 20th century, while the hops used in IPA were a bit of a moveable feast (and given I’m about to spend the day judging beer at the second round of the World Beer Awards, that’s a lot to think about). 

‘We have already mentioned that the Belgian beers are from a very interesting class. Among them will be found a curious beverage known as Gueuze Lambic, which is brewed in a very novel manner, the wort being placed into yeasty casks, and fermentation set up by many yeasts, wild or otherwise, that may be available. The finished Lambic, when mixed with sugar, has a flavour somewhat resembling cider. Another variety of this beer is called Kricken Lambic, and is flavoured with cherries. It has quite a vinous taste, and the manner of serving it — the bottle being placed in a wicker basket — is also suggestive of wine rather than beer. Faro — the beverage of the working classes in Belgium — is also shown, together with many beers of the Munich and Pilsener type. Sweden sends a porter, which resembles the London type, and was brewed, we understand, from Messrs. John Plunkett’s Dublin malt.

‘The samples of Indian beer represent the manufactures of Messrs. E Dyer and Co, of Lucknow and Solan. The India Pale Ale of this firm, which is brewed on the Burton system, with the aid of ice, from English and German hops and Indian barley, was a very creditable production indeed.’

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Brewery fresh

A dog, a chocolate coloured Springer, bouncy and boisterous, straining at the leash held by a man leaning at the bar, attention on his paper and pint, greets a woman who makes a fuss and gifts him a treat. There’s a rumble, a polite clang perhaps, as a man pushing a porter’s trolley upon which a cask reclines, Cleopatra-like on a divan, enters the door of the pub, en route to the cellar. He’ll be back with another in a few minutes, taking his time to cross the street back to the brewery, from whose tall chimney I’d seen smoke, Vatican-white, twist and rise before entering this pub, which is just across the road. At the back of the bar, recumbent, less Cleo, more Bolt in the blocks, ready for the start off, I scan a quartet of casks, from which my glass of Sussex Best Bitter comes. Oh how I do love this beer that comes from the brewery across the road, with its pungent, sulphury, musky nose and bittersweet, citrus, deep rich palate; how I do love this beer with its broad, almost monochromatic sense of bitterness and hoppiness, though there’s a friendly malt sweetness that stops its deep booming nose from being the beery equivalent of that bit in the Magic Flute where Sarastro’s bass seems to descend into the pit. Meanwhile at the table, where the windows overlook the sluggish Ouse, the sound of birdsong drifts in through the window as well as — gleefully I note — the occasional scent of the boil, tendrils of weeds outstretched in the river’s current. The dog lies down, excitement still for a moment, the man at the bar continues with his paper and glass of cider, while around the fireplace, whose deep seats at each end were once a mash tun, a man and a woman, elderly, having taken an exit from their shopping, turn to each other and toast the day with a glass of Sussex Best Bitter. Quietly, unobtrusively, I join them. Meanwhile, the noise of a porter’s trolley rumbles through the room again, as the man from the brewery across the road brings in another cask for the cellar.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dreaming and drinking


I believe in the redemptive power of a glass or two of beer, the power perchance to dream when the beer and its outrider of alcohol changes my mood, makes me think but slows down the sudden blink of thought, and links the grey skies, beneath which I drink my beer in a pub garden that for the last 20 minutes has been talismanic in its silence, to a memory, a painting, a piece of music, a mood in a novel (for now I’l take Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony but on another day it might be Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir or TS Eliot’s bequest for you and I to go). I do believe in the resourcefulness of a glass or two of beer that drops the labels and the clutter and swings open the shutters on another way of viewing the world, whether it’s the frayed gold of a shorn field of barley or the faraway band of green and brown of hills I’ll never walk. I do so believe in the hand on the shoulder that a glass or two of beer brings, the coiled spring of words sprung, the eternal and vernal drive towards the herd of friendship that a glass of two of beer can bring, the connected words, the did you know and what was it like when and the how are you and the would you like another, the whirring of words, seeds in the air, the release of which a glass or two of beer begins. That is all why I do so justly, undiluted and unjilted believe in the redemptive power of a glass or two of beer. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Are you a beer man or a cider man?


Are you a beer man or a cider man? Stentorian and fruity, in the sunny river-facing space of the pub in which I sat,  the words floated over my shoulders and disturbed my reading of an old copy of Granta about death and dying. My father enjoyed his beer, came the reply from the woman behind me. Her husband (I presume) said that he preferred wine but was enjoying the glass of cider, for after all aren’t we in cider country (even though I had my back to them I can sense a theatrical wave of the hand). I have always seen pubs as something akin to those pre-radar concrete sound detectors from the 1920s that were thought ideal to pick up the drone of approaching aircraft, reflectors of sound from the people around. It’s one of the most entertaining parts of pub life and I’m sure my own voice often becomes part of the saloon bar song. Are you a beer man or a cider man?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Beer and music, music and beer

I used to think beer and music, music and beer was about drinking bucketfuls of Holsten Pils alongside Iggy’s Gimme Danger or contemplating a deep and virtuous barley wine accompanied by Edmund Rubbra’s beautiful Passacaglia and Fugue from his 7th symphony. Otherwise I didn’t pay it much attention.

However, that all changed last week when I was invited to a music and beer matching event hosted by beer writer Pete Brown; it was entitled Why do guitars taste like hops? and about how certain pieces of music can affect the beer you taste. This is something Brown has being pursing for a while, and he has been joined in his research by academic Charles Spence, who is (take deep breath) Professor of Experimental Psychology & University Lecturer, Somerville College Oxford (I did rather blot my copy book when I said to him: Somerville, isn’t that the women’s college?), and Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory.

So before I think and drink deeply, what else is there to know? Oh we were in a private dining room at Michelin star restaurant Quilon restaurant in Westminster, where Brown paired six beers with five pieces of music.

At the start there was some interesting stuff about how certain pieces of music bring their own mood: the Jaws’ theme is probably the most famous. There was stuff about the complexity of taste, about how there are trillions of aromas and how our brains decode chemical signals, all of which I’m probably not doing enough justice to — but then I got thrown out of Physics O-level and scraped through a Chemistry CSE (aka Certificate for Simple Escalopes).

So on we went — first of all starting with Goose Island 312 and Blue Moon with Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. I’m not a Neil Young fan, I think the only piece of work by him I know is something from 1980, can’t even remember the name, but I do remember that when I was a music journalist he was a big noise with the hipsters. Both the beers for me are moderate but what I did find interesting was that Blue Moon edged it; drunk when the music was playing it seemed to have a fuller flavour than when the music wasn’t playing. The 312 was thin and that is all there is to say about it — even Metallica couldn’t have roused it.

Duvel and the Pixies Debaser — this pairing seemed to bring out the beer’s bitterness, something that I hadn’t noted before (at this stage my notebook has the phrase ‘Status Quo on Ketamine’); it made the beer less elegant, which is a good thing. It made me think of a smelly leather jacket (I used to own one). Again I refer to my notes: ‘the Duvel feels soiled…’ Again a good thing.

Liefmans Cuvée Brut cherry beer and an acid house track from Voodoo Ray, A Guy Called Gerald. I wasn’t sure about this one, but then perhaps I couldn’t overcome my antipathy to the cherry beer, while I recall acid house made me feel I wanted to take on an army, I would have gone for a more aggressive beer, an imperial IPA? But that’s me, I never did do peace and love. But again referring to my notes what I did like was the fact that I was being challenged, I wasn’t a nodding donkey.

Finally we got to try Chimay Blue and Fuller’s Vintage 2011 with Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower. I felt that the Chimay became thinner during the Debussy though the Fuller’s Vintage was like a Tiger tank ripping through the forests when drunk with Hendrix.

And that was that: the evening continued but I was left with a host of thoughts and questions about how this all worked. It is fascinating stuff and thoroughly challenging; also it’s indicative of how some beer writers are trying to work out a different way of articulating what we drink. If you get a chance to see Brown make Duvel feel soiled or Blue Moon taste palatable then I would hasten along. 





Monday, 30 June 2014

Imbibe Lager

Lager. I cannot believe that anyone who thinks and drinks beer and clinks their glass in the pursuit of a higher kind of lifestyle can believe that lager is just — to paraphrase a legion of people, a battalion of self-knowing buzzards, who perhaps also believe that Germans are not very nice and that the sun is a colony of lizards — yellow fizz; the idiocy of this position, the simplicity and the laughable lack of knowledge about lager is something that has always bugged me, something that has almost, you could say, haunted me from the time when I started writing about beer. I can hear the words rattle like Marley’s chains, ‘I don’t like lager, it’s yellow fizz, full of chemicals, foreign rubbish, and anyway doesn’t following the bear lead to cancer (or at least the annexation of the Crimea)?’

I still hear these sorts of sentiments from various people, some of them who purport to know about beer, but all I am hearing is a continent-closed-by-fog-in-the-channel attitude that suspects lager is the spawn of a lederhosen-wearing devil with a dirndl for a pelmet. For these people lager is a misanthropic liquid that crushed all before it like Genghis Khan and is now content to squat on the roof of the world like a malevolent toad. So who am I to deny them?

On the other hand, what kind of lager do they believe is yellow fizz? Perhaps it’s a Helles with its soft bready aroma and gentle carbonation (hey it’s the colour of the sun), or a Pilsener, a lemony, crisply bitter beer that arrays itself down the palate like a horde of horsemen crossing the Steppes; or maybe it’s a roasty, toasty, boasty East German Schwarz (though smaller German breweries’ versions I have tried recently seem to have become creamier and smoother in their mouth feel); how about a chestnut brown Dunkel with its mocha and chocolate notes or even a Bock or Doppelbock with lots of alcohol, hazelnuts, chocolate and mocha (midnight dark or cellophane blonde, take your pick)? Then there’s Keller, Zoigl, Rauch, Dortmund, Světlý Ležák, yeast lager, Spezial, dry-hopped, imperial. And then some are hopped more generously than others, while some might be darker or lighter or stronger or weaker.

So with all that in mind I can ask what’s not to like about lager – after all it’s a beer that should be a noble expression of its raw materials, a clear and clean acoustic chamber of barley and hops, the ocean breeze in a glass.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to this week’s Imbibe Live where I, along with Paddy Johnson from Windsor & Eton (makers of the exemplary Republika) will be talking about British craft lager at the Beer Academy stand on Tuesday and Wednesday. We will be tasting several examples, telling tall tales, rhapsodising, encouraging and enlivening the world (or those who are passing) on the glory of lager. If you’re around do pop over.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Connections

Two beer styles, poles apart, one is a saison blended with a gueuze, the other a double IPA — I drink one after the other, not fast, not slow, just drink, no notes, few thoughts, just pleasure. But, when I finish the double IPA I wonder about a connection between the two beers and I think about how that for many beer drinkers these two beer styles are not pleasing, not pleasure, prodding the palate a bit too much, not beer even. Gueuze, for instance, took me some time to get used to; back in the 1990s, when I first met the beer, I used to add a sugar lump or two to a glass, sweetened it, befriended it, spoilt it you might say. This practice, this sweet-toothed, tub-thumping destruction of a beer, this perceived failure of mine, came to an end as I persevered and the beer became a friend minus the sugar lump. No such doubts came along with the double IPA, though I’m not too sure when I first had one, was it Moor’s JJJ, or was it Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo or was it someone else? My palate was already poised to resinous noise through the bright bustle of IPA, but does that mean to enjoy a double IPA you have to have gone through the world of IPA first? And still I’m trying to make a connection between these two beer styles, which on first and second glance (and probably third) is a hopeless quest, but I’m still trying. Maybe it’s the beers’ expressions on the palate, the complexities I picked up without really trying (because don’t forget I was drinking not thinking), the contrapuntal motion between various flavour notes and moods in the mouth feel, the sprightly chime of light grapefruit brightness against an appetising tartness in the saison/gueuze blend, the buzzsaw of hop character, resin, deep, deep ripe orange skin against a bracing, bittersweet malt-influenced backbone of the double IPA, maybe that is the connection. To me (now) they are not difficult beers, but to others they could be, which then leads me onto another thought, what on earth is a difficult beer, is there such a thing? That is a thought for another day.

The two beers were Partizan’s Cuvee, which brewer Andy gave me the other week, and Bristol Beer Factory’s Double IPA, which they sent me last week (both exemplary beers).

Monday, 23 June 2014

Pub grub

Pub grub. 

A spiced and spiked and unctuous and rich and lubricious Moroccan mutton stew or a juicy, Jambalaya-ed Cajun chicken burger or a handsome, pig-sweet pork and apple parcel accompanied by homemade brown bbq sauce or a creamy, pleasingly pungent butter bean, goat’s cheese and asparagus salad. 

Pub grub. 

I took World Beer Awards judges to the White Lion in Norwich last week for food after a weary day’s work, the place a low-ceilinged and old-school looking pub that stands just over the river from the city centre. It’s run by Milton Brewery, which is based north of Cambridge, near to the village where a drummer in the band I was in lived until he was replaced by this chap.

Pub grub.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been sure about Milton beers and it seemed to split opinions on the night, but I have always enjoyed Marcus Aurelius and I dived straight into a glass of the ringing, chiming fruitiness of Colossus. However, it was the food that raised the flag on the night we were there — all the dishes, according to the company I kept that night, were robustly flavoured and happy to claim kinship to the sort of food you would find in a roadside French or Italian bar. The stew was lush in the way it lolled about on the tongue, while the chicken was pliant and plush as it lay in the bun. Those indifferent pubs that push pub grub could learn something from going to this pub.

Friday, 20 June 2014

The beer of the future

It’s the eighth Brewers, Maltsters, Distillers, Mineral Water Manufacturers, Licensed Victuallers, Caterers and Allied Trades National Exhibition and Market held at Agricultural Hall, Islington, in the autumn of 1886. As well as the usual stalls with brewery bits and bobs (along with the promise of a beer or two), there’s also a museum of bottles and the curiosities of bottle manufacture organised by a Mr F Foster. According to the Brewers’ Guardian of the time, only a few visit it, perhaps because, as the magazine suggests, the cost of 6d is a bit of a deterrence (visitors have already had to pay to enter the Exhibition). However, far more interesting is the report on a fringe event, the Brewers’ Congress, where a paper called The Beer of the Future is read. At the end of the talk, an agent for a particular beer insists in loud tones that ‘lager is the beer of the future’. Did he then vanish in a police box that no one saw or was he drunk or was he prescient in the way he foresaw the future of British beer? We shall never know. 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

So how do you like your beer?

So how do you like your beer? And how do you write about the beer that you like? And what do you write about the beer or think about the beer that you just happen to like? Is it delicious, perhaps deciduous in its leafiness, deconstructive in its opt-out from the common good by wearing a cloud or does it enjoy flaunting its haunting beauty like a crystal in the sun or is it down in the dumps with the trolls down the road, festive yet fetid, a cold cup of coffee grit with a grip on the pith like a clamp-like cramp. Is it gold and bold, its flavour folded and rolled, or is it coal, smoked, poked about, talked about, brought up from the ground, a glass plunged into the night? Or is it this? Primeval in its fall from grace, a lazy lump of doing nothing, a hefty, heaving groan of gluttony…



Or is it this, where the night gloats in its ability to hold back light, where the noise emerges from the glass, the chatter of bright hops, the natter and the matter and the rutting of a city on heat…

Or is it this, as peculiar as the unknown but as secure as the unknown…


There are many ways to write about beer and I’m not sure I’ll ever come to the end of finding them but I’ll keep searching (written after a day of judging beer and wondering where the words sometimes come from and if that’s enough).

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

In praise of early doors

Years ago, living in Cambridge, passing the Free Press on a sunny Saturday morning, my mate and I, noting the open door, 10.30am, popped in, with the promise of an early pint, just one, or maybe two, but as all good pub plans used to go in those long ago days, it all unravelled and we emerged, eyes blinking at the strength of the afternoon sun, at 3pm. Despite this, from then on, there emerged a love of early doors, not an obsession, but an occasional treat on a par with greeting the sunrise in June and walking through empty streets and spotting the closed curtains, the world in its temporary grave. Breakfast beer this is not, though I have come face to face with this particular phenonamena, the first time at the Six Bells brewpub in Bishops’ Castle, a visit with 11 other beer writers at 9am, a talk on mashing and fermentation expected, but heads nodding in unison as the brewer/owner Nev bellowed, ‘who’s for a breakfast beer?’.

And so, this morning, another early doors treat, en route to somewhere, and time to spare in between trains. My palate is fresh, the sun is shining and there’s an earthy, carpet-like sourness in the air of the pub into which I walk. Not unpleasant. There’s also a strain of cleaning fluid wafting through the air; a familiar aroma, of which I have a few years experience. Outside on the concourse, where the smokers often huddle conspiratorially in groups, émigrés from both the pub and the offices that tower over, imperious and insect-like in their indifference, there’s a brisk breeze and several tall banners wave and shiver in a way familiar to fans of Kurosawa’s Ran (I’m thinking the battle scenes).

‘I’m just having a second Stella, while Nan’s having a tea,’ giggles a woman draped in luridly coloured scarves, while her bare wrists shine with several bracelets. There’s a chap at the bar — a mop of hair, Ringo circa 63 just out of bed perhaps, hipster jeans, half-mast at the ankle, canvas shoes that my son and his mates wear off duty. ‘A cappuccino mate, large one, extra shot.’ The pub was quiet when I came in. It’s now beginning to fill up, voices collection and rising upwards like bees beavering away in a bush. My glass is nearly empty, a can of Sixpoint’s Bengali Tiger providing an elemental and elegant shot of hops, and the train will be ready to go in a mo. Time to leave but not before remembering that early door on a sunny morning in Cambridge.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Style

I’ve written a couple of times about London breweries, here and here, over there and over the hills, but since the time of these two articles things have raced on, taken various bends, crossed continents, frosted up arguments and then warmed and warned them up again; things have accelerated and accentuated the positive, grown up and thrown up all manner of conundrums and now there are god knows how many existent in the capital; countless amounts are capping bottles and kegging kegs, but that’s not what I want to write about.

I’m in the Dean Swift, a few moments from where Barclay Perkins used to send out beers to perk up Londoners; the Institute of Brewing and Distilling is a corner away, my happiness being a final trawl through a variety of brewing publications from the late 1950s onwards: finally I have all the results of every brewing competition for what is now the InternationalBrewing Awards since its inception in 1888 (I’m writing a book). Four cask beers and — I don’t know — six or eight craft keg beers (it’s ridiculous that I feel the need to identify the dispense system of the beers I want to choose from) face me and my throat desires the first drink of the day, the drink that I want to percolate down through my palate and whose character I want to stay around and get me to remember it in 100 years. So I chose the pub’s own branded London Lager. I ask questions. Is London Pilsner a Czech style then? No it’s a London style. I try a tasting, there’s a billowing diacetyl note that I’ve always associated with Pilsner; there’s a bite of bitterness. It’s Czech I mutter to myself, very happy that there are breweries bold enough to take on this style (it’s Portobello btw). However, what it also makes me think. So what is a London style, how can a city influence a beer style?

The next day, I’m drinking Kernel’s London Sour with founder Evin; mindful of the previous day’s thoughts about London, I’m thinking about the beer: it’s sour but not too sour, not too assertive in its sourness, but still sour enough for someone not attuned to sour beer to make a face a contorted as jazz and ask what on earth are they drinking. It’s a refreshing beer, a beer Evin tells me has Berliner Weisse, the idea of Berliner Weisse as its idea, but I then think about London Pilsner and wonder if there is such a thing as a London style.

Could there be a London style and what would be the influence? I know about the water of London and the availability of the hops and the malt, but there’s got to be more to a style than this? What about the people, what do they eat and what do they like to drink with their food? What about the climate, the temperature, the summers and the winters, the happiness and the sadness, the carefree index or the lack of care, the influence of wine, the silence of temperance, the ghosts that haunt people’s palates, the food that they eat and dream about and then there‘s the feats of strength they like to boast about and toast. All these must surely contribute to a contemporary London style? Or any style?

Monday, 16 June 2014

London, Saturday morning

London, Saturday morning. The sourness of a smile when the owner of the smile realises that life has taken a wrong turning and the profitable journey that this person, this owner of the smile, this moaner of every mile taken, thought that they were embarking on, is not the most appropriate way to describe Kernel’s London Sour. Instead, I would be thinking of an expansive smile, a hug perhaps, a friendly nudge in the ribs, a salad of avocado with mozzarella, rocket, basil upon which balsamic vinegar has been spotted, a cradle of civilised behaviour, a juicy, well-tempered kind of beer, a spike of sourness, a palate-changing game, a rounded, grounded kind of beer that tarts, rasps, fruits, Berliner Weisse’s it up like nobody’s business. Then there’s Partisan’s X-Ale, which seems to suggest the sort of beer that hopheads tremble alone at night in their garrets about. ‘It’s a Victorian mild,’ I’m told by Partisan Andy, who I originally met at the Jolly Butchers in the company of Pete Brown. He supplied the British Guild of Beer Writers with his deep and gastronomically able Quad last year, a robust cluster of dark flavours that soar out of a glass, the mast of an arc of flavours that park themselves on the palate with a mallet-hard persistence. I grew up despising mild, the skinflint’s beer as we used to say around the table in the King’s Head, northern old men’s muck, towels and hankies beer; but that gulping sound is me swallowing words, galloping backwards in time and bringing back favour: X-Ale is the kind of beer (if this mild be a beer) that lounges with a long-limbed languor, a beer full of fortitude and luxuriousness that — for once — puts mild into another, more enjoyable, bracket of sensuality. Over at Brew by Numbers the voices are throwing shapes, the voices are knowing and fateful. A man with a flat cap onto which a brace of roe deer’s antlers are embedded stands with his friends; I think I get the message. In my glass goes the Coffee Porter, which gives me a message — drink me; it’s brittle and bright, brisk and breakfast-like; a beer with which I would normally start the day perhaps? And finally I go into another railway arch, where Anspach & Hobday call themselves home and a double IPA plinys it for me, a great blast, a deep, deep well of orange, the kind of deepness in which you can imagine a Game of Thrones bad guy is thrown, alongside an ecstatic bitterness, an all encompassing bitterness perhaps, that lifts its arms to the air and thanks whatever deity it presumes to worship on this day that was a Saturday in Bermondsey.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Beer Trails: The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest: Evan Rail

The author with one of his mates
This compact e-book is a superlative piece of beer writing: I read it in one go, partly on a bike in the gym and then finished it when I got home in league with a coffee so strong that when I dropped my pen in it the damn thing floated. It’s the sort of joyful and under-the-radar beer writing full of words, phrases and sentences that bring the reader straight into the heart of the Bohemian Forest as well as create a monumental thirst for the beers of the brewery Rail writes about.

What a word Bohemian is. I used to joke that my wife and I were Bohemian, but the truth was I hadn’t cut the grass for a while or mended the skirting board I’d promised to do six months before. And then there is La Boheme, with whatshername and her tiny frozen hands (my mother’s favourite opera, I prefer Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust); lot of Bohemians there then, going hungry, getting cold and generally mooning about the place. On the other hand there’s a deeper meaning to Rail’s evocation of the Bohemian Forest — the dark, trackless places that could swallow a legion, as happen in the Teutoburg Forest where Arminius destroyed Varus. All these connections: yes it’s that good a piece of writing (and he also gets to use the word spelka).

For anyone who doesn’t know of Rail, he’s a Californian journalist/author who’s been living in Prague for a few years now (he did tell me how many when we were judging beer in Rimini earlier this year but I forgot). He wrote the CAMRA guide to Prague and the Czech Republic and writes fantastic travel pieces for the NYT and various other journals (he’s got a piece on a hacker-turned-Berliner Weiss saviour in the current issue of All About Beer). He’s also written several of these e-books, including the fabulous Why Beer Matters, In Praise of Hangovers (a real comfort on a slow journey from the aftermath of Sun in the Glass fest at Pivovar Purkmistr to Oktoberfest in 2012) and Why We Fly.

Bohemian Forest is his latest and is about Pivovar Kout na Šumavě and his search for a sacred brewing book the people that brought the shut brewery were supposed to have. It’s more than that though, to my mind being a meditation on what it is that attracts people to beer, what makes them engulf themselves in the world of beer.

This is a story that could work as either fiction or non-fiction. There’s almost something within that teeters on the edge of magical realism; there were times when I wondered if the brewery existed (it does and I have probably drank its beers with Rail in Zly Casy in Prague). A beautiful lyricism flutters through the story in alliance with a musicality that demonstrates what beer writing can be about. There are a couple of moments when the text slightly slows down, is not as flowing, but then the Thames doesn’t always flow in a way we would like it to but that doesn’t detract from its beauty.

To my mind Rail is a writer who is producing some of the best words about beer at the moment, helping (along with other writers both in print and online) to move beer writing on from its antediluvian origins, beyond its lorries and overalls, its cup cakes and ‘look a woman has a glass in her hand’ obsessions (though they do have their place). I can’t recommend this enough.

Disclosure time: I was sent this by Rail and have known him and drank deeply with him for a few years. The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest (which can be bought here for the price of a third of the tiny tears of a craft brewery) is part of a series called Beer Trails, which Rail has told me that Joe Stange and Stan Hieronymous (two other great beer writers) will also be contributing to — I look forward to it.



Thursday, 12 June 2014

Labels

Those were the days my friends and we thought the laughs would never end etc etc and so on, but here is the real past: beer labels that St Austell faced the world with in the 1980s and 90s. Smugglers Ale with the barrels, sailing ship and a lonely cove, close to a kids’ visual ideal of Cornwall; Cornish Ale, presumably made for the Jamaica Inn on Bodmin, whose parrot was ever so moth-eaten I seem to remember when I stopped by there in 1989, and then, and then, he pauses for effect, we have the gloriously entitled Cripple Dick illustrated by a holly leaf and couple of cherries. I think we got the joke. Oh things were so much more innocent over 20 years ago or not (oh look there’s Brown Willy, which is actually a hill on Bodmin for those of you who might take offence at this, pass me my smelling salts). On the other hand here’s a Guinness label, as bottled by St Austell from a time when a lot of breweries did such a thing. Artefacts from the past, embracing in their embarrassment indeed but not to be forgotten. The more light we shine on the past the faster we go forward — there’s nothing to hide here but naff branding, which a lot of breweries are complicit in (be interested to see how some of today’s imagery stands up in a couple of decades time). Fashions and tastes change, the future isn’t an incline or a decline, whatever exponents of both will say; the future muddles on though Cripple Dick (and its spiky graphic) is thankfully a thing of the past (though it’s not for me to say that’s a huge social benefit or not). 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What pubs are for

Suddenly I was aware that I needed human companionship. A sudden feeling of the futility of existence evoked by these mighty flints, together with a mighty thirst for cool, bitter English beer, dragged me wearily back up the green slope in the little lane made muddy by spring water and whose green shade was an immense relief from the blazing sun. A little later I was in the cool bar of the nearest inn. Having quenched my thirst, I asked the landlord the name of his house. ‘The County Members,’ I was told. When it was written down he burst into a hearty laugh. ‘Well that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a man write down the name of a pub so that he’d remember where he had been the next day!’
From Forgotten Ports of England, George Goldsmith Carter, 1952

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Beer and food, books and food, beer and books

the glass in the background contains the superlative
Chilli Plum Porter from Waen Brewery
Beer and food, whether matching it, collar and cuff style, or using it in the process, ‘now please add a glass of imperial Gose’, is, we can all agree in very smug style, high fives all around, a fairly recent thing. Michael Jackson mentioned it, Belgo did mussels in London in the 1990s and Garrett Oliver wrote the Brewmaster’s Table and I bought it and got him to sign it in 2003 (or was it 2002?), and it is the bible of beer and food matching, a brilliant book in a lot of ways.

However, perhaps because beer and food is a casualty of the breathless and audacious way in which beer is being discovered and uncovered at the moment, there is a sense in which beer’s long history with food is being forgotten. It didn’t all start recently believe it or not. I thought of this long history when I was sent a copy of Mark Dredge’s gorgeous book Beer and Food — it’s a pleasing book, pleasing to hold, pleasing to smell (that new book aroma), pleasingly designed and full of the kind of beers and food that I would write the world to drink and eat. 

So I went to my shelves and pulled out a brown beer coloured book from 1955, Beer and Vittels by Elizabeth Craig who was a noted food writer of the time. Her husband, war correspondent and journalist Arthur Mann, supplies a few paras in the introduction, part of which I always have enjoyed: ‘and I recall one cold and depressing night during the last war when I went to the cellar, fetched up my last pint of extra-strong ale, poured into a pewter mug, added a pinch of ground cinnamon, plunged a red-hot poker into the liquid and finished up with as fine a mulled drink as man could ask for. As preparation for sleeping through an air-raid I discovered nothing to equal it.’

That’s sounds exciting but the book’s corpus is more of a mish-mash of post war British cuisine’s emphasis on boiling stuff, roasting it as if it was Joan of Arc, adding gravy, pre-empting Abigail’s Party with cheese straws or offering up an ale and mint cup (which also features Chablis) — there is even the seductive siren call of stewed cabbage.

So we move into the aftermath of the swinging 60s with 1972 and Carole Fahy (pronounced ‘fay’ as we are helpfully told) sports a sort of flattened beehive hairstyle and dedicates Cooking With Beer to John, ‘who likes his pint’, I presume her husband, as the back of the book states that she is married (and lives in Weybridge). The accompanying photo shows her smiling at the camera, over a mixing dishing with perhaps cake material, spatula in one hand, a horizontal brown bottle of something in the other. ‘When I started this book I was amazed at the number of my friends who had never heard of cooking with beer,’ she writes in the introduction. I wonder what her friends thought about such dishes as beer ratatouille, chicken Flemish style (light ale is the beer constituent) and — a particular nightmare of mine — tripe in ale.

Let’s move on to more conducive climes and Sue Nowak’s The Beer Cook Book, which was published by Faber & Faber in 1999. I have known Sue for a few years and do remember the British Guild of Beer Writers’ dinners that she used to oversee — the one that struck in my mind was 1999 (I think), where she persuaded Dave Wickett of Kelham Island to produce a Saffron Beer. This is a book that I have (and still) use — she went out to talk to brewers, got their thoughts on beer matching and even though Sue was the editor of CAMRA’s Good Pub Food guides the beer list was eclectic. You could also say that this is a fantastic snapshot of a time when beer and food was starting to grow up. This was also the time when I came in and starting attending beer dinners at the White Horse, doing my own beer and food articles (I recall being enchanted by roast duck and Dent Brewery’s Kamikaze for instance).

And we come to now. A time when I am stopped in the street here on Exmoor by the bistro guy who wants to talk about a beer and food night or a late night pub conversation with one of the best chefs in the area (has won awards for his food while the pub is a wine champion), which elicits the information that he wants to look at beer and food. Things could be changing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of beer at the moment is that beyond the geeky paroles and parades of nomenclature, there is a real interest in what beer can bring to the table, what the flavour profiles are, how it can co-exist or even subsist wine. It’s been a long march and it’s still continuing. Perhaps it always should be — after all, as Fellini said: ‘There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life.’

As long as there’s no tripe and ale.