Tuesday 30 March 2010

Cask week sesh

Here’s my contribution to Cask Ale week, a small selection of pubs that are well worth visiting, not just for good beer but also for food, to take the family to, to rest your weary feet after a walk, to enjoy the lapping of the water nearby and to recover after wasting your money on a three-legged nag.

Best pub for food
The Anchor, Walberswick, Suffolk
‘Tudorbethan’ on the outside and bright, comfortable and modern on the inside. Mark Dorber’s Adnams-owned pub has swiftly become renowned for both its captivating collection of cask beers and its superb food. The menu is cheeringly small (a sure sign of freshness) – for instance meatloaf served alongside home-made piccalilli; freshly caught local fish or rare breed beef. On sunny days decamp to the patio, with views over the sea and the coast stretching southwards to the lost town of Dunwich. 

Best Pub for Families
The Castle Inn, Cambridge
On sunny days, families flock to the suntrap of a garden behind this popular town pub. Landlord is John Halsey, a genial soul who also leads a not-so-secret life as an original member of The Rutles. When not gigging, he oversees events at this solidly built pub. Children enjoy smaller versions from the excellent menu (no chicken nuggets here) while grown-ups also contemplate the cask beers from Adnams and other brewers further afield. 

Best Pub for Walks
The Thatchers Arms, Mount Bures, Essex
The Thatchers Arms sits atop a ridge that overlooks both the Stour and Colne valleys, right on the Essex-Suffolk border.  This is Constable country and offers nigh-on perfect walking. Canny hikers often drop in early to order their lunch then enjoy their ramble before coming back to tuck into a plate of traditional pub food — all accompanied by a pint of Crouch Vale’s Brewer’s Gold. Dogs and families, locals and visitors, can all expect an equally warm welcome at this friendly family-run pub. 

Best Scenic Pub
The Pandora Inn, Restronguet Creek, Cornwall
Evocative quayside inn apparently named after the HMS Pandora, the ship sent out to bring back the Bounty’s mutinous crew from Tahiti. Set in a stunning position overlooking a creek that flows into the Carrick Roads north of Falmouth, it’s a low-slung cob-built, thatch-topped inn with a long history. Summer sees visitors crossing the creek by canoe or dinghy from the over side, passing the swans as they glide on the water. Inside the Pandora there’s a jumble of slate-floored rooms, some with low-ceilings, and plenty of nautical object d’arts scattered about. Inside or outside, St Austell’s Proper Job or Tribute is the beer to ask for. 

Best Pub for Sporting Occasions
The Royal Oak, Prestbury, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
It’s a short gallop to Cheltenham racecourse from the Royal Oak in Prestbury, a pretty village on the northern outskirts of the town, which also has the distinction of having one of the most haunted streets in England, the Burbage. This sixteenth-century honey-coloured Cotswold stone pub positively hums with activity on race days. Jockeys, trainers, punters and locals mix and mingle, swapping stories and enjoying pints of Taylor’s Landlord and Butcombe Bitter, amongst others, at the bar. Whitsun Bank Holiday sees a sausage and beer festival, while autumn has a celebration of oyster and stout. The pub used to be owned by English cricketing legend Tom Graveney who still pops in for a pint. 

Sunday 28 March 2010

Lager of the week — Löwenbräu’s Triumphator

Craft brewers aren’t the only ones who make decent beer — I’m told that this is a controversial statement. With that in mind, this week’s lager is Löwenbräu’s Triumphator, a doppelbock from a brewery owned by Am-Bev, or whatever they call themselves these days. To some people in the beer communication business they are the very devil, while I have nothing to do with them so out of sight out of mind: though I do recall back in 2005 the furore that ensued when the British Guild of Beer Writers got some sponsorship for them for their awards (as I was sitting on the committee as I still do this was more of an internal thing that something out in the open). The award was named after Artois Bock, a beer that they received some good reviews for from some very respected people but the thing about that beer was that even though they were obviously trying to get some respect when you saw it at a quid a pop in Tesco’s you realised it was just the same as any other loss leader. 

However, this post is about the beer in the glass, which in this case is the colour of a well-burnished conker. The nose is heady, fruity and boozy, there’s also some toffee, plus a hint of stollen cake and dried straw; the mouthfeel is chewy, boozy, vinous, sultanas, but also soft and nourishing. The finish is sweetish, almost like a sweet sherry with more of that grainy like strawness. It’s thinner and less elegant than some of the best of the style such as Ayinger, Andechser or Weltenburg, though it doesn’t have the alcoholic burn of strong Euro beers either. It’s not craft, it’s not macro, but it’s very drinkable; what are we to do with it?

Friday 26 March 2010

This brewing thing is a right lark innit?

Last December I went down to Sharps to help brew (or rather watch it being brewed) Winter Berry. When Stuart Howe first asked me to come up with a receipt for a winter beer, I suggested at least 7% abv, but it was not to be (4.5% was its strength). However, the other day a couple of bottles of a 9.3% version arrived in the post. Hooray! Here’s what I thought: a dark ancient sideboard handed down the centuries sort of colour, the nose reminiscent of those juicy fruit chews we had as kids (black currant flavour perhaps?). Drinks deceptively easy, a voluptuous, rich and secretive body and the sort of beer that will  improve with age I reckon; at the moment it’s sweet shop fruit gums on the palate with a sugary depth but nothing too sweet, there’s a big bitter finish; there are berries in the background on both the palate and finish. For it’s strength it’s remarkably viscous and rich without being too sweet, and it’s incredibly well balanced. This brewing thing is a right lark innit?

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Another beer?

‘Try this’ says someone, pointing out a tall bottle. Someone else chips in, ‘this is gorgeous, I would normally run a mile from such a beer’. Amongst the bottles on the table, little fellas, 330ml, the one that holds Goose Island’s Juliet is twice the size. Into the glass it goes, hazy and ruddy faced like an angry farmer, soft cloud-white foam on top. The nose is sour and vinous, the famous horse blanket aroma, a hint of hedgerow berries in the background; grapefruit, peachy, tart and tangy on the palate but this is Chicago rather than Brussels; a beer with wild yeast, a beer aged in cabernet barrels with blackberries. Absolutely wonderful. The same brewery’s Sofie is spritzy, soft and creamy. ‘Another beer.’ Anchor Bock, not had this before. Hands up who remembers blackjacks? A dark chewy retro sweet, aniseedy, prone to turning the tongue black. The aroma on this beer takes me back to the corner shop, jars of bon-bons, chocolate limes and blackjacks. The taste is an alcoholic dandelion and burdock, who thought a mere beer (mere beer?) had the power to take one back to childhood. All very in search of lost time. At the White Horse, the tasting of US beers brought in by James Clay and marshalled by the good people of RnR continues. I like the contrast between the IPAs from Goose Island and Flying Dog. The latter has a rugged hop sack character, is a bittersweet symphony, pungent and earthy and has a long train ride of a finish; the former has a softer more mellow citrusy nose, a sherbert like sweetness on the palate, but still manages to come up with a dry bitter finish. Which one is best? Depends on the mood and the moment, which brings me round to Orval, the beer that for me is a beer for all occasions, which then brings me to Goose Island’s Matilda, Orvalish and citrusy. Raging Bitch next, Belgian-style IPA, fragrant and floral on the nose, ripe, peachy, apricot and spice in the mouth, soothing bitter and fruity finish. I had it not long ago and didn’t enjoy the high Amarillo note in the finish; it’s not there this time. And to finish: Gonzo Imperial, coffee, cocoa, soot, smoke and bitterness, luscious vanilla, I bet this looks good in an ice cream float; then stand by your beds for beer sambuca: Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout, spirituous, mocha, rich, Herculean, ‘now I am become death, a destroyer of worlds’. And with that out into the night, refreshed and replenished I went.

Monday 22 March 2010

London gets another great beer venue with The Old Brewery

A gleaming Italian-built micro brewery stands at one end of the high-ceilinged room and the warm smell of the mash pervades the air. On the walls a time line encircles the room and notes significant dates in beer and brewing. The bar stands, a host of taps waiting to issue beers from Meantime — welcome to the Old Brewery at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Meantime’s latest enterprise, a brewpub that will serve great beer. A couple of weeks ago I had lunch here with Meantime’s founder and inspirational brewmaster Alastair Hook to talk about lager for a feature I  was writing. I also got a brief tour of the Old Brewery, but promised not to write about it until the launch, which was today. From what I saw this is a thoroughly modern space and a great showcase for Hook’s marvellous beers. It will also be wonderful for food: I had Herdwick mutton and potatoes with anchovy juice, accompanied by a crisp and clean glass of Meantime Helles, which cut through the unctuousness of the mutton and cleansed the mouth. Afterwards we went to the cellar, where Hook told me about the Meantime Kellerbier which will be stored in a polythene bag in a tank; the tank will be pressurised to aid the dispensation of the beer, but no extraneous CO2 will touch the beer, so it’s real ale I was told. I like Alastair and I like the beers he makes. He’s a pioneer — he was doing filtered and unpasteurized lager beers years ago while ask him about dark lager and he will point out that he brewed Franconian Dark Lager in 2002, several years before BrewDog claimed that the first one was Zeigeist. It’s easy to forget that Meantime has been around for 10 years and having proved a point with lager his IPA and London Porter showed that he wasn’t a one-yeast pony. He can sometimes come across as an abrasive chap, but I find him inspirational to talk beer with (just as I do with John Keeling and the Thornbridge guys) and totally lacking in bull. I asked him if he had mellowed and he replied ‘I’ve always walked the walk,’ which I took as a no. So if you have a chance I would recommend a trip down to Greenwich and the Old Brewery as London gets another good beer venue.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Lager of the week — Freedom Four

Here we are, another lager of the week, one that several people have already blogged about, but what the hell (es). I think Freedom have it under trial at the moment but I reckon it’s good enough to be out there soon. In the glass it’s exceedingly pale, like it’s seen a ghost. First thoughts on taking a sniff is that it’s a Helles, has that grainy cereal Weetabix character to it, a canvas for lemony notes to add some colour. Resiny, pungent hop notes appear on the nose as well; they’re  not in your face but fresh and sensual. It’s crisp and fresh on the palate with lemon citrus, breakfast cereal notes; zesty and refreshing; grainy, dusty finish reminiscent of a dry barn in the summer when it hasn’t rained for a while. Gentle carbonation, absolutely delicious. Oh and if you haven’t guessed, it’s 4%. As lager of the week does not always have to have the judgement call, the next one will be a fully considered tasting of the tosh my mate Herby drinks, Carlsberg, the one with what feels like a can of Jolly Green Giant on the nose and a finish as quick as the guillotine blade on some sap’s head during the rule of the Committee of Public Safety in 1793 (which makes me wonder — was there any beer in the French Revolution? I know Napoleon’s troops are supposed to have referred to Berliner Weisse as the champagne of the North, but what was the tipple of choice in and around Calais, was beer unpatriotic?). Now if you must excuse me I must get back to Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm, which incidentally has a quote from Protzy on page 660 (and he’s not talking about beer).

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Keg is no longer the devil that I was frightened by for years

Just the other day someone asked me what I thought about CAMRA and I said that I no opinion (10 years ago I would have ranted on for ages about defending cask beer, promoting world beers etc). After a brief moment of contemplative silence I then went on for 10 minutes, arguing that CAMRA, one day, will have to seize the chance to celebrate all British craft beer, not just cask; that they needed their Clause Four moment, that they needed to ‘modernise’. What it came down to was that one fine day they will have to acknowledge a well-crafted British beer that isn’t cask is just as valid as one that has mellowed and matured in a cask. Thoughts along this way have been swirling about in my head for years, the result of late night conversations held at various booze-ups and events (I remember being quite shocked when someone at a beer dinner said that the second part of CAMRA’s name, ie Real Ale, was a bit of a prison; this person then went onto to point out that CAMRA had changed its name once before so it could do it again).

I think another catalyst for me was Meantime’s beers, which you never seem to see at the Great British Beer Festival; then there were the lagers produced by the likes of Cotswold and Freedom, once again missing from the bash. Will it be the same with BrewDog (though their cask versions of 77 and Trashy Blonde have turned up here in the Bridge in Dulvie)? It would feel strange to go to one of the greatest beer festivals in the world and not see a BrewDog (maybe they wouldn’t want to be there anyway?). After all, there’s a load of great beers from Germany, the Czech Republic and the US on draft — do they all meet the CAMRA criteria? I am told that they do, but is this the way they are served back home? Anyway, this isn’t a gripe about CAMRA — they seem more of a trade body dealing with such esoteric subjects as minimum pricing (which I don’t have an opinion) and OFT (whoever they are), rather than beer but then they are a pressure and campaigning group, so can you blame them?

What I wanted to write about has been covered by some but it’s also been buzzing about in my head for a while, helped on its way by conversations with brewers. The subject is: keg isn’t the devil, it’s bad keg that’s the frightener. I’ve chatted with SIBA members who don’t do cask beer (or do very little of it) and they have wondered what membership has to do with them, given that the vast majority of members are cask ale people. More recently though I hear that SIBA are looking at a category in their competitions for keg beer, though they will be calling it brewery conditioned. I think it’s a great idea (think the name needs tinkering with though). Jeff Rosenmeier at Lovibond’s producing some cracking beers but they are not cask; Freedom had that much reported ding-dong with CAMRA when they had to withdraw their beer from the Burton festival; Meantime’s Helles is a splendid beer but it’s not cask or bottle conditioned. I interviewed BrewDog’s James Watt recently and he reckoned that an IPA was better served brewery conditioned (filtered but not pasteurized I believe), the first time I heard someone say this. This is not an anti-cask post, god knows I drink enough of it in my local and on my travels, but I also adore  Meantime IPA (and any of their beers) from the keg and would like BrewDog’s lagers from the keg; meanwhile I drink filtered beer at home (unless it’s a bottle-conditioned beer that I have grown to trust through long experience) — they are all good beers. 

I guess CAMRA will pooh-pooh the need for them to accept what is fast becoming a pluralist beer system (especially as cask is doing well but who knows how fragile this growth is), but I would like to think that sometime in the near future good cask (there’s crap cask lest us not forget) and good keg (for want of a better name) will co-exist in a beneficial spirit of mutual love at the bar and we will all gain something from this.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Lager of the week — Kloster Scheyern Gold Hell

Not come across this before, but thought I would give it a whirl. It’s dark gold, topped with a meriangue white foam; there’s an alcoholic bitter lemon on the nose, lingering in the background a gentle aroma that makes me think the toasting machine on 1 for a bit of brioche, summoning up thoughts of breakfast. If this be toast then a doppelbock will be coffee. The bitter lemon character on the palate is more to the fore than on the nose, it’s easy to drink despite the strength (5.4%), deceptive, a deceiver; grainy, dusty, straw-like finish, dry and slightly boozy. No world-beater, but not a wife-beater either. I wonder what this would be like fresh from the tap? As I said I’ve not come across this lot before; if they are Aldi or Lidl staples then so what? It’s perfectly pleasant but it doesn’t have the wow that I find in beers that come from LöwenBräu Buttenheim for instance. 

Thursday 11 March 2010

I commend Wetherspoons’ latest beer festival to the nation (but don’t start too early)

 Goose Island’s founder Greg Hall stands in the middle of a room with a glass of ale next to him on the table. He’s checking his phone but as soon as we’re introduced he’s on song. We met a couple of years ago at a White Horse dinner, but I don’t think he remembers me, but so what. We’re both here to do a job. On the other hand he makes two of my favourite beers in the world: Goose Island IPA and Bourbon County Stout. ‘They called up and said that they would like us to make Honkers’ Ale,’ he says in response to my stock question about how come he’s involved with Wetherspoons (it’s a quick visit and I have a train in an hour). ‘It’s hopped with Styrian Goldings as per normal and uses Goose Island’s yeast, but it’s 3.9% as opposed to 5% in bottle. The idea was to do an English version of Honkers’ Ale.’ It’s good talking with the man (and I hope to visit his home town in the autumn), but I’ve got another sight in my targets given the time. Big in a rugby shirt, chatting with his father, no doubt recovering from the previous night’s visit to Brecon (and the eponymous brewery’s hospitality) is Richard Chennells from Zululand brewery. A man who looks like he would be happy to scrum down in the front row (I’ve just seen Invictus and remember how I chuckled at the team’s disgust with a crappy beer at the start of the movie — if anyone ever says that beer doesn’t matter show them this scene), he spends his time brewing and also seems to have time to visit every brewery in SA for a book he is working on; if you are heading out to SA this year for the football check him out (or read my forthcoming article in Scoff). Elsewhere Val-Dieu’s elfin brewster chats with Belgian tour expert Podge and I’m sure that there is a brewer guy from Hawaii wandering about as well.

Say what you like about Wetherspoons (and I will when I walk past one at 10am and see the pasty-faced groaners on their third pint of whatever’s their tipple), but they do confound. It’s cheap grog, cream-steam nonsense, lots of coffee, alkies having urgent conversations with each other at 11am, but on the other hand… For the last several years their beer festivals have featured foreign brewery collaborations — these have featured the likes of Stone and Kiwi 1001-ers Epic, while their current one introduces that unknown quantity, South African craft beer to the mix. It might be cask (and I speak as someone whose belief that cask-is-everything is so tempered, specially as I arrived after having lunch with the ever inspirational Alastair Hook over in Greenwich), but it’s still pushing beer to people who think that it begins and ends with the alpha and omega of brown and bitter (or even the sort of gold elves die to bring out of the mines of Leuven). Sadly, I had to leave as the hardened boozers of the Guild — Cole, Brown, Protz, Evans and Dredge — were getting tucked in, but Wetherspoons’ latest beer festival is something I would commend to the nation (but don’t start too early, 11am is respectable enough). 

Tuesday 9 March 2010

The Taste — another world

In search of an image and associated story about a Whitbread lager dispensed from a tap-like fount, I gather together copies of The Taste, which ran — I seem to remember — from around 1998 for a couple of years. The issues have busy covers, lots of headlines, pre-Photoshop pix of beer bottles and the logo ‘Britain’s Brightest Beeriodical’. Cover shots include Santa behind the bar, Harvey’s and the river that runs past it (and would flood it not long afterwards), Lemmy, a pub with a cut-out of Mick the Tick in front, Jo Guest and a bevy of cheesy looking sub-Page Three women holding pints (they are clothed, just). It’s beer as beer was then, manly, trade-like, beery, sweaty, yo-ho-ho, freemasonish, whiskery, clubby, Bass and some other biggies, ruby-faced porters in bowlers, some class but a lot of foam plus CAMRA, though the magazine always reserved the right not to agree with the Campaign (when Roger Protz returned to edit the Good Beer Guide in 1999 he was described as an ‘old hand’). Writers from then still serving time at the coal-face of beerwriting (© Bumper Book of Clichés) include Brian Glover and Martyn Cornell (I was also a contributor), while Roosters’ Sean Franklin contributed a couple of interesting articles on tasting beer. Looking through the news pages it’s a time of carnage; breweries whose demise the magazine recorded include Vaux and Flowers (did I really care?), while there’s an attempt to list all the microbreweries that were extant then. There was also a regular barmaid of the month… It had an old-fashioned feel though it did try and do one thing differently; as What’s Brewing’s headlines thundered CAMRA’s outrage at whatever brewing duplicity was going on then in the manner of Arthur Scargiill denouncing class traitors, The Taste tried to get away from the hectoring but sadly went too predictably down the nascent lads’ mags route (in fact I remember the editor telling me that WH Smith didn’t have a clue whether to put his mag next to Loaded, BBC Food or Heritage Steam Engines). One issue in January 1999 had the headline ‘free internet access with Breworld (who I remember being very useful with brewery info in 1996 prior to a trip to New England). I don’t know when the magazine finished, it was either 1999 or 2000, but I stopped it in November 1999 when the issue featured a really shoddy pic of a barmaid in Blackpool in a spangly pink bikini — it was enough to put me off my evening’s beer. 

Sunday 7 March 2010

Chocs away with Saltaire

Good to see Saltaire’s Triple Chocoholic winning SIBA’s Supreme Champion 2010 (report by Pete Brown on the conference here). I was on the judging panel that featured this luscious and luxurious chocolate stout and we put it through as the top beer, obviously not having a clue where it came from, but it was just magnificent. Later on talking to those on the top judging table it was clear that this beer, brewed with love from Shipley, was in the running for the big prize, so I was pleased and not very surprised to see the result. It’s a confection of chocolate malt, real chocolate and chocolate syrups but despite all this chocolate it’s not a sweet beer, being more like a hot chocolate with a creamy, soothing mouthfeel while a judicious hop bitterness keeping everything from toppling over into a tooth-jangling nightmare. Thinking about it now brings me to think about the whole speciality beers category (once again); I think it’s such a woolly and nebulous concept that thankfully has improved over the years — after all it wasn’t that long ago that Schehallion kept winning the speciality beer category at CAMRA’s annual beer beano (hold on a minute a quick glance at the championship speciality beers of 2009 in the Good Beer Guide reveals the name of Dent’s Rambrau, a ‘cask conditioned lager’). I mean, a lagered beer, when was that a speciality? Anyway, this is a great beer and I speak as someone who usually shies away from chocolate, whether in the glass or a silver wrapper. 

Thursday 4 March 2010

Lager of the week — Cotswold Dark Lager

Went to the Cotswold Brewing Company today, a great set-up, the Premium straight from the tank is as good a pale lager beer as I have had anywhere in a similar situation on the continent. Afterwards, shipping on board a coffee in a pub in Burford, I was pleased to see two of Richard Keene’s lagers on keg, setting up a lager craft brewery ain’t easy (talking of keg am preparing a post on it, time nettles were grasped, past prejudices put aside, that sort of thing). Anyway, here’s what’s rocking my boat tonight: dark gleaming amber; the nose is a soft and soothing confection of milk chocolate, buttery toffee (almost close to Chardonnay’s soft buttery nose but with a bit more spine), toasted rye bread and some blackcurrant; milk chocolate, vanilla, milky mocha coffee with a sprinkle of cocoa on top, more of that blackcurrant-like fruitiness, a whisper in the shadows; the finish is dry, suggestively bitter, lasting and lingering; utterly butterly delicious. Drink now to toast the imminent end of winter (we hope). 

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Cascadian Dark Ale

Interesting piece over at the Hop Press by the ever excellent Lisa Morrison (one of the contributors to 1001 Beers and better known as the Beer Goddess) on the semantics regarding the naming of what some have dubbed Black IPA — dark beers bearing the piney resiny hop character common to beers of the Northwest (the US that is, not Lancashire). Black IPA, as she rightly says, is oxymoronic. Now I’m all for mixing up styles, pushing the boundaries, moving on from beer perimeters established in the days of the Ark (providing those who lead the way know what they are doing — I always believe you have to be able to brew to style before deciding that all style has to be thrown out of the window, even Picasso probably learnt to draw), but names such as Black IPA are just daft — let’s have golden stouts or even clear beer (hold on didn’t one of the big US combos do that?); no let’s not. Anyway, what Lisa discusses is one name that has emerged to describe this new style — Cascadian Dark Ale. You can read all about the pros and cons here, but I like the sound of it. The name describes the Cascade Mountain Range, it gives a beer an appellation, it gives it a place, a home and a landscape with which we can paint a picture of the beer. And boy doesn’t a beer seem better when it has a home and a place — Bohemian Pils, London Porter, Burton Ale, Franconian Rauchbier, etc, etc. A beer without a home is a wanderer, pacing the streets, buttonholing strangers for sustenance, remembering, always remembering, before they gradually vanish.