Monday 30 August 2010

The unbearable lightness of being in Klub Malych Pivovaru

Lagered beer lives a subterranean life, a troglodyte existence, hidden away in cellars, sleeping the sleep of the just in the darkness. At the Klub Malych Pivovaru (Small Brewers Club), a bar at the base of a shabby Plzen tenement block (in need of a paint job, communist neo-brutalist architecture) these lagered beers emerge into a bright, light world where an artificial sun seemingly shines all night long. The light in the bar is stark and white, almost dazzling in its brilliance. Getting the light right in a bar or pub is essential in my book. Too bright and you might as well be in a waiting room with a dentist outside waiting with a drill. Too dark and you’ll be stumbling over bodies, spilling your drink down your front and generally having a miserable time. Many of our human activities are best done in toned down light (I won’t state the all-important obvious example). Other than this gripe about the light though I loved Klub Malych Pivovaru — it’s a busy buzzy bar down a backstreet, not far from where Pilsner Urquell emerges into the world. It’s a place to which we applied ourselves to on the first night in Plzen, in need of a walk to work off the Herculean portions of dumplings and duck that makes Czech cuisine such a delight and a dare (dare you have the plate of sausages, the knuckle of pork, the trencherman’s portion of dumplings, go on I dare you). Great beer choice (yet another example of the ongoing Czech beer evolution — I thought about using the word revolution but then thought maybe the Czechs have had enough of revolutions foro a century or two), youngish, slightly hipster clientele (plus a table of Status Quo lookalikes  in one corner). Two rooms, one bar, beer bottles as decor, bare brick walls, a soft of raffia mat effect on the ceiling and a garden outside. The hum and thrum of conversation, a consonant-rich ricochet of Slavic tongue. The Kout 10˚ is light and airy, with delicate caramel notes and a spicy, dry, bitter finish. Herold’s wheat beer is banana and cloves on nose with a banana custard note on the palate kept in line by a clovey sternness. Good stuff. And yet… Get the beer right: check. Get the people right: check. Get the lighting right: fail. This would not stop me returning or recommending it to people but I hope that one small item will appear on Klub Malych Pivovaru’s shopping list next time they go to a DIY store: a dimmer switch (please).

Saturday 28 August 2010

David and Goliath in Plzen

Plzen. A festival of beer and rock music, though given the performance from some musicians I would stick to the beer (I relish the awfulness of one flat-haired, bespectacled type who was big in the 80s I am told — he looks like the owner of a hardware store who has left his brown shop coat at home while he plays at being a rock star; his voice is whiny, self-pitying; I haven’t got a clue what he’s singing about but he might be having a go at some woman who doesn’t want to share his dreams of a hardware store empire). So I think a drink would be very welcome. And in the city where golden lager emerged in the 1840s, it’s always going to be easy to find Pilsner Urquell —  a totemic symbol for the city. And yet…before heading out to the Disneyland of brewing that is Pilsner Urquell’s playground (there’s something about trying to be in on the world’s largest toast and then get in the Guinness Book of Records), we go to Pivovar Groll (named after the brewer who kick-started the whole golden thing in the 1840s), which is a small 500-litre operation, squatting on the doorstep of PU. Their Lotr 11˚ is bitter and delicately herby, light and sprightly on the palate, an absolute delight. The brewing kit is miniscule, a veritable diddy David to the giddy heights of Goliath on show next door. There’s an open cooling pan, wooden fermenting vessels (the barrels are cleaned by hand grimaced a brewery chap), and the boil is wood-fired. ‘We keep to the traditions,’ says the woman who takes us on our brief trip. The brewpub’s amber is also a delight, with herbal, liquorice and caramel notes weaving their way through the glass. The last time I came to Plzen I went away with the view that all people drank here was PU. They probably do (and there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m partial to a drop of it), but the appearance of Pivovar Groll and a bar that we later visited (the Small Brewers Club, of which more later) is a heartening sign of diversity and difference.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Grand designs at Traquair

To Scotland I went when on holiday in Northumberland last, back in 2007. A fancy had struck me that not far away Traquair House lurked, somewhere I had always wanted to pay my respects to, having enjoyed its variety of beers since the 1990s. In moments of idle fantasy, I Gormenghasted a cobwebby, crow-blown, multi-turreted haunted house, a monumental monument to the daydreams that shuffle themselves onto the stage of real life thanks to a shuffled deck of luck, labour and the lodestar of inspiration. This is where brewing had famously recommenced in the 1960s after the then laird came upon the old ancient  brewhouse hidden away beneath a scuttle of pheasant pens and other countryside clutter. He died in 1990, but his daughter Lady Catherine very much keeps the flame alive. Michael Jackson had been there (of course) and waxed lyrical — here was one of the last remnants of the old country house brewing tradition. I had to visit. And I did. So much for fantasy. Upon arrival I felt that the overall appearance of the house owed more to the great French military architect Vauban than Mervyn Peake; here was a a granite hard house seemingly built to withstand war with the many windows added in a more peaceful time. The brewhouse was down round the side, closed up for the day. I then glimpsed the brewer — Ian Cameron — clambering out of a door, on his way to deliver beer in Edinburgh. We’d spoken on the phone a couple of times, but never met. Have you got a few minutes I asked, a brief chat and that was that. He told me that the original eighteenth century four-barrel vessels in the old brewhouse are now only used twice a year, with a newer, more modern (but not push-button) eight-barrel outfit in operation in the old stables. However, tradition is maintained with the wooden fermenting vessels that help to give Traquair’s beers a distinct oakiness. ‘I have never been tempted by stainless steel,’ he laughed, ‘the wood is almost like the secret ingredient.’ So I thought of this visit the other night when I decided to open a bottle of Traquair 900, a celebratory beer that had been sleeping in my cellar since that visit. God it was gorgeous, with a rich, luxuriant, spirituous chocolate character; a spoonful of rum-steeped raisins, a swirl of dark fruity chocolate and hazelnuts embedded in milk chocolate. The finish was lush and slightly spicy. I still cannot get over the rich chocolate-like character, though there was a crisp, roasty sternness that stopped it from becoming too lax and luxurious, too indolent. So impressed was I by this beer that I then decided to open the brewery’s 2010 10% special. This, inevitably was younger and tighter in its flavour profile, like a flower whose petals have yet to open to their full splendour. Yet there was a complexity about it that made me wish I had one to age. On the nose a cracker-like crispness and ground coffee grains, while the palate was spirituous, rich, smoky, fruity, fiery, earthy, spicy with a dry finish. It’s hardy and handsome, fierce in its alcoholic spirit, soothing with its mocha-like hand on the fevered brow. Cointreau-like orange richness, almond marzipan, stone fruit sourness and tannins and rounded banana-like estery notes also boomeranged around in the mouth. I suspect that the 2007 is long gone but if you can get hold of the 2010 buy two, one for now and one for 2012 or even later. Traquair’s been around for hundreds of years, so they know a fair bit about ageing…

Sunday 22 August 2010

The sensuality of stainless steel at Thornbridge

My first visit to Thornbridge’s new brewery came in the middle of a downpour but once safe inside its cavernous depths I was struck by the shock and awe of the gleaming stainless steel from which such beautiful beers as Jaipur and St Petersburg emerge — so I’m just letting the pictures talk for themselves for once.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Otter Creek mix the grape with the grain and triumph

Otter Creek Brewery. Stands next to a cheese factory outside Middlebury, VT. Mike Gerhart (right) is the brewmaster, formerly of Dogfish Head and a great beer guy. Copper Ale is the brewery’s big seller and as good an interpretation of an Alt as I have ever had. However, it’s a bottle of Quercus Vitis Humulus that I want to write about. Brought it back from the US, put it in the cellar, thought I would like it to stay there for a year, age gently, mature finely, but temptation got the better of me — and boy I’m both glad and disappointed I tried it. Disappointed cause I only bought one bottle back with me and would love to know what this would taste like in a year. Glad because it was gorgeous experience that send my brain scrambling and scrabbling for words to describe it. The nose was reminiscent of a toned-down brandy, a well-deep grape-must aroma that lacked the argumentative fieriness of spirit and then a kind of sweet solvent like note appeared, young and unformed but full of potential; in the mouth it was chewy, oily, peppery, woody, having a hint of bare-knuckle rawness about it, a woodland campfire rawness around which I would sit thinking about the beer and look to poetry for inspiration. It was like a sweet-sour-grape-grain collaboration, a Sauterne of a beer that has more in common with what’s going on in Italy than the US (immense with cheese I would hazard a guess). This young it’s a challenge but utterly delicious and besides I like the challenge, it helps me to think differently about beer as all challenging beers should do (Le Baladin’s Xyauyu and Cantillon’s Vigneronne spring to  mind). As for the techie details, it starts off being fermented with lager yeast, then Sauvignon Blanc grape juice is added, then it gets a secondary fermentation with champagne yeast before sleeping the sleep of the just in French oak. Whisk(e)y barrels and beer no problem, but when the grape meets the grain that’s a different copper kettle of piscatorial delights. If you’re lucky to bag a bottle, try and get two and that way temptation will not be so ruinous. 

Saturday 14 August 2010

Queens Head, Glanwydden

Good grub and a decent drop of ale (Adnams, Great Orme) are righteously available at the Queens Head in the North Wales village of Glanwydden — so if you’re anywhere near you might want to drop in, after reading my review in today’s Daily Telegraph (if I remember rightly my primary school beat Glanwydden school 3-0 when we played them at football when I was a kid. I think I scored a couple — and once you’ve had your fill here a mile away in the village of Penrhynside is the Penrhyn Arms, where beer and cider are drank with studied determination, the grumbling farmer at the bar is my old mate Mark). 

North Wales beers are very much on my mind at the moment as fellow beer writer Tim Hampson and myself are doing a collaborative beer tasting at the Hay Ale and Literature Festival next month. A kind of ‘he says North Wales and he says South Wales’, sort of.  With some readings of Welsh literature — I’ve picked George Borrow on the ales of Llangollen and I might even try a poem in Welsh (or maybe not).

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Crystal balls not needed here

Are we too busy rediscovering the past to think about the future when it comes to beer (I use the word beer rather than brewing, as invention and newness seem to be exceptionally snug bedfellows when it comes to brewing but rather more uncomfortable, though occasionally compliant, when it comes to beer)? Or is the future of beer (I don’t mean sales, marketing, drinking, pubs etc but the actual liquid in the glass) a course setting sail for that glorious place, Novelty Island. As those with the nose for burying it within dusty parchments of former brewing logs seem to have discovered (here and here), there seems to be nothing new under the sun, whether it’s imperial this or blending and aging that: all seem to have been done at one time or the other. Brewers are remembering the past and as I have written before this is fantastic, but it does seem that when novelty knocks on the vast door in the massive house that beer and all its family members do dwell what do we see — beer as clear as gin but as foul as the water in the fish pond in my back garden, though this grimy pool of fish faeces flavoured water doesn’t seem to put off the dogs when they develop a thirst (and they don’t even have the excuse of being bedazzled by canny marketing); or there might be beer infused with the sort of faux fruity confectionery that only children can really enjoy and make the dentist weep. Sometimes a new beer is a new beer by virtue of its new name, rather than anything else. That doesn’t make it a bad beer though: there are many versions of English bitter that I will drink and enjoy. On the other hand, you could say that a beer containing, for argument’s sake, sorghum, wheat, rye, raspberries, Goldings and Hallertau, saison yeast and Burtonised water was a new thing even if it sent your palate straight in a handcart to hell. 

All this musing and contemplating the navel comes from thinking about lager and then thinking about the future for lager. Steady as she goes — bock, helles, dunkel, svelty lezak, North German, American, British craft, Pils, dry hopping, different hops and so on — with quality as the keyword? Or upwards and onwards towards a high tower of idiocy — how about a lager and cola mix? Or something that’s been infused with lemongrass and whatever else the brewer can find in his cupboard and make the money guys happy. Pass me the sick bucket is my reaction, but then if it works does it matter? Would you have a lager and cola mix after a pretty intense game of squash? Even though your inner beer guy is screaming like that poor fella in the Edvard Munch picture. And even if you succumbed would you then feel part of the future? Or would it be a case of selective memory — as soon as you had quenched your thirst, this moment of madness would become an unperson and an unmemory. Maybe the future of beer (the beer itself, not the ads, the marketing, the guff and the stuff, but just the beer) is best left alone.  

Monday 9 August 2010

Manifest destiny

Doug Odell stands up and talks. Rangy, weather-bitten face, small goatee — I imagine him as a driven pioneer forever pushing west in the 19th century. Manifest destiny. Pioneer: the right word. ‘Thirty years ago we were producing some of the most boring beers on the planet. Now…’ There’s no need to finish the sentence. I believe that the US is currently the most exciting place on the earth for beer at the moment (hell, beer is exciting across the whole world at the moment but I’m particularly fixated on the American guys). And that’s not just down to the buckets of hops that are being shovelled into brewing kettles right across the continent (I must admit I have reached a high water mark on IBU madness). On my recent trip to Vermont I discovered that these guys are getting lagers right; while saisons are undergoing the US treatment and walking right into my glass, some as sweet as Silly, others right on the nail like Dupont’s. Over the weekend I was enjoying He Said Beer…She Said Wine and Brewing With Wheat. Cask beer is also coming on, though to my mind the ones I tried had an unfinished, unrefined rawness that I didn’t particularly take to. But it’ll come. And as my liver shrinks back to its normal size after last week’s beer extravaganzas (the beerwriters soiree, my GBBF lager spree, and visits to the Rake, Brew Wharf, the Gunmakers and the White Horse) it’s last Wednesday’s American Craft Beer Dinner at the White Horse that still resonates. Victory Storm King huffing and puffing and cutting the cream on the cheese board; Odell Saboteur Brown Ale eyeing its chances with the Rack of Lamb and Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweiss going all soft and cooing as the honey mustard sausages and cured salmon crostinis were handed round. Beer had a deserved seat at the table here: crisp white tablecloths, glasses that shone and sparkled, bright with anticipation, as they waited for the beer to lap and foam at the rim; those in attendance ears cocked as Doug Odell and others spoke about the greatness on parade. A formidable evening. And last night as Sherlock Holmes reached its denouement, I was whisked back to that evening as I took the tab off a can of GUBNA Imperial IPA from Oskar Blues — a remarkably balanced beer, pungent and punchy, sun-ripened peach skin, a firm cracker undertow and a long resiny finish that reminded long after I had finished the can. Saluté.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

John Keeling is a sort of Dr Who-ish chap

Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling is in the latest line of northern comedians including Mark E Smith, Morrissey and  Frank Randle (interviewed the first two but not the latter as he was dead before I was born, just thought I would slip that in)— he’s deadpan and slightly mocking, tells the odd rubbish joke and wears his authority with ease as if it were a jacket placed over his shoulders by a leery mate during a stag do before it becomes an exercise in aggression. He’s also one of the lads (the sensitive one at the back). However, unlike the chaps who told us how they wrote elastic man and that every day was like Sunday, he makes damn good beer and also wants to breaks through the boundaries of what we mere mortals think constitutes beer. And Fullers, god bless ’em, let him run riot. 
In a room not far from the Hellenistic and hedonistic hive of the Great British Beer Festival, he takes us through a couple of years in the life of Vintage — along with Derek Walsh Prentice (who didn’t open his mouth, but I reckon he still deserves a name check), these two Dr Who-ish or Wellsian beer time travellers go off on a mission to elucidate and encourage us all to indulge in a great escapade of brewing (‘the game is on’ as Holmes would have it). 
Vintage Ale 2009 is the colour of a light-coloured sandy-ish horse saddle that has been hunted by several generations, has an alcoholic brew of a toffee nose (think brittle nut toffee), then on the palate torpedoes one below the water line with a massive marzipan, Çointreau Christmas cake icing sweetness and ferocity of flavour, before its dry and bitter and chewy finish. 
Then we had Vintage Ale 2006 — a deeper chestnut in colour than 2009, a tone of brown/chestnut shade that you wouldn’t be ashamed to let your child wear if they fancied cords from Gap (and believe me they do). This was softer and less fiery in its alcoholic attack than 2009; orange notes were thrusting their way through and I thought in a moment of madness of booze-soaked raisins. ‘An interesting experiment in ageing,’ said John, ‘I want to explore time, put time back into making beer.’ As someone who spent three years picking over the ruins of the Romanovs and writing the odd essay about the rise of the NSDAP who am I to argue? 
But we weren’t over and time was not done with us yet: next up was Brewers Reserve No 1, which if you want the empirical details has spent a year in bottle and 500 days in cask (Glenmorangie). It was buttery (think Chardonnay), fat, leathery, horse blanket-like, earthy — my notes say Orval with whisky (and I also asked about Brett). With our tummies waiting to be tickled we were then rolled onto Brewers Reserve No 2 (cognac cask) — there’s a sense of serendipity in the way JK gets the casks, it’s whatever is available at the time (as someone who once dabbled with The Diceman and the I Ching I like this sense of chance). This has a tighter orangey marmalade character on the nose. I’m thinking orange jelly, with a hint of white pepper in the background; it’s light and fruity, brisk and bracing, And as this first day of the GBBF comes to its natural end, all I can think about is the wood-aged 1890s porter that John has prepared for the autumn.