Thursday 30 December 2010

Croglin Vampire draws blood

Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Croglin Vampire Sod Twilight with its designer bloodsuckers and undercurrent of Mormon denial, the Croglin Vampire was there first, back in the 19th century when some toothsome member of the undead fancied a bit of Cumbrian life. True or false? Who cares when you’ve got this beauty of a beer sent to me by Cumbrian Legendary Ales. Will it bite or will it be just a toothless old hag? Here goes. Sweetish Marmite on nose along with green apple after it’s just been cut — or maybe green apple jelly beans, a synthetic green appleness; palate is sweetness, warmth, fatness, fieriness, chocolate (though with a restrained sweetness), several coffee beans crushed half-heartedly between two stout spoons, ripe dark plum left in the sun, toffee apple in the sweet shop, plus some hint of pepper (white) in the background; slightly quiet in the glass but then I’m not after the sort of carbonic bite that puts me in mind of a terrier rather than a vampire. I like the sound of a British bock, though this hasn’t totally embraced the creamy, dreamy bitter sturm und drang of a Bavarian bock, but it’s still a great English take on the style. It has that intense drinkability of a bock — long satisfying draughts from a long satisfyingly pleasant glass while sitting by the fire and completely underwhelmed by both Twilight as well as True Blood. Is Cumbria the new Bavaria? Are vampires the new beer geeks? Probably not. Who cares.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

2010 and all that beer

2010… The clock in the church tower strikes 6pm and from several alleyways that feed the centre of Laxfield groups of villagers urgently make a beeline for the Kings Arms. For me this was the most striking and visual confirmation of the paramount importance of the pub and its role in our national community (and being an Adnams pub, the beer was pretty good as well) — people still set their watches by them. Pubs might be closing, pubs might be losing money, pubs might be getting as rare as the hair on Oz Clarke’s head, but this image, which I witnessed, as I joined in the common stream and ambled across the churchyard, was a sign of hope. I hope. Long may it continue.

Like most people, I look back, cherish lost moments, and in the beery sense have a shed load of fond times that come back to me from my journey across 2010 — great beers delivered straight from the tank on their home territory, getting a bridgehead in the US with All About Beer, seeing 1001 Beers continue to sell (even though I don’t get royalties), getting major beer and travel stories in the national press (a front page story on beer in the DT was a particular highlight), meeting loads of great people and still being surprised by new beers (as well as being irritated by those who don the Emperor’s new clothes), but it’s hard to really pin things down, say that this was the best, this was the worse, so all I can is offer a few views of the year in beer as I witnessed it.

Arrived hot and sweaty at the Von Trapp Lodge high above the mountain resort of Stowe, VT, and greeted with one of the most sublime Helles that I have ever had.  The Von Trapp brewery might sound like some gimmick to entrap the Sound of Music masses, but under the stewardship of brew master Allen Van Alda this is a serious lager brewery, which also produces a chocolaty Dunkel and a crisp Vienna Amber. The hills are alive with the sounds of triple decoction.

Lager was very much on my mind on a Pilsen press trip in the summer. This was a first: you normally have to place a feature in a magazine or paper to get on these trips, but the organisers wanted blogs instead. As well as getting a vision of the new Czech beer revolution thanks to Evan Rail, there was the Chodovar brewery where in the lagering cellars brewmaster Jiri Plevka filled a metal jug with the brewery’s Spezial straight from the tank. The beer was creamy, fresh and perky, fulsome in the mouth feel, a bittersweet buzz followed by a notable bite of bitterness, it felt both smooth and rough in the mouth, a heady combination. ‘It is like a Marzen/Fest,’ he said. And then followed one of those beer epiphanies — a light-bulb moment when I realised the close relationship between Bohemian and Bavarian brewing. I have donned my deerstalker and investigating further.

Other memorable moments: drinking in Poechenellekelder in Brussels with Stuart Howe, the Martin Johnson of the mash tun (regular tastings of his 52 brews have been spectacular and I’ve got Monsieur Rock to try later this week) and then over to Orval for it on draught in the company of the mouse-like Jean-Marie Rock; the lagers of Vermont from the likes of Alchemy, Northshire and Bobcat; Ray McNeil in Brattleboro and Paul Sayler at Zero Gravity, Burlington, VT — unsung US brewers who don’t do the rock star or celeb trail but are immeasurably talented; a moment with a pint of Tanglefoot when I noted a dryness and grape-like character reminiscent of Gew├╝rztraminer; the fun and sociability that always follows a committee meeting of the British Guild of Beer Writers; Thornbridge’s Jaipur running out in two hours in the Bridge last Whitsun during the folk festival; the sumptuous magnificence of Otter Head at Woods this Christmas; loads of pubs throughout the country and plenty of new discoveries (Euston Tap, The Harp, Kilvert’s, the Coopers, the Jolly Butcher’s, the Triangle) and then…
— the fantasticness of Kernel Brewery: as someone who spent 11 years in London and left pretty pissed off with the place, the idea of the London Brewers’ Alliance would have had me fulminating about bleeding Londoners, but with Fuller’s and Meantime continuing to rock my boat, I am SO in love with the beers of Kernel and look forward to trying the rest of the Alliance’s beers.

So there it is, 2010 and all that — and I didn’t even mention the things that irritated me… Happy New Year.

Monday 20 December 2010

Another brown beer

Another brown beer, has orange marmalade, crisp rye cracker, maybe some plum (ripe) on the palate, with a dry very bitter (2 espresso beans crunched in mouth) finish with a rerun of the ripe plum factor (having sat in a bowl being warmed and ripened by the sun); bitter bitter bitter but also creamy in its mouthfeel, intense and very satisfying for a 4% brown beer. Just a brown beer. 

Thursday 16 December 2010

I get Burton-on-Trent

There are many rooms in my father’s mansion. You could say the same thing about Burton-on-Trent, albeit with a brewing rather than biblical twist. Everywhere I go, there seems to be an old malt house here, a former brewery there and — CCTV-like — it seems one cannot escape from the all-seeing eyes of the conditioning tanks of Molson-Coors, that rise tube-like, rockets without their cones, to the glowering Staffordshire skies. Redbrick houses from the middle of the nineteenth century line the road from the station into town: an old tower brewery here, a former grain store there. Over onto the road that leads down to the bridge that spans the River Trent, plaques tell a story: this was a brewery in the eighteenth century, this was the site of the Lamb, this was a malt house and just before the bridge we get to the Bridge Inn, home of the Burton Bridge Brewery. Early doors at 11.30am, jostling with the coalman to get in. A pint of Golden Delicious — a creamy mouthfeel, dry brittle finish.

Last night I was at the opening of the William Worthington Brewery in the old Joiners’ Store next to the National Brewery Museum. Lots of beer, beer and food, the ever excellent Steve Wellington (below right) leading the crowds onto the platform that overlooked his new stainless steel kit, White Shield with venison pie, and a special Celebration beer. And afterwards, all to the Coopers, where one of our party was nearly knocked onto the floor with surprise, such was his appreciation of the Draught Bass (it used to be so Heart of Darkness: the horror, the horror).

I will be honest: in the past I haven’t got Burton-on-Trent. I first went there in 1997 to interview Steve, my first ever beer interview (I was nervous, even though I had been interviewing pop stars for years, but it was a feeling, what could beer people have to say? They work in a factory, they’re not artistes. How wrong could I be?). I thought it a ghost town. I loved what Steve was doing but I thought so what? There was a shabbiness about the place, an malnourished quality (a downhearted man in clogs lounging on the corner, work a memory). Past glories. This was the past.

I should have known better, especially as I studied history at college (ask me about 1930s disillusionment, George Orwell and Spain, the International Brigades and people’s armies and you’ll not escape for a while). This contempt came to fruition when I wrote the criminally overlooked Big Book of Beer, I had a spread called the beer towns of Britain — BurtonOT was included more for nostalgia than anything else, it was almost written as a lament rather than anything else (I always thought BurtonOT represented all that was red-faced and big-bellied about beer). The spread was dropped for space reasons (I can send it out if anyone’s interested). That was me and BurtonOT until now.

The thing is: BurtonOT is certainly no Bamberg with a brewery on every corner while the past weighs even more heavily here than any other former beer town than I know (perhaps you get an echo of the past in parts of Edinburgh and London). Yet, this visit has filled me with a desire to get to know the place better. Yes, it’s rundown, it’s got the feel of a place that the 1980s bypassed (maybe a good thing) and I didn’t always get good beer (I don’t normally name names but the Bah Humbug at the Roebuck was appalling), but…

If British brewing has to have a centre, an ancestral home, a place where people can come and pay homage, a place where ghosts can be seen and the past remembered then it’s got to be BurtonOT. And before I got my train back this lunchtime I spent a jolly hour in the Coopers, a place that Pete Brown recently told me was one of his favourite pubs on earth. I drank Draught Bass for the first time in donkey’s years and enjoyed it, I chatted with regulars who brought their lunch to eat with their pints, felt at home, took a carryout of Sarah Hughes, didn’t want to leave. Here was the essence of BurtonOT.

To cobble something together with Yeats in mind: Pilsen, Munich, Edinburgh, London, Burton. I have seen them at the close of day. A terrible beauty is born.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The fifth element

To an Exmoor pub for the purpose of a review. The place is empty when we arrive about 12.30pm. There’s been heavy snow in the past few days and custom has been low. There’s a village but the houses are scattered (though enough folk support the pub for a darts team). We sit in the long bar, the landlord at the end folding napkins and the landlady behind the bar as we look at the menu. There’s no piped music, just our whispers as we debate what to have for lunch. It’s an old place high up on the moor, which must have seen some community action in the days when the snows came and people had no choice but to get to the pub. Through the window I can see three Landrovers draw up in the car park and a group of lads gather. The door opens, creaky, the birdsong of a latch returning to its catch, and in they come. Voices fill the place, we talk louder, the licensees become less withdrawn, after all they’re on the stage. The lads crowd around the bar, order their drinks — Guinness, coke, Carlsberg. Discuss the food, discuss the morning’s shooting and the place is transformed. The place feels warmer, friendlier. And the motto of this brief post? Sometimes it’s easy to forget in our search for the things that make the perfect pub — beers that baffle and buff up our lives, good grub that gets right to the heart of the matter, log fires whose flames curl and dance in the orange regions of the grate and pub gardens that resemble Eden in their spate of innocence — that people also make a pub: the fifth element.

Monday 13 December 2010

A weave round Wiveliscombe beertown

A pint of Bays Gold for my non-existentialist friend, and me, I think to myself as I sit in the White Hart in the small town of Wiveliscombe. Drinking alone, are we, the man in the unwashed clothes at the bar seems to say when he looks at me. Well not really, I think back at him, I’m waiting for photographer Bill (good website, see it here) in a bar in a town, which in the past, I’ve called the Burton-on-Trent of the west (a bit of journalistic hyperbole which I won’t repeat now). Ah here he is wearing his Somerset Levels cider boots (he’s done some great snaps of the cider life, which I suspect he is starting to live), and we head off to the Bear across the road, a pub I have been visiting since 1996 — it had one landlord who was a total pot valiant and was alleged to have placed microphones at the bar because he reckoned that the staff of Exmoor Ales (five mins away) was conspiring against him. What I like (and have always liked) is the community aspect of the Bear, as well as a healthy selection of beer. But what I am interested in now is Butcombe’s intriguing keg ‘gateway’ beer Blonde as well as Veltins. The Butcombe beer has a sweetness that is almost reminiscent of a light fruitcake plus liquorice notes though I found the harshness of the finish a bit off-putting. Asked the young barman how it sold and he thought well, while a youngish lad, mate of his, said he enjoyed it now and again. Maybe a gateway. The Veltins was superb: vanilla, bitter lemon, crispness on the palate, dry finish, another swig please. Out into the town because I told Bill that this was a beertown, once and now. Hancock’s started brewing here in 1807 and were then bought out by Ushers in 1959 (they were then called Arnold & Hancock) and the brewery closed (it was a chicken shed or something for a while). Brewing boomeranged back in the late 1970s with Exmoor (then called Golden Hill) followed by Cotleigh. Exmoor is in the old bottling shed of Hancock’s, while Cotleigh are down the hill in a purpose built place. Despite the two breweries being so close you could lop a weighted bottle-top down the hill from Exmoor and hear it rattle on Cotleigh’s roof, there’s a real difference between their beers. The old brewery still stands above Wivvy, while a walk around the town brings you face to face with the attritional warfare that pubs have been engaged in during the 20th century. A few years ago, the local civic society (I think) organised the mounting of plaques on the front of all those houses, which used to be pubs. So we have nice ceramic designs (Wivvy is always a bit arty I think, hippy if I’m being ungenerous) for long gone pubs such as the Anchor (a fish), the Bell (a bell) and Noah’s Ark, whose design I cannot remember — but I would love to know why it was called Noah’s Ark. It was a small cottage in a terrace, down an alley and I wondered when it closed its doors. I think we counted about 10 former pubs and you just wonder what life was like when all these pubs were open and thriving. A beertown — was the beer palatable, would it have been totally different from what we drink these days (I think John Keeling, Derek Prentice and Ron Pattinson answered that question comprehensively at Fuller’s recent tasting of their XX Strong Ale), were the pubs any good? We shall never know. And that’s maybe just as well. 

Saturday 11 December 2010

The 12 pubs of Christmas

Sod the partridge in a pear tree is the inspiration for my latest contribution to online mag Sabotage Times — the 12 pubs of Christmas. Someone has already commented that I have missed out a good Brum pub, and suggested the Barton Arms and the Victoria (I presume they mean this one) All other suggestions will be welcome. You can read it here.

Monday 6 December 2010

52 years ago this month

Here we are, a copy of Mild & Bitter (thanks to Steve who handed it over yesterday in the Bridge), the house magazine of the long-gone Ely brewery of Cardiff. Christmas 1958 it says on the cover, and there’s a cartoon of a humanistic wooden cask on the back alongside some doggerel suggesting a selection of the company’s beers to go with Christmas lunch: ‘When turkey’s served on Christmas Day, My I suggest an IPA? If festive fare makes father groan, then bring him round with Brewer’s Own…And when the moon and stars come out, it’s time for Gold and Silver Stout.’ Stand down Shakespear there’s a new quill in town. Another reminder that beer and food is not a novel invention, but it’s just that drinkers and brewers forgot about it during the nice shiny modern 1960s. Inside the mag there are black and white pictures of long-dead licences (well they would be long-dead now, but were very much alive in 1958) taking up the helm of a new pub, an article on good cellaring (how very Cask Marque), an ad for Rhine wine and one for Babycham, plus a four page piece on the moon (that’s the big pearly thing in the sky not some broken down boozer in Cardiff docks). The editorial sounds familiar: the headline is WHY PICK ON PUBS? and the text contrasts the difference in opening hour regulations between pubs and hotels and clubs and then there’s a spread of cartoons detailing 10 things that a licensee can do — for instance, keep their pubs open during non-permitted hours for customers to watch the TV (but obviously not have a drop), chuck out drunks and allow customers to do their pools coupons in the pub. There’s a sense of cheery optimism running through the whole magazine, a sense of permanence in the attractions of the pub and the brewery’s fortunes — how very poignant to see that within a year Ely merged with Rhymney and then Whitbread turned up in the 1960s. The whole place shut in 1982. Do you think that the people who produced this magazine would have had an idea of what was coming?  

Friday 3 December 2010

Pork chopolate anyone?

I recently went to a pork scratchings and beer dinner at the White Horse. Great fun even if I did overdo and at the end of the night as I enjoyed my last pint of Grand Ridge’s Brewers Pilsner I had that rare occasion — I had to leave my beer. A surfeit of pork scratchings indeed. I was tasked to do something small on the event for Scoff and wrote the piece below before I realised I’d not read my brief and was way off course. Having done the rewrite (I should have a link on it soon — and here it is here) I thought it a waste to leave the original languishing in the depths of my laptop so here it is. It a good night, but the lesson I learnt? Don’t eat the little buggers when they’ve covered in chocolate, it’s a bridge too far that I reckon even the most devoted of gluttons would baulk at.

There’s pork scratchings and then there’s pork chopolates. Several dollops of what looks like curled up chocolate sit on my plate. Appearances deceive. One bite and several sensations car-crash on the palate: salt and sweet, bacon and dark chocolate. It’s delicious if weird in a Heston Blumenthal way. These chopolates are actually pork scratchings dipped into chocolate and served alongside vanilla ice cream and a glass of Mackeson’s venerable Milk Stout. It’s a gastronomic universe of weirdness but actually works.
   I was at the White Horse pub in Parsons Green, West London, where food and beer dinners are the norm, but this is something else. Prior to the pork chopolates the biblical sounding Ram’s Horns and crunch scratchings plus guacamole dip was served with the tropically fruity golden ale JHB — the beer’s intense fruitiness fire-fought the guacamole’s chilli spiciness and lifted the salty pork flavour. A spicy Belgian wheat beer Blanche de Bruxelles was an elegantly accompaniment to Ram’s Horns and a gooseberry dip, while fish pie topped with gratinated pork scratchings devilishly did the tango with Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat Beer.
   The whole event was the idea of beer evangelist and Beer Academy founder Rupert Ponsonby who began the evening by declaring: ‘this is a slightly loony idea’. Minus mad-scientist laugh he detailed the styles of Black Country pork scratchings: ‘single cooked’ has a luscious layer of fat; ‘double cooked’ is crunchy and salty; ‘crunch’ is double deep-fried (think Prawn Crackers minus prawns); there was also a curry spiced crunch. Finally, for scratchings connoisseurs there’s leaf. This is pure fat —my poor arteries screeched in protest.
   Who needs designer crisps when you’ve got these tapas of our beer and pub culture?