Monday 28 February 2011

Talking about beer near Wigan

I’ve never been to Wigan but next week I finally get the chance to visit. It’s the Wigan Food and Drink Festival (while the town’s CAMRA beer festival is on this weekend). However, the reason I’m following in George Orwell’s footsteps (no chamber pots under the bed thank you) is that on Thursday March 10 I’ll be riffing on the subject of beer, beer writing and lord knows what else (along with some beer in my hand) at the Derby Room, Turnpike Gallery in Leigh, which I’m reliably informed is a short discus throw from Wigan. It starts at 7.30pm and is sponsored by AllGates Brewery, three of whose beers I will be drinking, I mean tasting (I’ve entitled the evening 1001 Beers and all that). I’m rather excited that one of the beers is going to be AllGates Mad Monk, their take on an Imperial Russian Porter (in fact a barrel of it will be travelling through the Baltic later this year as part of Tim O’Rourke’s Great Baltic Adventure — details on this great adventure here) Tickets cost £5 (with a £2 discount for library members) and I’m told you can order them on 01942 404404. I’m looking forward to it so if you’re in the vicinity and fancy a couple of beers and a chance to ask me a question I cannot answer then do drop by.

Friday 25 February 2011

Harping on about The Harp in tomorrow’s Telegraph

The Harp is currently CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year and justifiably so — you can read my review in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph here. I love the place, and I recall visiting it last December on a dark and dingy afternoon prior to the British Guild of Beer Writers’ awards and dinner. Having just come in from three days in Leipzig and faced with a nerve-wracking Guild dinner, it was a great chill-out zone after several days traipsing around the magnificent city of Leipzig (and getting to thoroughly know Leipziger Gose), a hideaway from the storm to come, and also somewhere marvellous to divest myself of the noise and clatter of central London. Even though I knew I was going to enjoy the coming evening, part of me just wanted to stay there all evening and consider the beers on display. When that happens you know that it’s your sort of boozer — and I can’t wait to get there next time I’m in London. So if you’ve not been there and you’re in London this weekend (or even tonight), why not get down there and grab a Dark Star. To get you in the mood here are a couple of photos I took.  

Tuesday 22 February 2011

So there I am contemplating pub porn

So there I am sitting in the controlled hubbub of the lounge bar at the Vine in Brierley Hill, the brewery tap for Bathams. Saturday lunchtime, voices engaged, discussing the odds, dissecting this, deconstructing that and constructing an occasion of the other. Through a corridor, pale green tiles on both sides, Victoriana, waist high I remember, and to my right, turn right into the snug bar (a den of dark wood, framed photos and old newspaper cuttings, I’m conscious of intruding into a meeting of village elders), a pint of mild please, plus a cheese cob. Brummie voices: it takes time to tune the wavelength of the dialect into the English an anglophile Welshman like myself understands.

The pub has the feel of a house filled with various members of a family, all of who know and like and dislikes each other in equal measures. Parlour-like in the front lounge, my youthful memories return of visiting aged grandparents in cramped terraces where a lifetime’s collection of brasses or pictures or even pottery was on show — do people still have parlour-like parlours these days? Pub porn in a more modern vernacular. The Mild is marvellous, light, sprightly on the palate, creamy but also crisp, not a big assaulter of the palate but it’s lunchtime and I like it. I also love the pub’s exterior with its creamy colouring of an early 19th century building and the Shakespearian quote crossing its brow.

Later on, 50 miles or so north, the Bhurtpore Inn (above) at Aston, NE of Nantwich, SW of Whitchurch, drive-by village, redbrick terraced cottages sharing space with bungalows, big factory to the right on the way in (I’m in from the south). Opposite a black-and-white house with the date 1667 stamped on its forehead, done up and done over some many times with a variety of architectural botoxes that it looks like some pouty porn star who cannot believe she’s 40. On the other hand the Bhurtpore is light and airy, a long established village pub (late 19th century perhaps) that has had additions but the core of the bar seems to be very much of the now whilst holding onto its history.

I reckon there were several bars once, probably opened up in the great pub slaughters of the 1960s, but it remains the very model of a post-modern pub that majors in both beer and great food (12 cask beers, Budvar, Morvaka and an awesome bottled selection, great curries) without turning into some sort of tickers’ morgue. Saturday afternoon: quiet and reflective, a half of Summer Wine’s Heretic. The whispers of a couple of drinkers, but all the time the Bhurtpore awaits Saturday night’s febrile crowd. Can someone get on with developing a sci-fi gizmo that can get me going on an evening’s pub crawl that would stretch the whole country (beam me up Notty perhaps?).

Two pubs, two places, and two different communities — as I look through my notes, I’m in one of those reflective, slightly self-indulgent moods: what is beer writing? Is it in its purest sense writing about beer (ie tasting notes), or is it just a pier or jetty from which anyone with any interest in beer can push off and discover new lands. As I’m doing a spot of travel writing these days I would go for the latter description; sure sit at home and rate your beers without interacting with your fellow men and women but writing about beer is more than codifying and tabulating the liquid in your glass. It’s about the beer (of course), the pubs (most definite), the men and women who drink and brew the stuff, the breweries, the history, the country and customs. It’s also about spending a short bit of time in someone else’s pub, which is their community, their home, and gives them the all embracing sense of identity that a pub can only do (clubs and churches used to do that once). Pubs by their very nature are not cafes or restaurants; they — well the good ones — are part of the heart of a community, whether on a street corner, country road or suburban hub — they are also community centres and different countries in a sense that anyone, who fancies themselves the pub world’s Bruce Chatwin but cannot afford to travel around the world, should consider them as a much more valuable and affordable alternative. It’s about the beer, yes, but it’s also about the people.

Friday 11 February 2011

This band of brothers, this happy few

It’s the sort of thing you don’t see that often but when you do it’s something you know you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Doug Odell hesitantly, maybe even a bit nervous, opens a bottle of an imperial stout that’s been aged in oak with peaches, Brett added as well. We’re sitting around a low table in the hotel bar, late in the evening — Pete Brown and I the only non-brewers. Around the table, sitting casually, but all interested in what Doug has to offer, a selection of global head brewers: Vaclav Berka (Pilsner Urquell), Dimitri Staelens (Duvel), Geoff Larson (Alaskan Brewing), Ian Bearpark (Thwaites), Sean Franklin (Roosters) and Uwe Euchert (Menabrea) — heavyweight guys. The bottle goes round, a splash in the glass; a sip of beer, reminiscent of Malmsey or Madeira, rich and heady, a pleasing acidity. Would pair well with cheese perhaps. Murmurs of approval from the assembled brewers, Doug looks pleased. Now another, an experiment we are told, a cherry kriek — sour, fruity, complex. The brewers show their appreciation, questions asked, comments made, bouquets handed out. You may brew in Alaska, Pilsen, Lancashire or Flanders, but there’s a brotherhood, a sense of fraternity about the way these guys are sharing, sipping and contemplating a beer that they would probably never make.

This feeling that brewers are a band of brothers has been all too evident throughout the past couple of days that I have spent in Burton observing the comings and the goings of the judging process at the Brewing Industry International Awards. Hundreds of beers, in keg, bottle and cask, have been evaluated, discussed, argued over and agreed on amongst a group of brewers who come from different areas from all over the world, and brew all sorts of different beers. It’s been a valuable learning curve. 

Lion Nathan’s Bill Taylor (chairman of judges) — an affable Aussie — led an excellent tutored tasting for the press. Three beers: Hahn Premium (refreshing and bitter), Schneider Weiss (bring on the banana custard!) and Sierra Nevada’s blend of oak-aged Bigfoot, Pale and Celebration (chewy, spirituous and complex). He talked about the awards, how professional working brewers were the sole judges who assessed beers according to their commercial worth (how well it was made in whatever class it was entered — and it was scrupulous blind tasting). Would you recommend the beer to your friends, would you buy it? There were over 800 beers, across 32 classes of nine categories with beers divided into ABV bands in their category rather than beer styles. So for instance you got packaged small-pack beers (bottles or cans) divided into the international Lager Competition and the International Ale Competition; further division was by abv.

Watching the tables of judges working is to spy on intense discussion (though fisticuffs were visible by their absence) and a laser-like focus and concentration as the stewards scurried about with jugs of beer. On one table, Thornbridge’s Stefano was engaged in debating the merits of one beer, while elsewhere Sean Franklin seemed almost in a meditative state as he contemplated his drink. Later on I had a quick chat with Fuller’s John Keeling: ‘You get a lot of interesting people here who have a different perspective. It’s great because you’re widening the perspective on what beer is. It’s a good example of how the world is changing — it’s my first time and it’s intense all the time, but it’s good fun.’

And as for the backdrop, the National Brewery Centre was the ideal place, even though you’d think that they’d put leaflets for the place in the hotel in which we stayed (that’s a different subject on which Pete Brown might be saying something on soon). The judging came to an end sometime around Friday lunchtime and then the nominations were announced; and after that the centre is hosting an International Beer Festival, which if you’re in the area, I would recommend you visit. You might even spot a few brewers wondering around — buy them a drink I think they’ve deserved it. 

It’s a rubbish pic I know but it was late and I was tired — Doug is in the middle on the right left, between Vaclav and Dimitri

Thursday 10 February 2011

Of Burton and its unions

Now here’s somewhere I’ve never been before: the Burton Unions at Marston’s, a system of fermentation that was once common throughout the brewing industry but is now all on its lonesome, here at Marston’s in dear old Burton. Here we are, at ease a massive hall, a warehouse space, walking along a gantry and down below there they are. Long stainless steel troughs filled with a landscape of creamy, rocky-headed foam. Beer drips steadily from swan neck pipes into these troughs, a steady, constant tap tap tap of beer; it drips with the same measured rhythm that I imagine blood has on its journey through the body, the action of fermentation the heart that drives the blood. Down below the troughs, in unison, grouped together, massive oak barrels from where the beer rises up, driven to despair by the act of fermentation (there are 264 of them); meanwhile fruity estery, slightly sulphury aromas hang in the air, scraps of paper twisting and turning as they rise from a bonfire. Down below I note a man, scurrying about, checking this, checking that. There’s another man on another gantry, checking, checking, checking. The sound of an air conditioner, the just about audible tap tap tap of beer, an amazing space that I’d never been to before, Burton’s last unions. A pint of Pedigree please. 

And then out into the night into another space, more convivial, human, a beer dinner with the judges of the Brewing Industry International Awards, currently on show in Burton-upon-Trent, a competition 125 years old, a competition with over 800 beers being judged by judges from across the world — and at the end of the week you get a chance to try a lot of the beers at the International Festival of Beer being held at the National Brewing Centre. To observe, to watch, to see how they judge, that’s why I’m here, but to learn as well. Look there’s John Keeling from Fuller’s, James Clarke from Hook Norton and Doug Odell from Colorado. Stefano Cossi from Thornbridge is about somewhere as is Peter Eells (Tim Taylor), Geoff Larson (Alaska) and Dimitri Staelens (Moortgat). It’s a talent of judges and today is the second day of judging. I’m just off in a minute in the company of Pete Brown to see how they get on — I’ll be in touch. 

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Craft Keg Beer Festival — no one hurt

Yesterday and to Nottingham as part of the judging team in SIBA’s inaugural craft keg competition. Some good beers, some truly magnificent and a few indifferent chaps. Went back later to try a few more at the one night festival and favourites included Freedom PilsnerJaipur, Black Isle Organic Porter, West’s St Mungo, Munich Red and Hefeweizen — sniffing the Jaipur was like putting your nose in a massive hop sack, a wonderful experience that followed through on the palate. Some let downs as well — Kipling had a big biff of passion fruit on the nose, but little else, while Hambleton’s Nightmare was all butter toffee and mocha on the nose and thin roast water on the palate. Some greet the rumble of craft keg with uncontainable excitement, other fumble for their cross in the folds of their CAMRA-branded cassock, but relax it’s not going to be the new messiah, it’s just another method of dispensation and for one welcome it with wide open arms. Well done to SIBA in launching this competition as well (you can try the winners at the Canalhouse starting Thursday night), something that some of their members had been going on about for years. Now they’ve done it and it can only get better. A glass of beer is a glass of beer is a glass of beer, as Gertrude Stein once wrote before deciding that said sentence was too long and rose would be snappier. 

Saturday 5 February 2011

Coopers Tavern Burton

In the matter of months the Coopers Tavern in Burton-upon-Trent has become a firm favourite — a place where I would love to hang my metaphorical hat and contemplate the glory of beer and pubs. That moment will have to wait though, but you can read about it in today’s Daily Telegraph here — I’m in Burton next week for a couple of days during the Brewing Industry International Awards (by way of judging at the SIBA craft keg competition) so no doubt I’ll find my way to the Coopers for a spot of study. 

Friday 4 February 2011

The Session #48: Cask, Keg, Bottle or Can

For my money it’s what’s in the container that counts — Adnams Best Bitter or Otter Head in cask thank you very much, wouldn’t want it any other way, beers to study and contemplate; Fuller’s London Porter or Camden Brewery’s Pilsner, in keg if you don’t mind — espresso in a pint glass, crisp Pilsner from the right side of London. As for bottle, Hercule Stout, Kernel IPA for starters — two current favourites who can knock on my front door any time of the day; meanwhile cans mess with my head when they look like cans but then the fog clears when something as magnificently magisterial as Oscar Blues Ten Fidy pours out of the can like a dream. Simple really: the right container for the right moment is the call from this quarter of the British Isles. 

Thursday 3 February 2011

Dirty beer

You know how you listen to some early recording from an indie band and it’s rough and ready, dirty and grainy, but utterly compelling, an accomplishment of rude health, a two-fingered swagger — but then you hear the same band when they’ve been signed up to some major label, got models for girlfriends (even the drummer) and they’re polished and perfected, produced, revolution in a sweater, undoubtedly popular but not the same? I feel the same way about some indie beers — drinking Kernel’s IPA at the moment, it’s dirty and buzzy, peachy and pungent, oily and sexy, resiny, resonating and uttery compelling. I love it. Then I think of other IPAs, cleaned up, presentable, Phil Collins or Robbie Williams, ok, popular but just not the same. This cuts to the heart of all the dilemmas of anything that we aspire to like — beer, books, music, clothes, cheese, TV shows, all change as they become popular; however that doesn’t mean that I want to drink dirty all the time, but it does mean that I want that option, to drink deeply of a dirty, pungent, swaggering, roistering IPA that the majority of beer drinkers would turn their noses at. Gateways are all very well, but I would argue that beer needs the bad boys, the truculent types, the beers that challenge, the beers that hit the spot even though your palate’s saying ‘hold on I don’t get this’. That’s because it might then say: ‘chill out, I get it’. 

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Sharps not in this post…

…Instead I would just like to respectfully draw your attention to this little piece I have written about last week’s stint of brewing in the exceptional gracious surroundings of Otley Brewery in Pontypridd — it’s on the website Sabotage Times and can be seen here. I had a rather enjoyable time and look forward to trying the beer soon — oh I’ll put in a Sharps link then (smaller brewery bought up by large corporation shocker, see here) then it’s that I also brewed a beer with Stuart Howe about 14 months ago, a nifty little number called Winter Berry, which is when I first came across the excellence of crystal rye. Karaoke brewers of the world unite!

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Stella Artois this is not

A-ha! Thornbridge’s Italia Pilsner appears in the post — for me one of my favourite brewery’s long awaited cracks at the Pilsner style, something I recall asking Kelly Ryan about before he left for NZ, something I was really looking forward to, Thornbridge’s final frontier, to make a beer with time and cold maturation on its hand. And to make things even more exciting, brewed in cahoots with Birrificio Italiano, who make one of my favourite beers in the world — Tipopils. I’m not going to hang around for this fella so here goes — spritzy and cheeky in the mouth, it’s got a delicate lemoniness, almost reminiscent of lemon sherbert, an Epsom salts freshness, a gentle giant of a carbonation that reminds me of Augustiner with a lingering, long loving kiss of firm bitterness that at the end that needs to be fed by another gasp of beer. Is it to style (I say with next week’s Brewing Industry International Awards in mind, from which I shall be blogging) — who knows, who cares. What I do know though is that it’s a mighty brew, a new age Pilsner that shines with the bitter lemony character of Bavaria while mulling with the body and fatness of Bohemia. I must admit that I adore it.