Monday 31 January 2011

Rock star

Finally in bottle here it comes;, Monsieur Rock and all its works, the prodigy of Sharp’s Stuart Howe and Orval’s enigmatic brewmaster Jean-Marie Rock. I tried the wort on brewing day (here) and also had a mini-keg back in December, but at last here’s a bottle — on the nose the freshness of newly laundered clothes, but also a pungent, dirty, musky hop note that sends a tingle down the spine, then the ringing, singing, lightly sprightly note that’s nothing less than the mutant child of a reckless dalliance between grapefruit and pineapple. On the palate it’s fresh and light, a dainty tip-toe on the tongue in which I make out banana notes (esters?) and yet more blasts of greater grapefruit. Yum, then there’s the bitter finish, assertive but not harsh, accomplished and devilishly encouraging another swig from the glass. It’s 5.2% but I seem to recall it was going to be 4.5%, so I emailed Mr Howe, who replied post-haste: ‘The beer superattenuated owning to the vast amount of sucrose used. We could have cut it to 4.5% with some de aerated liquor but that would have thinned it out too much and that’s not how we roll.’ So there you, a fantastic beer that showcases the Saaz hop, a hop which amidst all the excitement about Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, Sorachi etc (and rightly so), still manages to float my boat. Next I would love to see a collaboration between Howe and say Kocour or Matuska or even more exciting Eric Toft at Schonram. Now that would be something to behold. 

Thursday 27 January 2011

Making beer

Lunchtime at Otley Brewery and I would hazard a guess that a similar scene to what is happening here might be seen and heard at hundreds of breweries up and down the land at the same time. The boil rolling to its natural end, an FV being made ready to welcome the new brew — washing, cleaning, waiting, washing, cleaning, waiting, the clanging of metal kegs, a ringing metallic sound as keystones are banged in, radio on (Radio 1 in this instance, what an education for a Radio 3 listener it is), the swish of water from a high-powered hose outside as a cask is dowsed and washed and made ready for its next journey. This is the hour when the labour of the day starts surging to its climax; the time when the 8.30am start spent discussing malt varieties and how they would work together comes to its glorious fruition. And then it’s here, the time, the FV is full, I get off the cask I was sitting on whilst watching the others work and the beer that I have collaborated on with Otley Brewery has gushed its way into the fermenting vessel, while the yeast stands by. Up the step I go, bucket in hand and into the FV goes a stream of liquid, ready to run amok amongst the innocent malt sugars all relaxing after their rigorous 90 minute boil. This all makes me think that although the making of beer on the outside is a mechanised process, what happens in miniature in the boil is where the magic, the transformative process, takes place; it’s almost as if there’s a big bang, the formation of a universe, the creation of planetary systems, all happening in the roiling, angry bull of the boil — and that’s all before fermentation has started, with its own sleight of hand, now you see me now you don’t brand of magic.

And the beer that I hope will emerge in a couple of weeks?

It’s a dark saison, for after all saison is one of those beer styles that are a moveable feast. No names yet, some ideas, but nothing set in stone. We used lager malt for the base with the rest of the grain bill being black malt, Munich malt, caragold and a pinch of crystal (plus of course some wheat for head retention). Hops are Goldings for bittering, while I plumped for Sorachi Ace and Columbus for the late hops; black pepper and Curacao orange were also added. The intention was to make a dark beer that wouldn’t have roasted notes (we drank Steel City’s black IPA Shadowplay at the magnificent Bunch of Grapes on the previous night for inspiration on how to avoid that very thing) and having tasted the wort I think we might have succeeded. Now it’s up to the yeast, a Weisse one, to do its work. I look forward to trying it and will be posting regular updates on the beer’s progress.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Is this a Brains pub?

Is this a Brains’ pub? The City Arms. The barman nods. In name only says the chap at the bar as he looks through the mullion-paned windows at Gate 3 of the Millennium Stadium. I was going to a match at Arms Park in the 70s, he continues, bumped into Stanley Baker with a trilby on his head, bit of a tough nut he was, he’d had a few as well, he was off to the rugby. Wish I’d had a camera. He died a couple of years later from lung cancer. Do you like what they’ve done here I ask? Not bad comes the reply. But is it a Brains pub? 

Oh yes there’s Brains Dark, SA and Bitter, but there’s also Marble Best (grapefruit star crossed with tangerine, mouth-catching bitterness that clangs away like a demented bell-ringer), Abbey Vale’s Resolution and Otley’s O5, plus others (14 cask in all). Taps and bottles also proliferate. The interior is honey-coloured distressed wood, while remembrance is the theme of d├ęcor: sepia-toned prints of yesteryear, old gents, old teams, old towns, rugby, beer and a label of the year award for 1989 for a Brains commemorative beer. This has only been open in this guise for several months, but I like — I’m not sure that the old boy nursing a half of SA does.

I wish I could stay longer but I’m off to Pontypridd prior to brewing with the Otley boys tomorrow (with BAD on tour in Aberdeen this is obviously the week for karaoke brewing). As beer bars start to emerge in all sorts of places (I hesitate to use the word grow, there will always be a pedantic desire for the statistical basis for the word grow and I don’t have it), the City Arms is a refreshing, warm and civilised celebration of beer, and rather brave of the brewery. Yes, this is a Brains pub.

Friday 21 January 2011

I’m not having what the rabbit is having

As seen on the wall at the back of the bar in ’t Poatersgat, a conspiratorial, subterranean, twilit sort of place where Boon’s Marriage Parfait (2006 vintage) was perhaps the best beer I have had so far this year (the Taras Boulba was pretty good as well — fresh and fragrant, bottles in the UK seem to be rather tired); I should have bought a bottle for the rabbit and saved his life, but then on the other hand he went well with prunes and a Bruges Zot sauce. 

Thursday 20 January 2011

Smoking in pubs: what I’d forgotten

The smoke stings, carcinogenic, poisonous, clingy, a weak-willed, watery eyed individual choice, lasts and lasts and an hour later it remains writhing on my jacket and in my skin. My choice entirely: a bar at Brussels station, looked roughish, hostel types hanging around, smoking, playing pinball, one chap drinking coffee, a fractured glass window part of the appeal, nostalgia de la boue, an antidote to the chain of food shops, four beers, Palm was one but Alken-Maes did for me, fresh and tangy, a small glass of, you can stick Jupiler and Stella — if I have to have a macro (mock?)-Pilsner to start the day with then M-A will do for me. Hours on, the smoke, the poison, the carcinogenic howl, the perverted science, all cling, hold on, clamber aboard, terrorists hijacking a train replete with nuclear waste. I’d forgotten the rigours of smoke-filled pubs, time spent in Belgium is time well spent being reminded of these rigours. Do I want them back? No.  

Wednesday 19 January 2011

The Bristol Post

Oh here it is, down an alley, past the law courts where there’s a guy from the telly news doing a report to camera on some item, look it’s here, tucked away opposite an old church — St Thomas the Martyr, a martyr to what? — of which the city seems to have loads. Save on buses and steer yourself round Bristol by spire, make sure you know which one is which and off you go. 

In through the door, the Seven Stars it is, distressed, carefully worn interior, a row of beers, West Country provenance. A bleary eyed chap, no time to shave, more important things to mind, comes in and asks for a Tally Ho, Palmers’ strong ale, dark chestnut brown, digestive biscuit sweetness, hazelnut firmness, tingle of orange — 5.5% at midday, he is some dedicated toper though I guess you would call him something else if you drank like him. 

Another man grabs a pint and stands at the fruit machine, feeding coins, feeding his addiction, a daily encounter with chance that never gets any better. A glass of Butcombe’s Old Vic dark ale for me thank you very much, smoky, roasty and a light dusting of juicy citrusiness. Another? Or do I join our pal with the Tally Ho? I’ll return to the Old Vic. The man with the Tally Ho sits at the bar, ruminates, looks at his wristwatch, takes a sip from the glass and looks at his wristwatch once more. I’m waiting for someone his movements seem to say, I don’t normally engage in such non-session aleing at this time of the day. Oh why not? Says another invisible voice, the air is full of voices, drinkers, past, present and future, for what is a pub but a chamber of lost sound? 

Time for another place. The Three Tuns. Ten minutes stroll, near the cathedral, on a corner, a onetime boozer now done up by Arbor Ales, gastro smartness without the pretension, wood, wood, wood, the modern pub’s equivalent of flock wallpaper, landlord’s trinkets and a row of mugs over the bar, though this has beer on the menu, both ale and bottles from BrewDog, Anchor and Guldenberg, though it’s a glass of Arbor’s Oyster Stout for me, and as if to confirm the theme of dark ales that seems to be developing, next up is Bristol Beer Factory’s Bristol Stout, dispensed through a keg tap, though I’m informed it’s unfiltered and cask, rather delicious, creamy and smoky, a nice little number for a 4% beer. A dog bowl by the fireplace gets knocked over, no big deal, some water on the floor, outside students from the next door sixth form college pass by, is that a hint of wistfulness on the face of one of them, eager to start his pub-going experience? 

Here I go again, another pub to visit, one with a difference, Zero Degrees, maximum anticipation. Up and down Bristol’s roads, a perambulation taking in old pubs, a sign of the city’s brewing past on a group of flats with the name Georges etched in stone, a bright red Ushers ceramic plaque elsewhere, while there’s cider on the go at The Apple, a barge/bar, though I’ll leave that to the cider drinkers, a clan from which I am becoming retina-like detached. 

Zero Degrees. Zero Degrees. Up a flight of steps that remind me of the ones down which a baby’s pram tumbled in the Battleship Potemkin, a scene faithfully reproduced in De Palma’s Untouchables, close to the Colston Yard where Smiles once brewed, modern stainless steel, space, air, light, have you been here before at the bar, try these samplers, the wheat beer is Bavarian style and has banana notes correct and ship shape on the nose, while the Pale Ale is aromatic, lychee like in its fruitiness (juicy, elegant, grown-up, thirst quenching) and sterling in its bitter finish; the Dark Lager is a creamy, coffee-like confection that drapes itself across my palate like some model doing a luxurious photo shoot (Scarlett Johansen in a glass anyone?). 

I’ll have the Pale Ale, pizza with anchovies as an accompaniment, perfect pitch, the harmony of beer and food matching; I don’t need much more than this. The bar is open, modernist, stark, and naked with the brewery at the back, pipes coming straight from the conditioning tanks, plus a view over an older part of Bristol (those spires again). Brewer Chris comes over for a chat and I try the Pilsner, an uplifting waft of a flower shop in full bloom, calm gentle carbonation that puts me in mind of Augustiner, softness of newly baked bread, not long out of the oven, and a crisp bittersweet finish, more please, but it’s time for a train, steering by spire once more, farewell to Bristol for now. 

Wednesday 12 January 2011


Dib dib dob. I used to be in the cubs when I was a kid. Dive dive dive. Then I was an air cadet (and broke the flight simulator — ‘look lads I’m a Stuka’). Die die die. Later years has seen me become a member of  several societies and clubs, mainly archaeological and historical, though most active members have 20/30 years or more on me. Yum yum yum. A bottle of Meantime’s wood-aged Imperial Russian Stout comes through the door, the first release from Meantime’s College Beer Club, and I’m tempted into club life once more. I yield to no one in my admiration for Alastair Hook’s brewing ability as well as his foresight in spending the last 10 years or more making Meantime such a fabulous part of the London brewing high-life (though I do wish I could get their beer in somewhere like Exeter, you go past some bar with all these stainless steel fonts, and you think, maybe, just maybe, Meantime IPA but through the doors you go and you’re face to face with the farce that is Northamptonshire San Miguel); what is more intriguing is that they’re a regional/family sized brewery that hasn’t gone down the cask beer route (though they do produce both cask and bottle conditioned beers). Being a member of the club is not cheap, £350 a year and I’m not sure if you can do a monthly direct debit, but it’s a brilliant way of engaging with beer connoisseurs as well as allowing Meantime’s brewers to go wild outside the constraints of their daily trade (ok I got a bottle but I haven’t got a free membership or anything like that). The deal? You get two 750ml beers a month, especially brewed, all sorts of styles, it’s a bit like the old Michael Jackson beer club — I always remember thinking of joining but it was only in the States. The Stout is 13.4%, has had 10 months in an old rum cask, and according to the label will last at least 12 years (I would hazard a guess that it will last much longer) — I’ve introduced it to Sharps’ DW and Adnams Sole Bay and told them to show it the ropes. Naturally, the idea of a club is elitist (see recent rumblings on the topic in the beer blogosphere here) and the cost is prohibitive but why shouldn’t beer have this sort of high value? Meantime make good beer and the siren call of the Imperial Russian Stout will keen out to me every time I enter. It will stand on the shelf, baring its backside to the huddle of Fuller’s Vintages or casually dropping nutshells on the Thomas Hardys, and I’m worried it might get in a fight with BrewDog’s Tokyo. People pay a mint for rare books, executive boxes at the Emirates (though after tonight’s appalling display I’d want my money back), small batch cheeses from producers high up in some hill in northern Italy and a ham from a pig that has been fed on chestnuts and lord knows what, so why not with beer? To anyone who suggests that this is elitist nonsense, to be honest, I don’t give a monkeys — my slogan is a variation on the old SWP one that I recall from the early 1980s: neither hair-shirt nor vulgar opulence. The Meantime College Beer Club is currently my idea of beery happiness (now where’s my son’s piggy bank?).

Monday 10 January 2011

Why age beer?

Someone said to me, why age beer, why store it? It’s to be drunk. It’s not wine or port. It’s beer. The daily dose of alcoholic cheer. Put beer in the dark and what’s it got to hide, continued the conversation, as if I were guilty of burying some personal, potentially injurious secret in the darkest and deepest recess of my mind. Psychological hoodooism. Freud or Jung? Why age beer?

In the face of such ignorance I can but laugh: why age beer? Fuller’s Vintage Ale. Lees Harvest. Cooper’s Vintage. Orval. All these boys have embedded themselves in the mockery of dampness that I have christened with the name cellar. Pride of place goes to: Thomas Hardy, of which there are perhaps a dozen, with the oldest going back to 1993 (bought in Safeway of all places). I also got hold of a case of the 1998 vintage when James was born — with a bit of luck he’ll give them back to me when he hits 18. I don’t think they’ll be his style. 

So why age beer? I think the 2005 Thomas Hardy I tried the other day gave a good answer. It was magnificent, a ricochet of flavours about the palate, here some boozy currants, there almond paste, over there a rich orange Grand Marnier sweetness — all held together by the sort of balance that would be the envy of any yoga teacher. On the nose it starts off with burnt toast acridness, but before you can call 999 it’s tamped down by a sweet-sourness in the background, and then there are blackcurrants steeped in alcohol and an almond paste like calmness that is reminiscent of the sea after a storm. More fun on the palate: richness, light port sweetness, fiery alcohol, fruit cake, candy sugar, hints of brandy and that aforementioned grand old man of orange liqueurness. Its warm and spirituous, in the manner of a friendly hug (from Brian Blessed perhaps?) and the finish chimes away at the back of the throat like the bells of Notre-Dame announcing victory in Europe. It’s a substantial beer, big and bold, but venerable and capable of improving with even more age. I’ve got one 2005 left. So why age beer? 

Thursday 6 January 2011

Schooner schooner schooner schooner

Writing about other blogs can become a self-referential circle of self-congratulation or self-immolation (take your pick and it’s of course entirely the views of myself), but I’m amused about the schooner stuff which has been covered here, here and here. Like the writers I think it’s a positive move, a contemporary take on beer glassware that — lord of lords — has been proposed by the government (aided and abetted of course by those stirling folk at BrewDog); this sort of take on glassware (as opposed to gimmick glassware for women, ‘young folk’ and whoever else the brewing industry has decided needs to be herded into a segment entitled ‘new beer drinkers’) is something that I’ve heard discussed on and off in beer writing circles for years. The half pint, especially when it’s dimpled or the mini nonic, is a paltry thing of such ugliness that you might as well drink out of a thimble, while the pint, as rightly observed, can be too much if you’ve got some St Petersburg or Dark Star’s Tripel on the go (though some of us do soldier on manfully sometimes). So well done for the introduction of the schooner (which according to Michael Jackson in the English Pub was a term occasionally used by northern drinkers to describe their glass). One thing puzzles me: I’ve yet to see anyone writing about the death of the pint (or the dearth even) — maybe it’s just a letter in the Daily Express that has been expanded to become a massive media myth, a case of dragons needed to be slain.  

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Your shout?

In the pub, at the bar, with a crowd? Then opt out of the round if you agree with Richard Thaler, government advisor from Chicago University — or at least set up a tab if there are more than three of you. Binge drinking can be knocked on the head, dealt a deadly blow, pierced through the heart and its vitals, he says here, if only Brits at the bar will stop buying rounds. I think they last tried this approach during the First World War, when it was called ‘treating’ (or was that just for soldiers?). It was part of the attempt to get munitions workers on the straight and narrow (along with the introduction of dear old DORA and various other things). Hey ho. Buying a round is part of the conviviality and sociability of the pub, one of the ways we express ourselves with friends and colleagues — and if you don’t want to be part of it you just say no, which is a fairly easy thing. No rounds were certainly being bought in a pub in a Devon village, on a day before Christmas, as I alone, at a table in a corner, contemplating a mid-afternoon Otter on the way home, saw a bloke who used to booze a lot around here. Never cared for him that much. Solitary at the bar, shoulders slumped over his glass of Smooth, the classic image of the drinking loser, he woke up and gained some composure when an acquaintance parked himself unsteadily onto the next stool. Words emerged and I tuned in and out, as you do, sometimes hearing whole sentences, other times just fragments — the music of pub life. The pub’s too expensive…you can get cans from the supermarket a quid each…sit home in front of the telly…as much as you like (no rounds then)…in the warmth…on your own. I heard riffs on this theme several times over Christmas (and even earlier this evening in the Co-op) so it’s full steam ahead for the good ship Titanic as some might want to call the pub industry, but on the other hand in the pub over the holiday I also witnessed and heard different things: a Smooth Tetley regular switching to Otter Amber and a chat with a local drinker in his mid-20s who said he was getting bored with his Carlsberg and switching over to cask beer more and more. You win some, you lose some, which is how I guess it’s always going to be.