Tuesday 29 June 2010

It’s tasting night at Tierney-Jones Towers

Beerwriters Guild AGM last week. Andrew Howitt is a member who lives in Brazil part of the year and wrote about some of the country’s craft beers in 1001 Beers. He emails and says do you want me to bring some beers? Yes please as both Brazil and Argentina seem to have a small but growing group of craft brewers. And so at the end of the meeting, he gets his bag out and produces a selection of goodies. Zak Avery and the Guild’s chairman Tim Hampson buzz about but I manage to get Baden Baden’s Stout Dark Ale, Colorado’s Imperial Stout plus Lust from Eisenbahn (a sort of Deus type beer). Back home at the weekend, desperate for something different I try the Imperial Stout. It’s dark in the glass, midnight at the end of the old moon; bubblegum, sweet apple, toffee and a feather-light dance of raspberry on the nose. Tasted: a rich and bittersweet confection, milk stoutish with more of an oomph than you would expect with something like Mackeson (it is 10.5% after all), creamy, good bitterness kicking in towards the end of the palate with a delicious soothing succulent finish. I found it oversweet at first, but then my palate got in line and rock and rolled with the whole ensemble, I was mightly impressed (tropical imperial stout anyone…). The next night it’s the turn of the Baden Baden Stout: smoke, soot, toffee, burnt raisins, rolled around a creamy texture with a dry, bittersweet finish. This was only 6.5% but went down with the smoothness of a drop of Crème de Cacao. The Lust sits on a shelf in the cellar, next to a five year old bottle of Deus. I await a bottle of Malheur Brut and will then institute a tasting. And while I’m on the tasting game, I also had a bottle of BrewDog’s Prototype kindly sent to me, which I also drank at the weekend. This apparently is Hardcore IPA with raspberries and aged in an Islay whisky barrel. That’s the technical stuff over with and here’s the sensory stuff. Colour is a dark blush, pretty lovely. Raspberries, iodine, aftershave and tcp on the nose (ouch!), while the palate is an intriguing mixture of luscious raspberries, then harsh iodine, soft raspberry again and then a hard rasping bitterness from the hops. Raspberry, iodine whisky and hop bitterness — I’m not sure it worked but by god it makes for an interesting beer. The raspberries give an appealing tart sourness while their sweet fruitiness helped to temper what could be a very fiery finish. There’s also a woodiness in the finish that makes me think I could be chewing raspberry canes (rather than lolloping on a Mivvi). But then I also think raspberry jam with whisky and hops in it. A work in progress, but then that’s why it’s called Prototype. Would a secondary fermentation with Brett make it even more interesting?

Friday 25 June 2010

I’m no Robert Capa but I try

For once I thought I would let some pictures do the talking. These are four I took at Palmers in Bridport earlier this week, starting off with the mash tun, then the old mill, the open FVs (don’t you worry about bugs I ask — think of the amount of CO2 on top comes the reply, that’s enough to disperse with bugs) and finally my attempt at an arty shot of the boil with that little cubicle of light letting the world in briefly to investigate the magic of brewing. They do tours out there and then you can investigate their beers — I’m a particular fan of their Best Bitter, crisp biscuit character on the palate and a good dry finish, and Tally Ho, rich, liquorice-like, some toffee and a vinous finish. Lovely.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Moor keg conditioned beer anyone?

Karaoke drayman for a morning I am, taking an emptied cask of Revival back to its source, Moor Brewery on the sun-drenched, green-limbed glory that is the Somerset Levels in the summer (it’s a different matter in January when the low clouds and gloom hang about like a pestilence). A moment’s chat with Moor’s Justin Hawke, about something he told me about several weeks ago — keg conditioned beer. A need to get it clear in my head before writing about it, as the science of brewing sometimes eludes me (when I was at school chemistry and physics were as mysterious as the reasons why Piers Morgan is a global success). According to Justin, a call came from a Danish importer for a beer or three. No casks to be sent that far (as they are precious for all breweries) and no bottles were ready, so the Danish guy sent kegs to be filled, which would on their return have been served chilled and under gas. Hawke, prior to letting all this happen, did a trial keg of Somerland Gold, yeast in the beer, and got it served side by side with the cask version at the Queens Arms in Corton Denham. On the day, hot it was, the keg was more enjoyable went the consensus. And for the purists, please note, it was served under gas and chilled but naturally conditioned in the keg. So Hawke said to the importer that he would fill them with naturally conditioning beer, though due to a lack of finings (he likes to dispense without finings wherever commercially possible) it would be hazy. The beer went down well and requests started to come in from other countries. And then the Queens and the Devonshire Arms at Long Sutton took it. At the latter, the nearest pub to the actual brewery, Peat Porter goes down well as an alternative to Guinness. Hawke used to live in Germany and cites Keller-type beers as a similar experience. ‘As far as I can see no one is doing this,’ he says, ‘it’s a great way of getting cool naturally conditioned beer in the summer.’ This concept has been taken further in Hong Kong, where Moor’s beers have been put into kegs and the bar concerned can serve them either through a keg font or a handpump. So what’s the big deal? The beer is cooler but it’s still naturally conditioned — Hawke reports that out of about 100 CAMRA types who have tried it down the Devonshire, only a couple have grimaced and taken the righteous route. Hawke could be onto something here and I look forward to trying some soon.

Saturday 19 June 2010

Beer is the lifeblood

I don’t often agree with Simon Heffer, but I wholeheartedly lift my metaphorical hat off to him in this column in tomorrow’s Sunday Telegraph.

Friday 18 June 2010

Metallic KO

Stainless steel is sexy. Or that’s what a brewer once said to me. Whatever, I thought at the time, each to their own. However, after a brief visit and tour of Meantime’s new brewery, which is due to go on stream in four weeks or so, I think I can understand the brewer’s fetishistic urges (as long as it’s consensual of course). It’s German kit, coming from the same company (Rolec) that built Stone’s, a mighty assembly of stainless steel (oooh…), but amongst these towering tuns and kettles, on a platform where the brewer can survey their work, stands what looks like an altar (stainless steel of course), with two taps, a place where the wort can be checked and sampled. ‘It’s old fashioned, I know,’ said Meantime maven Alastair Hook, ‘but I like it.’ And so do I, so do I. 

Thursday 17 June 2010

Is it time to take holy orders?

Last week Orval, this week a Trappist dinner at the White Horse. Is something telling me I should take holy orders? A tasting of beers from the seven Trappist breweries with a Chimay-accompanied meal was a chance to reengage with this most contemplative branch of brewing. Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, Orval, Achel, Westvleteren and Dutch uncle La Trappe: all served and dissected with care and attention by Belgian beer sommelier and Beerpassie Magazine editor Ben Vinken. Biggest surprise of the night? A bottle of La Trappe’s Dubbel, as complex as advanced algebra and a lot more fun, a beer my nose had been perpetually turned up at for as long as I can remember. A beer burdened with being bought and owned by Bavaria, purveyors of orange skirted Dutch lovelies to the world; a beer whose bottle had as much style as a sunburnt, lobster-red, cargo-panted Englishman on Dover beach, scowling at France. I stand corrected. My nose was caressed and cuddled by sweetish caramel-toffee notes with a background of banana, the sort of ripe banana where dark bruises are starting to show, making for a sweet treat. The palate was sweet fruit, plums, roastiness balancing the sweetness; in the background a hop-derived pepperiness, alcohol and an almond-marzipan dryness, while the dry and bitter finish had dark plummy notes, a soft cloistered toiling of the bell, calling all to compline. I picked my jaw up off the table and carried on. And the finale to this most excellent of tastings, a glass of a 1998 and 1988 Chimay Grande Reserve, side by side; the younger brother, earthy, alcoholic, vinous, Madeira-like at first and then Calvados sprung to mind (the bocage of Normandy, tilled soil after the first rains of autumn), minus the fieriness. And then the eldest of the lot, the head of the family (or should that be chapter?) — I probably had my first Chimay around 1988 but I should have held onto it and it would have turned out like this: chocolate and Cognac, still some carbonation, imagine a cold, alcoholic stewed fruit compote with a touch of brandy and then turned into a beer, the ideal beer to accompany a wild and windy night in the depth of winter with Dickens on your lap (one of the author’s books that is). Or if you are lucky to get hold of one in the summer, pour some on a scoop of good vanilla ice cream and drink the rest. Perfect.  

Monday 14 June 2010

A rubbish bottle opener fails to stop IPA heaven

I’m sorry Shepherd Neame. I like your beers but your bottle openers suck. Late night in a small hotel room in Bayswater, after an evening visiting several hostelries. Glyn from the  Rake had given me a bottle of Kernel’s IPA earlier and I fancied it. I had one of Sheps’ beer openers because I was on my way to Orval the next day and having learnt from Chuck Cook in Baltimore that the nearest bar was closed, it was suggested that some cheese and Orval be brought from the souvenir shop and consumed al fresco. So I packed a Spitfire bottle opener, an item I have had problems with before. So in my room I opened or tried to open the IPA and the neck of the bottle opener broke. I got a micro-second of tinny martial music and loads of IPA went over my legs. Thanks Sheps. Hold on a minute though, let’s have a taste of Kernal IPA. Hello, I thought, is this Chicago or Portland rather than Borough where the brewery is based? It’s a thumper of a hop driven IPA with grapefruit and pine notes, and a big thick appetising bitterness that yomps all over the palate, Bergen and all. Great beer guys. Not so great bottle-opener Sheps.

Friday 11 June 2010

Orval’s rock star

I have a new brewing hero, or maybe that should be: I have had a new brewing hero added to my own personal pantheon. He’s a smallish guy, in his early 60s, possessed of a twinkle in the eye, only makes one beer, engages fulsomely with Brett and shuffles about his kingdom with the calm pace of a monk, which is just as well as his bosses are Cistercian monks (who answer to a higher authority). My new hero is Jean-Marie Rock, the man who for the past 25 years has been head of brewing at Orval, the Trappist beer that has enthralled and enriched my life since I first picked up a bottle from Oddbins in the 1980s. So there I was, along with Sharp’s head brewer Stuart Howe (a man from whom the description headstrong was surely created), walking across the loading bay at Orval. A couple of guys loading crates stared at a couple of poncy Brits in suits striding across their yard. ‘We’re here to see Jean-Marie,’ said Stuart in his cockney-accented French. Then behind us, through the glass doors, a beatific smile on his face, came Jean-Marie. ‘Get up you fool,’ I whispered to Stuart, all but down on one knee. There then followed the sort of intimate concourse with a brewer that makes beer-writing with all its faults and foilables worth the game. In the course of two hours, which concluded with several glasses of draught Orval (I’ve never had it this way before), Rock led us on a journey through the world of Orval. Myths were corrected — it’s only one yeast strain, not five as has been written elsewhere — while stuff that I didn’t know before was also imparted. Jean-Marie was patient, quietly and dryly humorous and everything the company of great brewers can be. ‘I love him’ said Stuart as we left. I know what he means.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Bittersweet symphony

I wish for a Wrasslers XXXX I tell myself. I wish for this bittersweet symphony of a dark Irish beer, a creamy yet cutting concoction that knocked the spots off Guinness the last time I had it at the Porterhouse in Covent Garden. A pint of that if you please I say, amidst the copper tubing, the constant beats and the wash and froth of voices. Sit in a corridor of sorts, a wall of bottles to my left, Berliner Kindl jumps out and says hello — does it know that it is the snow leopard of beer styles. A couple in a booth ahead of me. She has her back to me, cherry red top; he faces me, though hidden by her, a suit, that’s all. All are voices. 

The beer is dark with an amber cast. It’s bitter, but it’s also sour, ripe dark plums when the Lucozade-orange flesh gives way like sodden tissue. Should it be like this? Creamy mouth feel, espresso coffee bitterness with a sprinkle of black pepper, rather appetising. 

‘We have to be on the same wavelength.’ He says. Her back to me. Second rate psychology derived from a bastard child problem page after GQ has had its brutal way with Closer. She’s drinking juice through a straw. ‘You’re right,’ he continues, ‘any relationship…’ It’s like tuning in and out of a radio station before digital promised us the world. 

On the beer there’s a sourness on the nose that won’t go away, it’s there in the flavour, briefly, a dog barking in the night, but chased away by the dark malts. Has it been too long there?

Her red jacket is caramel red, not too dark, not too bright, hair is layered. He’s got full hands, all the better in the past — he’s getting on after all — to grab a rugby ball. All around the hubbub of music and voices. 

The beer remains sour on the nose. Someone got disappointed tonight, I’ll leave you to guess who.

Sunday 6 June 2010

I-Spy for grown ups

I’ve got another book out, it’s called Real Ale Record Book. A bit cheaper than 1001 and nowhere as heavy. You can even put it into your pocket when you’re out and about. If you remember the I-Spy books of a glorious youth before less wholesome activities set in, then this might just be your thing. When the publishers (the same people who do Martyn Cornell’s Amber, Gold & Black) asked me to do it, I-Spy for grown ups was the pitch, which makes sense given its pocket-book status. It’s got over 150 beers in it with 50+ word tasting notes for each (and yes I have drunk them all). I think you’re supposed to go round the country ticking them off (not put them in plastic bottles and drink them in a shed). And why not? As the book title suggests it’s about cask beer, but I’ve got a couple of Brew Doggers in and a Meantime, but sadly no Lovibond’s, West, or Freedom. Despite these calamitous exclusions I’m quite pleased with it. If you buy it do let me know what I’ve missed out of it (there are also a few pubs mentioned in it, favourites of mine where the heart always quickens when the sign comes in sight, the Anchor Walberswick, Woods, Dulverton, Royal Oak, Borough etc etc). Oh and if you’re a wild swimmer I’ve also got a similar book out with the same publishers as well, it’s called the the Wild Swimming Record Book.