Friday 24 September 2010

Sheffield is the best beer town around

Let the debates begin: Sheffield is the best beer town around. See my latest piece in online magazine Sabotage Times on why here (BTW I also recommend reading Rohan Ricketts’ footballer dispatches here, they’re a far cry from WAGs etc). 

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Come to Hay-on-Wye this weekend for books, beer and bibulous banter (phew)

Tim Hampson and I are doing a collaborative beer tasting at the Hay Ale & Literature Festival this Friday at Kilvert’s, Hay-on-Wye (see here for more insider stuff). We’re on at 8pm, trying to keep people from vanishing after they’ve been rocked by Pete Brown at 7pm, while next day Pete, Zak Avery and Melissa Cole will be strutting their stuff. Tim and I will be doing a kind of ‘He said North Wales, He said South Wales’ gig. I will be doing the northern angle and Tim the southern region (will he include Stella?…). Both of us will feature three beers each and we’ll just riff on the subject, taste the beers, maybe read some literature (my plans for reading some Welsh have been scuppered by my mother’s low estimation of my pronounciation so George Borrow has preambled to the rescue) and just have a good time. The whole festival looks like a thrilling event with over 50 Welsh beers (that would have been a job 20 years ago), a lot going on and of course the lovely place of Hay as a backdrop. If you’re in the area why not drop in, we don’t frighten easily. And if you want to get a glimpse of what you might be in for here’s some footage of myself doing Otley’s O-Garden at the Rake for the drinks website Drinkprice.

Monday 20 September 2010

How to make a brewmaster smile

Unsmiling, pony-tailed brewmaster; ornate tattoo on leg. At the table he sits, the beers he makes brought into play at the behest of Brits (plus American expat Evan Rail who acts as interpreter). Pivovar Modra Hvezda in the village of Dobrany, a hotel brewpub opposite the the market square; Sunday silent. Where are all the people I ask, thinking of the bustle and briskness that enlivens my local over Sunday lunch. Most at home or visiting families I’m told. I know that if I lived in this rather appealing village I would be here most Sundays studying the substantial beers of brewmaster Petr. Here he’s been since 2003, a refugee from Pilsner Urquell (oh look is that a smile creasing across his face as he recalls his past employers? Go on you can do it). The creator of an excellent range of beers, all of which he’s brings out for us to try as we sit in a small ballroom with a stately family feel. 10˚ is unfiltered, orange coloured in the glass, topped with a firm head of foam. Nose of crushed grain and barley biscuit, a fresh, life-enhancing aroma that wakes me up to the endless possibilities that good beer brings. Resiny hop notes tingle along as well. For a 4% beer there’s a lot going on and I haven’t even had a swig. Oh go on then. In the mouth it’s bittersweet, full flavoured and dry and bitter in the finish. Gorgeous, we concur. Unsmiling the brewmaster remains. 12˚ is slightly darker, with dry dusty grain, caramel, floral notes and a slight pepperiness on the nose. A swig brings forth hints of fruit gums, a slight sweetness with a dry and bitter finish that goes on and on. This is the brewery’s bestseller. The 17˚ gets 50 days maturation and is sweetish on the nose with a background pungent hop character; a thick mouthfeel and alcoholic fieriness contrasts with a smoothness as it washes over the palate. Let’s go to the dark side: the 14˚ Tmavy Special is elegant at the start in the mouth, but has a mid-palate sourness (think plums) that shakes things up in a good way. There’s also a rye-like toastiness with a slight alcohol warmth. Think cold mocha coffee with a nip of booziness. It might be a dark beer, but held up to the light you can see red chestnut tints, which leads Petr to say that with Czech dark beers you should be able to see through them; that he maintains — unsmiling or is that the glimmer of a grin? — is the difference between dark and black beers. Several other beers follow including a thirst quenching wheat beer and a sweet confection of a raspberry beer. Ever the wuss I decline the beer schnapps. We repair to the brewhouse where Petr finally smiles and hands out a sample of the 16˚ amber from the tank. It is full and bitter, very bitter, though smoothish, but not as smooth as it will be — it’s only had three days in the tank (time’s winged chariot). It’s young and immature but still gives off an idea of what it will be like when it grows up. And Petr smiles again or is he just glad to be rid of us…

Oh look he’s smiling

Thursday 16 September 2010

GBG: pub-listing Proustian porn

And the latest Good Beer Guide lands on my desk. Hefty beast but not as heavy as 1001 Beers, but I bet the word count isn’t far off the 250,000 words I spent six months sifting through in 2009. I first bought the GBG in 1992 when I soon discovered the difference between recommending a pub in its pages to my then girlfriend (whom eventually became my wife) to one that was in the Good Pub Guide. One Sunday lunchtime we visited a GBG-recommended boozer in Dorset. I think she expected grub and gingham, but she got a room full of old guys leaning forward and peering at these two out-of-towners, one of who was burbling with excitement because Eldridge Pope’s rare porter (Blackdown Porter?) was on tap. After that, it was the Good Pub Guide if she was in the car and the GBG if I was out on my own or with friends (though many pubs overlap between the two). Roger Protz has been editor (on a second stint) since the turn of the last century (1999 that is) and he’s been doing the rounds of the media today — I suspect this is one of those times when beer is guaranteed to get a good hearing (BTW I got an press release email today that told me about the Pope’s love for Spitfire…flippin’ heck, what next a t-shirt with ‘I downed a Spitfire’?). Thoughts on it? The GBG is an institution, and like all institutions it doesn’t please everyone (like my wife) but it’s strong enough in its own skin to ride over those who might snipe at it; because of the voluntary nature of CAMRA and despite the best efforts of the members (I’ve done the surveys, I was out on Exmoor on a cold January night, went into a pub I thought worth recommending and the barman pulled me a half and said that he hadn’t pulled one through that tap for a couple of days…) it can’t always cover everywhere; there are occasions where I have gone into a GBG pub and thought like my wife-to-be did all those years ago (a sign of increasing age or just irritation with wall to wall tickers?). I also miss the articles at the front from various writers — I have an old GBG from the 1980s where Michael Jackson writes about American beers. The stuff on the Global Giants can be a bit Dave Spart too but hell this is CAMRA’s (and Roger’s) gig and it hits the solar plexus where it counts (ie promoting beer). It’s magnificent that it continues on its way and even as I use it for the now I also use it to delve back into the past  — Cambridge for instance has many of my old haunts; then there’s the King’s Head in Llandudno, the first place I ever called my local. So there you go: pub-listing Proustian porn for all. I recommend it for that alone (not sure if the wife does). 
Good Beer Guide 2011, price £15.99, though you get discounts if a member or go through Amazon.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Lager of the week — St Austell’s Korev

Here’s a delightful bottle of St Austell’s lager, Korev, apparently Cornish for beer (contrast with Breton Coreff and Welsh Cwrw). Pale yellow in the glass, the colour of a wispy, watery sunshine; here’s why according to brewery head brewer Roger Ryman: ‘We blend a little flaked maize with the malt to lighten the colour further, plus a small amount of CaraGold for sweetness and body. So it’s not a Reinheitsgebot grist bill, but we in the UK do not operate under the straitjacket of German brewers.’ Now the aroma: lemony boiled sweets, sugar-free if there’s such a thing, so you don’t get a massive sugary hit. It’s a light and gossamer like nose. The lemony delicacy continues on the palate, a German-style Pils character reference — maybe something like Warsteiner — it’s crisp and light in the mouth, tickles with a gentle carbonation (rather than the rasping bite I get from commodity lagers), and then proceeds to its demise with a lingering bitter finish. For me it’s got a good refreshment value, and it’s a pleasure to drink. I now hope Ryman does a dunkel or has a bash at a bock.
 This is the first lager from St Austell (though Ryman has produced one for the brewery’s exemplary beer festival, which I thoroughly recommend all and sundry to attend), and yet another addition to the continuing renaissance of British craft lager beer (and please don’t write in to tell me that St Austell aren’t craft, I’m far too busy trying to count the angels on a pinhead). BTW, here’s a link to my piece on said renaissance in All About Beer, if you’re interested in having a gander.

And if you want to know a bit more about the technical specs here’s Ryman again: ‘Fermentation is with a genuine Bavarian bottom fermenting lager strain. The beer will initially be brewed in our squares, but we are installing some cylindroconical vessels for production of bottled beers, so when these are available the fermentation will be moved to these. Collection is at genuine low fermentation temperature 8˚C, with the top heat of the fermentation regulated to 12˚C. Primary fermentation will last two weeks, as opposed to one week for our ales. We will then check that the diacetyl level is in spec before chilling and transferring to lager tank at -1˚C. We will hold in the lager tank for as long as is practical, but we only have four tanks, through which all the beer for our bottling line must pass. We will therefore have to move the beer after about three weeks as there will be other beer waiting behind it that we need to get into the tanks. On balance, given more tank storage capacity, I would perhaps opt for a longer lagering time, but I think this is more from a 'feel good' perspective rather than any real technical reason.’

So there you have it, Cornish lager, available only in bottle at the moment, a great antidote to my memories of the tasteless stuff that was Newquay Steam Lager, which I remember being available back in the late 1980s in a Crouch End gaff called Dick’s Bar (it’s now apparently called Bar Rocca and one review on Beer in the evening is rather funny: ‘If Timmy Mallet married Jade Goody, they would have the reception here.’).

Saturday 11 September 2010

Sabotage a bit of free time with the Plzen festival

Sabotage Times is an online magazine that was started and is edited by James Brown (that’s the chap behind Loaded by the way, not the dead soul singer whose stuff I used to adore) — there’s an eclectic bag of articles inside from some funny writers. I add stuff on beer and pubs — here’s my latest, a report on the Plzen festival, which can be read here.

Thursday 9 September 2010

A trip to the end of the line

Highgate was my debut brewery. In 1997. Though I remember being tempted by Greene King in the early 1980s — a pub I frequented was organising a trip but I wimped out, frightened by the damage that I perceived Abbot would do to my young frame. Highgate was old school Victorian coolness, all bricks and chimneys, snug and secure in the midst of Walsall terraces, the brewery as part of the community, the butcher, the baker and the tallow guy, that sort of thing. After that it was mash tuns ahoy. Yesterday was Green Jack Brewery in Lowestoft, along with Mark Dorber and Rupert Ponsonby, two beer people whom I’ve learnt a lot from over the years.

Green Jack? Aren’t they the brewery that won the best winter beer CAMRA thing with Ripper (CAMRA call it a barley wine and Green Jack’s Tim Dunsford says a triple)? Yes they are and on the strength of that it went into 1001 Beers. Maybe you’ve heard of their Orange Wheat? This is an English wheat beer with orange peel in the mix — rather succulent and luscious and refreshing. So why are their beers a mystery to me? Is it something to do with the fact that they’re the most easterly brewery in England (as far as I know)? It’s a long way to Lowestoft, one of those end-of-the-line towns like Llandudno or Penzance, where the train can only go into the sea if it wants to go further; places where people want to leave as soon as they can walk. Oh the irony though — before I tasted their beers I always liked the logo (a sinuous and twisted looking folkloric human) and the name — it appealed to the side of me that loves folklore and mythology. So there I was on a wet morning, eagerly looking about Lowestoft, a new English town, somewhere I had never been to before; I do love English towns, especially ones that have an unfancied and lonely air about them. Look beyond Costa Coffee, Subway and Poundland and you will see the ghost of what once was. In Lowestoft’s case the smoking industry (lovely kippers for breakfast this morning).

The brewery is opposite the football ground (nicknamed the trawlermen if you must know), down an alley and based in a building once used for — surprise, surprise — smoking herring. One side is taken up with a pod of stainless steel brewing vessels, formerly at Oakham’s Brewery Tap (their head brewer the irrepressible John Bryan is a good mate of Tim). And as I have written about Thornbridge here, stainless steel can be irredeemably seductive, a reflective meditation on the nature of beer. Further enlightenment comes with the fermenting vessels (of which there are five) — they all have portholes through which I can see the restless and anxious nature of the beer as it moves onto the next stage of its existence. There’s also a fragrant and fruity aroma in the air that can only come from the hops, a delicacy at odds with the clash and bang of barrels out in the yard.

So what’s next: we’ve seen the kit, asked the usual questions and are looking forward to getting to the brewery’s town pub, The Triangle. We go upstairs, pass a chap with his hair whitened by dust from the malt he’s pouring into the mill, and Tim starts handing out hops. Try this, have a look at this one, he says. Citra has a Seville orange, grapefruit and pineapple nose; Bramling Cross is reminiscent of tealeaves and blackcurrant, while Pioneer has a trio of pineapple, lemon and spice notes along with a hint of liquorice in the background. I’m not very adventurous with hops says Tim, but I know what I like. A pause as we continue to rub the hops between our hands, a favourite part of a brewery trip. Some questions and that’s the visit over. What’s next? Shall we go and taste the beers says Tim. I think so, don’t you? 

Sunday 5 September 2010

Gastro pub enlightenment comes with the scrape of chairs on a wooden floor

From the windows of this pub you can see the restless breast of the sea, heaving and swelling as if sighing over some regretful episode in life. The Northumberland coastal path passes here while beer is brewed in what looks like a shed next door. The ‘English wheat beer’ confounds my scepticism over the habit of micros trying to follow a path that veers away from the standard bitter/golden ale one — commendable but all too often many breweries make a right Horlicks of it (cask conditioned Bavarian style lager ale anyone?) — and is rather delicious: lemony with a bitter twist and an appetising dry finish. The pub is all wood and at 6pm as the reserved signs start to lay their heads on the bleached out tables like small spaniels rolling over and asking for their tummies to be tickled, I know we are heading towards gastro pub land. I’m ambivalent about gastro pubs. They are easy to hate with their corporate mish-mash of terracotta paint jobs, type-faces that all seem to come from the same book of fonts, the forest of wooden furniture and chummy-mockney-psycho-rural-babble menu descriptions, but on the other hand when done right they are a fantastic amalgamation of good food and beer. And let’s face it, the best of English pubs have always offered good food (not necessarily fancy either), you only have to read Thomas Burke, John Fothergill or George Orwell to discover this. And yet, As someone who has been in pubs since the age of 15 I feel propriatorial about the pub — I often feel it’s almost as if gastro pubs encourage people who would normally turn up their noses at pubs but now have the nerve to colonise this much beloved part of my life but don’t really understand it. They rave about rose, sip on cups of herbal tea (in a pub for Christ’s sake) and grill the chef about the provenance of his pork. And at this pub as the 6 o’clock changeover, when the next stage of the pub’s day starts (food is served 7-8pm), staff emerge from the kitchen to rearrange tables, sweep the floor and drag chairs from station to station. My first thought is that this is a deliberate policy to discourage the early evening drinkers and push them outside (there are plenty of tables outside overlooking the sea, but what if it was raining?). However, slowly but perceptibly my thoughts start to change — I am reminded of being in a market as it opens, being surrounded by the bustle of people at work. This feeling adds a robust hardiness to the pub’s atmosphere, brings it alive — it’s the sound of the living nature of the pub. It’s almost like seeing the innards of how pubs work and the stripping away of the freemasonary of what licensees do to make their places viable. It’s theatre. I’ve been to this pub before and got rather in a lather about this changeover at 6ish, but now as I see it for what it is — one part of a pub’s journey through the day that adds an extra something to the atmosphere. However, I still think the man who came into a pub and ordered a mug of herbal tea should be taken quietly to one side and told to change his ways…
(after a long weekend in Plzen, I went on the family hols in Northumberland and stayed here; Northumberland is perhaps one of my favourite parts of England along with the North Exmoor coast, east Suffolk, the Shropshire Marches, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District)