Wednesday 27 January 2010

Lager of the Week — Old Scratch

Just because it’s lager of the week, the beer in the glass doesn’t have to be peerless or just perfect to take away to that desert island where the only thing to read is some fairy tales featuring a big man with a big beard. Sometimes it’s just going to be a lagered beer that hits the spot at the right time, which is why Flying Dog’s Old Scratch Amber Lager is this week’s lager of the week. Crisp, toasty and caramelly, I’ve always reckoned that this is a beer that might have been — unconsciously or otherwise — influenced by Brooklyn Lager. It’s amber in colour and has a scented caramel nose, while it’s dry and cracker-like on the palate, with a dry toasty finish. I do find it a trifle thin, but hey this is still a worthwhile beer to grab hold of when you want something cold and refreshing.

Monday 25 January 2010

In which I refuse to wait until May to enjoy a drop of mild

And then we had Burton Bridge’s mild coming on at Woods on Friday and hasn’t it flown out of the tap this weekend. Will the barman was so chuffed that he couldn’t stop humming (a Good Pub Guide entry once described him as the ‘singing barman’), while even those whose normal lubrication was cider tried the stuff and pronounced it a good drop. ‘I didn’t know they still made mild,’ was a common refrain, that suggests CAMRA still has a long way to go in promoting mild (never understood why May was the promotional time for mild, cause for me at that time of the year as the earth wakes up I want beers the colour of sunshine, beers bearing great big bunches of tropical fruit on the nose).

‘All sorts of folk have been ordering it,’ beamed Will in between songs. Another regular said that it was the colour of bonfire toffee, which then provoked another conversation about what on earth was bonfire toffee and was it still being made. What it does prove is that people, if given the chance, will talk about beer in the same way as they talk about wine, even out here in Exmoor, where the weather is all too often the tropic of conversation. Oh and what was it like? For the record the mild was scrumptious and this weekend I have done my best to pay it proper homage (even the other half enjoyed a drop, but then she used to drink Old Peculier at college) — it was earthy, chocolatey, sooty, mocha coffee-like and vinous, in possession of a good body and crackling with a dry chewy finish. Burton Bridge I salute you.
The picture shows Will at the bar and I could say it was conceptual but I’m just a rubbish snapper.

Friday 22 January 2010

The Barton Inn

Looking for a bit of Somerset quirk, you can do no worse than check out tomorrow’s DT.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

The last of the Christmas beers

It was time it went, after all I hadn’t drunk anything from it since New Year’s Eve. I’m talking of the 5-litre mini cask of Devonshire 10-Der I got from Country Life just before Christmas. This is a 10% barley wine-strong ale hybrid produced by a North Devon brewery based in the most unlikeliest of places — a theme park devoted to all things ovine (The Big Sheep, great for young kids up to about 8 and there’s a brewery and shop onsite as well). Anyway, I thought it time that the empty keg was put out for recycling. It’s been in my cellar that is usually 6-8˚c at this time of the year. It had been vented as well so all sorts of changes were happening. There was only about a third of a pint left so I thought I would do a spot of responsible drinking. Wow. It was still and limid in the glass, a texture reminiscent of the silken waters of the Cam at Granchester, calm enough to swim in. Chocolate and roasted coffee beans, a fiery alcoholic nature and a rye biscuit dryness in the finish still enticed. Grown up and worthy of a cigar (if I smoked, which I don’t), silken dressing gown and a lambskin-bound edition of, let’s say, The Devil Rides Out (and the wind howling outside). Fortunately, it’s all gone now so the family are spared the above spectacle.
Mentioning The Devil Rides Out reminds me of the time my mate Mark got married several years back and he and his missus held the reception at a country hotel Shepperton way that was the home of Christopher Lee’s character in the original film. He organised a barrel of Alton Pride from Triple fff for the do in the evening. Top man.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Lager (?) of the week — Plzen Ij

I haven’t been drinking in Holland since an enjoyable afternoon at the Red Lion in the Limburg city of Venlo several years back; here Lindeboom’s uncomplicated but enjoyable Pilsner was the order of the day amongst others, including the landlord’s own home-brewed take on a tripel (it was pretty good). I enjoy Grolsch and Christoffel’s beers, as well as the ones I have had from De Molen, but more recently I have discovered Plzen Ij from the Amsterdam-based Brouwerij Het Ij. It’s an honest, unreconstructed, complex, horny handed, rough arsed, plain-spoken beer that dubs itself a Pils (see below) — and an utter delight. The nose is sweet and herbal, with hints of resiny hoppiness; on the palate it was balanced between its bittersweet notes and the start of a long bitter finish. My version was unfiltered and slightly cloudy and all the better for it. Like swallows and summers, one bottle does not make a classic but it’s a beer that really stands out and makes me want to try it again. I really like unfiltered Pilsners and I still drool over the deliciousness of the Pilsner Urquell that was served to me straight from the wood in the old tunnels beneath the brewery back in 2005 — I wonder if it is the same?
Just as I prepare to post this, I read that a top fermenting yeast is used for Plzen Ij — once again the thorny question comes to mind: is this a lager? It brings to mind something someone from one of my favourite British craft brewers said to me recently, when I asked if they were joining the British Lager campaign: ‘we make good beer, full stop.’ I won’t change the heading of this post, but if we are going to be doctrinal it’s incorrect. Oh lord, the semantics of beer don’t half drag one down.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Sometimes the familiar ones are the best

Sunday lunchtime at Woods, lad with PSP (kids in pubs, help!), missus looking at local hate hack in MOS, I with beer. It’s London Pride, a rare sighting in this area. Will the marvellous barman hands over a fresh cask, tapped at 2pm, so get first pint. Bright and brassy in the glass, topped by a loose head that wouldn’t pass muster up north. A couple of former Londoners at the bar take great joy in saying ‘pint of Pride’, as do I after a couple. It’s lovely, a gorgeous drop, ringing hop notes on the nose (think hops rubbed in hands) and and then the biscuit, cracker fresh malt notes, bloody lovely. Better pint of it than I have ever had in London, though Carlos and I muse over the joy of ESB (which I am told is coming). There’s also Burton Bridge Mild, and a couple of Vale beer in the cellar — are the latter two any cop?

Thursday 14 January 2010

A muse on being thrown out of a pub

‘If your old fella’s as small as your mind then you’re in trouble.’ And with that the four of us were thrown out of the Green Dragon in Cambridge one spring evening many years ago. My first ever occasion of being chucked out of a pub — and I’m not sure if it was the last or not. Being young I thought it rather glamorous to be shown the door, though looking back it was all very peculiar. The catalyst was one of our lot, pink boiler suit, gay liberation badges, a conflict with Catholicism and a love for James Joyce’s work. The other two were women, one a looker with a drug problem, and the other older and involved with the church. Peculiar times. The landlord was a beef-and-potatoes sort of chap, old school, joshing with his mates at the bar because someone had left a copy of Gay News there. Homophobic. Why that paper, I haven’t got a clue. The gay chap took exception to his attitude and hence the remarks. The rest of us were sitting down and as our pal was thrown out, old school came over to us and told us to leave as well. Was vaguely amused, no loud voices, nothing to frighten the horses. We left and a few months later I ended up living round the corner — I tentatively went in one evening, expecting a broadside but it was a Greene King pub, er I mean nothing was said, don’t even know if it was the same landlord. Haven’t seen the then friends for donkey’s years, don’t even know if they are still alive.

All this returned to me as I mused on the whole ritual of being chucked out of a pub, about landlords being fit for purpose, about binge drinking and stinky drinkers. What would happen now? Would there be consequences? Different times indeed.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Lager of the week — Brackie

Polish lagers in the shops and all you can get are Tyskie, Lech and Zywiec, but for Brackie you will have to save up your carbon units and travel to the town of Cieszyn on the Polish-Czech border. This is an unsung local lager brewed in an old run-down place that also produces the peerless Zywiec Porter. You get to somewhere like this, with the owners Heinken hovering in the background, and you think as you are offered something golden in the glass that it will be ok, and just ok, and that you will think as you taste (as I once did in a French brewery), oh oh that’s rice and that’s a quick fermentation — and that’s the door out of here. But not with Brackie — this was a revelation. Dark gold in colour it offered a bitter tang on the palate and finish; there was also a great whisk of gently toasted (or maybe lightly kilned) cereal keeping company, while at the centre of the palate there was a sherberty lemon-like centre. For a country whose lagers have been noted for their strength (this is 5.5% though) rather than subtlety this had a remarkably resiny hop character that had me — in the words of Bryan Ferry — billing and cooing. Given that this was once Silesia and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire I wondered if that country’s brewing influence somehow had managed to survive the upheavals of the 20th century; if so then it was another example of beer’s remarkable ability to transcend the differences of nations (we will never see this beer in the West and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were left to wither on the vine, but it did provide me with one of my more memorable lager moments).

1001 Beers please

Received advance copies of 1001 Beers today. I think it looks wonderful and makes me want to have a drink right now (a Lagunitas Pils followed by a Victory Storm would be dandy). Another beer book? Yes, but on the other hand there are 1001 beers inside and 300 words (plus tasting notes) on them from the likes of Pete Brown, Stan Hieronymous, Randy Mosher, Stephen Beaumont, Lisa Morrison, Joris Pattyn, Conrad Siedl, Ali Gilmour and many others as well as myself (I wasn’t going to leave off writing some of my favourites as well as doing the whole editor’s schtick…), so it’s more than just another beer book. I like the cover as well, it gets across the thing of beauty that is a fine glass of beer, but in a cool, modern way. (end of blowing own trumpet)

Sunday 10 January 2010

Those monks at Westvleteren don’t half make a decent beer

I’d never met a landlady like Beatrice Maerten. Along with her husband, she ran a guesthouse in the French Flemish village of Boeschepe, on the edge of the hop-growing area that stretches north from Steenvoorde over the Belgian border to Poperinge. This was a house of beer. Each room was named after a Trappist or Abbey classic, while if you called ahead you might even be offered a beer dinner. I stayed for one night and had St-Sylvestre Biére Nouvelle as an aperitif, while Annoeullin’s exquisite L’Angelus accompanied a ham and cheese crepe, followed by a beery carbonade. Post-dessert contemplation came with a bottle of St-Sylvestre’s strong-armed ale Gavroche. There were more surprises. ‘I thought you would like this,’ she said next morning, handing over a bottle of Westvleteren 12. Beats a Blackpool guesthouse any day.

This was back in November 2005, when I was visiting breweries in the bière de garde region and I thought of her generosity the other night when I finally opened the bottle. I also thought of the furore that ensued when the same beer was rated the best in the world in 2005. I’m not the greatest believer in ‘best of’ lists (there is no such thing as the best beer in the world — just the best beer at the right moment), but on the occasions when I have drank a Westvleteren I’ve really enjoyed them. So into a glass the beer went. Burnished chestnut in colour, glimmering away, blessed with a gorgeous espresso head, and good carbonation. The nose brought forward cherry-flavoured plain chocolate, along with a memory of those big caramel coloured slabs of toffee that had been kept in a sweet shop for too long (I’m thinking of a place near the Bakers Arms on East Road in Cambridge), but still remained attractive. Tasted it was wine-like, more Châteauneuf-du-Pape than anything else, peppery, along with a fullness and a chocolate liqueur-like character. The cellar-like notes told me that the beer hadn’t lost its rusticity, that this was not a smooth beer, I liked that about it. I also got a whisper of nougat with nuts on the palate. There was plenty going on and I was also impressed that it had lasted so well so long (sometimes you get Marmite notes with Thomas Hardy beers that are barely a couple of years old); I was also taken with its sense of elegance mingling with the handsome rusticity.

Whether this is one of the best beers in the world (Public Enemy’s Don’t Believe The Hype starts up in my head) I will leave to the point-scorers but along with Lost Abbey’s Ten Commandments and Kapittel’s Prior (which bowled me over last night), it is one of the best beers for me of 2010 — so far.

Blimey, not all the media hate pubs

Good piece on the pub in today’s Sunday Times by Charles Clover, better known as author of End Of The Line.