Saturday 30 April 2011

Hand it to Falmouth

Small bar, darkish, in the brewery yard (right location then), in the corner, off the sunny road that flies through the sunny site of Falmouth — I’m doing a beer tasting. A couple of moths ago I was asked if I would like to do a tasting of Otley’s beers at the Hand Bar in Falmouth, a place the mighty titan (or should that be Titian?) of brewing Stuart Howe had told me about. He had been there some time before and so I felt I had a hard road to follow.

I like Falmouth. I like Falmouth, love its maritime museum as well as the feel of its high street that hasn’t been colonised by the sort of shops that the majority of people seem to love (but then that’s their choice — if you like Tesco then you like Tesco and Tesco likes you, why worry about it). Old shops, sweet shops, chips shops, clothes shops, the sort of shops that folk in Bristol apparently take to the street to defend (though whether they’re defending shops or something else is up to debate). I like Falmouth.

There’s a great relic of a pub out there. The Seven Stars is a study in pubs, an Austro Hungarian survivor of a pub that I immediately fell in love with. It’s decrepit; so what does that mean? The Bass comes from the barrel and is magnificent; other beers come from the barrel, from Sharps and Skinners. The interior peels. The bloke to my left burps as I take a pic. Don’t worry about it I say I’m not recording, said with that sort of jocular ‘hey I’m just like you’ middle class voice. I don’t care comes back. There are always moments like this when I feel like a tourist. But then I don’t care either. I love pubs and a windy guy isn’t going to get in my way. The Seven Stars is cracking in the sense that it’s visibly falling to bits but also perhaps one of the most authentically earthy pubs I have ever been to. People on benches outside cackle as I take a photo...

Then onto Hand, magnificent in its compact space in an old brewery yard (W & EC Carne, set up in the second half of the 19th century, where wine, corn and rope would be jostling for space with barrels of beer; if that wasn’t enough they were also shipbrokers; in 1921, JA Devenish swallowed them up). It is reminiscent of the Rake except at the moment there is no cask beer as such, but a platoon of taps plus a battalion of bottles — Brooklyn Lager et al(e) — this is a different space for the beer fans out here who fight fights about the merits of Proper Job vs Cornish Knocker vs Doom Bar. I love this place, it’s new, it’s got the feel of something different. The tasting seemed to go well, people have their likes and dislikes which is what I encourage in a tasting — there’s nothing worse than nodding one’s head like a mechanical donkey. I like the dialogue of beer tasting. The O8 was Riesling with hops while — polishes badge of merit with pride — the Sasion Obscura went down a storm. So If you’re off to Cornwall this summer then Falmouth is a great beery destination as not only is there Hand, there is the Seven Stars (the most decrepit pub in existence, which is a plus) and Front with its excellent selection of ciders and beer. Falmouth: forego the surfing at Newquay and force yourself to Falmouth. You will not be disappointed. 

Oh and if you want to read my review of Batham’s Vine in today’s DT it’s here.

Wednesday 27 April 2011


It’s the weekend of the folk festival. Held every Whitsun, wedded in association to high hopes that the sun will sling itself high and shine on assorted revellers and beer drinkers. Beer drinkers? This is also the weekend of the town’s annual beer festival, carnivalesque in its devotion to the enjoyment and contemplation of the national drink — an array of ales ranging from the elegant and sprightly to strong, heady draughts. Amarillo, is this the way to? No, I’m afraid it’s not. But it is the name of a hop with which that beer over there is powerfully seasoned. Like a pint of the usual? Yes, but there’s more than the usual on display this weekend.

Here they come, down the street, a rag tag army of Morris men, be-whiskered musicians, guitars slung on their backs bandolier-like, shoulder to shoulder with clog-dancers, clacking and shucking into town. Here they come proceeding over the bridge, tattered banners waving in the wind, flapping and slapping, drunken harlequins and jesters, bent and disarrayed at the front of the column, swaying and gesturing to the townsfolk, while the sound of the drum at the back of the column, solemn, funereal, will signify the start of a weekend of neo-bacchanalian fun. And in company with these lost battalions in the search for fun will be John Barleycorn, whose own music is the splash and dash of a beer in the glass, the slight sparkle of carbonation, the whisper on the wind. A pale glass of sunshine or a more brooding darker slab of something stronger? Beer, beer, beer — the town goes mad for beer.

Beer runs through our society with the sureness and fluency of a river making its way to the sea. It oils the wheels of discourse, provides the currency for the exchange of ideas, and helps like-minded souls link arms and celebrate the sense of being alive. Beer comes with us, an invited guest, on our many journeys through life. The passage of exams: time for a pint; the game won and the team on top: time for a pint; the new child born and a new life begun: time for a pint; return from the battlefield, salute to fallen comrades: time for a pint. Servicemen and woman flying home from Afghanistan see a beer thrust into their hands as soon as they board the flight. Beer: it’s a simple way of saying thank you.

Beer in the pub, the public house, the British pub, with which at 16 I fell in love, he said. Sit in a venerable pub, its age paged on the sheets of history; who was in here on VE night? What were they drinking? I was in a pub in Bath on the day England won the rugby world cup, he continued, eager to please, a pint of Pitchfork in his hand. Voices ebbed and flowed, the excitement of triumph — two Australian women strolled in, rueful smiles. ‘Have a beer with us,’ came the cry. A sense of commiseration and companionship waved throughout the room. Beer as the unifier of nations.

Back in the town, those in the know are told, several times over, memories prodded, just in case they forgot, that Kipling is already on at the bar of the pub nearest the bridge from whence the capering came. Wild Swan and Jaipur are ready and waiting in the wings as well, for their weekend beer festival fun. Then there’s Wherry, Woodforde’s that is, named after the Parson who put on paper every dish and glass that passed and swayed in front of him, both provision and porter. Proper Job, 5AM Saint, O8, Old Hooky. Beer, beer, beer — the town will be going mad for beer.

And early in the evening see the beer fans creep down the high street, seemingly unwilling students of ale, Shakespeare’s reluctant schoolboy, snail-like and yet excited, eager to see what Kipling has in store for them. ‘It’s garbage,’ sneers Robbie, at the end of the bar, a pint of Common or Garden Ale to hand, his usual draught, his daily tipple, all said with somewhat of a large tongue in cheek. ‘It’s not beer,’ he growls, low Devon burr, like the sound of warthog snuffling in the mud, ‘you’re only pretending to like it.’

Behind the bar, up pops Connor, jack in the box, jack o’ the green — ‘cider’s my thing, but I’ll give it a go, smells like lychees, fresh mango’ — agrees that he enjoyed it, while I, the eponymous I, take my glass outside for proper study; like a wraith Robbie suddenly appears on another table, fag in hand, Common or Garden swirling in the glass like one of those fairground attractions that whirl around and around under its devotees spill their guts with visceral loathing.

On another table, a jester sits, resting after jesting, twirling a small baton in his left hand, a grey pewter tankard in the other. Lifts it up, the tankard that is, toasts the two of us. ‘Wrong, you can’t go wrong with Old Hooky. Where I live, where I live, this is on all the time, love it, love it love it love it.’ A man dressed as a jester pretends to go out of control on Old Hooky, foot on sturdy wooden table, face like a walnut, mouth in a tangle.

For me, at last it’s time for Kipling, a beer that pouts and blows kisses at me, crooks its little finger and draws me in. Ah here it is. Luscious and luminescent in the glass, orange-amber, swaying and sashaying across the palate, Carmen Miranda with a bowl of tropical fruit on her head doing a rumba, lychees, melon and passion fruit. South Pacific Pale Ale it said on the pump clip, sums it up in a funny sort of way; there is nothing like a dame transfigured into a glass. But lo, time passes and the beer passes into glasses as the people come and go. Beer, beer, beer.

Beer’s moments echo down the centuries: John Barleycorn journeyed with the blessed martyr Thomas a Beckett, a man of Kent, a man of ale, when he went to the French, barrels of ale in train, good clear ale. Centuries went by and John Barleycorn sat in the Tabard Inn, to the south of the Thames, on the road to Kent, the noise of a crowd, pilgrims all, Canterbury bound. He was the man who sat with fat Jack Falstaff in the taverns of Cheapside, ear cocked to his tales of valour and derring-do, ale in hand, sack to follow. Pot-valiant he was, the victor of many a battle he declared, a man made braver by ale, though some around did talk about beer, a potation flavoured with a noxious weed, the hop. And there he was with Good Queen Bess, strong ale her first love (before Essex perhaps?), ale as strong as the men that broke the Armada.

In peace and war John Barleycorn was there. He saw the muddy sun rise itself with a sense of hesitation over the broken and bloody place of Marston Moor, filled with the tattered debris of the old King’s men, men never to speak again, never to love again, never to drink beer again, awry on the ground. Some say John Barleycorn died in the squares of Waterloo, drowned in the mud of the Somme, was downed in the air over Kent, and is down and out in the mean streets of Nowheretown where the shutters come down on a ghostly host of pubs. But I know he lives yet.

And at the pub, the jester jests, beer in hand — and all about people laugh, talk, sing and dance. Beer the accompaniment to their lives. The japes and jollities that roll along with beer in its passage through our lives. Beer: the wine of the country. Beer: the soul of the country. Beer: the song of the country (‘Or why was Burton built on Trent?’). As long as the tales are told John Barleycorn lives. 

This was my entry for the recent Bombardier beer writing competition and I’m merely following in the footsteps of Zak Avery who has posted his entry here — the winner, Milton Crawford, was announced several weeks ago and you can read his excellent work here.

Friday 22 April 2011

Glass of new wave Brit craft lager please

The sun is out (well it will be soon out here in cloudy Exmoor) and I fancy a Helles, or do I have a Pilsner? Or a cool Dunkel? Or even an Imperial (or imperious…) Pilsner — definition of which could be: Special Brew that you can show your girlfriend without her thinking that lounging in wet trousers on a park bench is your ultimate aim in life. My guide to 10 Brit craft lagers on the ever-excellent Sabotage Times website can be found here

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Carlsbergensis interruptive

Notes on a press conference announcing Carlsberg’s recent launch of its new slogan  
Auditorium — presentation — 45 minutes — noisy — flashing lights — thumping music — film clips — sport — high adrenalin — anthemic rock — incentive to get drunk? — man at podium — ‘iconisation’ — 55 production lines across the world — all will adapt to the new visual identity — words — heritage — quality — semper ardis — character — the reward of a Carlsberg for doing the right thing —  that calls for a Carlsberg  — more words — witty — confident — premium — dramatic — in most countries the strap-line will be in English — packaging — comedy in ads — Everest — TV aerial — football — man on moon — interesting to see an ad that shows a pint with a magnifying glass picking out the word hops (I) — more words — aromatic — crisp refreshing taste — back to brandolese — global and local approval — what does that mean? — questions please — Lithuania — ban on alcohol advertising — what will you do — Russia — sex, new cars — eh? (I) — yes, probably the best lager in the world has gone —part of the DNA of the brand — will it overshadow itself — targeting a mind set — do people really buy this guff? (I) — lunch — that calls for a Carlsberg — really? 

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Tuckers Maltings

Drink beer, beer drunk. More beer please. Man on his stag do passes by dressed as a cock. A lot of balls that takes, says man to my right, repeats it once more just in case the world and its mum hasn’t digested his bon mot. Drink beer. At the Tuckers Maltings SIBA Festival (winners here) on the afternoon of a Saturday that sees the sun place its broad brimmed sombrero on its delightful little head and bring forth a resounding yell of hip-hip hooray. Folk stream down the street, past the Teighworthy Brewery and into the historic floor-maltings that each year is put aside, swept clean, and filled with row upon row of beers on stillage. Colin, friend of mine, is bar manager and says straightaway what I should be drinking. Arbor Ales, Bristol Beer Factory. Hold on let me try the winner, I reply. Handsome from Forge. Litehouse from the same brewery won top banana last year. You probably won’t have heard of them but you might do so more in the future. Handsome was peachy skin, warmth of the sun hastening ripening; a fattish body that reminded me of Chardonnay without the poncy notes; dry and crisp in the finish, another one please. Arbor Ales. I visited their ace tap in Bristol a couple of months ago and enjoyed their Oyster Stout. Yakima Valley IPA was a love bomb of citrus, deep ripe apricot skin, grapefruit, hop sack and a big swagger of character. Their Breakfast Stout, up next, was creamy, roasty, mocha, alcoholic and delicious. I can still taste it now. Two hours was all I had, hence no mucking about with milds or bitters. I wanted big bold flavours, which I think I discovered — I stayed with four beers (BBF’s Southville Hop was the other delight). So I found beers I liked and stayed with them — when I go to beer festivals I go to discover beers that I enjoy and once I find them I find them compelling company (I had a similar moment with a Löwenbräu Buttenheim beer at the GBBF several years back). The estimable Zak Avery recently asked why go to beer festivals? My yearly quota has slacked off, but after Saturday I know why — I go to beer festivals to drink great beer, in the company of great people (friends and brewers last Saturday) and in a lush environment. Not every beer festival works (the Pig’s Ear at Stratford Town Hall was a case in point — it had all the charm of a station waiting room in somewhere like Lille), but when they do work the memory lasts and lingers and sticks around, hands in pocket, eager face upturned, asking: will you come back? Tuckers Maltings: of course I will.

Friday 8 April 2011

How time flies when you’re enjoying yourself

On the walls in the bar of the Duke of York hang several framed collections of black-and-white photos of locals enjoying themselves in the past. Next to the dart board, to the left of the massive fireplace capped with its brace of ancient shotguns, the collage comes from the 1950s perhaps: flat caps and pipes for the seniors, the young with a hint of Brylcreem in the hair, most men in a tie, a handful of women on their own table; meanwhile well polished cups and trophies are handed out, possibly by the licensees of the time. Elsewhere, on another wall, there’s a fading sepia-tinted photo from 1911 that shows a column of men in suits, battered bowlers and starched white collars, some hands in pockets, others with their hands swinging purposefully as they take part in the Iddesleigh Club Walk (something that continues annually to this day) — three years later a line of men like this would be khaki clad and marching off to war (you can’t help but see the dreadful progression). Pubs are for people and these framed photos depict those that enjoyed the Duke of York in the past and in a fanciful moment you imagine that by some miraculous transformation their voices, laughter and songs are ingrained in the very fabric of this old assemblage of four cottages that was originally constructed for the masons who built the neighbouring church in the Middle Ages. 
(Oh and the King’s Head in Laxfield gets my vote in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph, but you can read it here)

The men of Iddesleigh marching as if off to war

Wednesday 6 April 2011

A nice dinner with Carlsberg

I received an invitation to visit Carlsberg in Copenhagen, where JC Jacobsen kicked off brewing in the 1850s. A global brewer, a painless Pilsner, ubiquitous branding, but hell so what — this is one of the great brewing enterprises of the world, a space that is filled with all manner of architectural flourishes. I particularly wanted to see the massive stone elephants that stand at the gates, carrying the weight of an old part of the brewery on their backs, a nod to the ancient Hindu belief that the earth was supported on the backs of a group of taciturn pachyderms. Then there was the microbrewery that Carlsberg had installed (whose beers I had enjoyed when they made a brief appearance in the UK), which is why on Monday evening I was thrilled to be drinking Jacobsen Saaz Blonde with a starter of smoked wild salmon.

‘We are here to have a nice dinner and a cheerful evening,’ said a round-faced, rubicund man in chef’s whites. He was the head of the cooks’ corps that produced the night’s beer dinner, held in the Greek temple-like surroundings of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art museum founded by Carl Jacobsen, the son of JE. To say that Carl was a bit of an art collector is like saying that Captain Kidd dabbled in a spot of piracy. In a long gallery prior to eating we were shown galleries stuffed with marble sculptures from the French impressionists including Medusa having her head sliced off and a particularly effective one of Adam and Eve after the fall (even as an atheist I could admire the despair and misery that the artist had captured on the face of Eve, the true meaning of expulsion).

Gallery after gallery demonstrated that the Jacobsens practised patronage of the arts on a par with the Medicis (but in a much more benevolent way, no one was killed or made Pope as far as I can make out) — for instance, a hall featuring Roman copies of Greek statues brought to mind a hall of heroes (not the originals but still pretty old), a sort of classical Valhalla; meanwhile stone fragments from the graves of long dead people reminded me of a passage in Tom Holland’s Rubicon, where he wrote of lonely tombs on the road to Rome  having a bittersweet smell of herbs, spices and decay about them.

In the foyer, where we were served Carlsberg’s sweetish, soft Pilsner, simple but unifying in its refreshing capability, tropical flora reached up to the sky and all that was missing was parrots and monkeys. Dinner was served in a Greek temple with Jacobsen Saaz Blonde alongside the aforementioned salad of smoked wild salmon, the beer’s ringing, singing Gewürztraminer notes lifting the flavours of the salmon and the smoked cream cheese; it’s a bright, cheerful beer, sunny and friendly. It was a pretty brilliant beer and food match.

Carlsberg’s speciality beer chap Bjarke Bundgaard was on our table and as pleased with the match as we were. For the next course, salted rooster (as the chef said) and Jacobsen Forasbryg to match. A spring beer. Wasn’t so hot about this one, though on its own it worked. The beer was sweeter and seasoned with woodruff, which seemed to bring the character of coconut oil to the aroma and on the palate; a bit blowsy maybe. I wondered if it needed the heft of more alcohol to do battle with the food (it was 6.3%, while the Saaz was 7.1%). Chocolate pudding followed but several of us were on our way to the Mikkeller bar by then (and what a great space that is, more of that later this week).

But let us return to the dinner. Whatever the beer, location location location would have won out on this: we ate and drank in a classical space with columns, arches and statues, all moments that brought the classical age to life. Meanwhile Carlsberg showed that they got what was going on in craft beer (and the next day brought tastings of the Dark Lager, Pale Ale and the captivating Extra Pilsner).

It is easy to criticise Carlsberg. They are a big target. There’s a big ad campaign out there in the world (which is why about 80+ journalists were present). The tagline is ‘That deserves a Carlsberg’ and was unveiled along with associated flim-flam (thundering rock music, ad slots for the telly and cinema and speeches from assorted execs that included the phrases ‘iconization’ and ‘global and local approach’). Sure it’s about beer sold like Coca-Cola, but then that’s par for the course with global brewers, that’s the way they operate. On the other hand their Premium beer is 100% malt, a new strain they’ve developed, and no corn or rice is added (a Croatian journalist was very keen on getting this made clear). Or maize even as one senior executive coyly said (referring obliquely to one of their competitors’ beers). It’s also a beer that fits a certain situation, after squash, a run, five-a-side. It’s not something I drink much and while I adored Mikkeller and its bar (Vesterbro Pilsner was gorgeous and got me in a spin while Black Hole was immensity itself, rich, luxurious, lushness), but I’m also impressed with Carlsberg for their Jacobsen range. They don’t have to do it, but they do. Credit where credit is due and it’s a shame we don’t see it over here anymore.

‘We are here to have a nice dinner and a cheerful evening,’ said the round-faced, rubicund man in chef’s whites. And we did.
The splendid bar that stands about the Jacobsen microbrewery

Saturday 2 April 2011

What does vanilla smell like?

When describing a beer the scent of lychees and oranges and bananas pinches the nose time and time again, or maybe ripe skin of apricot, mango and melon; but oddly enough I’ve never sat down with a lychee, orange or banana and thought about how it might or might not smell of beer. The traffic is strictly one way. Even as an avid user of such descriptors I’ve always wondered if there are other analogies I can bring into play. It’s the continual battle over how to describe beer without falling into that massive elephant trap of cliché. This time my naval gazing has been occasioned by the reading of the introduction to the Penguin Book of Food and Drink, edited by Paul Levy. In said intro, Levy notes how you might find a raspberry note in Burgundy but no Burgundy notes in a raspberry. But what does a raspberry smell of? Raspberry.

Yes, we all want to say something about the beer in our hands that escapes the miasmic suck of cliché and so beer writing sometimes loops itself into the language of wine — and why not? At the end of the day what the writer wants is to feel a good job has been done, that what is on screen is something that they are happy with. Yet, you could also argue that to take the in vino veritas route is a bit of a cop-out, rather like dressing up like Clarissa Dickson-Wright even though you cannot cook or talk on telly.

Why the worry? I’m rarely happy with my tasting notes. There’s always a feeling that the perfect description is just over the horizon, just out of sight. I recently polished off a bottle of Fuller’s Vintage from 1999. I wrote some brief notes: ‘vanilla, ice cream with bitter bite, fudge and vanilla fudge’. That’s it. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but really? Vanilla? You could do a tasting with beer virgins and it would certainly perk things up, but what does it mean? What does vanilla smell and taste like? Vanilla of course. However, you might want to use abstract words to describe vanilla — luxurious, sensual, elegant, and moody. What about fudge? It smells of vanilla if it is vanilla flavoured, but would you call fudge luxurious and sensual. Of course not. It’s cheerful, workaday, pleasing. So do abstract words for beer work? Instead of vanilla and fudge with a bitter bite, the Fuller’s Vintage 1999 is a sensual, luxurious beer perhaps? Work it out a bit further — is it silky? No the bitterness wouldn’t work with the silkiness (bit like massively hairy legs in silk stockings…). Smooth perhaps? No. I have an aversion to the word smooth — it makes the beer sound like a piece of music from Smooth FM, but there’s an idea, why not use music as an analogy? Ravel’s Bolero, perhaps? The slow and majestic movement that accompanies Siegfried’s funeral pyre in The Ring? 

So far, it’s a sensual and luxurious beer, but there’s also a need for a word that’ll describe the bitterness reining in the vanilla fudge. How about stern? Might be too redolent of some seedy basement flat where Mistress Stern does her business, but lose that association and I think it works. So here’s the starting point for my tasting notes for Fuller’s Vintage 1999 — sensual and luxurious on the palate with a stern bitter bite keeping any over indulgent tendencies at bay. Not perfect but it’s something to work on.