Wednesday 28 July 2021

On writing, especially beer writing

Just write, gather and then scatter the words, like throwing seeds about on a field during the act of ploughing, a virtuous Piers-like act that is labour, monotony and in common with the circular practice of prayer. Words thrown up into the air, confetti at a wedding, the snowfall of language, the joyous act of writing, the bonds that link all the acts of writing — the grammatical glue, the clauses and cases, the nouns, verbs, adverbs and that most precious of all things — takes a deep breath — the adjective, the describing word as we were taught in school. 

Let the words land, let them join together, let them form meaning, let the sentences you write be the strongest sentences you ever wrote. Be thoughtful and don’t be caught by sensation, the need to scream and shout and let it all out (there is a time and place for that after all). The discipline must overtake the din that an over-expressive voice can often cause and silence the doubts that writing can often rise, like the dead from the grave (for you never thought that writing might bring out something within your subconsciousness that you didn’t really want to experience again but this is the risk in writing, the more you tap away at the keys, the deeper you dredge into your thoughts, and then there is more of chance that you could discover something that haunts and taunts you as you go about your day to day business). The parable, the story that makes sense and gives you strength, is that of the writer who calmly and considerately sits down every day and makes a journey into the deepness of the mind. They do not write drunk, whatever some might say.

On beer writing: Describe something, a taste, an aroma, an experience, a finish at the back of the mouth or the start of the throat if you will, a person even. Is it fulsome, spindly, avuncular, like a merry monk of myth and legend; is it bawdy, haughty, a cavorting of flavour and favour, joyous and unbridled or brooding and melancholy like a general before a battle who knows it will be lost but continues to smile weakly at the soldiers with the conviction of a saint? Could it be perky and cheeky, and the kind of beer that laughs with a fullness of pleasure as it slips down the throat, or could it be the roaring engine of a Mustang bemused but still full of power as it somehow finds itself in a small street, its engine trembling with a sense of anticipation as it waits for the open road, the roar like the rush of waves during an autumn storm. Let us then think of the many ways we can write about beer and brace ourselves for the surge and the urge of expectation that a good beer often brings; for a writer who wants to really wave their wand and cast a spell must be prepared to smile and dance and chance everything to write the strongest sentences they must ever find within that rag-bag of thoughts and penances and clemency we call the mind.   

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The severed moods of beer

I’m working on a book idea and trying to understand what I really want to say — this is a spontaneous selection of words that might or might not explain what I really really want to say as the Spice Girls might have sung (or not).

And what has this immersion in the world of beer told me about my life? Those with a search for an easy headline but who do not know me would suggest that it has been a blight and kept me from realising life’s full potential, that I have lost out on Minotaur-sized pay checks and a job in a corporate organisation that would have seen me retired by now, free to take cruises up and down the Danube or across the Atlantic where the captain’s table would feather the nest of sociability every other night; I could have been a contender in a big publishing house, moved into management, joined a golf club and been able to afford season tickets for the Emirates, to which I would have travelled across from the southwest by first class (or would I have had a big house in the country nearer to London?); others might suggest that it has been a journey I, as an adult, an aware adult, chose to take, that I have seen beer’s equivalent of attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, that I have been behind the scenes, been given a glimpse behind the curtain into the rich history of beer and brewing, seen the dreams, seen the magic lantern’s shadows on the wall, and been honoured to have had the chance to be able to write about it. 

Beer, however, has told me, like a whisper from a confidant in the back of a near empty church in the middle of an anonymous city in the Low Countries, that I have a restless soul, a restlessness that initated the search for beers and bars and breweries, first of all starting in the UK and then moving onto mainland Europe and then finally across the world; it is a restlessness that takes comfortable travelling out of my day-to-day existence and can, for instance, see me on an uncomfortable overnight coach to Heathrow, in order to get to Munich for a mid-morning snack of Weissbier and sausage in a sun dappled beer garden, or catching an early Eurostar (the coach once again) to Brussels so that I can get an early doors beer in a bar where the faces of the regulars have more stories than the Bible, or a cramped seat on a cramped plane across the world to somewhere like the city of Portland, where beer is the coinage and the currency and the wherewithal in tandem with a well-defined sense that beer is in the midst of the struggle and the message that black lives matter; it is a timetable of buses and trains and sometimes well-worn treks, a feat of logistics I once planned for three days of Bohemian breweries, sharing buses with small town shoppers carrying string bags straight from the days of communism alongside raucous school children who’d finished school at lunch and never wore uniform unlike I had to (and did I push the limits with school uniform); it is about this journey taking me through villages that I first of all think I will probably never visit again but I want to (and I probably will); it is a crammed budget flight, a strange city, the language of beer, the austerity of strangers, a loneliness as well, sitting in a well-lit bar whose beers sing with flavour and character and yet I cannot speak the language and neither can those around me speak mine and I so want to talk and be part of this family and when they go home it is to the familiar and the things that are similar from day to day, while I realise I have to be up early in the morning to move on up to my next destination from a hotel whose days last saw glory when I was young and cried for the death of a pet tortoise. 

It is about the homely nature of a pub or a bar, which I always felt from my earliest times spent sitting in them but couldn’t articulate until I started writing about beer; it is about the flavour of certain beers, the delicacy of an elegant Helles or the broody boost of a stout that crams the mouth with chocolate, coffee and roast barley, a beautiful looking ornament of darkness in the glass; it is about the moment or moments that you wish would never end, where your friends are always smiling and laughing and explaining stories and telling tall tales and making plans that deep down will be forgotten come the next day but it doesn’t really matter as we return to our homes by Kensal Green; it is also about the downside, the one more beer you ordered or took out of the fridge at the end of the night that come the next morning you wish you hadn’t, the ill-chosen word or string of words to a loved one or a close friend, the joke you thought you made but only ladled on more hurt, the template of supposed honesty in the air that douses all passion and the obsession that leaves a rift in the home; and then there is the recognised urge for solitude that a pub in a strange city satisfies, the lack of responsibility and fecklessness that too much beer can bring, the wayward lurch of drunkenness when you realise you have had too much, but also the childish glee that accompanies a vision of a brewery that seems to have more in common with Jules Verne than anything else you can think of, and let’s not forget the snake oil patter of the marketeer who has swapped the cant of yesterday for the craft of today, all this and more is what this book of mine I aim to write is about. I think I’m ready to start. 

Thursday 2 July 2020

Universal Stout

This is a stout, a universal stout, it is
not a sweetshop stout 
Sometimes when I wonder about the nature of beer I find it curious to think and ponder over the circumstances in which a particular name has been given to a beer that is brewed by countless people across the world. All of them have an idea that the beer they brew, under its given name, is going to taste roughly the same as the one with the same name that is brewed by other members of this host of countless people. 

For ease, we write down beer style, or variety, or family member or type even, but the reality is that the stout (for that is the kind of beer I am thinking about) a brewery down the road makes will have a commonality with one that is produced by a brewery 204 miles away as the crow flies or one brewed in a brewpub high in the Andes that I once visited. But why, I ask myself, should I be surprised? After all, I expect a pickled herring bought from that stall next to the Amstel in the middle of Amsterdam on a Tuesday to taste the same as the pickled herring I went back for on the Thursday from the same stall, otherwise I might be disappointed. So maybe what underpins the idea of a beer style/variety/family member or type is a sense of familiarity, the knowledge that when you ask for a stout wherever you are you will get something that broadly dovetails with what you know a stout tastes like (unless of course the brewer has seen it fit to throw in various confectionary or joints of meat, in which case we are on the wilder shores of disappointingly different tasting pickled herrings).

So the stout I have drunk is a universal stout, it has no name, has no home, has no parent, has no need of a name. It looks like a gentle sleep, beautiful in its shadowless sleekness, a mirror held to the soul, a soothing, soft and yielding shade that you immediately want to be friends with. If this is a stout, this is a stout, it is a stout, a stout that looks like a masterpiece in the glass. Let us now pass onto to the array of aromatics that emerge from the glass: the luxury of vanilla, the softness of childhood, the remembered laughter of a young child; the caressive nature of chocolate and coffee, the bittersweet memory of a long-lost espresso in a sweet-smelling cafe hidden away beneath the streets of Milan; the heft and weight of roastiness, the bracing bitterness of roasted malt that crackles with the intensity of a bonfire smelt several fields away on a still day. To drink a stout as complete as this is to start with the roastiness, which is then followed by the soothing chime of vanilla, coffee and chocolate and finally be replete with a dryness at the back of the throat which suggests that you do what you’ve just done time and time again until the glass is empty. Or maybe the ethereal presence of George Orwell comes along and asks if he too can have a glass of this stout he looked so diligently for when he wrote The Moon Under Water and I wonder if he ever thought of the anarchy that would be unleashed if when he asked for a stout he would be presented with a glass of something that smelt like a sweetshop he might recall from the days before the war swept all before it. 

Monday 22 June 2020

Do regional beer tastes still exist?

During the lockdown I have made a list of places I want to visit, it’s a sort of game, an arcade of dreams with an element of playfulness. On my wish-list, amongst bars in Brussels, Bamberg and Berlin, is the Vine in Brierley Hill, home of Batham’s. I haven’t been there for a few years and for some reason this has become one of those places I want to visit. I have even tried to devise a sort of pub crawl that would also take in The Beacon, home of Sarah Hughes Brewery, which I last visited in 1998. As I considered and planned this expedition, which is several months in the future I suspect, a stray thought tumbled around acrobatically in my mind, unclear at first, then becoming more cogent and focused: are these two pubs and the beers they brew one of the last outposts of regional beer tastes in the UK? 

When I first started writing about beer in the late 1990s the idea of regional tastes was pretty simple — mild in the Midlands, sweeter beers in the Southwest (though flat Bass in Bristol), brown ales in the Northeast and so on. I pretty much followed the party line of what had gone before and was being written then but my belief started to waver and when it came to writing Britain’s Beer Revolution with Roger Protz I was of the opinion that the idea of regional beer tastes in the UK was dead. 

It’s a view that seems even more steadfast these days as the most stubbornly resistant of regional beer tastes and styles seem to crumble before the widespread use of New World hops and a growing thirst for hazy, juicy pales. You’re more likely to find a beer style (albeit tweaked and turned inside out and in the company of fruit and herbs) from central Europe in a modern brewery’s portfolio than something your great-grandparents might have drunk. 

Or is that true?

I have spent a few days on and off thinking about regional beer tastes and am starting to wonder if they do still exist in patches, almost surviving in the manner of various speciality cheeses that Slow Food have always been keen to protect. Do drinkers in the Black Country still like the mild their parents and grandparents drunk even though the original drinkers were apparently drawn to it because they needed a low-ABV beer that could refresh and replenish after a day working in a car factory or foundry, most of which are gone? What was and remains the difference between a bitter made in Yorkshire and one made over the Pennines in Lancashire? I had an interesting conversation with Taylor’s head brewer Andrew Leman about that subject several years back. Do drinkers in the Northeast still hanker for sweeter brown ales?

On the other hand, could it be that regional beer specialities become a future trend? When we get back to the pub will ice cream stouts or Haribo IPAs (ok I made the latter up but you know what I mean) still be as popular? Or will there exist a thirst for more balanced beers that have a link with the locality in which the drinkers live, as is seen in food with writers and chefs rediscovering and championing traditional regional dishes.

Could it be that if a Black Country mild with its sweetness and low alcohol or a Kentish ale with its dryness and use of local hops were French or Italian, there would be campaigns for its survival and it would become a celebrated style? Or will they inevitably go the way of Burton, Dorchester Ale and South Devon White Ale? 

When I can start travelling again I will start my search. I wonder what I will find. 

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Wednesday Beer — The Cream Ale

Don’t laugh but apparently some people have been asking Anspach & Hobday whether their Cream Ale has lactose in it (as if the inclusion of lactose is some sort of craft beer Reinheitsgebot) — it doesn’t, but, being based on a beer style that was both pre-Prohibition and remains in the repertoire of a few US breweries, it contains flaked corn and oats. 

I first read about Cream Ale when Randy Mosher filed his review of Pelican Pub & Brewery’s Kiwanda Cream Ale for the first edition of 1001 Beers. The idea of this single-hop beer with a light colour and body but which Randy still thought good enough to be sampled intrigued me. 

Fast forward to 2015 and I’m driving between Seattle and Portland over six days for a travel feature and aiming to get to as many breweries as possible, which is how on a gloomy Monday lunchtime I arrived at Pelican’s Pub right down on the beach at Pacific City in Oregon (city is a bit of a misnomer as from what I saw the place looked the size of a suburb of Rhyl). Naturally, I ordered the Cream Ale, which was light and delicate with a moussec-like mouth feel. It was an excellent beer for lunch and dovetailed magnificently with a plate of fish tacos. 

As for Anspach & Hobday’s Cream Ale, I presume it’s the corn that helps to give it a lightness on the palate, while the oats add a smooth mouth feel. There is a floral and citrus nose, while the palate is herbal, delicately fruity and dry in the finish with a ring of bitterness continuing as if a visitor was pressing down insistently on the doorbell. 

This is a smooth and soothing beer, with a lot more character than I recall from Pelican’s Cream Ale. One other thing, The Cream Ale is a lightly hazy in appearance, which is a bit ironic as Cream Ale in the 19th century came about because US brewers wanted to emulate the brilliance of the lagers that were sweeping all before them (according to Jeff Alworth in his magnificent Brewery Bible). Next, I’d like to see a pre-Prohibition lager if anyone is interested in making one. 

Friday 12 June 2020

Travel stories

I am feeling itchy, in need of a roam beyond the run of home. I want to be on my way to Prague, or Berlin, or Bamberg, or even, at a pinch, London. However, I’m still in Exeter, a lovely city and I love living here and I drink some great beers here but after 12 weeks of my universe being constricted to the local park, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and the butchers around the corner, to paraphrase Jim Kerr, who I once interviewed in the 1980s, I want to travel. 

I want to walk along the platform at Midi in Brussels, and then make my way to Moeder Lambic Fontinas and order a glass of Tilquin Gueuze and feel its tingle and tapestry of flavours on my tongue. After several of these, I want to continue into the city centre, with the hope of catching the aromatics of fries drifting through the air like wraiths and aware of people going back and forth, with both purpose and the lack of purpose in every step, and I want to walk up the steps to Poechenellekelder, where I shall fall upon a freshly poured glass of Taras Boulba and then ask for a bottle of Dupont’s Moinette Blonde. Is that too much to ask?

Or if it is, maybe I want to walk out of Berlin Schönefeld in the direction of the train station and pop into the rustic-looking tavern that is run by Augustiner and set myself up for the roistering and rumbustiousness of Berlin with a litre of Helles. Then I shall get on the train into town, probably embark at the madness of Alexanderplatz and walk partly along the Spree to Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg and drink beer at Heidenpeters, somewhere I have been visiting and drinking at for several years. And with a bit of luck, if it this time of the year, I might be able to order the brewery’s full-bodied Maibock. Later on? I shall make my way back over the river to Hops & Barley and drink deeply of the Dunkles brewed there. Currywurst? Yes please. And tomorrow afternoon I shall head over town to Foersters Feine Biere and drink a lot of Franconian beer. 

I want to get off the station in Bamburg, glance at the massive maltings named after the town (there are two, did you know, the other being Weyermann’s) and then walk up into the old centre of the city and push my way into the wooden womb of Schlenkerla’s tavern, where I shall indulge myself in plenty of rauchbier and once my thirst is frequented I will stroll over, weather permitting, to Brauerei Greifenklau, in whose beer garden I once sat and heard the thunder in the surrounding mountains, while diving deeply into the brewery’s clean, malty, minerally and earthy Kellerbier. I think I shall be there for some time. 

But I can’t do any of this at the moment so instead I think and I write and this is what I think and I write because I write about beer and travel. 

Beer is the drink of the barbarians, the drink of the victors, the losers, the drink of the mother, the lover, the carer, the father, the misfit, the outlier coming in from the cold, the saviour, the coward, the bawler, the bawling baby, the refugee, the soldier, the minister, the spinster, the swimmer, the fastest person in the race, the one who preferred not to be paced, the other, the cut loose, the one with the juice, the tailor, the sailor, the tinker, the spy, the cry baby, the high roller, the stranded and you and me and you over there. That’s all. 

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Wednesday beer — Mondo Colouring In

Could you ever get bored of IPA? Will you ever get bored of IPA? Is there a kind of IPA that bores you to tears and makes you want to rip up your membership card of the great world of beer and return the celestial vouchers of beer appreciation by first class post? What is it that might rankle with you when it comes to IPA? The inclusion of fruit, spices and whatever else is hanging around and begging to be used in the kitchen? Or maybe it’s mixed fermentation, a Yeti-like yeast strain or the complete loss of hope when a soda IPA comes along (as it will)? I’m being rhetorical, not being me or you or anyone, but just wondering what it is about IPA that has made it the punchbag and the leaky cauldron and the three wise men of beer all rolled into one? 

On the other hand, I could just enjoy an IPA, which is what I have done with Mondo’s Colouring In, a 6.2% extra pale version of craft beer’s constant presence, that according to the sleeve notes has been dry-hopped with Mosaic, El Dorado, Enigma and Simcoe (oh and yes there is oats in the mash). Mosaic indeed, if the chopped chives alongside ripe mango on the nose is anything to go by. This is the kind of aromatic that is almost green in its sensuality and — to take a different tack — it is perhaps reminiscent of chopped spring onion with orange and mango embedded in it. More chives when I drink it, alongside a suggestion of orange, mango and blueberry, followed by a full-bodied mouth feel and a dry and lightly bitter finish. If this beer was a canvas the hops used would be bright and bold colours with splashes of reds, greens, blues and oranges, the kind of artwork that you would hang in the hallway to remind you that no, you won’t be getting bored of IPA.