Friday 30 July 2010

Here be beers that make me want to illuminate books in a monastery

Beer festival frolics approach with GBBF, but a couple of weeks ago I visited my first US beer festival— the Vermont Brewers Festival, which was held within the well funky city limits of Burlington (Zero Gravity Tap and Vermont Pub & Brewery produce stunning beers). Even better it was out in the open, on a green space next to Lake Champlain — I shall never forget my elation sitting on a wall overlooking the lake, gazing out across to the mountains of New York state as the evening light crumbled, a glass of Rock Art’s majestic Vermonster to hand, a 10% leviathan of barley wine richness leavened by an extravaganza of dry hopping. As many beerios know, you get smaller samplers at US fests  — 3oz in this occasion. Ok there’s a better chance of trying more beers, but when I found something that made me want to enter a monastery and illuminate books that future generations would drool over, such was its sublimity (step forward Your Mother and take a bow you gorgeous creature), then I would have liked more, but as the evening progressed the queues for each brewery station got longer and longer. I tried pretty much everything I wanted, apart from Dieu Du Ciel’s Isseki Nicho, which was termed as an Imperial Dark Saison, and was not disappointed. What struck me was the amount of youngish folk, both male and female, strolling about, supping their Wolavers Oatmeal Stout or getting all righteous about Ray McNeill’s Dark Angel Imperial Stout (McNeill is a legend according to several beer folk in that part of the world and his bar is an austere but welcoming place where great beers can be sampled). Some good food (Mr & Mrs Jerky were very popular apparently, though my inner small boy couldn’t help smirking at the name) and a mellow vibe and I got a pretty damn good introduction to US beer festivals, which won’t be my last — I’m currently thinking about this one.

Monday 26 July 2010

Ambiguity about bottle-conditioned beer

What are the best summer beers I tweet (still hate the damned word with its echoes of silly budgies and yellow canaries)? The Marilyn Monroe of the Mash Tun comes back with several suggestions. Thanks very much. Then a further thought, which ones are bottle conditioned? Why? So that I can avoid them. Apologies to all those hard-working brewers but I’m not the greatest fan of bottle-conditioned beers. With the sonority of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty declaiming what he has seen as his programme runs out at the end of Blade Runner, I’ve witnessed things that are best left forgotten: a jet of yeasty foam, fiery in its anger, bursting out of its brown glass prison; the taste of TCP (or was it chlorine?) glistening and gliding like a virus across the mouth as supernovas of yeast hang in the glass; the still silent pool of nothingness as if a beer’s condition has vanished with the morning dew. Things are better, much better then they once were I will admit. Years ago I picked up an IPA from Safeway’s (that gives a time frame) and fell in love with the beer, fell so in love that I could still taste it next morning (and I’d only had one). Back in Safeway’s once more, there it was, I bought two, or was it three and hastened home to spread the good news on my palate. Still the beer sat on the tongue, not a sprite or sprightliness to hand, as dead as the proverbial dodo. I never bought the beer again (coda to the tale: I was talking to the brewer a year or so later and mentioned this problem, he said that Safeway’s were letting the beer out too soon. Too late for me. Safeway’s weren’t stocking it anymore and soon Safeway’s would be no longer). There are exceptions to the rule — old hands like O’Hanlon’s, Hop Back, Fuller’s, St Austell, and Young’s, while further down the food chain I have found heavenly fun with Kernel’s IPA Simcoe, Thornbridge’s St Petersburg and plenty of stronger beers, but if you show me a 4% bottle-conditioned beer I’m like a small child presented with liver and onions or some such other repulsive dish — suspicion and concern that I might have to drink it writ large on my face. I don’t seem to get so much of a problem with bottle-conditioned beers from other countries (though I have had the odd Italian stinker — Amarcord step forward and take a bow, though this was 2004 and maybe things have improved), so what is it that makes me so suspicious of ‘real ale in a bottle’? I’m not against it, I like the idea of the secondary fermentation in a bottle (hello Orval!), and when it works it works and I skip across the room with an unbearable lightness of being, I don’t like pasteurised or heavily carbonated beers either, but suspicion still reigns within when presented with a bottle-conditioned beer. 

Thursday 22 July 2010

Lager of the week — Your Mother

Now this is a lager and a half. Tasted at the Vermont Brewers Festival last Friday in Burlington, held on open ground right next to Lake Champlain, a stunning location that beat a municipal hall in England or Belgium any day.  It was brewed by Alchemist Pub and Brewery (sadly closed when I visited next day), an imperial Pilsner I would say given that its IBU was 65 and it had been lagered for 14 weeks (longer even than Budvar’s 90 days). I loved it. Despite the IBU extremity it was soft floral and piney in its hop character and certainly not palate rasping. There was a lemon/grapefruit nose with a light peachy/apricot character clanging away in the mouth alongside a sensous centre of malt before a magnificent bitter finish. It’s a lager, it’s hoppy and it’s wonderful and the fact I went back for it twice says something. As the Three Degrees once sang, When will I See You Again. Great fest as well — all sorts of folk there, with the only drag being the queues for a beer as the evening progressed. 

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Lager of the week: the Helles are alive…

‘Enjoy the sound of brewing’ and ‘climb every lauter tun’: class (or not) repartee from folk when I told them that I was going to visit the Von Trapp brewery high up in the hills of central Vermont. Saturday afternoon saw me climb the mountain road, shirt wringing wet in the heatwave, but salivating as I considered a glass of Helles, about which I had been told so many good things. The folk who let me into this secret weren’t wrong either — Von Trapp Helles is a gorgeous pale golden drop of sun in the glass with a delicate floral nose, a voluptuous body and a crisp dry finish. Brewmaster Allen Van Anda has created a wondrous Helles that — if I closed my eyes — transported me to an elegant beer garden somewhere in Bavaria (or should that be Vienna?). It was magnificent. The Vienna (crisp, hints of toffee) was a dream with some Vermont blue cheese and the Dunkel (a work in progress according to Van Anda) had luscious chocolate and milky coffee notes. As I mountain biked (courtesy of Sam Von Trapp who had tucked into the beer with equal gusto) back to the hotel in Stowe (where I was staying at Ye Olde English Inn with its marvellous selection of taps), the Helles were certain alive with the sound of music. 

Thursday 15 July 2010

Bottle or glass?

Buzzing neighbourhood bar in the vicinity of Rutland VT. Bottle of Long Trail Ale please (chewy, biscuity crispness and dry finish, has that crisp character of an Alt, on which it was modelled, though my favourite has to be Uerige with its slight but still discernable floral nose). I handed back the emptied glass that had held Switchback . It's taken but no glass is proffered. I'm left with a bottle, offered the same sort of choice as Bud Light swillers are offered. I'm tempted to say 'can I have a glass'then stop. Surely the fact I am offered a bottle of a craft beer and meant to drink it like any other beer means that craft beer has hit the mainstream over here, and is regarded on a parity with BL? I think that's a good thing, I was there for the beer and enjoyed it, but I didn't want to make notes. I don't always want to suck on a bottle but this time it felt right. Would you drink a bottle of Jaipur or Sierra Nevada Torpedo or even ReAle from the bottle?

Monday 12 July 2010

New free pub magazine hits NE bars

You’re in a pub and see a free magazine about beer — do you pick it up or leave well alone? Depends on the cover I suppose and then the paper quality and then whether you follow CAMRA (for let’s face it most free mags, apart from the parish ones, will be CAMRA newsletters), so it’s not the most simple of choices. I only ask because I’ve contributed to one that has been launched in the north-east under the guidance of the multi award-winning beerwriter Alastair Gilmour. It’s called North East Cheers and features articles and news about pubs and beers in its home area (I’ve written a piece in praise of dogs in pubs). As someone who used to edit a CAMRA newsletter a few years ago I think it’s great for free magazines to be available in the pub, something to browse through as you suckle on your pint. Obviously, it helps that you have something readable, not something full of ads (obviously they are essential) and also if the licensee and his customers manage to keep the magazines in order — there’s nothing worse than a stack of mags and newsletters spread about on a table or a place on the bar, hardly an incentive to pick one up. So if you’re out and about in the north-east (a pint at the Cumberland in Bykers Bank or an ale at the Barrasford Arms) have a look for Cheers, I think it represents a step-up for free beer magazines. 

Friday 9 July 2010

Rigidity in action

Empty bar apart from one old cove supping his pint of Cotleigh Tawny, the session beer of choice for some in this part of the world. A rural retreat of a pub (you know the sort, looks like it was last given a lick of pint during the Dark Ages, which is all part of the charm), a few chimney pots about above the thatched rooves. There we are in early for an evening drink. Quantock Brewery’s Will’s Neck it was, ok, a crowd-pleaser, a bit like Exmoor Ale and several other West Country beers I could name (and there’s no shame there, brewers have to eat). We’re peckish, fancy a bar snack. Sorry bar snacks only during the day I’m told, but some scampi could be rustled up for you. That’s good we think, oh and some chips. Can we have it in the bar? We’ll put you in the dining room nearest the bar we’re told with a smile. Time passes, I contemplate another beer thinking that we’re being left to remain where we are, then food arrives and we’re ushered into an empty dining room, next to an empty bar (the old cove has scuttled home). Great view of the bar we think, but we’d rather be in there. Will there be a great influx of trippers after their coach has negotiated the narrow lanes? The cricket team mayhap will be descending from on high about 10? Clock ticks, we eat, good grub, good beer, but we then leave. In the bar I would have handed the keys to the old lady and ordered a pint of Exmoor Gold, followed by a pint of Proper Job. Instead, I drive home and we pop in at our local. The moral of the story: there still remains a great inflexibility amongst some licensees, a rigidity as to what is correct and not. How many of us have arrived at a pub after 9pm, been told no more food, but hold on I can get the chef to rustle up a sarnie. They do that in my local(s). I’m reminded of the time when I was researching Pubs for Families and landlord after landlord uttered the sacred mantra ‘portion control’ when I asked if kids could have smaller versions of choices on the main menu (I seem to remember interviewing an electronic band called Portion Control in the 1980s). I know it’s a business, but the pub was empty, we would have finished our food in 20 minutes or so and carried on with the ales. And while I’m at it, another pub over the border in Devon yesterday, a pint of another popular West Country ale from the cask, halfway through the bugger is empty. New barman puts glass aside, broaches another cask and continues to fill old beer with new. Half and half? Or just bad practice. I was in a rush, I knew the barman vaguely and he was obviously new, so I just left it. Needless to say, I won’t be returning there again — the boozer up the road shall have my passing trade. 

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Palmers Brewery maintain their wet credentials

In 2001 I went round Palmers and was amazed to see that they had a cask of their now defunct Bridport Bitter set up for the workers, a survival from a different age — a wet brewery no less, something that I originally wrote about here. Visiting the brewery the other day, I asked about it, recalling my first visit, and mused that it must be long gone. How wrong I was — there in a corner, was a barrel of the brewery’s Copper Ale (fruit chews nose — is that tangerine? — grainy, chewy mouthfeel, refreshing citrus notes, dry biscuity finish), something that the staff have a drop of when work is done and there’s fat to be chewed. People aren’t on the bevy all day long but it’s nice to see a brewery think about this and also trust their people (I remember hearing of one West Country brewery that was reputed to sack anyone who touched a drop during working hours). Nice one Palmers.

Monday 5 July 2010

South African beers out of the Castle

A couple of weeks ago I did a piece for the food magazine Scoff which goes out quarterly with the Spectator, about the small craft beer community over in South Africa. I didn’t think it was online but I came across it here so as the World Cup vuvuzelas to its end I thought it might be of interest. Scoff is a natty foodie mag usually found online but this particular issue also had Ben McFarland writing about US beer here.

Saturday 3 July 2010

A tale of two Anchors

I’ve long been a lover of Anchor Brewery’s Old Foghorn. Oh I know nit-pickers will point to American barley wines having a higher hop character than the Brit ones that still survive in the UK, but I don’t really care. For me styles are a starting point in a beer, a base from which a beer can either stay put or start moving in another direction whilst retaining its original character, but that’s by the by. What I want to pay homage to, to bow down before, to supplicate myself in awe, is Old Foghorn. And to this extent I conducted a tasting of two vintages, one I bought from Tuckers Maltings’ magnificent beer shop around 2002 or even 2001 (with a drink by date of May 04) and hosting a strength of 9.4%, while the other came into my possession a few months ago (drink by date June 2011); this one is a mere stripling at 8.2%. Others have come and gone over the years, I once had a case in, but I find them hard to resist, so the survival of the older Old Foghorn is nothing short of a miracle. I like what age does to some beers, bringing forth the complexity of malt and letting the yeast do its work. So here goes.
Old Foghorn, brewed c end 1990s/2000/2001 (?)
Top prised off, no hiss. Quiet and complacently lacking in carbonation, though there’s still enough to suggest that this is a beer if one were evaluating solely on fizz. Light chestnut brown in colour. Sweetness is reminiscent of an old Madeira, vinous, woody, fiery, roast bananas, then it has a brandy-like savour. The initial dose of alcoholic fieriness is then softened by marzipan-like cake character; there’s a creamy and smooth mouthfeel. I tried it with a chunk of Parmesan and found that it doused the saltiness of the cheese, which it in its turn teased out the sweetness of the beer, making for a delightful tango on the palate. The complexity of the beer continued as a suggestion of dried cherries also emerged on the palate. This an elegant end of the night snifter, a delight, a bittersweet fiery massage on the palate, with a peppery colonel bringing up the rear, barking out the order: drink this or be denied a great experience. This has become such a venerable old beer, elegant and restrained, decorous and scented like a bonfire of cherry wood. If you have one in your cellar open it now or maybe leave it another year or two and see what happens.
Old Foghorn, brewed c2006/07 (?)
Opened, as you’d expect, with a hiss and a swish as the beer returns into the world of the living. Also light chestnut brown in colour. In the glass an earthy woody nose, reminiscent of damp old twigs or damp woodland in autumn; the nose then develops a sweet bubblegum like character. It’s snappier on the palate than the older beer and has a creamy, bitter finish that lingers with a roistering dryness. On the palate there’s an iron-like herbal character that isn’t there on the older one while the bitterness is pretty big; there are also bright cherry-like notes. It’s not so good with the cheese, it hasn’t developed the vinous sweetness to deal with the salt and cream. A great beer on its own and maybe one for mid-evening.
Both are fantastic examples of the skill of the brewer’s art and also the effect aging has on a beer. Obviously you wouldn’t bother aging a bottle of Goose Island IPA or Bateman’s XXX, but I always love to see how some beers last (my oldest is a 1993 Hardy’s, I hardly dare to open it but I will have to one day).

There’s a photo in Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion, in the barley wine chapter, of a pint of Old Foghorn in a bar in San Francisco. It’s in a handled glass, which I always turn down if offered in a pub (straight or handle sir seems a phrase from another age, but I guess people like them in a post-modernist, ironic sense, a bit like smoking a pipe or wearing Hunter wellies at Glastonbury), but for some reason the photo has always called to me. If seen on a winter’s night I lust for an Old Foghorn. 

Thursday 1 July 2010

The Times beer supplement — read it here

Yersterday The Times published a Best of Beer supplement that featured the work of Pete Brown, Ben McFarland and myself amongst others. Once again I would hazard a claim that this supplement marked the continued interest of the nationals in beer (I did something for the the DT in April, which you can read here), and I hope it will continue. Back to The Times’ supplement — if you missed it you can read it here.