Thursday 31 December 2009

Lager of the week, first in a new series — and why not?

Steamworks Brewing Company call Steam Engine an American style amber lager and whom I am to argue with that? Dark amber/chestnut in colour it’s got an aroma that reminds me of a Dime Bar that has been in your coat pocket for a while and started to get slightly melty. It’s not über-sweet though, there’s a roasted firmness on the nose that steers it away from the sort of sweetness that mentally rots your teeth. There are also hints of vanilla and that chocolaty nuttiness you get with some pralines. All very elegant. A swig from a glass (rather than the can) and it’s soothing and smooth with the aforementioned chocolaty nuttiness leading the charge; there’s a creaminess in the mouthfeel before a crisp biscuity (or cracker-like) bite in the finish, followed by a chocolate liqueur-like sweetness to round things off. Absolutely delicious and it’s its own man — Herold’s dark beer is a different and delicious kettle of Bohemian fish. My first craft beer out of a can and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in a blind tasting. Right that’s it I’m off down the pub. Happy New Year.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

A man walks into a pub and orders a Beast

An afternoon glass in the Bridge. Given the seasonal nature of now, it’s Exmoor Beast at the pumps, a dark, sweetish West Country strong ’un — a pint of which I always enjoy at this time of the year. A couple come in, holiday cottagers I suspect, as keen as mustard, smiling at several locals (I’ve done that in the long ago past when still a London lout), she going for a glass of red, he taking a glance at the ales. ‘Exmoor Beast, a pint of, please,’ he says. Blimey, I think, I hope he knows what he’s getting himself into — he doesn’t look like the sort of bloke who gets into raptures at the thought of Moor’s JJJ or Odell’s St Lupulin’s, both strong variations on a theme, glasses of which I enjoyed yesterday evening while eating time over The Day of the Triffids. Observation over, return to chatting at the bar with Mysterious John, who claims time spent in the Special Forces (‘hush hush, dear boy,’ though I reckon those who serve keep schtum). As we chat about this and that, subjects coming and going like the women in The Love Song of J Arthur Prufrock, I note the man back at the bar, his pint glass a third drained. He points as Otter Ale (rather a good drop I always think), gets a taster, orders a pint and leaves the Beast at the bar. Blimey. I’ll have that I’m about to say to the lad behind the bar, but it’s down the drain like a flash. Whenever I bemoan the lack of strong ales at the bar (and I do, I certainly do), I shall think of this chap and recognise that selling barley wines and their ilk meets a natural obstacle — most pub men and women do not like their beer ramped up (though having said that, St Austell’s barley wine Smugglers went down a treat at Woods before Christmas, even if it caused several casualties in its wake, one of which was myself).
PS the picture features a glass of one of my favourite strong beers, Zywiec Porter, this example being discovered on draught in a small bar in Krakow, cor it was lovely.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Getting all sentimental cause it’s Xmas

Back from my local across the road earlier on, Christmas drinks and all that (the barley wine is surprising quite a few folk) and I wanted to pay tribute (no pun intended) to a pub that has been one of the best in a life of pub-going — though I review pubs for a living, this is one I always come back to with infinite joy even if I have been searching out saisons in Wallonia or tracking down a Baltic porter in the east (and in 2010 I suspect when I come back from the US it will remain a haven). So at this time of the year I thought it appropriate to pen a few words about its joys — if you’re around this neck of the woods (so to speak) over the holiday pop in, I might be around. Happy Christmas.

Looking about Woods you would think it has been around forever — the interior is ancient wood fittings, exposed stone walls and a bar that seems to have been hewn out of oak. The walls are covered with all manner of traditional countryside paraphernalia (some currently sporting a Yuletide makeover: Santa’s hat sits on the head of a stuffed otter, tinsel is draped around antlers). However, this former bakery has only been a pub since 2004, but it rapidly became my local when I lived eight miles away on Exmoor. Now, I’m 200 metres around the corner and during the Christmas season there is no better place I would rather drink. There will be a log fire crackling in the corner, while the aroma of food will waft from the kitchen — try the slow roasted belly of pork, which comes from the landlord’s own pigs. Meanwhile a pint of St Austell’s gold-coloured Proper Job will glint and sparkle in the light and later on in the day when the temperature has dropped, a fiery draught of St Austell’s Smugglers barley wine is called for. Afterwards, stroll down to the River Barle and if you are feeling particularly energetic you can walk to Tarr Steps, one of Exmoor’s most famous beauty spots.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Berry interesting

I brewed Winter Berry at Sharp’s a few days ago and a small mini keg of what Stuart Howe and I devised was sent to me the other day. He tells me to see it as a work in progress — the berries have not been added but here goes: on the nose an earthy version of cherry brandy, minus the sweetness. On the palate this earthy cherry brandy character continues, but it is also almost woody. It’s a paradox: sweet but not sweet; woody but not woody; berries appear (the Bramling Cross perhaps) and there is the dryness of grain on the finish; on the palate it also has blackberry without the sourness, a rusticity and a whisper of caramel in the background. The palate is bright and friendly — it’s not meant to be hoppy, with the hops meant to be something in the background, the bass player rather than the lead guitarist. I like it. A stronger version would be even more interesting.
When we tried the wort it was not as sweet as the usual wort you get — my teeth are canaries in the mine for sweetness. Next update will include what it tastes like with the berries added (they’re cosying up to the beer in the maturation tanks as I write).

Friday 18 December 2009

Keeping fit the Fuller’s way

When my publishers were researching visuals for 1001 Beers (out in the spring when you can criticise the choices) they came across this wonderful image for Fullers (sic) — I presume it’s sometime between the 1930s and the 1950s, almost like a golden age of beer advertising. I seem to remember some information being released earlier in the year that beer is the best refresher after sport, so this ad is spot on in its beer advocacy. If I didn’t do my runs at 7am then I would be quite happy to rehydrate myself with a glass of Chiswick rather than my normal water.
PS don’t let the Daily Mail or Liam Donaldson see this, they’ll be livid and probably — in the spirit of New Labour’s love of apologising for everything that has happened in the past millenium — want Fuller’s to say sorry for tempting some of the leading athletes of the day to forgo all for a life of rack and ruin orchestrated by the demon drink and all its imperious imps (or not).

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Game On

If you’re down the boozer with Aunt Sally then you’re in Oxfordshire, while on the other hand Ringing the Bull will see you up in the north. Skittles is simple isn’t it? Somerset farmers on the booze enjoying a night off filling in DEFRA’s devilishly fiendish forms. Hold on a minute, there’s also the Long Alley version, which is played with a hardwood 'cheese' in the East Midlands, while Hood Skittles, also involving a 'cheese', is found in Northampton (rather than Nottingham). I could go on but it’s better to have a look at Played At the Pub, a gorgeous and encyclopedic compendium of all the games that people play (and have played) down the pub. It rightly won its author Arthur Taylor a Gold in the National Journalism awards at the beerwriters’ beano earlier in the month (he’s won several over the years and his guide to beer in Northern France was essential, along with The Beers of France, when I researched Bières des Garde a few years ago). Taylor has been writing about pub games for three decades and he was very helpful to me when I was researching an article for the Field a few years ago — the book is just wonderful in a way that I could never have thought, full of some fantastic pics and as someone who occasionally enjoys the occasional game of skittles (it is always odd when I play it as the more I drink the better I think I am, which is totally untrue) I find it an invaluable addition to my ever growing library of books of beer, brewing, pubs and all aspects of the culture that beer sustains. It’s published by English Heritage and costs £14.99 — one for the Christmas tree if it’s not too late.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Sparrow’s fart

Crack of dawn, sparrow’s fart, daylight start — none of these phrases applied on turning up at Sharp’s last week to spend a day brewing with head brewer Stuart Howe. 10am is eminently sensible, ‘unless you want to see the grain being milled,’ Howe had told me a couple of days before. Having seen this noisy process several times at various breweries before I decline, there are limits to beer geekism. The invitation to brew included a chance to develop a recipe for the brewery’s seasonal winter ale— I suggested 7% abv (we ended up with 4.5%, which is another story), hops that were there for spiciness and fruitiness rather than big blasts of resin and citrus (Fuggles, Bramling Cross, Bobek and Galena, which ironically enough gave off great big blowsy pineapple notes in the rub); alongside pale malt, crystal rye came aboard for spice and body, while some chocolate malt and Munich malt (slightly sweet said Stuart, saying that it added sour and raisiny notes) also went into the mash — all to be finished with a yeast that was called Old English Ale (somewhat cheekily I had suggested a saison one). As the name of the beer is Winter Berry, there will also be rosehips, hawthorns and sloe berries added during the maturation, gathered by the green folk at the Eden Project. I’ve brewed before, first at Moor about 10 years ago and more recently on the micro plant at St Austell. On both these occasions I spent the afternoon digging out the mash tun and so expected the same here (isn’t that why writers are asked to brew, so that their lily-white hands of soft living are firmly grasped around a malt shovel). I was wrong (thankfully) as we were working on the main plant and there are men and motors to do that job, which made the whole experience very pleasurable. I added some hops and pitched some yeast but that was the extent of my back-breaking labour.

With Doom Bar, Sharp’s has one of the biggest brands going, though it doesn’t feature on many beerwriters’ desert island lists (I’ll be honest and say I prefer Cornish Coastliner, but then I’m also unmoved by White Shield). None of this bothers Howe, ‘It’s a good beer,’ he asserts. In the last couple of years however he has flexed his brewing muscles with a series of specials that have brought his capabilities to the fore. At lunchtime, I tasted some of them. Honey spice Triple with Brett (9%) was sweet and sour, in possession of grapefruit notes and sharp and refreshing. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have guessed this as a British beer. Massive (10%) was four years old and rich and liqueur-like, chocolaty and smooth. Kazakhstan Grand Imperial Porter was at 11% a big blast of flavour with an alcoholic cola-like nose, while the palate was fiery, saddle leather, soot, chocolate and more cola — a battle-cry of flavour. It was magnificent and apparently was sold out by lunchtime at the recent St Austell beer festival. 4 followed, a barley wine that possibly was too light after the Porter, while Stuart saved the 13.4% XV for the finale — a Cornish riff on Belgian strong ale. The nose was pear drops, cloves, hop and bubblegum, while these flavours resonated in the mouth like a big bell after it has tolled in the confines of Notre Dame; the finish was dry, grainy and alcoholic. So what does this all mean? Along with the likes of John Keeling and Roger Ryman, who also produce best selling brands, Howe is not content with going through the mash tun motions — he is restless, exploratory and challenging. In the past I recall brewers of successful brands seemingly almost Robinson Crusoe-like in their avoidance of what was going on in the wider world of brewing — not so these guys and I look forward to trying my Winter Berry and thank Stuart most fervently that he didn’t want me at that sparrow’s fart.

Friday 11 December 2009


Three weeks of no caffeine, either tea or coffee (a regular purge to aid sleep and the adrenal system) and a liking for herbal teas established, it’s back to old habits and entirely in keeping with a glass of Insomniac from a brewery up north, whose name escapes me, a bottle of which was given to me by Zak Avery. It’s 12% (gulp, help, run away, it’s ‘extreme’; is it beer, is it liquid, is it responsible? who cares) and has an assertive nose of bitter chocolate and half crushed coffee beans before you put them into the caffetiere; there’s also a wafty floral undercurrent that tempers the gritty cop nightstick nature of the coffee beans and chocolate. The palate is roasted with more coffee and bitter chocolate, reminiscent of a stern espresso wake-up call; some sweetness but no bright citrus notes; just an unforgiving black coffee bean darkness before its dry finish.I like it. I took it as a nightcap, somewhat foolishly and paradoxically, but slept well. It’s a one-off Zak tells me but when I recall the name of the brewery (perhaps someone up in Yorkshire can tell me) I will be interested to see what else they’re doing. If you want a session beer you will have a session beer, and if you want a coffee beer you will have a coffee beer — that’s the beauty of brewing all across the world and Europe at the moment there’s a beer for every moment of the day. And why not…
PS I’m now told it’s Saints & Sinners

Wednesday 9 December 2009


Have been reading the various posts and comments on brewing innovation (or lack of thereof) with great interest, but it wasn’t until going to a Fuller’s tasting conducted by head brewer John Keeling that the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head started to form themselves into a coherent mass. In over ten years of beer writing I have blithely chucked around the word ‘innovatory’ when discussing the likes of barrel-aging beers, blended beers or extreme beers, but Keeling helped to concentrate the mind and crystallize my thoughts — and this incomplete post (can anything ever be complete?) on what I see as the collective amnesia that spread through the brewing industry in the 20th century is the result.

The event at Fuller’s last week was a celebration of their Fine Ale Club which was set up 10 years ago. In front of about 40/50 people Keeling inspired and enthralled as he led the assembled through a taste of various Fuller’s beers. If you’ve ever had a beer palate that sometimes screams ‘give me a break!’, as I sometimes do, then this jovial dry-witted Manc is the man to perk things up, to deliver another perspective on beer. A revelation for me was the Brewer’s Reserve, something that I hadn’t tasted before, though I’d tried the various prototypes several years ago at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ seminar on wood-aged beer. The result is a superb beer, a soothing and warming beer with butterscotch and vanilla notes, as well as a whisper of whisky (nothing too fiery), plus a great orange marmalade character; having almost starting to become jaded with British brewers’ wood-aged beers (apart from BrewDog’s Springbank, one of the best beers I have tasted in the past 12 months), Brewer’s Reserve provided a welcome surprise.

Another thrilling aspect to Keeling is his willingness to experiment; London Pride may be his bread and butter but he’s eager to produce beers that a brewery of Fuller’s size would have in the recent past turned their noses up at (there are still some medium sized breweries, which started out as micros and are now small regionals, that look askew when you ask them if they like to up the hop rate or wood age their strongest ale). I remember when Fuller’s bought Gale’s and I asked Keeling if their Prize Old Ale would survive. He wasn’t sure, but perseverance and his open-minded attitude have led this beer to thrive and prosper. The 2007 vintage was brewed at Gale’s and matured at Fuller’s; now Keeling is blending fresh and stale beer together: there is still an amount of the original Prize Old Ale sitting in tank and each time a vintage is made the beer will consist of 35% of the original beer blended with a fresh version (ghost beer?). Innovation or just an example of brewers starting to remember what they used to do?

‘We are rediscovering the past,’ he said as he talked on another subject, the revival of amber malt in the 1990s by his predecessor Reg Drury (present in the audience) for 1845. ‘There wasn’t any available so we had to ask our maltsters to produce some.’ Interestingly enough Keeling spoke of how he and Drury discovered that as 1845 got older the more it improved. ‘This was a catalyst for us thinking about aging beers.’

For a while brewers forgot what they used to do, they lost the art of aging beer, they dismissed from their minds memories of how they used to blend old and new, how to let the right microbes in, keep the wrong ones out; they forgot that fruit, herbs and spices could be an integral part of the beer they brew; they forgot that beers could be strong or weak, could be left to ripen, to grow old and elegant, ready to be embraced and engaged by a younger generation of beer. Stock ales, running ales, porters, stout porters, stouts, all beat the drum for progress in the past — the last 20 years has seen the fog of forgetfulness lift and a rediscovery of and improvement on the past emerge. Barrel-aging might be old but to return to the theme of innovation, what is innovatory is the thinking of people like Keeling, BrewDog, Tomme Arthur, Roger Ryman, Vinnie Cilurzo, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and even Jean-Pierre Van Roy in either sticking with the past or finding new ways of interpreting it. Let us make sure this is never lost again.
(Pic shows Fuller’s at night — on a par with Paris at night I reckon)

Tuesday 8 December 2009

I nosh, you nosh

In a pub in the Surrey Hills doing a review for the DT; smart gastro-ish but still pretty impressive, good beer from local brewery, excellent bar snacks (herring roe on anchovy buttered toast, scotch quail eggs), friendly — as ever sit there listening to conversations. Couple of women on adjoining table, smart, middle class, but not overtly posh (anyone wanting an outbreak of Brownite class warfare can go elsewhere); one of them, the organiser, you know the sort, ‘what are you eating dear’ she goes to her friend. Guy on next table asks if he can borrow their menu. Organiser asks if he is local (why? Is she trying to assert some sort of local territorialism?), he says he works in village; she then says ‘have you noshed here?’ Noshed? Great use of the colloquial, for which I wholeheartedly commend her, though say it a few times and it starts to resemble a nonsense word — anyhow, noshed is my pub word of the week.

Sunday 6 December 2009

What beer writers eat

The British Guild of Beer Writers dinner was last Thursday and you can read some of the thoughts of the well-deserved winners here, here and here, but you might be interested in the beer menu of the night (complete with tasting notes), which was brought together by myself and Mark Dorber.

Black Shetland Mussels and Margate clam chowder with chilli
With the clam chowder the Meantime Pilsner helps to highlight the clean fennel flavours and provides a counterpoint to the cream, while bitterness and carbonation scrub up the palate nicely.

Smoked venison with goats’ cheese, fig and apple juice terrine
The venison dish is über-complex with apple juice, fig sweetness, beetroot and red wine vinegar, smoke and cheese fattiness to deal with. An immediate flavour hook of acidity is needed to tie in, cut through and contrast. The Duchesse achieves this with its intensely fruity sourness balanced by aged oaky/malty flavours and spiciness.

Slow braised rabbit leg in a roasted rabbit saddle, white beans puree and chunky chips
An expressive and classic strong pale ale with buckets of complex apple skin fruitiness and layers of rich malt flavours. It matches the succulence of the rabbit perfectly and gives us the classic game and fruit/delicious savouriness.

Baked Camembert cheese with soused black grapes and breadsticks
This mature barley wine has marmalade malt richness and good underlying acidity to balance the high butter fat of the Camembert and some funky horse blanket/brettanomyaces acidity to add to the farmyard appeal.

Chocolate tower, walnuts, Tonka beans and caramel
Coffee, chocolate, cola, vanilla, plus an appetising bitterness, lifts the whole combination into a heavenly dimension.

Sunday 29 November 2009

St Austell’s swagger of a beer festival

There’s a queue outside St Austell’s stern stone-faced brewery at 10.40am, 20 minutes before opening time. I arrive before midday and the top bar (the old wine cellar) is no place for a claustrophobic. The crowd is dense and a lifetime’s knowledge of dodging and jinking to get to the bar comes into play. In the bottom bar people are singing along to Definitely Maybe as a band limbers up. Beer is everywhere and everyone is drinking it.

St Austell’s annual Celtic beer festival is underway. CAMRA men, Cornish lads, beer girls, old fellas, sporty types, beer-bellied men, young lads who look like Pete Docherty, young girls with a pint in their hand all swirl about — this is beer as a common currency, a democracy, a gathering, a moot of the senses, and like Brigadoon it only appears once a year.

Watching a young band go through their retro 80s indie-disco set it occurs to me that this festival has the sort of swagger that you would normally associate with some sort of unbearably hip rock star; it’s also an inventive event at which St Austell’s head brewer Roger Ryman tries his hand at all sorts of things — amongst the 29 beers from his brewery along there is a crisp and refreshing Proper Pilsner, a well-made Belgian style Dubbel and Triple, a chilled IPA, a chilli chocolate stout, an oyster stout, a double IPA and his attempt at a Flemish style sour red, which sadly I didn’t get to try.

Taunton Alan lifts his glass when I join some friends and says ‘Bastard’. I beg your pardon. He’s on his second pint of Arrogant Bastard and it’s not yet 12.30pm. As soon as I hear the news, I head straight for the world beers selection, where alongside Arrogant Bastard, there is Ruination, Sierre Nevada Harvest and Pale on tap — plus beers from Brittany and some crowd-pleasers such as Maisels Weiss, Leffe Blonde and Gaffel’s Kolsch. Meanwhile the cask ale crowd get over a century of ales, including ones from Wales and Scotland plus a selection of southwestern breweries (I didn’t get to try Sharps’ grand Imperial Porter sadly, I hope there is some left when I go up there to brew next month); and if that’s not enough there’s a selection of St Austell’s fellow family brewers.

There’s a lot going on in the Cornish brewing scene, as amongst the flood of Tributes and Doom Bars we see both Ryman and Sharps’ Stuart Howe looking to other countries for their inspirational one-off beers, playing with making beers that don’t just fit into the pigeonhole of real ale. Later on before getting the train, wet and soaked, I sit in the White Hart in town for a quiet contemplative pint of Tribute. I mention the festival to the young girl who serves me at the bar, ‘I’m looking forward to going there later,’ she says. St Austell are doing a good job.

Friday 27 November 2009

Ghosts wanted, or maybe not

Prestbury is on the edge of Cheltenham and supposedly has one of the most haunted streets in England — one of its pubs is the glorious Royal Oak, which oddly enough is spook free. You can read what I think of it here in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph.
Apropos of an earlier post I’ve decided on St Austell for tomorrow.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Life is full of too many choices and Saturday November 28 is a prime example

Modern life has too many choices, low-fat, skimmed, free range, organic, biodynamic, cold-filtered and so on — I don’t like it but come Saturday November 28th I will be faced with two choices too many. First of all this is the day of the St Austell Beer Festival, a roisterous and rumbustious celebration of beer and Cornishness at the old Victorian brewery that overlooks the town — over 100 real ales, with nearly a dozen of then brewed especially by Roger Ryman, will be available. When I say especially brewed, we’re not talking the meek and mild — in previous years there has been a coffee stout, a Czech dark lager, a Kolsch style (the prototype which I helped to brewed in the small brewhouse several years ago), a mango beer, Tribute Extra (Tribute beefed up and put in a whisky cask) amongst others. Beers from Cornwall, Wales, Man, Scotland and Ireland celebrate the Celtic nations (plus beers from hardy perennials like Woodfordes etc), but what also makes this festival special is that it has selections of foreign keg beers from California (Sierra Nevada last time I looked), the Czech Republic and Cologne; furthermore you can get Guinness, Carlsberg and several other regulars, which means that you see groups of mates going along, with none of that division you might get at ale fests. Also, I note that Sharps are supplying a couple of special beers, one of which is a 11% Imperial Porter — the two companies might be rivals in the real world, but in this fairyland of beer come Saturday the 28th they’re all pulling together. On the same day, it’s the second day of the White Horse’s Old Ales weekend festival, a righteous rite of passage for the cold months ahead. I have never ventured out to it sadly. I can still remember first reading about it in Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion, but the nearest I got was being at the pub several days after the event and as a reward been offered some Bernardus 12 straight from the cask (my journey back west was a bit hazy). This year, I am told that beers from Le Baladin, Birra del Borgo (I am desperate to try their Imperial Pilsner), as well as Duchesse de Bourgoyne in cask will be highlights, plus various old ales, barley wines and dark beers from the UK. So there you have it, a dilemma to challenge the greatest of philosophers, especially given that train times between Taunton and Paddington or St Austell are roughly the same. I can get the 7am bus out of Dulverton, a train after nine and be propping up the bar by midday, and back in Taunton in time for the 8pm bus home. At the moment inclinations are for St Austell (I don’t like London on Saturdays), but the White Horse is coming up fast. As I said too much choice.
The pic shows one of the beers from the 2006 festival.

Monday 16 November 2009

I love lager and Tipopils is one of the best Pilsners in Europe at the moment

Some time ago a lot of loot is spent promoting Peroni with the fountain scene recreated from La Dolce Vita (well I suppose it wouldn’t work recreating a scene from Bicycle Thieves or Rome Open City). Why bother though, Birrifico Italiano’s Tipopils is the most glorious Pilsner in Europe at the moment (for me that is). A bottle finds its way to me and boy do I enjoy it (in company with last night’s Doctor Who). Poured into the glass it crackles and snaps on the palate, is big and bold in both nose and flavour; it’s a beer that stamps its own identity with a crisp and refreshing arrival in the mouth. It’s bitter and aromatic, dry and sprightly, fragrant, resiny, powerful, punchy (if you want to be technical a bright fragrant note mingles with a darker hop pungency on the nose, whilst on the palate it is clean and refreshing and expansive in the finish). It’s put into a 750ml bottle (the sort of bottle that is always tiresomely designated as ‘good for sharing’, but no one but me is having this beauty). I’ve visited the brewery whose nerve centre is a Swiss-looking tavern in Lurago Marinone, south of Como and I can recommend that the trip be made. Amber Shock and Bi-Bock are there for the taking as well, while at the right time of the year Extra Hop (see pic), can be found, which is served with a hop cone of Mittelfrau on the top of its foam. The crying shame about this beer is that apart from GBBF’s foreign bar, this glorious beer and others like it from the Italian renaissance are not available over here — whether that’s good (it means a trip and the widening of beer-drinking horizons) or bad (you fly and rack up the air miles), is up to others. I know that I hope to return next year, my palate can hardly wait.

Friday 13 November 2009

Pub time if you’re out and about in Sheffield

Sheffield is one of the best beer cities in the country at the moment and the Kelham Island Tavern is one of the best pubs; if you want you can read what I think of it in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph here (and don’t forget the Fat Cat round the corner and the Hillsborough about ten minutes up the road and if you want to go further and more rural Thornbridge’s Cricket Inn in Totley on the outskirts of town). Back from my local Woods (you can read my DT review here) having enjoyed several pints of Proper Job.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Is this IPA Fenella Fielding in a bottle?

IPA’s reinvention in the past 15 years, American craft brewery-driven and a major boost for the hop industry, a resinous, rock’n’rolling reel on the senses, made joy a common occurrence accompanied by a glass of beer to hand — Safeways 2002 (or was it 2001?), their then annual seasonal tasting of future beers, orchestrated by Glenn Payne, probably the best supermarket beer buyer ever, and I remember even now one beer writer raving, unable to keep still, pleasure playing on his pallid features like prayer flags in a gale, directing all and sundry to Goose Island IPA — one sip, a scorcher, and beer was never the same for me again. Victory IPA appeared, then Brooklyn, then nirvana. Amidst all the hoopla (imperial and Double IPAs, torpedoes, 90 minutes, 120 the same), it’s often easy to forget that British breweries have rejuvenated the style as well. And this all I was minded to recall on being sent a brace of bottles of Westerham’s take on the style, their Viceroy India Pale Ale. Lower end of the abv spectrum with 5%, but its nose still grabs and then caresses with musky, aromatic air of the hop sack (a common characteristic of Brit-IPAs perhaps?). Orange-amber in colour, it has a wilful orange marmalade nose, which in a funny way is very reminiscent of said marmalade spread on gently toasted white bread (fresh of course); there’s also the aforementioned hop sack come-hither. On the palate a deep orange Cointreau strike, hints of cherry brandy (and even almond paste), plus some mouth-warming alcohol notes — all toiling together to make my palate as happy as the proverbial Larry. The finish is long and dry with a crisp graininess. The difference from the likes of Goose Island (and Punk IPA) is there, noted and known, it being much more of a soulful beast than its brash transatlantic (or Alba) cousins. A sensuous beer then, though not backward in coming forward, a purring beast that is happy for you to drink lots before it pounces.
For younger readers, Fenella Fielding was a husky-voiced, smoky eyed British actress who enlivened the fantasies of my hormone-stricken 12-year-old self after her appearance in Carry On Screaming. My excuse: I was young and foolish, and Charlotte Rampling was yet to appear on my radar.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

I couldn’t think of a title to this one so I thought that ‘branding is not the only god’ sufficed

Are you interested in branding says the PR? Not really I say, not with any conviction one way or the other, because even though it’s not the area of beer I’m really thrilled by I do know how important it is to throw one’s lot in with marketing. After all, it makes beer desirable — one’s soul trills and thrills when a bottle of a supremely dressed beer is glimpsed. Up on the catwalk, as Simple Minds used to sing, the likes of Saison DeLuxe, Bourbon County, Deus and Consecration take their bow and why not. I don’t want a tin can full of malt liquor on my relatively expensive oak table. On the other hand, it’s just that sometimes when beer is all brands, brand consolidation, marketing, etc, I think it all goes a bit awry, especially when you get massive beer ‘brands’ that claim a dubious heritage going back to the middle ages. Let’s think about the beer (or the product as some would say).

How about the four beers in the photograph that have been slumbering in my cellar — would you like to drink them? None of them after all are branded (unless we take a Barthesian view of things and say that the lack of a brand is its very brand). First left is an O’Hanlon’s experimental job that might surprise people next year; secondly is a early prototype of Fuller’s Brewers Reserve I scrounged from John Keeling at the brewery in 2007; third is the excellent and warming chili barley wine from Crown and the fourth is from Sharp’s — it has 4 scratched on the bottle-top and I picked it up at the brewery on the British Guild of Beerwriters trip in January that I covered here. So, are these beers in brown bottles home-brew — chalky, nauseous and flatulent — or are they samples that are godlike, mind improving and thoroughly therapeutic? Let’s move on: I do know that the O’Hanlon’s is continually improving. But the others?

I had beer from another brown bottle the other night — XV was the symbol Dan Brown, sorry I mean Stuart Howe at Sharp’s, had scratched on the top. Guess the strength he said in an email. I let it settle and a couple of days later tried it. It went something like this: ‘Colour: dark chestnut with a tan coloured ring of foam; nose: bubble-gum, herbal, cherry brandy, earthy cellar-like; palate: Bubble-gum, banana, slightly peppery (Challenger?), there’s a big fruit blast at the start before it dries out. Reminiscent of a strong abbey beer?Guess it might be between 8-10% but strength is well masked.’

He came back to me with these words: ‘The ABV was actually 13.8% so it must have been subtle. This was a failed attempt at brewing a 15% beer on a small scale. The yeast I used didn’t quite have the testicles to get it all the way. Mark II is in FV now with a harder yeast. For me it’s a little aggressive in the mouth with a build up of palate-coating flavour from too much late hop. This may lessen with age. I do love the aroma though..’

I guess the point of this post is that you cannot always judge a book by its cover. But more importantly, in a time when there is so much PR some brewers are ceaselessly experimenting without making a big thing about it. We live in an age of PR so maybe it is sometimes good to drink beers without labels.

Never mind the bollocks…

Two bottles of Punk IPA tonight. Superb. More balance than a weighing scales made in a weighing scales factory; flavour is spicy hop notes balanced by tropical fruit, fantastic. Without going on about it, I do wonder if brewing beer is what BrewDog is best at and the rest is just flotsam and jetsam.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Even when I’m out shooting for the table the talk is of beer

Out rough shooting on Dartmoor yesterday with a bunch of guys and when the talk turns to beer it’s all about cask beer — I like Tribute says one chap, almost licking his lips, another has a Proper Job pump-clip on the grill of his 4x4, one fella, about to become a father, bemoans the fact he can’t get Otter Ale in his local near Oakhampton, while another says which Sharps beer he likes (interestingly enough, not Doom Bar, in fact I rarely come across people in the West Country who like it, it seems to be people from off; I like Cornish Coastliner and Eden Ale, as well as Stuart Howe’s experimental stuff). It’s a sign of the times, a few years ago you were like an alien species if you mentioned beer while out shooting, but now beer — cask most definitely, though some will nod sagely when you mention Budvar or even Herold Dark — has a real buzz about it and the people talking about it with me are not your archetypal CAMRA activists, these are dentists, farmers, businessmen, builders, gamekeepers, and even a pest controller (to emphasise this enthusiasm, there’s a line in one of the papers today about an officer who was killed in Afghanistan and how his love for Old Speckled Hen was met with bemusement by his Stella-loving squaddies — ok it’s OSH but it’s still beer). People are getting wise to beer, getting comfortable with talking about beer, which is what we want (as the beer advert of ancient times used to say). These are great times and I just might have a beer, a Crown Smoked Oktoberfest awaits.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Beer for monks rather than punks

Was talking to a chap at Devon Earth brewery the other day, a newish small operation based in Paignton, and was rather tickled to hear that he brews beer for monks (not punks). Neither does he brew like a monk, sadly. Instead a barrel of his Devon Earth bitter gets sent to the Benedictine brothers at Buckfastleigh Abbey, which can be found on the southern edge of Dartmoor (I sometimes drop in when I’m passing and pick up bottles of Andech’s superb beers, with the Spezial being a particular favourite; they also sell Chimay). It’s also the home of Buckfast Tonic Wine, known to one and all with a raging thirst and an address that approximates to ‘no fixed abode’ as Buckie. What do the monks prefer as their daily tipple I wonder and is there anywhere else in the UK where a cloistered community gets beer made for them — or are they the only ones (I mean the monks not the Another Girl, Another Planet band)?

Monday 2 November 2009

The best beer in the world for 15 minutes is…

Here’s an experiment: on the way back to Somerset from a tasting (ooh look there’s Newbury dashing past), I decide I want a drink with my packet of crisps. Arkells 3B, Strongbow, Carlsberg or Guinness? What a choice, and all in cans. I plump for the latter, I haven’t drunk it out of a can for years and recently have been enjoying the odd pint at various rugby clubs as I follow my lad around the schools and clubs of the west country (oh look it’s Wednesday it must be Glastonbury or is it Tavistock?). So there’s a can of Guinness to the right of me, some of it spilt (Hungerford rushes by, an enticing looking Fuller’s pub by the station), but most of it in a plastic glass — such connoisseurship.

Why am I doing this? I think it’s because I spend my time being precious about my beer — had a swift half of Schönramer’s Roggen bier at the White Horse on the way back to Paddington and very good it was; I like their beers a lot, I remember being introduced to their brewmaster Eric Toft at the WH a few years back. Maybe one can be too precious and forget that the majority of beers that people drink are the sort of beers that I dismiss. Budweiser — I like rice with curry not in beer. John Smith – shaving foam. And so on. But, strangely enough, Guinness is still regarded with fondness.

So how does it taste? It’s cold, it’s got some body to it, some roast burnt notes, no creaminess, singed chocolate/overused coffee beans, fast finish, not unpleasant but — and here is a big but — given that I have spent the lunchtime evaluating beers like Brooklyn Chocolate Stout, Wms Bros’ 80/-, Aventinus, Jaipur and Glazen Toren’s magnificent gusher of a Saison, d’Erpe Mere, it has a lot to live up to.On the other hand it’s suiting my mood of the moment and perfectly acceptable. So for the moment it is the best beer in the world (though I might have a cider at the Plough before getting the bus home when I get into Taunton).

Thursday 29 October 2009

The evidence that beer is good for you often comes from the unlikeliest sources

Here we go, beer is good for you: ‘Beer, on the other hand, is a useful laxative for those prone to constipation. It increases the amount of fluid reaching the bowl, while its sugar content prevents water from being absorbed into the colon. Guinness (or stout) has a reputation for promoting milk production in nursing mothers and, until 30 years ago, was routinely prescribed for hospital patients convalescing from an operation.’ This is taken from the health page in a magazine called The Lady, which seems to be like a posh Saga mag (I found it in the loo). No alcohol panic or fear here, not even anything on drinking within your limits and it is even written by a doctor, James Le Fanu. Does Alcohol Concern or the Daily Mail know about this?

Monday 26 October 2009

Another post about the itch that is beer styles

At the Conwy Feast beer tent on Saturday afternoon, a glass of Great Orme’s delectable Welsh Black, a 4% dark ale that one immediately assumes is a mild. A chat with the brewery’s founder Jonathan Edwards turns assumptions on its head though. A mild I presume, I say in the manner of Stanley greeting Livingstone, no comes the reply, a halfway house between a mild and a dark ale. CAMRA, naturally, accord it the status of a mild when it hands out the awards. We discuss the whole vagaries of the beer style question and eventually decide that it’s a good beer whatever pigeon hole one wants to put it in. It reminds me of Green Jack’s Jack the Ripper, which won Champion Winter Beer a couple of years ago, after triumphing in the barley wine sector, even though the brewery has described it as a tripel — so is a tripel a Belgian barley wine? It wasn’t the last time I looked. I always reckon that Malheur 12 has more in common with Anglo-American barley wines. The question to be asked is — is the whole issue of beer styles just there for the consumer or does it remain a valid way of dividing up the family of beer? I must confess I don’t have the answer, but it’s one of those things that bugs away at me whenever I write about a style.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Pub time

If you’re down in North Devon this weekend then a visit to the Hunters Inn might be a pleasant chore, you can see my review of it in today’s Daily Telegraph. The picture was taken during its recent beer festival where amongst its offerings, including Rudgate Mild, I was surprised and pleased to see Punk IPA. Now I’m off to the Conwy Feast, where there’s a beer tent featuring the likes of Great Orme Brewery and Purple Moose (whose beers always seem to impress).

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Do you want to be in my (beer) gang?

Queues form round the corner for a chance to take home cases of Mad Elf Ale from Tröegs in Pennsylvania every year the beer is released; Meantime bottle special brews that seem to be available solely for CAMRA beer club members (unless you go to the brewery); I along with others received a bottle of an Imperial Fraoch (minty, peppery, spearmint, whiskery, spirited and spicy if you must know) that Joe Public can’t buy; on e-bay a bottle of Zephyr is up for $399 — and now you can pay £230 for the chance to belong to a club, or as has been written here, wear the t-shirt. I am talking about the sly sense of exclusiveness that is seeping through the world of craft beer. Do you want to be in my gang? Is it a good thing, has beer lost its democratic edge? Was its democratic edge just another manifestation of mindless rabble-rousing, the guy in the corner, drunk on god knows what, taking potshots at easy targets — drink Bud, Blue Ribbon, Stella, whatever? Is this what the craft brewing revolution has come to, a freemasonry of various lodges looking uneasily at each other, or will love of good beer overcome any drift towards tribalism? The love of elitism. And what of the wider world? Will commentators in the media (whatever branch) be overwhelmed by this sense of singularity in a world which is usually represented in their pages or on the screen by closing pubs, ‘oh look women drink beer’ featurettes, the very odd shrug on the rising star of cask beer and predictable points scored on the horrendous fashion sense of CAMRA members. As beer becomes more exclusive, but more knowing, more distanced from its ur-source of a refreshing but uncomplicated drink, then it becomes more valuable, changes its character, at least in the minds of many of us — however, as this drive to exclusivity continues, I wonder if it might hinder its growth and its clubbiness put off people who like a beer but don’t consider it their life and deliver them into the arms of whatever drink offers them a alternative and less threatening sense of belonging (maybe beers that are the equivalent of those ads for ‘exclusive’ figurines of Native American warriors looking narky or kittens wearing high heels). A two-tier system of beer appreciation waits perhaps?

Sunday 18 October 2009

Gooner murder an ale

I love this: yesterday in the DT, Andrei Arshavin is quoted as saying: ‘I Heard about ales. Ales! A special drink like beer but without gas!’ As an Arsenal fan, I love the fact that the dressing room conversation might be a bit like the chit-chat before a judging for the IBC Awards or similar. Rossicky to Walcott, ‘ Bohemian Pilsners are the best’, Walcott: ‘have you tried London Pride?’ Van Persie: ‘Personally I prefer a Christoffel Blonde’. The ghost of Tony Adams: ‘ anyone fancy an Evian?’

Tuesday 13 October 2009

In which the British Guild of Beer Writers organise a bliss-up in a brewery

Beer seminar? Booze-up more like it, went the refrain when I mentioned down the pub that I was off to Thornbridge for a Barley Wine seminar, which I had organised on behalf of the British Guild of Beerwriters with the brewery. (Now, if I had said a wine discussion would there have been the same response? Probably not, but I’m getting a bit bored with the whole wine vs beer game these days). These seminars have a long (ish) and honourable history within the Guild going back to the early 1990s when ones on old ale, porter and — most memorably — IPA were held at the White Horse in Parsons Green (I reckon that the last one went some way to help foster an interest in IPAs amongst British brewers). So it was entirely fitting that the former landlord of the pub, Mark Dorber, opened up the proceedings yesterday. He was the advance of a thoroughly good line-up — Fuller’s John Keeling, White Shield’s Steve Wellington and Sierra Nevada’s Steve Grossman got their memory sticks out (well Steve used his memory), while shorter performances came from former Guild president and journalist Barrie Pepper, Durham Brewery’s Steve Gibbs, Lovibonds’ Jeff Rosenmeier and Pete Brown (We also had Mark, John and Thornbridge’s Kelly doing a barley wine and cheese tasting). And what happens at a barley wine seminar, you might ask if you’ve not been to one. A beer style or ingredient or phenomenon is discussed, dissected and highlighted (we’ve had yeast, wood-aged beer, lager and the Durden Beer Circle in the last 10 years) and then beer is drank (well the denizens of my local got that one right). Yesterday we had: St Austell’s Smugglers (one version aged in wood, the other not), Sierra Nevada Bigfoot in a whisky cask, plus 2004 and 2007’s versions, a 31 month old pin of Alliance, Moonraker, Golden Pride, Vintage 1999, Lovibonds Wheat Wine, Stingo, Benedictus, Headcracker, Barley Gold, and Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale. A hefty line-up of ales, all tempting the 50+ people present who had to wait until the half time break for a swig (and given some of the pot-valiants there I made sure there were only half pint glasses available).

Barley wine is a subject that deserves to be discussed, it’s not rocket fuel, it’s on a par with wine (though PB made an interesting point about one of the beers there — lovely beer but nut-job name, guess the beer?), while for me one of the great moments of the afternoon was when Steve Wellington, who confessed he’d been thinking about knocking Bass No 1 on the head, exclaimed that he didn’t really know that there was so much interest in the style. ‘Now I will have to go and brew some and it will be ready in a year,’ he said, which is the sort of reaction you need. As the weather gets colder beer drinkers like myself do want stronger beers, beers to sit and contemplate and sip — barley wine might sit on the shelf of shame in many pubs, if at all, (ie Gold Label, too fizzy and syrupy last time I tried), but it’s a beer that deserves to be considered more than just rocket fuel. As Pete Brown said (and I nicked for the title for the seminar): Barley Wine, the beer that thinks it’s a wine.
The smart looking chap in the pic (not the scuff sitting down) is James McCrorie, founder of the Craft Brewing Association (and Guild member); this was taken at the 2007 seminar on wood aged beers, while the one-legged man is chairman Tim Hampson.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Why Orval is the best beer in the world at a certain moment in one’s life

I’m in a restaurant in Wallonia, not a beer restaurant, just the sort of well-run place that caters both for visitors like myself and locals who fancy something different. As it happens I am the only one in there that night, having dashed in from a long rain shower and — shaking myself like a terrier who has been just been hauled out of an Exmoor river — I explain in my kindergarten French that the tourist board has reserved a table for me. I am offered the run of the house, were would I like to sit? Remembering that Wild Bill Hickock met his fate because he sat at a table that faced away from the door, I choose one that faces the door. Would I like wine I am asked by a young lad with spiky hair? No thanks a beer please, this is saison country after all. Carlsberg comes the reply. Even here in Tournai, it’s depressing that I am being offered a beer that I would be offered throughout most of Western Europe whatever the beer culture. No thanks, any Belgium beer I say, dreading Leffe, whose Tripel was a mainstay on a southwest France holiday in 2005, but whose blonde I find a Demerera-sugared irritation. He comes back with a tray on which sit bottles of Orval (ideal shapes for West Country skittles), Chimay Bleu, Stella and possibly Leffe, but as soon as I saw Orval my mind was made up. Orval it was — I love that beer, a beer that has the influence of Brett, a beer that is both so satisfyingly complex, moreish, creamy, bittersweet, palate refreshingly citrusy and as this restaurant shows quite commonplace. I am served turbot in a creamy shrimp sauce which is bossed over by the Orval, bringing out the creamy and citrusy notes of the beer and also cutting through the cream of the sauce. It is delicious. I remember that this is not haute cuisine, biere cuisine or even good gastro-pub stuff, it’s just ordinary for this part of the world. I sat there wondering where in the UK in an ordinary restaurant, you know the small town high street gaff with French cuisine pretensions, would you get such a wonderful and complex beer. In the UK some might have the local ale, a bitter or a golden ale, pasteurised to high heaven, but this is the local ale. No one else comes into the restaurant while I eat, which is fine — and besides I wouldn’t have noticed, so engrossed was I in contemplating and considering the Orval. Another thing that occurred to me, later on, in another bar, with more people about, well-fed and well-watered, as I enjoyed the rich orange liqueur-like character of Triple Karmeliet, was that there is no such thing as the best beer in the world — just the best beer at the right moment and in this case Orval in a touristy restaurant in the town of Tournay fitted that bill as snug as a bug in a very snug rug.

Friday 2 October 2009


Even in this little rural outpost of Exmoor, we get beer: at 5.15pm this afternoon I received an email from Kenny at the Bridge. ‘Brew Dog 77 Lager on now...’ It’s a five minute walk down the road, right next to the River Barle, which eventually meets its destiny with the Exe about two miles away. At 5.30pm, having decided that my saison opening for an American magazine was coming along nicely, I was on my way. It’s the best beer on tap this weekend in Dulverton, and I say this having also thoroughly enjoyed several pristine fragrantly hopped pints of Tribute at my other local Woods afterwards. The countryside and fantastic beer, what a combination. This is not one of those Sodom and Gomorrah rants about the Moloch of the city, I love cities, but I don’t want to live in them and I glad to get home here after a day or so in London, Sheffield, Prague, New York, whatever So take a bow Kenny at the Bridge and Paddy at Woods. Hwyl fawr.
The picture is of a tree (obviously) in the centre of Hawkridge, a village four miles or so out on the moor, which has no pub but is exquisitely isolated.

Monday 28 September 2009

In which the Sex Pistols make me think about the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution as regards beer

Watching a reunited Sex Pistols concert in a Belgian hotel room (me that is not them), I am reminded about the need for consistency in beer; it’s an appalling concert, polished, cynical, well-played and attempting to be of its time 1977, but really belonging to now. They might as well have been an act on the X Factor. BrewDog say that their beer is for punks, but I wouldn’t have thought that they would want this bunch of pogoing, face-gurning nostalgists (both band and audience) drinking the stuff. Apply this sort of revivalism to beer and you have the mindset that uses visions of a golden age to sell its products — or even more depressing the dreary parocialism of a letter writer in the current What’s Brewing who lambasts CAMRA and Protzy for picking a ‘quite hoppy and bitter’ mild for its champion beer, ‘When I started drinking in England 50 years ago, the mild tasted mild and the bitter tasted bitter. Now we have an award-winning mild that tastes bitter. Can Camra still be taken seriously’. I mean, the words ‘too much time on his hands’ spring to mind.

I say all of this after five months of editing 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die (out next spring, be the first to disagree with the choice!), in whose pages there will be a goodly amount of fantastic IPAs and Porters, beers with a long history that, however, I would rather drink now than 150 years ago. I would far rather a beer where the brewer knew what to do with Brett than some beer in the 19th century when it varied from week to week and this variation wasn’t controlled — but then that is part of a larger conversation about beer, which occurred to me at a cider seminar in Spain in June.

Beer, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, is expected to be the same consistency brew after brew, while wine and cider have seasonal allowances programmed in. Of course, there are beers that follow that seasonal path but all of us expect our ales to taste the same year upon year — are we missing something here? It’s a wild dream to expect beer to go back to some sort of hit and miss character, but it might make things interesting (and the technology and foresight is there to make it all drinkable). I remember one landlord I know telling me that when he took over an Adnams pub in Walberswick that some of the locals (perhaps trying to put him in his place) used to say that they could tell when the Adnams Bitter had the new harvest of hops and barley as opposed to when they were drinking it a few months later. Beer has pretty much flattened out the variations, even though the idea of vintages is pretty hot stuff. But what if your pint of London Pride, Landlord or Tribute had different nuances from season to season? How on earth would it be sold to us beer drinkers who have been bred to expect consistency — consistency is only expected because the alternative is rubbish, but what about a mindset that expected an Adnams Bitter (I’m just choosing it because it’s a favourite) to be different in October and then in January and then in July — would this raise beer to the cachet of wine as much as the whole Vintage bottle thing? Imagine it: Tesco’s bring you BrewDog IPA October 09. I suppose I’m talking anarchy in the UK when it comes to brewing, but the sad fact is that we (including myself) want our pint of cask beer to taste the same every night otherwise we might have nightmares (the stuff of which for me after watching that concert would involve a geriatric John Lydon doing a duet with Mick Jagger).

Wednesday 16 September 2009

I’ll meet you at the sign of the Red Barrel (not)

You see this hanging from a wall in the Wallonian town of Tournai and you look around to see if the Tardis is lurking about. Never drunk the stuff myself (was on lemonade and Robinson’s Crush in its heyday) but the legends linger — was it really as bad as everyone says? Was it the spam (the meat not the offers of millions of quid from some dodgy individual) of beer? How we laughed about it in school, though didn’t know why and when it was time to step up to the plate of heroic drinking Red Barrel had vanished in a puff of smoke, like a baddie in a fairy tale. Which makes it all the more intriguing to see this sign in this beautiful town in the centre of saison county (discovered a new favourite, Tournay Noire from Cazeau, who also produce an elderflower-infused saison — at a speciality beer bar populated by Goths and metallers…).

Is Watney’s Red Barrel still available and if so could it spark off the same retro-beer movement that over in the US has drinkers, the sort you would normally expect to linger over their craft beers, ordering the corn-fed Pabst Blue Ribbon as a sort of act of rebellion or defiance against the accepted order of things?

Thursday 10 September 2009

Alloa, Alloa

I like Williams Bros Ceilidh. They call it a lager. Now I don’t know whether it has been lagered and if so for how long, but it certainly tastes and feels more like a Munchen Pilsner than any member of that oxymoron of British craft brewing cask-conditioned lager. It’s the colour of Welsh gold — I hold my wedding ring up to it and the colours match. The nose is sweet and fragrant, gently toasted bread with a slight scent of elderflower and lemon in the background — the beer equivalent of that old Victorian standard Come into the garden Maud; sweetish and soft on the palate, then it becomes lemony midway through the palate; it has a gorgeous rounded mouthfeel before its dry, tantalisingly grainy finish. This is a very good approximation of a Munich Pils (too forthright to be a Helles and not floral enough to be Bohemian) — how wonderful it is to see another British brewer take on lager and produce something creditable. The label says ‘brewed in Alloa’, which if I seem to remember correctly was often seen as a Scottish equivalent of Burton-on-Trent; it was also a place noted for its lagers, so hence the legend on the label.

Wednesday 9 September 2009


Just had one of the worst beers I have ever had: BrewDog’s Dogma (named after the crap film perhaps). But it’s not as easy as that. To confound matters it was followed by their Hardcore IPA, which is a wonderful interpretation of a DIPA and the hop bombs keep carpet-bombing my palate as if directed by Bomber Harris, but am thoroughly shocked by Dogma; it’s horrible. It’s like a piercing whistle of a beer with its high shrill notes of powdery guarana (I should know as I take the stuff when I Iay off the coffee) making it utterly unpalatable (in music terms Lydia Lunch springs to mind, no-noise New York rubbish from the late 1970s or free form jazz even). There is honey in it as well apparently, but if bees are vanishing I am not surprised if they are starting to produce this sort of honey. I suspect it’s a gag, a situationist, MacLarenist sort of jape that takes us all for mugs. However, I bought this at Sainsbury’s, and it is one of their beers that has got through to the supermarket’s beer finals. It can’t have been this severe to get through — or who on earth were the judges? On the other hand, maybe it’s a wry comment from BrewDog that whatever they produce it will be lionised. Clever and cynical — art school rock lives.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Keith Waterhouse’s units…

The late Keith Waterhouse was asked how far is was from London to Edinburgh and he replied two bottles of chardonnay. That got me thinking about my own journey times — Taunton to Paddington: three bottles of Broadside; Truro to Taunton: four pints of Spingo. Anyone else ever swap miles for bottles?

Waterhouse, a noted bon viveur, also reached the grand old age of 80, don’t tell the alcohol units police…
For US and younger readers Waterhouse was a noted journalist of the old school, a prolific wordsmith (a nicer word for hack) and all round boozer; journalism sometimes needs people like that though not all of them manage to hold it together like he did.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

80 bob’s worth of style

What is a beer style? Ever since I made what seemed like the enjoyable but career unenhancing switch to beerwriting in the late 1990s I have vaguely followed Michael Jackson’s strictures on the family of beer (and other writers’). Now after years of talking with brewers — both home and away — and others in the business, and reading various articles and blogs, especially Ron Pattinson’s, I am not so sure. Well I am sure that there have to be guidelines but they should be put in place so that you can wander away from them but still use them as a guide. Bit like going off road I suppose, you have to learn to drive before you can rip off over a moor.

When someone says American barley wines are too hoppy so what, rather that than the syrupy o’figs of Gold Label — Greene King call their session beer IPA, does it matter that it is nearly half the strength of say White Shield? Perhaps it does, because IPA is a revered icon and not to be dethroned, or maybe style is distinct from alcohol strength, after all you wouldn’t have a 3% barley wine would you? (on the other hand BrewDog highly hop a mild in How To Disappear Completely). What about lager? Now that is a whole can of Hofmeister? Is Schehallion a decent golden ale or a real ale pilsner (now we’re getting silly)?

Williams Bros 80/- is a case in point — I have been sent some of their beers, they’re good, especially the 80/-. So it’s an 80/- ale but as the only one I know is the Cally one I am not qualified to say if this is in style or not and does it matter? I know styles are also useful for breweries trying to sell their beers to the general public but then on the other hand? Let’s have a look at it.

Dark chestnut brown in colour; espresso coloured head that slowly dissipates. On the nose chocolate, ground coffee plus a hint of resiny hop — a restrained sweetness; almost like a flavoured coffee; there’s the sternness of the coffee bean but a friendlier more fragrant note coming through as well, which I suspect is the influence of the hop. On the palate it’s creamy, mouth-filling, smooth and soothing, mocha coffee-sweetness but also an aromatic vanilla hint, that fragrance again, imagine an imperial version of this — a very luscious beer for its strength, which would be lovely with or in ice cream. I suspect the original 80/- was thinner than this, and with perhaps more roasted notes. Is it in style? I don’t know and I don’t really care.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Git’s guide to beer and pubs

This week the Morning Advertiser has a ‘blokes’ issue — and they asked me and several others (including Roger Protz, Pete Brown and Tom Stainer), what we, as men (well I think we’re all men), wanted from a pub (there are other manly features). You can read our responses in the current MA (you can read the whole thing if you register for the digital issue here), but here’s mine for the record.
Being a modern man, who is neither neanderthal or metrosexual, I would certainly not like a men only pub; I like women in the pub, men on their own are boring and borish but on the other hand I would like a pub which doesn’t harp on about beers for men, beers for women etc. Can I just have a public house in the broadest sense of the word — somewhere that is part of the community.
My ideal pub would be beer led, not just real ale, but also stock bottled and keg beers from USA craft brewers, Bavarian wheat beer producers and Belgian mavericks; a decent wine list and interesting spirits otherwise it would become just a haven for scruffy looking men with carrier bags.
I don’t want brass ornaments or mugs hanging down, well just a few of the latter, memories of the characters for whose exclusive use they were once for. Old black and white photos on the wall, plus some framed posters for beers and the odd French film to add class. By the dart board there would be a rogues gallery of good nights in the pub.
I would like food, but simple stuff, good sandwiches, soup, decent salad, no chips, maybe seafood such as prawns, mussels etc. Wooden floors, terracotta colours on the walls, a book case with good books, not those bought by the yard; newspapers — broadsheets and a local.
This is a place where conversation rules (no music unless a couple of itinerant folk musicians come in and play), this is a place where men can talk about who was caught with whom in the polo field or discuss the latest calamities that has happened to so and so. A civilised place, as a pub should be — one concession to modern mores though: a screen that can be brought down and big rugby matches watched whenever Wales or Ospreys are playing, or indeed Arsenal are on. Pretty straightforward really.

And not a copy of Nuts in sight. The picture is of a man in a pub.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Old Freddy

Not that much of a cricket fan (but my lad is bat and ball mad), but there still has to be a beer for such an occasion: step forward Old Freddy Walker, which I happened to be contemplating when England finally took the shine off the Aussie sunshine. Have been drinking this for years (remember having a poly-pin in our old place in Chedzoy one Xmas that lasted a mere three nights), but tasting a bottle now, it knocks me over with its smooth chocolately, cocoa powder, creamy character — and with the feeling on Exmoor that autumn is coming this is the best tonic to greet those longer nights. I’m a fan of their JJJ as well, tasting notes of which can be found here — if you so wish.

Monday 17 August 2009

We had sun, we had fun, we had saisons in the sun

I love Saison, and am currently in the middle of researching a feature on it —yesterday, a 750ml bottle of Dupont and the same of De Glazen Toren Saison De Erpe-Mere. The difference is fascinating: Dupont is austere and flinty, restrained in its sweetness, with a champagne like effervescence; while Erpe-Mere is sweeter and more voluptuous, a bigger mouthfeel, more generous in its tasting profile. Both were brilliant and natural choices with food, the Dupont giving a great big hug to a creamy blue cheese, while the Erpe-Mere was a winner with roast pork. Saison is one of the great unsung beer styles of Europe — though both US and Italian brewers have not ignored it. Amongst the Italian saisons suggested by beer maestro Lorenzo Babove there are Birrificio del Ducato’s New Morning and Wayan by the incomparable Teo Musso; while over in the US I have a bottle of Victory’s Saison V waiting in my cellar and am intrigued by Saison-Brett from Boulevard Brewing. Purists might blanche at the thought of US brewers getting their hands on Saison but beer styles are surely always evolving through time and I love the idea of a Bret-influenced Saison (the pic was taken at Silly, who produce a decent if unexciting Saison).

Wednesday 12 August 2009

We are scum

To the Pilchard Inn on Burgh Island in Devon, overlooking the spit of sand that adjoins it to the mainland when the tide is out. An old inn, full of character I think, white-washed walls with the name standing out, the chance of a couple of pints in between body boarding and rock-pooling. Hello, what’s this, a queue for the bar, which I being essentially polite, join — after all there is South Hams’ XSB on and also something from Exeter Brewery (not world-beaters but at least they’re supporting local brewers, which is good and I don’t really expect this pub to have something from Schonram on tap, mind you they have San Miquel if you want to pretend you are in Spain).

Finally served by an unsmiling woman who presumably doesn’t like all these people from ‘off’ in her pub. There’s another bar at the back and so I go and have a look. A lovely sign says ‘reserved for guests and regulars’. Guests means those who can afford to stay at the Art Deco hotel that dominates one side of the island, while regulars I assume means some old sea salt who is wheeled out for the guests to talk to and make them feel they have had a brush with real life before returning to their Art Deco surroundings to throw peanut shells at the plebs shuffling about on the island.

The pub is a real disappointment, it presumably needs the service of those off the beach who fancy a pint, but it doesn’t want to infect the whole of its premises with them. It’s not a real public house then, it’s a facsimile, a virtual pub — I got more of a welcome in the Edwardian boozer that they transplanted to the Beamish Open-Air Museum in the north-east (barmaid in bustles, old Youngers signs, coal fire in the winter) than I did to this nose-wrinkling, handkerchief waving away, scowling place. Any port in a storm and all that but next time I do some body boarding on Bigbury beach I’ll settle for a bottle of Quercus ale from the excellent Venus Beach Cafe on the unwashed side of the beach.

The pub is lovely, the beer is good, the situation on a hot day heavenly, but this slice of suburban apartheid really sticks in my craw. So there.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Beer Glasto

Another GBBF, another splendid cavalcade of characters from the world of beer, old friends, new friends. I find I don’t approach the GBBF with the same excitement I used to. It has — for me — become more of a social and business networking event than an attempt to drink myself around the world (though I always manage to give it a good go). Maybe it’s because I go to the trade session or maybe because it’s part of the establishment now: a media partnership from the Indie, a big piece on the science of beer in the DT and posters everywhere, even people I know in the non-beerwriting world ask me if it is worth going to (whereas once they saw me as a bit odd). It’s become the beer world’s Glastonbury or any number of those festivals that seem to mark the summer’s passage. All that is missing is the rain, though several years ago Olympia got a hammering during a cloud burst. But what’s wrong with that — if beer (and I am not just talking about real ale) is to remain part of the matter of Britain then events like this are essential. From its energetic presence other celebrations of beer (both cask and non cask, British and global) can draw sustenance.

Evidence of ennui though? A peek at the list online last week failed to excite. On the other hand I enjoyed the cask beers I tried — Lord Maples, Cwrw Eryri and Screech Owl. Then it’s over to BSF where I discovered several things: I don’t like every beer that has been matured in whisky barrels (cue handing over Blood Sweat & Tears to a mate); will there come a stage when barrel aged beers become the Emperor’s New Clothes? De Ranke XX Bitter was bitter hop juice, and I normally love it, while Messers Maguire’s Bock was a thin thimble of roast malt and nowt else.

On the positive side, Mummia from Birrificio Montegioco was fun — lambic like, complex and refreshing. Augustiner Helles and Beck Brau Pils were elegant and crisp on the palate, but not Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier Urbock (unsophisticated in its smokiness, unlike its mother Marzen). Lagunitas’ Pils (parma violets on the nose) disappointed, but have bought a bottle home to reassess as it was recommended to me by an American beerwriter. Firestone Walker’s Union Jack IPA was tremendous (as if someone had grabbed me by the back of the neck and plunged me into a hopsack), though the beer from the US that impressed most was Victory’s V12, tasted at a US craft brewers reception the day before — fermented with Westmalle yeast according to Bill Cowaleski, it was rich and spirited, smooth and feisty, and hard to resist.

As for the festival itself I didn’t really take much notice of what elsewhere Pete Brown has talked of ‘freakish volunteers’ (none of us are perfect), though a first sighting of the Hobgoblin made me start (however I have seen a Merlin strolling the streets of Glastonbury) — and then I realised I wasn’t at a heavy metal concert whose adherents swear by their bodkins. It was just someone done up to promote Hobgoblin (10 years ago I remember a man in a budgie suit, I think that was his normal outfit). Someone else, in a shabby shiny suit, wore a lovely damp lock of hair pressed down on his forehead as he staggered from ale to ale. Then a brace of monstrously overwhelming drag queens in coloured tin foil, hellbent on signing up for Melissa’s tours. All very Glasto. However, I suspect as the day wears on and the beers go down, very few people look ‘normal’ when the bell rings (I know I certainly don’t). Which is why, for once fearing for my normality, I reluctantly but resolutely made an exit at 4.15. See you next year .