Thursday 29 December 2011

Beer and cheese, cheese and beer

I often write for Sabotage Times, usually about beer (no surprises there), and now I’ve come up with a personal pick of some of my beer and cheese favourites — having stuffed myself eaten some spectacular cheeses over Xmas this list is particularly pertinent. It’s a personal choice and I don’t expect anyone to agree with it but you can see it here.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Are you afraid of Lager?

Are you afraid of lager? If not then you should be. It’s the beer that the ravening hordes of British louts are said to consume en route to football matches, congregating in herds, howling and hooting, gathering in the crepuscular gloom of their own failings outside the White Star or the Dog and Duck or whatever mock rural name where they gather goes by, allowing their ravenous jaws to wrap around gobfuls of dubious flesh inserted into anal fissures of damp cotton-wool cheeks of near-bread, tooling themselves up like modern Visigoths ready to attack the mightiness of the Roman Empire (and then they discover that they only have to kick the door in and the whole rotten edifice comes crashing down). 

Are you afraid of lager? It’s the beer that your mother (provided you have a mother) warned you against when you starting hanging out with your mates, passing the cans around at the building site that also doubles up as a municipal playground and keeping an eye out for the occasional passage of police cars; it is the beer that was once blamed for British youths growing an extra horn and starting to miss school and sign on for the benefits that allegedly come from spending a life on benefits (once it was cider that took the bullet and then it was alco-pops and then it was skunk and then it was cider once again); it’s the beer that the majority of the population drinks and has drunk since the late 1980s when lager overtook ale as the beer of the British; it’s the beer that you can ask for wherever you are in the world and you will get something roughly the same colour (the colour of wealth, the colour of fidelity, the colour that did for Midas), it is something that roughly tastes the same beside an Italian swimming pool or in a Mexican airport or in an English curry house. It is Satan drenched in urine, a failed comedian with a red nose, the barrack room buggery from another age — it is lager. 

Lager: it is Princip firing a pistol at the Archduke Ferdinand and starting a war, it is the beer that makes the most mild mannered of ale men angry at what they would call ‘fizzy yellow piss’; lager: it is, just, lager. Lager, you might sigh and think and say to yourself that I only drink the classy stuff, that the glass of golden sparkle in your hand is an aspirational drink, something that reminds you of foreign holidays, days in the sun, the missus in a bikini. Are you afraid of lager?

Tuesday 20 December 2011

A pub fantasy for Christmas week

And it’s now when I get to thinking that cause it’s Christmas, the brakes go on, the pace loses pace and I grab more time to meander along the byways and pathways of pub and beer fantasy…and so there I am thinking about some of the places I would like to sit down and study my beer in during these few days before Christmas…and for some reason I’m first at Bateman’s Visitor Centre, not a pub as such but a place for me that takes me to the heart of Bateman’s beers, which I rather enjoy…for a start I love getting off the train and seeing the windmill poking up above the village, George Bateman’s bottle collection, the smell of the brewery during brewing time and — when I was last there at least and I hope this hasn’t changed — the chance of having a glass of Salem Porter…and while I am in the east, I will travel down to Essex, first of all dropping into Walberswick to enjoy a glass and a meal at the redoubtable Anchor, before continuing to the Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures. On the border between Essex and Suffolk it sits and here I would savour the company of Dylan the dog whilst feeling the sashay of flavour that is Crouch Vale’s Brewers Gold…then to London where I would leave the craft beer bars for another day and embed myself in the Royal Oak in Borough…an afternoon in this marvel of pub life in search of the secrets behind Harvey’s Porter is time well spent…I would sit there with the Buddha of contemplation on my shoulder, in search of a sense of enlightenment until it be time to take the journey westwards and home…so I’m on my way home and it’s the Red Lion in Cricklade that will prove to be my next stop (actually I tell a lie, I fancy a quick visit to Oxford where my recent plunge into re-watching Inspector Morse can be emboldened by a glass in the Turf Tavern – it should be a bit quieter now that the students have famished themselves off to families far and wide)…ah the Red Lion, the pub where the locals gather to discuss the world and the price of beer, where the ales on show include old school bitters, new school goldies and grinning, palate-grabbing hop devils, all of which are the ideal accompaniment to time at a table catching a glimpse of a clock taking its time to circle the dial…and I would also enjoy the fried pea fritters with a bowl of the Red Lion’s robust, country-style chips (oh and to finish, two of three times, there would be a bottle of Odell, or maybe a Le Baladin beer)…home nearly so I would stop off in Bath and go to the Old Green Tree, deep in its womb of pubbery, a place where I went to immediately after the rugby world cup in 2003 and where recently engaged in a conversation with a woman as if we were old friends (which we were not)…and if there is time a jar of Bellringer at the Star higher up in the town, a warren of rooms that for me engage my senses with the box of delights that is the pub…but this being a fantasy I’m back home though with my much beloved local pubs and for that I give much thanks…

Sunday 18 December 2011

Christmas beers

Commonly said amongst beer writers at this time of the year is the wash of wine-and-Christmas articles that flood the pages of our newspapers. Of course they are there but it’s not as bad as it might be. I noted that the Guardian had something and I bet Will Hawkes at the Independent will put a few thoughts out there later this week (though in the mean time you should read his piece on Scottish beer). Meanwhile Gavin Aitchison at the York Press has added his voice here. As for myself, I’ve got 10 suggestions over at the Telegraph, which can be read here.

Friday 16 December 2011

BrewDog Camden

BrewDog Camden. From somewhere in the bar laughter crackles with the timbre of Vincent Price in an Edgar Allen Poe movie, spits into flame, crackles and cackles, the laughter of enjoyment. A man checks his phone, serious, twitters perhaps, socially mediating with those of a like disposition? The floor has a concrete effect, hard, unyielding, there are board games in alcoves, minimally designed furniture, ascetic almost, a hermit’s idea of furnishings. At the bar eight miniature silos stand, branded with the Miró like logo of the brewery, and from these all manner of beers are dispensed. Punk IPA for me thank you, fresh, zesty, grapefruit, a glass of sunlight in opposition to the gloomy winter’s day unfolding outside. I knew this pub in its previous lives — rundown old boozer, corner street, quiet I seem to recall once, and then an attempt to go gastro with Hoegaarden and perhaps Stella and lord knows what else brought in, so hardly stellar. The makeover is on the American/European model, post-industrial warehouse chic, but it’s a warm place, and staff that offer friendliness just as good as any well-run traditional bar. And because I’ve just had lunch I cannot make space for anything off the menu developed by Masterchef beer and food guru Tim Anderson but that will be for next time. So for now with Punk IPA gone to meet its maker, a glass of Port Brewing Wipeout (the recall of it tickles and tingles my tastebuds now) followed by Hardcore. I’ll be back.

Cheddar? Cheddar.

Like anyone else who communicates about beer I get sent some. If it is something that I don’t particularly like then I just don’t think about it, I move on, the world doesn’t need me to go head to head with either some corporate brewer or a small brewer whose enthusiasm and tax break doesn’t always equal hygiene, skill, imagination of whatever else makes for a good beer. 
    So I got sent these beers by Cheddar Ales and said that I couldn’t promise to be happy clappy about everything, which was fine. ‘I hear you don’t like bottle-conditioned beers,’ said Cheddar’s founder Jem in an email. Partially true, it’d be correct that I don’t regard b-c beers with the same altar-kneeling succulent relish that others do. I’ve had some stinkers in my time and the sticker ‘real ale in a bottle’ is more likely to drive me away rather than have me howling at the moon of beery joyfulness (mind you having said that I’ve had some filthy filtered beers as well). So here are my thoughts on the Cheddar’s beers I have drunk so far. 

Gorge Best — What on earth is a best bitter? Is it this? Copper coloured; sweetness on tongue, toffee sweetness, conjoined with peppery hop character, I think white pepper, plus a whisper of orange marmalade — all coming together like a diabolic dance. Bitter, chewy, dusty (as in a hay barn in the summer when the rain hasn’t fell for a while), dryness. Hey it’s a best bitter and I rather enjoy it.

Potholer — this is a golden ale with a tightly laced, well corsetted sweetness, a fullness on the palate and a sweetshop lemon and banana note (I can almost hear the rustle of the paper bag and feel the grains of sugar being tipped into my hand for immediate consumption), plus some bitterness, but not enough to frighten the horses with. The finish has a ghost of banana sweetness (again that drawing in of the laces) before it fades away. I am not sure if it is the beer or if it is me that is not bothered by this style of beer anymore but I found myself drinking a glass of what has been a favourite beer for several years the other night and thinking: I’ve had enough of dipping into the fruit bowl.

Festive Totty —  this is a very dark chestnut brown, no spices though ruby port is added, or anything that Santa might like when he comes down the chimney. On the palate there is sarsaparilla, milky mocha-ish coffee, a dusting of chocolate (milk I would say), a tingle of dark plum in the background; even a creamy character that adds a luscious note. There’s also a soury smoky edge that makes the whole beer very appetising. The finish is bitter, some roastiness and a spiritual om of chocolate dusting. Lovely espresso foam head on top. So nice to drink that I will have another if you don’t mind. 

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Of time and the river — and Broadside

So I there I am in the new century, survivor of the Millennium Bug, in the company of my two-year-old son beside the Red Lion in Southwold; the unsung Adnams pub, the one that doesn’t seem too full of types whenever I go in (then and now). Wife and friend are looking around what passes for shops in Southwold in 2000 (only three I have noticed on our fortnight there: butcher, second-hand bookshop and off-licence, what more does a man need?). Child in pushchair is asleep and we are outside on a bench that belongs to the Red Lion. Lunchtime and perhaps a Broadside, a pint of, a glass of, might help me belong. Notebook in pocket. Pen out. Child asleep. Beer ravishes palate. Words flow as beer steers itself across the tongue and down the throat. One of those moments that I always remember: the study of a beer. What did I write? Couldn’t find the notebook tonight but I know it formed the basis of a long piece I wrote on Adnams for the CAMRA Somerset newsletter I was editing at the time (and which is somewhere online I think). But then I found the kernel of what I wrote hidden away in a file on an old bloated iMac, which as an aside it is amazing that in 2000 we thought this pot-bellied Caribbean sea blue creature was state of the art: ‘It was outside the Red Lion one Saturday lunchtime that I spent a happy half-hour exploring the complexities of Broadside — an ale which takes the drinker to the heart of Adnams. If you've ever crunched Maris Otter Malt or Crystal Malt; or crushed Fuggles or Goldings in your hands and inhaled the result, or walked through a hop store, then a sip of Broadside takes you through its birthplace — the brewery.’

Many different beers have crossed over the drawbridge and passed down my gullet since, both at home and abroad, but I still retain my affection for Broadside even if I haven’t always had it in good condition. However, I had a glass of it the other Friday lunchtime at the Bishop & Bear in Paddington, a Fuller’s fabulous pub at Paddington that has been the ruin of many of my journeys home — usually ESB, which is what we started off our lunchtime session with. All Cointreau-like orange notes, marmalade Dadaism perhaps? Then my mate on a brief furlough from a national newspaper where he works brought along a Broadside to the table. Christ it was fresher than a fresh nappy put on a fresh baby’s bottom, absolutely delicious (unlike the baby’s bottom), a fabulous beer of deep dark-in-the-forest malt notes, a Bartok-like sway (think the first movement of his Concerto for Orchestra) of flavours, that brought in the chocolate, coffee and sarsaparilla that I have always associated with a good Broadside. It was gorgeous and connected me back to that day 11 years when the child in the pushchair was fast asleep. And that ability to link and connect with time is to me the enchantment that good beer can weave and keep you suspended in its spell. 

My mate had a ‘hilarious’ malfunction with the loo here back in the mid 1990s

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide

Yep this gem of a pub is in the book

I’ve been over to the Czech Republic twice in the last couple of months, both times on assignment, one of which was totally beer and brewing related — the other not. Even though the second visit was more about the general ambience of Prague, I was able to visit a good quota of bars and brewpubs in the evening. And that’s where this guide might have been useful if I had stayed any longer on my second trip after having done my job — it’s Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide, written by Maximiliano Bahnson (he calls it the best ever guide to Prague written by an Argentinean), who also writes the rather entertaining Pivni Filosof blog. I met him during my visit in September where I ended up at the Purkmistr beer festival trying home-brews from both Czech and expat beer guys. Maximiliano has now sent me a PDF of this self-published guide (I think he uses the same company as the indefatigable Ron Pattinson). The title says it all, this is a guide to beer crawls, an enthusiastic and rollicking ride through some of his favourite Prague hostelries, and you know there’s nothing here about drinking within limits. It’s a good home-brew beer transplanted into writing, rough around the edges, definitely not smooth, occasionally jagged, but possessed of an honesty and an interesting perspective that will keep you reading. As he says in part of the introduction:

‘I didn't write this book with the goal of pleasing beer geeks, tickers, raters or advocates, this book was written for people who enjoy drinking beer, people who sometimes will drink a beer just because they fancy drinking a beer, regardless of who brews and how, and the best place to do that, at least when it comes to Czech beers, is the pub, or hospoda as we call it here. Which brings me to this other thing.

‘This book is not a manifesto in defence of “craft beer” (whatever that might mean to you), this is a book about pubs, and a pub is actually more than the beer, it is about the place and how you feel there. I'd much rather drink Pilsner Urquell, or even Gambrinus, at a hospoda where I feel comfortable, than Kout na Šumavě at a cocktail bar. There is a limit, no matter how nice the place might be, I won't go if they don't have a beer that I can at least tolerate, and that's why you won't see any Staropramen pubs.’

So if Prague is on the agenda soon this little gem (which you can get here) should be stowed away in your duffel bag or on your iPad — and when you get there be ready to soak in its beery bath tub of Rabelaisian wit and wisdom. 
And so is this

Thursday 1 December 2011

And this is why I love beer

There it is in the glass, brisk and busy, but not too busy, with bubbles drifting to the top, ease in their ascension, an escalator upwards of carbonation and friskiness (a young pup perhaps, eager to play and gain approval); and above them, the place into which they merge and morph, the snow white collar of foam, a Table Mountain of ultimate achievement (can I be Reinhold Messner?).

And the colour of the beer in the glass (let us not forget the colour of the glass, or the non colour of the glass, a displacement of air, a physical presence that is not there but is)? Some would say the pale gold of a ring forged in an ancient mine high in the mysterious mountains of a long disappeared people’s legends. Or maybe it’s the sum of the egg yolk sun that inches itself, fingers tensed on the ledge of morning, gaining strength and confidence as it emerges into the day. Others will think of an heirloom — an old sideboard willed by a wilful great aunt, the burnish of dark chestnut on its surface, a gleam, but also the dream of childhood’s end. Then there is a beer that is stygian, the knife of night cutting into the soft underbelly of the day, pray please pay the ferryman for his work in transporting us into the dark where no stars fall and no moon rises. And let us in our reverie not forget the beer in the glass that is the colour of a piece of amber that emerged into the light of the world after spending millennia with an insect in its craw, and then by man’s hand was polished and perfected like some jewel in the crown.

So there is the beer, the beer in the glass, a sparkling ring of confidence surrounding and circling, an orbit of sensation, the bite of flavour on the palate, on the tongue and in the mouth; there it is, the thirst quenching draught of beer that covers all the sensory nodes that sit on the tongue, serious scholars in judgment, the Academy in congress about this work of art. The wash of sweetness, but not too sweet, a sweetness restrained, belt buckled in; the splash of fruit — tropical, citrus, soft, you decide, you judge — the crisp crunch of the malted barley’s influence, a ghost from the field where thousands of stalks swelled beneath the summer sun or shivered and sold themselves dearly when the fret rolled in from the north. The hop? There it is, the essence of fruit, as recalled above, but also the rasp of bitterness at the end of the throat, sometimes a stick rattling on a tin roof, other times, as pithy as a Wildean quote recovered, dusted down and thrown out into the sunlight. Then the beer is finished, Sahara dry perhaps, the return of a bounty of fruit, windfalls in the orchard, just brief, a glimpse, a flash (the green ray perhaps, glimpsed over the still ocean), before the beer vanishes into legend.

And if we really think about it; if we really let ourselves think about the beer that we have just drunk, the beer that we have fallen in love with, this is the beer that brings the chimes of midnight closer with every sip (or slurp if you must), and every beer we devour and fall in love with must bring us closer to heaven. 

Monday 28 November 2011

Thursday 24 November 2011

What on earth is an Abbey Ale?

The Val De Sambre Brewery in Wallonia, whose tripel
on the sunny morning I visited in 2005 was rather gorgeous

What on God’s fairly decent earth is an Abbey Ale? I only ask as I am currently involved in revising the style guidelines for a major beer competition. And given the flux in which beer styles are involved — or maybe the stasis that they are fixed in — I think it’s a fairly decent question to be asked.

Abbey Ale? Leffe obviously, in the same way as we think of Guinness as an Irish Dry Stout or maybe Stella Artois as a, er, um, I don’t know…continental lager, macro lager, generic lager? Leffe is a beer, an Abbey Ale, sorry, that I was introduced to in the late 1980s and I rather enjoyed. Probably lapped up the candi sugar sweetness and the fat and flabby character of the alcohol (rather like a gut hanging above the belt as anything over 6% in those days was seen as rather risqué), and possibly the herbal flintiness and a sense that this beer might rather enjoy canoodling up to the pork steak and cream sauce that my mate reckoned was the bees knees in Brussels at the time. I also always enjoyed the Leffe Tripel whenever on holiday down in the southwest of France; there was a sense of the sweetness being held back, almost a very enjoyable dry chalkiness on the palate that made it a wow with fried chicken.

But then I have tried Leffe in the past couple of years and it’s reminded me of a childhood sweet that we used to call a Spangle — sweet, sweetingly sweet, yes the fatness of the alcohol is there, but there is a medicinal tang that I associate with the smell of one of the sprays that my rugby-playing teenage son dons before a match. It’s also a brittle sugar candy, seaside rock sort of nose, herbal I suppose, but not that pleasant. A default beer perhaps, like Staropramen (of which I had a half last night that reminded me of cider) or Guinness (here’s an interesting question — would I ever consider John Smith smoothflow as a default beer, of course not, I like beer but there are limits, it’s a bit like meat, I avoid McDonalds like the plague).

So I get back to the original question: what is an Abbey Ale? Is there such a thing? Trappist is an appellation — it covers dubbel and tripel and very strong dark beer. Abbey? It seems to be 5-6% (but then looking back at my notes I find Silly Brewery making a 9.5% one), sweetish, gold in colour with reddish hints, but then it could be a brighter gold or a darker gold. In one French brewery I was given one with rice in the mix, which gave it an almost ethereal lightness of touch, which didn’t work for me. So is it a marketing device? On the label the picture of a fat cheery monk or a sombre looking abbey and the promise of heaven in a bottle seems to be a popular device. Marketing then. That’s the way my thoughts are going. Which means that a lot of other beer styles could be seen as mere marketing devices. On the other hand, the story behind a beer is important. If you get too fundamentalist in an anti-styles fashion then we might all just live in the Repo Man universe where cans are entitled meat, fish, whatever: minimal and monochrome.

Maybe the idea of beer styles is a sort of poetical development — a need to categorise, like the need to paint or write in different ways and then codify it. And yet having said all this, I’m still not sure what an Abbey Ale is. Is there such a creature?

Thursday 17 November 2011

A pub is a pub is a pub

A pub is a pub is a pub. In the cellar bar I go, in the area around Prague Castle where tourists refugee themselves about during the day, but when the light went on Monday night and the mist came down like the proverbial wolf on a flock of sheep, it became quiet and mysterious. Magical Prague, footsteps on the cobbles, a shadow hurrying by on the other side of the street, the watery yellow light of a bar or a hotel. And so I came to U Hrocha — in English the Hippo. A cellar bar, or if you want a man cave with honorary women, smoke everywhere, the robust cuisine of Czech food (six men stabbing away at a big platter of pork in the centre of their table). Beer? PU on tap. Décor? Nicotine yellow paint, arched ceiling, stone. This is the pub as a hideaway or if you want a concert hall with the noise of people (men with the honorary women) enjoying themselves. Walk in, there are looks and then people carry on with the business of the very opposite of sensory deprivation: chew, slap, slash, eat, the men are eating, the women are eating, Svejk is eating. Beer in the glass, a glass full of beer, snow white soft foam on the top of the glass. Drink. A pub is a pub is a pub.  

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Camden Town Brewery

A scrap of paper in my hand is all I have as a memento of my visit to the Camden Town Brewery — and the significance of this scrap of paper is? I haven’t returned from somewhere promising peace in our time or waved it at the crowds waiting for me in Croydon airport (as was). On the other hand it has a small quorum of words that I jotted down as I went round Camden Town Brewery today, where the British Guild of Beer Writers held their committee meeting (committee man Mark Dredge also works here hence the invitation). A brief collection of scribbles, blue Biro ink, seasick in their rhythm. RAILWAY ARCHES (though I don’t normally  write in capitals, this is just for effect) — the first two words stretch themselves languorously like cats getting ready to move to another side of the sofa. Railway arches. There are five railway arches in which the brewery is located — glass, protractor shaped, a mirror image of the brick arch, stretches over the front of the brewery, while above in the station (Kentish Town West and overground, the idea of which seemed to bamboozle at least one committee member) the sounds from the trains are gentler and more restrained than you would expect if the brewery was further along the line. Light is let in rather than expelled, all the better to appreciate the gathering of stainless steel equipment in the space beneath the arches. The lager — halfway house between Helles and Pilsner we are told — has the clarity of gin, though is obviously of a different colour. Ooh look there’s a bitter lemon note on the nose, while the palate sways sexily beneath its bittersweet character. I like the characteristically Munchen bitter finish. Gorgeous and this is a beer that emerges into the world, heavy lidded and sultry with sleep after 28 days in the tank. As the meeting progresses, Mark tops up our glasses. The Wheat Beer is a sensation — banana custard, softness, friendliness, fatness from 5% alcohol, no cloves, but it’s definitely bring your dirndl time. Next up the stout, nitrogen giving it an espresso coloured head of foam; mellow roastiness, toast in the afternoon perhaps, milky mocha coffee, while there’s a controlled hint of herbal inspired sourness that emboldens the taste buds to bow down before this grand design. Finally, try the Pale Ale, which is immeasurably miles better than I have had before — almost carrying an erotic charge that only a whiff of the hopsack can give. Oh and we tasted a wit straight from the tank, which had been infused with lemons baked with bergamot oil. I’m in Bruges I sang, much to the consternation of other committee members, but they know what I meant. And you will do when it gets released.
NB I love the fact that there is a brewery in Camden Town. It is a special place for me. I worked there through the 1990s, drank there through the 1980s, saw the Clash for the fourth and final time at the Electric Ballroom, interviewed Alex Cox in an office above the cinema that used to be opposite the tube, drank with Shane McGowan in the Goth pub at the back of Sainsbury’s and tried to prise some quotes from him (without much success) and most importantly of all had my first date with the woman who became my wife in Bar Gansa just off the High Street. 

Friday 4 November 2011

The Liverpool Arms Conwy

You know when you’ve ignored a pub for years and then on a whim decide to go in and then you think: what have I been missing? That’s what happened to me recently on a visit to the Liverpool Arms in Conwy. It stands on the quay, several houses down from the Smallest House in Wales, compact, next to the town walls, a fixture of Conwy that I last went in with friends on a summer’s evening some 25 years ago. I’ve just ignored it. And then I was in Conwy on the occasion of the food festival the Conwy Feast (after buying lots of food I made a beeline for the beer tent run by local breweries Purple Moose, Great Orme, Nant and Conwy Brewery, whose California was truly excellent) and I remember that the former Bass head brewer Arthur Seddon told me the Draught Bass in the Arms was pretty good. So I went in. Inside: bare stone, dark black beams, red tiled floor and a small bar in a corner. Two cask beers: Draught Bass and Brains SA. There was a weather beaten sense to the interior and naturally there was plenty of nautical memorabilia. It was dark and comfortable and the sort of place where you could imagine coal fires in the winter when the tourists no longer come. The Draught Bass had a formidable Burton Snatch on the nose and danced its way down my throat. Even though the quay was heaving with people who didn’t seem to have a very good idea of navigation, this felt very much like a locals pub. I felt a sense of settling into the landscape, of slipping into the shadows of pub life, watching people come and go (some woman from Lancashire — or was it Cheshire? — moaning about something or other, a Jackdaw perusing his paper) and enjoying my beer before it was time to go out amongst the people once more. And then later on in the beer tent I meet up with an old mate with whom I used to work on the deckchairs on Llandudno prom — ‘the Liverpool? Great pub, I go there with my dad at least once a week.’ What have I been missing? 

Thursday 3 November 2011

Beers I have been recently sent

Beer, I get sent to me, for consideration, or sometimes if I can’t get to try the beer for a feature, I ask the brewery if they could send me a sample. I trust the brewery; the beer, 90% of the time, is delightful — I’m certainly not a guy who likes every beer. But the result of this is that I have a swathe of tasting notes that I feel I should share, they’re not all in features or books and sometimes they’re so good or intriguing that I would like to share them, hence this post. So bear with me on this.

Dark gold in colour; on the nose a ripe peach skin that has been sitting in the sun for too long; it reminds me of some of the erotic charge that the hop sack brings; there’s also a hint of the snappiness of green apple plus the soft sensual felt-like texture of honey. On the palate there’s honeyed peach skin, a softness of fruitiness (papaya, some lychee and orange skin where the thumb has made the spray come out) and a floral honeyed note that makes me think of honey slathered on fresh white bread — a breakfast beer then. It’s a ripe and voluptuous beer, expressive, yearning, a minor key in a chorus, but then the finish adds a sense of bitter betrayal, crisp, dry, chewy before the fruit and honey returns to take a more mellow bow.

Scrounged a couple of bottles of this from Zak Avery. The nose was sherbet–like (it reminds me of a fascination I have always had with the Arabian sherbet, a soft drink I suspect I would enjoy) with a spray of grapefruit pith; sweet lemon without sweetness. It’s a big beer when taken from the glass — dry lemon, dusty grapefruit, a lack in sweetness, almost medicinal, an expression of the Saaz — it also made me wonder about imperial Pilsner, whether they are experiments or gimmicks or an organic expansion of the genre (see a comment from Doug Odell about his sour Pilsner here). There’s a big lemon sourness that is different from the flinty lemon sourness you would get in a saison. I was not entirely sure about the beer — I don’t know that the use of shedloads of Saaz works. Maybe an imperial Pilsner is an angel with a dirty face.

Don’t know much about these guys, they’re trying to establish themselves in the UK, and in my limited knowledge of where they are — Delaware — I assume that the Alt style of this beer is quite a common thing (vague memories of 1001 Beers’ beers from this part of the world intrude). Unlike Cyrano the nose is not big but there is a spicy pepperiness on the palate, plus a hint of green apple, some crisp ryebread, and the feel of an oily texture. For me this is a typical American interpretation of an Altbier though I think Otter Creek’s is one of the best (that is called Copper Ale, who got there first I wonder?). There is a dry, crisp, cereal-like chewy finish. It’s both chewy and refreshing, sweetish but also with a hint of white pepper; fruit pastilles perhaps in the background; digestive biscuit with a dusting of chocolate. There is also a traditional American hop — which delivers some grapefruit notes. I like this one a lot. Toffee notes came along cap in hand as it warmed up.

First thoughts: this beer owes more to Bavaria than Bohemia, with its snappy bitterness and lacking that voluptuousness that I would expect from a 12˚ Svetly Lezak — a crisp bitter lemon-tinged carbonation but again that high bitter note. It tingles away on the palate, rings away, like a tram clanging its way through some central European city. The carbonation offers a delightful bite of refreshment, a gorgeously crisp and appetizingly bitter mouthfeel that I want to experience more of — I had mine with freshly made spring rolls where the carbonation briefly swabbed the decks of the palate clean allowing the refreshment of the beer to emerge, five spice powder and chilli and all, before the spring rolls asserted their spiciness. It cut through the grease, faced up to the spice, but allowed the spice to have its own moment in the spotlight (I don’t want the chilli to vanish, I wanted chilli to have its own identity, but I didn’t want my mouth to become a gastronomic battle of Stalingrad). On its own, a superb riff on a Bavarian but also a cool fit with a vegetable spring and chilli.

Monday 31 October 2011

Beer vs wine at the Thatchers Arms last Friday

So there we were on Friday night, wine in the ring with beer. An affray at the dining table perhaps: five courses, each one striding to the table like a wanna-be champ, a glass of wine and a glass of beer on each side, trainers of gastronomic ability, jabbing the air, feeling the mood, supremely confident. In the wine corner Tim Atkin, Master of Wine, author and journalist and the wine guy on Saturday Kitchen; I’m in the beer corner. The venue: the wonderful Thatchers Arms, in the middle of the north Essex countryside, a delightful centre of good food and drink (especially beer), whose young landlord Mitch had organised the bout (and let’s not forget the Don King of beer evangelicalism, Hardknott Dave Bailey, the man who set up the whole Twitter campaign that led to this evening). Fresh from winning an award at SIBA, Dave was there with Hardknott Ann, along with a glove puppet who used to be big on British TV until his star waned and he was replaced by Bob the Builder and a myriad other fantasies of the middle aged.

Enough of conflict metaphors. It’s wasn’t a battle, it wasn’t a war, it wasn’t even a fight. It was an attempt to celebrate good food, good wine and — above all from my point of view, good beer. I’ve not met Tim before and I thought him a great guy — he drinks beer as well as wine and there was none of the closed mind syndrome that I have occasionally come across with wine drinkers (admittedly of the more elderly, snobbish variety). 

First up was a carpaccio of venison loin with beetroot and port and mustard vinaigrette — I chose Duchesse de Bourgogne, banking on the sour-sweet character of the beer to lift the flavour of the venison, the sourness interact with the vinaigrette and the earthiness of the beetroot. Tim chose a 2008 Casa Riva Carmenere Gran Reserva from Chile, a good red wine I seem to recall. The winner, as voted by the audience, was beer. Phew, at least I would win one round. Then we had home smoked mackerel fillet with pickled samphire and lemon dressing. I choose Adnams Explorer, though I had toyed with Pilsner Urquell — I wanted a higher level of carbonation to cut through the oiliness of the fish, but also a firm tropical fruit sweetness to counteract with what I thought would be both the salt on the fish and the brininess of the samphire. I wasn’t sure about this match, the mackerel was more smoky than I had imagined, it was delicious but I felt that the Explorer got a bit lost. Then things perked up in my mouth and the beer seemed to act like a complement to the dish, an extra ingredient. Tim chose a 2010 Telmo Rodriguez Gaba do Xil from Spain, honeyed and apple-like — the two of us had chosen similarly fruity drinks. Again beer won, though there was a sting in the tale to come.

Third course was a Sri Lankan red chicken curry with cardamon rice — IPA you might think, but I went for Schneider Weiss, thinking of carbonation cutting through the heat, and the banana and clovey notes adding their own spiciness to the dish. Tim chose a 2008 Cape Barren Estate Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre from south Australia. Beer won again and it felt like half time during an Arsenal match with the game in the bag and as a Gooner I know what that means… Mitch announced a recount of the votes for the second course, there had been a mistake and wine had actually won. So now it was 2-1. 

The four course was a lemon tart with raspberry coulis and sadly Adnams’ Sole Bay was trumped by the Moscato d’Asti from Italy that just added another dimension to the dessert (even the Hardknotters agreed on this) Sole Bay is a lovely beer and we were very lucky to have some as I don’t think there is much left in the country. So that was 2-2 and the chocolates were brought on. I had originally thought of Leifmans Cuvee Brut for this finale, but for some reason, disregarding all my normal doubts about matching dark beer with chocolate, I went for Ola Dubh in a 12 year old Highland Park cask. Lovely beer but the chocolate effectively overwhelmed the notes of tobacco box, coffee, vanilla and oak that the beer has, leaving only the bitterness to stand there as naked as the Emperor with no clothes. Tim chose a Lustau San Emilion PX sherry from the Jerez region — I found it too oily and sweet, a torrent of sweetness bursting through the banks of perception and drowning the chocolate. The result, after a show of hands, was a draw for this dish, which I reckon was a good result for the dinner all round. I do believe that that the Cuvee Brut would have stormed away but on the other hand there was a conviviality about the dinner that was light ages away from the recent storms that have beset the world of beer communications. As wine writer Fiona Beckett noted on her twitter feed after the result went out, ‘good result which reflects the truth that neither beer or wine is better, just different ;-)’

Neither Tim nor myself were paid for the evening, and the drinks were provided by Adnams and Slurp, while local food producers also helped. The night raised £550 for Amnesty (Tim’s chosen charity) and Help for Heroes (my chosen one).

Sunday 30 October 2011

World Beer Awards 2011 results

Like most beer writers and beer bloggers I do my stint as a judge — the first time being at the White Horse in 2000 for the Beauty of Hops competition (or was it the fish and chips and beer one?). Bit overawed at the time to be in the company of the likes of Mark Dorber, Roger Protz and Oz Clarke and then sitting next to Michael Jackson and discussing beers with him (I recall him saying something along the lines of that he’d never correctly identified a beer when blind judging — suspect that was to put me at my ease, especially as I’d held up a beer and mused on whether it was Landlord). Since then, many competitions later (but never the GBBF, not sure I would like it, too early a start and the same goes for GABF though I was tempted to apply after 1001 Beers), I get a paid gig as the chief European judge for the World Beer Awards (Roger Protz is overall chief judge, while Stan Hieronymus is the US boss and Bryan Harrell does the same over in Japan). The judging panel includes the likes of Jeff Evans (himself consiglieri for the IBC awards and the only judge who drank his whole measure of Utopias, which made for an entertaining journey back to London from Norwich), Ron Pattinson, Melissa Cole and a variety of brewers. We had three rounds, two of which covered just European beers, while the final one also featured the American and Asian/Australasian beers picked elsewhere around the globe. 

So what happens? The beers are submitted in bottle and yes breweries pay to enter and they are sifted into a variety of style categories, which I gladly admit do need clarifying (which we will be sorting out in December). A lot of good breweries enter and there are some surprising results (the Mongolian Pilsner Borgio was truly good), so if you want to look at the awards in their full entirety then go here. Best beers in the world? Why not? There’s a pretty experienced judging panel blending brewing professionals, experienced writers who’ve been around the block several times and new kids on the blog (like I was all those years ago). There was debate, questions, clarifications and some brilliant beers — the winners are a snapshot of what we tried at the time and I can honestly say that Weihenstephaner’s Vitus is a glorious drop of beer.

Friday 28 October 2011

The Three Tuns in Bristol

Three Tuns Bristol. Good little pub this, belongs to Arbor Ales, good brewery, coming up with some excellent beers, one of which I had last week in the Red Lion in Cricklade, good pub that as well, frontage festooned with hanging baskets, that’s what you get for being in a town that wins Britain in Bloom. Back to Bristol though, great city for drinking at the moment, good breweries in the shape of Arbor, BBF and Bath Ales (confusing that they are called Bath but based in Bristol, think there might be a case for pedants to raise merry hell). Back to the Three Tuns though, you can read what I think about it in Saturday’s DT or just go straight to the link here. Cheers. 

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Beer vs wine at the Thatchers Arms this Friday

Good grub but it’ll be a bit more sophisticated this Friday

For me beer and food matching is about the occasion when beer intensifies the flavour of the food, adds something to it or alternatively when the ingredients in the dish lift the beer skywards and reveal an hitherto unknown dimension. Or it could be when the two of them collide and come up with something totally new — a gastronomic particle accelerator.

Harmony: it’s akin to the moment when the woodwind, the strings and the brass all come together in one grand symphonic hug, perhaps during Schubert’s ninth symphony or a great shambling moment in Elgar’s Bach Fantasia when all seems lost, when all seems chaos, but as the instruments all seemingly topple over order asserts itself and all is harmony — or maybe I could point you in the direction of Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain who were good at that sort of beer and food matching, as was the sound I once heard when crossing Waterloo bridge and the sound of a helicopter flying over dovetailed beautifully with the rat-a-tat bludgeoning of jack hammers on the South Bank.

For me then it’s about bringing flavours together and getting on with each other — and it doesn’t always happen in beer and food. I made moules marinières once with Pedigree and the long boil gave a harsh bitter note to the broth; cheese — artisanal Cheshire — as I found out the other night, with a Czech Svetly Lezak does not work, the dairy fats seem to separate and become hideous individuals — or Dairylea at the very least.

It’s not rocket science, it’s not the black arts — it’s trial and experiment, punk rock, Sebastian Junger hitting the dirt in a hole in Afghanistan, your favourite jeans, frayed and frowning at the damage that time has done. It’s beer and food. 

All this is just a preamble to the food vs beer event I am co-hosting with Saturday Kitchen’s Tim Atkin on Friday night at the Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures, Essex. There are a few tickets left so if you want come along then call landlord Mitch on 01787 227460 — it’s also all for charity, we’re all giving our services free, while the beers and wine are being donated by Slurp Beer and Adnams. And as something to whet your appetite here’s the menu with the chosen beers.

Carpaccio of Venison Loin & Beetroot with a Port & Mustard Vinaigrette 
Duchesse de Bourgogne 

Home Smoked Mackerel Fillet with Pickled Samphire & Lemon Dressing 
Adnams Explorer (though I did toy with Pilsner Urquell)

Delicate Sri Lankan Red Chicken Curry with Cumin, Chilli, Ginger, Tomato, Black Mustard Seeds Cardamom Rice & Poppadums (medium hot)
Schneider Weisse

Lemon Tart with Raspberry Coulis
Adnams Sole Bay

Homemade Dark Chocolate Petit Fours
Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 Year Reserve

Friday 21 October 2011

Great British Pubs — I awake up and realise I have a book to promote

I write for a living, sometimes edit, have produced magazines, but these days it’s mainly writing and researching for articles that fill my days (though I still enjoy sub-editing, there’s nothing like roasting an inept writer’s words Flashman-like in front of a roaring coal fire as I rediscovered during the editing of 1001 Beers To Rule The World With Before You Die — no names I’m afraid). Writing books is part of the job.

The latest one is out at the end of the month — it’s called Great British Pubs and is published by CAMRA Books. Coffee table book for the recession perhaps, nice paper, not glossy though, colour pics, a chance to write, my take on pubs, mine alone, no other writers, an echo of George VI in the summer of 1940, something along the lines of thank heavens for no allies to pamper (I wonder if Garrett Oliver felt the same after a while?). Over 200 pubs get a page each and I’ve written 500 word profiles of each one, trying to see the pubs from a totally different angle than a guide book (yes the opening hours are there and the phone numbers but it’s a bit like a lot of my DT columns — I’ve tried to paint the colours of the pub).

For instance, the Dolphin in Plymouth name checks both TS Eliot (the women come and go…) and Beryl Cook (and would usually end up in a painting by her) — and in a marvellous piece of serendipity a group of Cookesque women bustled into her old local whilst I was sitting there one blustery Saturday afternoon. Is the Rake a fop or a garden implement? Cask is a room, but a room filled with many earthly delights. In Laxfield you can set your watch by the sight of the Kings Head’s locals emerging from their homes when the church clock opposite strikes six. The Bunch of Grapes has good grub, whilst the jalapeno omelette at the Anchor in Walberswick is an ideal breakfast start up. The Red Lion in Cricklade (where I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of Stroud Brewery’s Brewers Garden with a pea fritter and chips yesterday), the Pub in Leicester (Beckett-like in its minimalistic name), the Black Boy (see the stuffed baboon in his kilt), the Three Tuns (both in Bishops Castle and Bristol) all appear within these pages. You might not like every pub here but it’s an honest attempt to write about pubs in a way that tries to bring them to life and makes the reader want to wend their way there (and god knows they need the support, the pubs that is not the readers), whether it’s in search of a session at the Babbity Browser, an I-do-like-to-be-beside-the-seaside moment at the Lord Nelson or the Turf or just a canoodle with Sarah Hughes at the Beacon. It’s about beer and people, for as I have written in the introduction:

‘Beer is the currency with which we spend our time in these pubs, the rich seam of gold that makes British pubs such a valuable part of our national heritage. We are a beer nation, a beer country and we are part of the beer belt of northern Europe (the German speaking lands, the Czech lands, the Nordic countries, the Low Countries, even the northern part of France where beer always takes its rightful place on the table); we are the sons of John Barleycorn, who according to the old poem must die every harvest before being reborn in the following spring — the golden promise of resurrection.

‘People. Then there are the people as well, the people who tell stories (for what is the pub but a place where stories are told), the people that define the local neighbourhood, the people who make the jokes that lighten up the pub and lest we forget the people who serve behind the bar and keep the whole show on the road. The pub is a public house where people gather. Yes they gather to drink beer but they also gather to pass the time of day, to celebrate their good fortune, their marriages, their birthdays, a winning steak on the horses, to meet their friends, to remember their friends. I go to the pub to meet people and drink beer.’

It’s out on November 1 —so don’t forget: we are a beer nation.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Fly-fishing, beer and it

Perhaps one of the hardest things to talk about is cancer, or as I might prefer to call it — it. Currently, I know of at least two people who are living with it and also a couple who have had it. Ceri Keene is one of those who had it and one of the ways she dealt with it was going fly-fishing with a charity called South West Fishing for Life — this helped her a lot. I don’t fish, but I love fish and I love trout, and Ceri put out a cookbook called Fishing for Life, whose proceeds go to the charity. It’s a cracking little collection of recipes, from local chefs, the British Trout Association, friends of Keene, Keene herself and Tom Aitkens. It’s a good cause but the reason I wanted to write about the book (rather than it) was matching a beer with one of recipes — in this case potted spiced trout (one of Ceri’s recipes), which is wonderful with fresh bread from our local bakers in Dulverton — but when I made it on Sunday I thought of a couple of matches. First up: Kindl Berliner Weisse. Not the best of ideas. The beer was sweet and sour and worty and kept the chilli spice back for a while but then allowed it to rampage across my palate with the ferocity of a bad-tempered honey badger. The beer in general was a pale and pallid imitation of what I remembered, apricot ripeness hints, sweet fruit juice of the sort my son used to drink in the pub before he graduated to cola, and those damnable sweets called fruit sours. The best Berliner Weiss I have had recently is the one made by Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig (it was also Bretted) so I won’t be bothering with Kindl again. Next, I tried it with the more amenable Cantillon Iris, dry hopped, a fusion of grapefruit and orange — the beer seemed to add even more spice to the dish, though without losing its own indelible character. It was a good accompaniment to something that might be a bit tricky (mayo and trout oiliness, chilli spice, clarified butter on the top) — both the beer and dish seemed to have something to add to each other, which for me is what beer and food matching is about, whether it’s a juicy plate of sausages or a spoonful of caviar (Leipizger Gose I think). As for the book if it is something that interests you please do buy it and help a wonderful charity and get some great trout recipes. BTW did you know that there is a fishing fly called Summer Lightning? Just thought I would say. 

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Easy peaty, Suffolk Smoky

Oh look what the postman has brought today, a couple of bottles from St Peter’s, unasked for, unexpected, how nice of them. Haven’t had their beers for ages — went there in 2005 (or was it 06?), but was driving some members of the British Guild of Beer Writers around on a Suffolk visit, which was a pain as I really wanted to tuck into their Cream Stout. So let’s have a look: first opened there’s this appalling nose of lint, TCP, bandages; the Islay effect I suppose (never been fond of it myself, but then I don’t drink whisky). And then I think it’s like the sort of old canvas tent I used to sleep in when out on Snowdonia with mates (not that sharing tents with mates lasted that long after 10 pints and a curry). It’s got that whiff of the outdoors, the tent, the climbing boots, the age but also a sweetness that saves it from being too savage. On the palate it’s bready, smoky, peaty, phenolic, and seems to marry well with the cashew nuts I have been cooking for a curry. It then sits in the glass and gets as mellow as some Forties crooner on the pull, but still retaining its semi-edgy peaty, medicinal edge (a member of the nascent Rat Pack perhaps?); there’s a sweetness in the palate that I rather like. There’s also a this-side-of-good harsh bitter note in the background — on first tasting I did think that it might need more alcohol to give it a fatness and maybe some darker malt (it poured into the glass with a very light and translucent chestnut brown), but it’s improved. It’s got that right balance of a challenging start which is then followed by a more appealing sweet smokiness — the TCP is still here but for me it’s an easy, peaty kind of beer. Make of that what you will. 

Friday 14 October 2011

I ♥ beer

Monday afternoon in the pub. Sun shines on the passage of people in the street, rays reach me at the table at the end of the bar. Two men next to me, old friends I think, meeting up again after a while. Sharing a bottle of something from Mikkeller, ‘this is beer, beer without all the bullshit,’ says one. ‘The other declares, ‘it’s as strong as a glass of wine but it’s not rough and not Special Brew.’ They purr and pour praise on the beer from a great height. Treacle says one, port says the other. Another? And as I tune in and out, contemplating a glass of Hofbrau’s Munchen Oktoberfest (delighted with its strong bitter finish), I once again realise how much I love sitting quietly and studying beer, in Craft Beer Co, far away from all concerns about what beer is, who it is for, what round or square hole it falls into. I simply adore beer and all that comes with it — and Craft Beer Co is one of those great bars that I drink beer in, as you can read in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph here.