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).