Friday 30 April 2010

An ode to Orval (again)

In a fit of madness I order 15 bottles of Orval from Beer Merchants but really I can’t wait to embed them in my cellar, introduce them to Thomas Hardy and let them see old friends such as Fuller’s Vintage and Lees Harvest. Like a lot of folk who deal with beer, I’m always being asked what my favourite beer is and I always say it’s not a decision I like to take. I love Adnams Best Bitter, Dogfish Head India Brown Ale, Fuller’s Golden Pride and so on, but at the back of my mind I’m always tempted to say that Orval is my favourite beer in the world. Why? I think it’s a beer that I can come back to time and time again and find something new. I like the skittle shape of the bottle, the simplicity of the design, the fact that it’s not been buggered around with, gained an older or younger sibling (though I’ve had the Petit Orval, two words: hopped water). It’s got a great nose: oily, leathery, pepper and orange, but most of all though I love the taste, the creamy and hoppy mouthfeel, the snappy carbonation,  the sour and citrusy notes vying for attention and the bitter spicy finish. I love it. It works as a stand-alone beer and at the dinner table (I’ve written about that here). It also ages well. What’s not to like? I went to the monastery once (peering over a wall into the grounds the sight of meditating folk put me in mind of a scene from Resnais’ movie Last Year At Marienbad), the brewery was closed so we went straight to the cafe and contemplated the beer. So I’ve got 15 bottles of Orval on the way, can I leave them alone for a while?

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Lager of the week — Sam Smith’s Pure Brewed Lager

I once had a lovely stemmed tulip shaped glass, branded with the name of this brewery and its beer, an elegant and temperate half pint size, and picked up for a song in Dulverton’s Thirft Shop (if you fancy paying very much under the odds for beer glasses, especially those with a pedigree, then these establishments can often reveal some great treasures). But then I dropped it when I’d had — perhaps — too many Rocheforts (or was it the three pints of Salvator conjoined with after the pub?). Anyway, Sam Smith’s Pure Brewed Lager is not complaining about the fact it isn’t in its own glass. 
  The brewery used to produce Ayinger’s lagers under license, but they stopped doing it, but who’s to know what influence this spot of contract brewing had on Pure Brewed. 
   So here we go: pale yellow, Saxon blond hair the colour in the glass, flaxen even; nose a pleasing mixture of restrained lemon curd on gently toasted white bread, very breakfast-like — spend too many breakfasts supping on these and my only link with journalism will be selling the Big Issue. Palate is watery bitter lemon (no bad thing), a full, pleasing voluptuous mouthfeel and a dry and bittersweet finish. Halfway between a Bavarian Helles and a Světlý Ležák — some bigots (a phrase I think we’re all familiar with at the moment) might not believe that this gorgeous blonde of a beer can emerge from the gritty bowels of this most traditional of northern beermakers, but it does and it’s a beer well worth courting.
Talking of Sam Smith’s, I’m reminded of the Inspector Morse episode where the bereaved father of the arty murdered man looks around the deserted studio, picks up an empty bottle of Old Brewery Pale Ale and intones, ‘he was always a good friend of the Smith family’. Classic, makes me want to stand up and cheer. How sad is that.  

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The beer tribes of Blighty

Not being an anthropologist or an ad-man, this thesis* will probably seem clogged with more holes than a colander that has been drilled by an over-enthusiast colander driller who has drank too many double espressos from Café Nero, but here goes anyway (additionally, I have always regarded beer blogging as a way of playing with beer writing, of diverting from the norm that shapes my work when I am writing for a paper or magazine — I’m saying this as a first strike defence against inevitable criticisms of my thoughts on the beer tribes of Britain, it’s just a bit of fun!). This is just a loose attempt at trying to classify the various groupings of beer lovers who live in this green and pleasant land as I have noted out and about.  One extra caveat — I might use the word tribe, but there are no territorial groupings, no borders or frontiers, the beer tribes of Britain are asymetrical in their places, shifting, restless, forming, disbanding and reforming elsewhere, tribal groups that might not be seen for months in any one place, but as soon as a beer festival comes to town out they come. So here goes.
1 The I don’t care what beer I drink tribe. Cheap is the word, cold and careless when it comes to considering the beer in the glass. See them trailing around cash and carries up and down the land or hot-footing to some dive where knock-off is king.
2 The I have been drinking the same beer for donkeys’ years and I am not about to change now tribe. There they stand at the same place in the bar night after night, fundamental in their assertion that the glass of Best or Premium that they always order is the only beer worth swilling. You could also call them the if it ain’t broke don’t fix it crowd.
3 One word — the ticker tribe. Beer is the code of honour with which they live their life, but beer as a badge, a collection of comic books or stamps, a notch on the bedpost, rather than something they celebrate their lives with in the company of friend(s). Do they usually live at home with their mothers? Well that’s not for me to say.
4 The I’m a woman, hey look I’m drinking beer tribe. A relatively new tribal grouping (though isolated members have been seen roaming through the saloon bars of Britain for eons), brought together and cared for by concerned fellow beer-lovers (think Sting bringing Amazonian tribes into the spotlight of modernity and you have it).
5 The I saw the Inspector Morse episode where he turned down a can of cheap lager and waited until he could go to the pub for cask beer tribe. Mind you it doesn’t have to be cask beer, it’s all about drinking beer that is perceived to have quality. I’ve been guilty at times of donning the war-paint of said tribe
6 The I used to drink wine but now I drink good beer tribe. Converts to the cause, but not zealots; beer at the table is nothing astonishing to these good folk. A lot aspire to this and what’s wrong with that?
7 The good lord is that an English beer I have just tasted and praised? I think I might faint tribe. These folk major on foreign (especially American) beers, usually from small producers, hard to get or expensive to buy. Cask beer is so passe isn’t it they will say, until they tuck into a crafty one at a pub that marries the best gastro and bibulous traditions and howl with so much ecstasy that Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally springs to mind.
8 The deniers tribe. These are those who sit quietly in pubs sipping away night after night (could be ale, could be lager) and justify their fun to strangers (‘I never get aggressive’) before growling about the wife or girlfriend who left them; then there are those who need a weigh bridge off the A38, or somewhere similar, to find out how much they weigh — kept well out of sight when the likes of CAMRA issue forth writs that ale isn’t fattening. 
9 The indie kids tribe. Seek out beers like those that seek out rare grooves from whatever collection of musicians are making the pace on any particular day. Claim beer offers transcendental moments (ie before they get too drunk to notice).
10 The I never drink more than a half crowd. To be avoided with rigorous due and care. Never trust anyone who doesn’t trust themselves drunk.
   As I said this is hardly the eye of a professional psychologist, but just a few observations and I suspect I have ran through the woods with most of these tribesmen at some time in my life (though certainly not all). 
   I expect to encounter more tribes as I carry on Livingstone-like on my way through the beer maze of life. Are there any that I have missed? 

* Inspired (if that is the word) by a document issued a few years ago by either S&N or In-Bev that I discovered in my filing cabinet the other night; terms such as repertoire drinkers etc are sprayed about with tomcat-like abundance. And lord help me I have used such terms in trade press articles in the past. 

Monday 26 April 2010

Anchor Brewery sold

News seeps out from the US that craft brewing pioneers Anchor Brewery has been sold — you can read the full story here at Jay Brooks’ blog and no doubt more information will appear overnight. Over here the sale of a brewery always seems to cause a default reaction — gloom and doom, the end of the world, massed ranks of grim-faced beer drinkers marching behind funeral hearses. In the past decade Ridleys (sold by the company) and Morrell’s (boardroom clash) are two I can think of that demanded said reaction, but on the other hand the likes of Sharp’s and Butcombe are just two that have gone from strength to strength with new owners. So hold back the sackcloth and ashes for a while and it is also heartening to hear that Fritz Maytag has been made Chairman Emeritus of Anchor Brewers & Distillers (as they are known). Also interesting to note from this side of the Atlantic that the buyers of Anchor are the chaps who are connected with BrewDog. Collaboration brew anyone?

I was at a beer dinner with a couple of Anchor guys in the middle of the Somerset countryside at the Queen’s Arms a couple of years ago — fantastic food and beer matches, great guys, a chance to chew the fat over one of my favourites Old Foghorn (life was never the same after I set eyes on a photo of a pint of said beer in a copy of Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion). 2008 saw me try one of Anchor’s 19th century bourbons courtesy of Mark Dorber at the Anchor. I’m not a spirits man, but a small drop of this made perfect sense as a post-lunch digestif.

If you like Hop Monkey IPA then you’ll be happy it’s a 1001 Beer…

1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die is in the shops next week (it’s been out in the US since March) and Hop Monkey IPA is just one of the beers. As its editor I’m naturally proud of it but I’m also aware that it’s yet another list of beers. On the other hand there are several reasons why I think it’s a worthy and worthwhile addition to an ever-growing canon of beer books. They are:
  • It is a beer book that should stretch right across the board in its appeal to beer lovers. If you want debates over the intricacies of beer styles, the ins and outs of branding and what beer women should have sloshing around in their elegant glasses, then you should look elsewhere (though I didn’t know about the origins of Carlsberg’s Elephant beer until I read Jeff Pickthall’s review). It’s an attempt to tell the story behind these 1001 beers, but also get the reader to start licking their lips and call for a glass pronto.
  • It has the work of over 40 beer experts throughout the world — many of whom are authors in their own right. You have a variety of viewpoints, there is no party line apart from my insistence that the writers talk to the readers. Navel-gazing ‘whither beer’ articles are out, but authority, celebration and gastronomic suggestions are in. 
  • It celebrates some of the world’s greatest beers at the current time — over 40 Italian craft beers, a good handful of Swiss superstars, lots of US beers, plenty of Euro gems, Brazilian and South African craft newbies, plus of course the guys from down-under. There is also a handful of some of the world’s most well-known and best-selling beers. Regarding the latter: look at the title, these are beers to try even if you discover why you shouldn’t try said beer again.
  • Lots of nice pictures of glasses of beer and their bottles. 
  • Book is divided into colours rather than beer styles or countries — amber, blonde, dark, white and speciality (ok the latter is not a colour, but you get the drift). 
  • It looks good on the coffee table.
  • It’s also rather weighty so you can take it to the pub and with the imminent release of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, it will deflect any arrows that impressionable folk who have seen the movie might start flinging about. 

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Beer tasting — a funny thing happened to me on the way to the bar

The odd bit of beer tasting I do now and again, in front of an audience; it’s fun I find having once been the frontman in a band (rubbish voice which you can hear here). A conversation is what I want, a back and forth of opinions, a chance to shake preconceptions and — once every couple of years or so — sell books. June: the Cheltenham Food Festival, on the Sunday, I’m on after Sir Pete Brown, which is why I have started thinking about some of the things that have been so rum at previous tastings. 
   One at a sadly gone brewery, where I did several for an events company a few years back. A woman makes it clear from the start she’s there under duress, my boss sent me, I don’t like beer, I like white wine, I don’t like beer. Disliked it so much she said it twice. Gamely she struggled. The bitter and the fruit beer, dispatched with a distinct lack of gusto. Onto chocolate stout. I think and say aloud, you’ll like this. She half nods, I like chocolate she says. There are 12 in the group, the rest, blokes, all agree that milk chocolate hangs on the nose of the beer. Non-beer lady disagrees. She does not get the chocolate on the nose. There is no chocolate, there never has been any chocolate, I don’t like beer. I’m here because my boss can’t make it. 
   Then at another one of these tastings, a chap comes up to me at the end after two 500ml bottles of barley wine to tell me the tale of how his ex-girlfriend had bought the ticket for the event 12 months ago and that he had only plucked up the courage to come now, such was his melancholic nature. That was good that was, he says, only to come up to me five minutes later to tell me the same thing. But I think the one where I didn’t know where to look or what to say was a couple of chaps, mates then, not so sure afterwards. We were going to come about six months ago one said, but he couldn’t make it, points at his mate, who starts to go bright red. He was inside, he continues, wasn’t anything violent or sexual, bleets mate. Never heard a tasting go so quiet so quickly.
   And finally there was a tasting where the final beer was badly conditioned and smelt like TCP, medicinal. It was horrible. Someone shouted out, this beer is off. I looked at him, it’s always a him. I glad you’ve mentioned it I said, I totally agree with you, does anyone get the medicinal note? And then explained how said beer was a bit of a test for everyone to demonstrate how beer can sometimes go wrong. Phew, that got me out of a hole. I’m was just glad that the brewer wasn’t there.