Tuesday 31 March 2009

Picture this (or don’t)

I’m one of the worst photographers in the world, especially when it comes to beer and brewing. For instance, what can you do with a mash tun that hasn’t been done before, and how do you become a David Bailey to a brewer who is only too eager to get back to what they do best? A lot of the mags I write for (or have written for) ask for photos to accompany the articles — budgets are non existent for snappers, with the writer being next bottom on the food chain. On a press trip, the digital camera is always an essential tool as well as the notebook; on some trips it feels like we’re at a photocall as the brewer is asked to sniff hops, stand by the FV (or even pretend to look into it), lift a glass, sip from the glass or generally act the fool for a bunch of writers who are desperate for a glass of something sustaining. In the course of my work, I sometimes have a snapper in tow (especially if it’s a non-beer feature), but beer writing is very much can-I-take-another-shot and surreptitious glances at the way more superior snappers have framed their shots. Tomorrow I’m off up north on a press trip, in which several breweries and pubs will be visited and no doubt out of 100 photos I have taken, three will be serviceable. Henri Cartier-Bresson I am not — but here are a couple of pix I am proud of. The top is a bar scene in the Brewery Tap in Cains — one of the guys in the pic wasn’t too happy at being photographed, but was mollified when I said I wasn’t from any official body. Nothing much is happening in the pic, but that’s pub life sometimes. Secondly, this is the bottling line at Jenlain and came about quite by accident, I was being taken round by Raymond Duyck’s father, who spoke no English and I no French. He seemed very proud of his bottling line (as were several of the Northern French brewers I visited). I like the way one pack emerges out of the blur of rushing cases.

Friday 27 March 2009

Radio radio

A local radio station calls, would I like to go on their morning show as someone who knows about beer. Why not I say, but call me a beer writer, rather than expert (I’m not a brewer), and am asked to get together several questions on lager for a regular character called the Man With No Name. It’s a sort of speed-Mastermind (as in speed-dating rather than grinding your teeth and talking rubbish for 12 hours). He’s a lager man he tells me, Carlsberg and the occasional Bud (the one brewed in London). Oh and I tried a Baltika which was rubbish, he continues. I sent a couple of the questions over last night and get several ready this morning. It’s rather daft but good fun and like many a journalist I like the sound of my own voice. The best bit in my opinion is the question: what are the main ingredients in beer? Barley, yeast, water and hops comes the reply. Correct I say and then add that some brewers like to use rice but I like my rice in risottos rather than beer (I know there are Japanese beers with rice in them, and probably the odd Italian one, but I was in Soundbiteland). I get the sort of staged, Steve Wright-ish (note to American readers — he’s a noisy, populist radio DJ, but not Rush Limbaugh) laugh that radio presenters probably get drilled into them and I feel I’ve got a small point across without getting on a soap-box and asking for various folk to be hanged. The whole point of this five-minute diversion is that if you are given the chance to communicate about beer do it — and if you can, mirror the media in which you swim. If soundbites work, use them. I believe here in the UK there is a real thirst for beer knowledge that is there for the tapping.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Reel ale (what else?)

You know that you are changing into a beer geek when during a scene in the Watchmen you wonder what beer the former Nite Hawk is drinking; you also worry about your sanity when you think that an excellent quiz question would be: name two occasions when James Bond drinks beer. Answer, he has Red Stripe in the book of Dr No and an unidentified Peruvian brand in a bar in Quantum of Solace (though I am sure someone else can trump me on that). 
So given that I have written a fair share of film reviews in my time I start thinking of pubs (or bars) in films. So here they are in no particular order of course.
1 The Prancing Pony in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo makes himself invisible.
2 The Fool & Bladder in Sir Henry of Rawlinson End — you wouldn’t want to go there. A man gets up and sings and another man gets up and chins him. Seth One-tooth is the guv’nor.
3 I think an evening at the Crow purrs Richard E Grant in Withnail & I — ‘I thought you had the look of a military man,’ slurs the landlord when the lads come in. Of course, there’s also the London pub where perfumed ponces are ten a penny.
4 An unnamed pub in The Battle of Britain — as the Home Guard lot do their drills outside, carrying on in that loveable British shambolic way that hides the fact that they are really trained killers, inside RAF pilot Christopher Plummer has a tete-a-tete with fellow RAF-ee Susannah York.
5 Then there’s the bierkeller in Where Eagles Dare — buxom Ingrid Pitt serves Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton with foaming steins of lager. Apparently it’s set in 1944, but brewing is supposed to have stopped in the Third Reich in 1943. Must have been a secret stash.
6 Villain Harold Shand and entourage are driving towards an East End pub with Mafia guests and the place explodes before them in The Long Good Friday.
7 Virginal policeman Edward Woodward walks into a keg-friendly hotel bar in the Wicker Man; later on in the evening Britt Ekland’s body double will do an hilarious naked dance.
8 Arthur Seaton falls down the stairs of his local after a skinful in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning; he’s not hungover enough to bed Rachel Roberts though.
9 Fun amongst the snob screens with Tony Hancock in The Punch and Judy Man
10 In Get Carter Michael Caine orders a beer in a busy bar when he gets to Newcastle; have a look at the second local staring at him; he’s got five fingers and a thumb.

Monday 23 March 2009

Pub time

Sussex Pale Ale please. And that will be £2.80 says the woman with the impeccable Bermondsey accent. Sailing and sea-going reminiscences are washing over the table to the right to me (as well as memories of beers drank — ‘a boiler is a brown and bitter’ asserts one of the crew), while in the corner by the bar a chap with a face that has seen better days is on his second bottle of wine (shared with a friend) as he excites himself about a coming trip to Argentina; ‘this is the best restaurant in London,’ he says to a man at the bar, who lifts up his glass and says ‘who needs food when you have this’. I once heard something similar in the west of Ireland. All laugh. A man with a pint sits in his shirtsleeves to the left of me — he looks like he’s marking sheets of paper covered with blue ink scrawls. He’s on his second pint. While in the opposite corner another man, his lunch finished, takes his time to digest the news in his broadsheet. His pint, two-thirds gone, stands on the table before him, next to a plate with leftover salad and a crumpled napkin on top. The sun’s lunchtime rays brightens up the pub as it streams in through the big clear glass windows, warmth on the back of the neck. I see my glass is empty. Time to try the Armada with its fruity fragrant nose. The Royal Oak, Borough. Pub time, the beer is perfect, conviviality and industry co-exist — this is a pub and this is what some people are trying to do away with. Why? It makes no sense.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Cat skills

Doing some work on Cask Ale Week and rung up a pub in Norfolk today. ‘Are you doing something for cask ale week,’ I ask the landlady, who tells me she has her baby on her lap (it’s not opening time yet just in case anyone was worried about babies on the booze). ‘No we’re not,’ she says a bit bemused, ‘well it says on the website you are,’ I reply and check with her that the pub comes under the Enterprise umbrella as it says on the website. She confirms and asks if I can I call back in an hour and talk with her husband. I say ok. ‘Just say tell him it’s about cask ale week,’ I fire as a parting shot. She exclaims, laughs and sounds much warmer and friendlier. ‘Oh I thought you said Cat Skills Week.’ I nearly asked if the pub had a Cat Marque accreditation but thought better of it.

Beware of geeks bearing gifts

I don’t do lists normally, but working on a recent project (now hit by the ubiquitous credit crunch) that involved lists of beers I started to do films and then thought books and then thought beer books. It didn’t take me long and is just a bit of fun, but here are my top five favourite beer books (not to be taken seriously — these are books that currently call out to the beer-sodden wraith that haunts my soul). They’re not in any particular order either.
The Book of Beer — Andrew Campbell: published in the 1950s and a thorough celebration of beer, including a wonderful section that suggests how the beerman (and let’s face it this is a book for blokes) can get through the day with beer as companion. ie a glass of mild perhaps with breakfast to aid with digestion…
Radical Brewing — Randy Mosher: published several years ago; I’m not a home-brewer but this is a riveting and rollicking journey through the happy soul of home-brewing along with much information about beer, including many lost beers; exceptional useful for spotting faults; I took it down to the pub the other day to show the barman why the beer he was selling was phenolic.
New World Guide to Beer — Michael Jackson; my first ever beer book, bought as a Christmas present by a then girlfriend’s mother; this is the late 1980s edition and even now it still manages to enthuse and entertain in equal measure; however, there’s also a poignant element about it, a sense almost of a lost world when even Interbrew were not the behemoth they have become. I love the colour pic in the British Isles section of drinkers in Adnams’ Harbour Inn, Southwold, with a caption, part of which says (referring to the fact that the pub occasionally got cut off by high tide), ‘Students of these brews have sometimes been stranded for days’.
The Brewmaster’s Table — Garrett Oliver: makes me hungry and thirsty at the same time; he makes great beer, conducts wonderful tastings and writes like a dream, a true Renaissance Man; this is a gorgeous odyssey through some of the greatest beers in the world.
Travels With Barley — Ken Wells: an entertaining journey through the world of American beer culture that takes in yeast rustling, extreme beer, retro beers, craft beers, A_B and so on; a fantastic book.
As I say, this is just my opinion, there are other great books, Ambitious Brew, Three Sheets to the Wind, Brew Like A Monk, The English Pub (both MJ and Peter Haydon), The Ale Trail, Prince of Ales, The English Inn, An Inn-Keeper’s Diary, Tim Webb’s Belgian series, but this is just a bit of fun.

Monday 16 March 2009

Tir na nOg

St Patrick’s Day tomorrow and the usual beery hi-jinks will occur. Stout will be drunk, mainly Guinness though a few outposts will offer various alternatives. This is the bar at my local pub. The beer in the middle, from Cottage Brewery, has been produced for the day. A dark beer, perhaps? No, dark beers, apart from Guinness don’t do that well in my local (I reckon I was one of the few drinkers of the ravishingly beautiful O’Hanlon’s Port Stout when it was on). I had a couple of pints yesterday lunchtime and — surprise, surprise — it’s a golden beer with a tantalisingly fragrant hop character on the nose. Sometimes it’s good to do something different.

Top shop

300 words on bottle tops, or crown corks as they are properly known. How on earth can one manage that? Well if James Joyce can produce a whole novel based on a day in Dublin (beery fact: Bass’ No 1 is mentioned in one of the later chapters), then I’m sure I can deal with a much less demanding need for words. First of all, start thinking about those folk who collect them. What do they do with them? What does it mean to their lives? How much fun do they have when they visit conventions of fellow collectors? Is much beer drunk? What’s the rarest bottle top in the world.

I have an admission: I collect them and attach them to the wall in my beer cellar, just behind the bottles standing on the shelves. But what does it do for my life? Obviously it will not help to stop the caving in of the pub industry or bolster up the fragile sense of ego that beer seems to have in modern times, but it does give me a sense of continuity; a sense of calm; a sense of belonging — tops for the beers most enjoyed take one back to the time it was drunk. Bottle tops as time machines!

To my right as I write there is a pale blue-coloured top for a Watou beer. It was one I drank the other night — a gorgeously rich and unctuous beer that would be beyond the reach of those with modest incomes if the minimum pricing lobby had any success (the Watou I drank was 9% and very good it was too). The outline of a monk is etched against the background, and the words Prior and Watou top and tail the object. But what does it mean? It’s an identity for the brewery, a sense of who they are, a small add-on to the more visible and expected branding of paper labels. Then I wonder if bottle-top art is necessary? What does a bare bottle top denote? It could be an amateurish ignorance of the necessity for a full and complete branding image (you’ve got the label, why not complete the full set with a decorated bottle top?), or is it small brewery shortness of cash? For me, a bare bottle top connects with memories of my dismal attempts at home brewing; brown bottles full of yeasty yucky liquid and topped with bare dulled bottle tops. So there you are: we need bottle top art.

I’ll be honest, I like bottle top art, there, that wasn’t too difficult was it?

For a complete understanding of bottle top collecting and other forms of beery madness, Martyn Cornell’s beer Memorabilia is essential.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Getting lambic

‘Do you get your water from the canal outside?’ asked my mate the Maltworm, the first time I visited Cantillon in Brussels (living in the city for several years he’d been before and knew what to expect, but was still capable of asking the odd daft question). No answer came, just the sort of look the brewery’s totemic Jean-Pierre Van Roy probably reserved for those who asked for a glass of Jupiler, oh and could I have a slice of lemon on the side of the glass garcon. ‘What do you think?’ the look seemed to say. Of course the water came from the mains. This was 1997 after all.
Read more on Cantillon? Go to www.beeralewhatever.com/breweries.html for further enlightenment.

A Proustian pint for me and my friend

Nostalgia sells beer — doesn’t it? Stella Artois harkened back to pre-World War I rural France (and last year summoned up the ghosts of Sixties Cannes as Jean-Paul Belmondo once again pulled a good-looking bird); various IPAs evoke the Victorian age; porter sometimes goes back further — while post-modernist pranksters BrewDog look to punk and an 1980s art school aesthetic (Zeitgiest was a word a lot of us toyed with back then, and who knows maybe we’ll have Bauhaus one day — hopefully not, once was enough for that sorry band). They all look back, even though the packaging can be contemporary (‘with a twist’ is a word flayed and featured over and over again in gastro-publand and sometimes in beer).
Can beer escape its past or is it irrevocably linked to yesteryear? And why? Does it matter if it tastes good and takes us to another place.
I asked several brewers and commentators the question. Here’s Meantime’s Alastair Hook, with more to follow — what do you think?
Alastair Hook
"Beer is as irrevocably linked to yesteryear as organized society is….Humans look back if they want to learn, and consumers like the validation of history. Contemporary twists, cutting edge production methods, or modern presentation are the human manifestations of the desire to change and improve, and that is what separates Man from Beast. At Meantime we have the epic shadow of the history of brewing in London checking our every move, but we recognize a consumer, who typical in any modern urban metropolis demands more. They want vision and creativity, and what life has taught us all is that you can have neither without a conscious or sub-conscious respect for the past. Anarchy is ugly in beer, whereas in more complex life forms such as Music, or Art, anarchy can find a home. Beer is after all the nation’s favorite drink and is at the end of the day not a comfortable home for radical revolutionaries. Its simplicity is its beauty and its strength. So I am afraid your nostalgia factor with a contemporary twist is a hard one to escape from!"

Monday 9 March 2009

St Bernadus 12

St Bernadus 12 — what a lovestruck poem of a beer, a rhapsodic outpouring of liquorice, mocha coffee, chocolate, spice and alcoholic richness that deserves to be worshipped; an end of evening thriller that sends one to bed mellow, beaming with a smiling sense of how wonderful beer can be. In my cellar it stands on the shelf, the deep rich blue label with the smiling monk on the front a high note of colour in a muted forest of other bottles with their labels of pale burgundy, light denim blue, Stygian darkness with golden lettering picked out like searchlights in the sky. This is a beer made to be studied. And next time I contemplate a glass of 12, I have a hankering for serving it alongside a plate of rabbit ravioli. I cannot wait.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Take a trip to Sharp’s

Take a trip to the brewery at Sharp’s, a febrile and fast-growing business comfortably at home in the village of Rock, a place that takes its place in the pages of tabloid shame as the place where the well-bred go to ill behave. Across the mouth of the River Camel from Padstow I and others go, a short ferry’s ride, shorter still when the tide is out. Vast expanse of golden sand stretches aside the ever widening waters; to the northwest where the open sea waits to embrace the Camel, waves break and foam over the Doom Bar — a place of wreck and toil; but also a name for the bar-friendly Doom Bar, Sharp’s signature beer (see it: amber in colour; taste it: dry biscuity chewiness embracing sweetish citrus marmalade on the palate, quick finish, easy to drink).
Read more on Sharps? Go to www.beeralewhatever.com/breweries.html for further enlightenment.

Monday 2 March 2009

Why on earth Maltworms?

I first came across the word Maltworms in a drinking song written by the composer Moeran, who was a bit of a boozer himself — apparently it comes from the 16th century and its early modern origins reminded me of the joy with which I had savoured similar drink-orientated words of the time, such as pot-valiant, a word that I seem to recall being used in Shakespear, probably referring to the likes of Falstaff, whose martial boasts would depend on the amount of sauce he had put back. According to various dictionary definitions a maltworm is a tippler and a toper and — presumably — a pot-valiant, which puts Falstaff very much in the frame. These days I’ve not come across it being used to denote a love of malty beers, such as hophead gets chucked about when the IBU queens spring forth. Maybe the idea of someone being called a worm is not the same as being called a hophead, with its references to potheads and crackheads (a denuded belief that an excess of narcotics opens up the doors of perception and other such dopey things). At least we haven’t got yeast beasts…
Onto the words of the song. I do love the first verse, which suggests someone with a delicate constitution who, fair play, is not ill enough to give up the ale — ‘I cannot eat but little meat,/ My stomach is not good;/ But sure I think that I can drink/ With him that wears a hood.’ I think we’ve all been there.
*That simple looking maltworm is not me by the way.