Tuesday 31 May 2011


‘I like tastes that know their own minds, The reason that people who detest fish often tolerate sole is that sole doesn’t taste very much like fish, and even this degree of resemblance disappears when it is submerged in the kind of sauce that patrons of Piedmontese restaurants in London and New York think characteristically French. People with the same apathy toward decided flavour relish ‘South African lobster’ tails — frozen as long as the Siberian mammoth — because they don’t taste lobstery… They prefer processed cheese because it isn’t cheesy, and synthetic vanilla extract because it isn’t vanillary. They have made a triumph of the Delicious apple because it doesn’t taste like an apple, and of the Golden Delicious because it doesn’t taste like anything. In a related field, ‘dry’ (non-beery) beer and ‘light’ (non-Scotchlike) Scotch are more of the same. The standard of perfection for vodka (no colour, no taste, no smell) was expounded to me long ago by the then Estonian consul-general in New York, and it accounts perfectly for the drink’s rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy — tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he was doing.’
AJ Liebling, Between Meals, 1959 

Thursday 26 May 2011

A visit to Hook Norton

Arcadia itself. Birdsong, cows lowing in the distance, a tall late-Victorian tower brewery lifting itself to heaven in front of me, pagoda like, greenness all around, the sour-sweet smell of brewing like spindrift in the air, I could only be at Hook Norton. This has to be one of my favourite breweries in England — hidden away in a beautiful village, down Brewery Lane, past the old maltings where now a Visitor Centre dispenses packs of beer that include Double Stout, Flagship and Haymaker, as well as being home to a compact but highly effective museum about Hook Norton, both the brewery and the village. I’ve been to the National Brewery Centre thrice in the past few months and nothing has given me as much a tingle about our national drink as the one long room at Hook Norton. The cheesy, Gorgonzola like smell of old hop sacks, a shelf of books from the early decades of the 20th century, guides to the breweries of England, old photos and artefacts, a pride in family, an old wort cooler, wooden barrels — there was something about it that inspired Proustian, Madeleine cake moments reaching back into my past, bringing up the innocence that accompanied my first discoveries of beer (it wasn’t campaigning that got me into cask beer but the flavour, the pubs, the Joycean-like evocation of community, the feeling of coming home, just like the first time I cooked from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, a time when the earth was young).

I stand there chatting with Hook Norton’s avuncular MD James Clarke, with whom I have shared several pints in the last couple of years, a great guy, a beer man who has a tremendous pride in his family’s brewing heritage (we’re due to visit some pubs later). His great-grandfather built the brewery that stands so solidly in a dip in the village. Six stories high, a place of steps, whitewashed walls, wooden floor, banisters, and brewing equipment, a landscape of puzzles and conundrums and surprises — what’s behind this door? Oh, it’s the fermenting room, with open vessels. Rare these days. I remember the smell and sight of them at Young’s in Wandsworth and — conversely — Zywiec Porter in Cieszyn on the Czech Polish border. Why open? Does it help the flavour or the production? The answer — it’s always been done this way and why not continue this way? It works for Hook Norton and why shouldn’t it continue this way? There is a sort of Constructivist/Brutualist beauty about brand new stainless steel, but I also enjoy the air of a brewery that seems to have grown organically over the years, like a city that was once a settlement beside a river. Rus in urbe.

And then the beer: I have always loved Old Hooky,  a hint of mocha coffee, bossed about by bold citrus fruitiness and ending with a biscuity, cracker-like dryness; Double Stout, chocolate-coated coffee beans and a sensuous, luscious, creamy character. For those long hot sunny days, when it hasn’t rained for a while and the smell of dried hay in a barn is a tonic of its own, there’s Haymaker: bruised gold in colour while the palate is reminiscent of the tang of tangerine kept in line with a thrusting bitter note. The brewery used to produce a beer called Haymaker towards the end of the 19th century, just for the agricultural community — a saison perhaps? Then I had Flagship, lemon, sherbert, pungent and a plunge into the hopsack. An IPA? I asked James. He nodded. It’s not new (2006/07 I think?), but this one had passed me by. I dither and take a detour when offered a lot of bottle conditioned beers but Flagship was and is a glorious exception to the rule (I drink one now and think it on a par with White Shield). And as I sit here in another glorious part of the countryside I think of how far beer is from its rural roots — even though beer starts in a field its link to the countryside is broken as soon as those precious seeds of barley leave for the malting — and take myself back to the birdsong, the lowing of the cows and above all the spindrift of brewing in the air. Et in Arcadia ego.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

A beer festival in Exmoor

If you’re out and about on Exmoor this weekend why not come down to Dulverton where the Bridge is having its annual beer festival to coincide with an equally annual folk festival. Landlord Kenny has got together a small but perfectly formed beer list that I shall be making inroads into as soon as I return from a school meeting on Friday afternoon (cue asking teachers if they can hurry up as I need to get on the beer). If you’re a habitual user of the new craft beer scene in London, Manchester or Leeds then you might say so what, but this is the west country, where as Boak and Bailey noted this week here, brown beer is very much in the ascendency — anyway, if you do decide to pop over here’s what you might see: Otley 05; Moor Illusion, Merlin’s Magic, Northern Star; Bristol Beer Factory’s Bristol Stout; Thornbridge Kipling, Jaipur (last year a cask was drained in two hours); Castle Rock Harvest Ale; Skinners Porthleven along with the usual regulars. No BrewDog this year sadly — we were hoping for Hardcore, but it’s not to be. Oh and there’s Orval, Flying Dog, Brooklyn and Westmalle in the fridge. I shall be the man with the broken guitar and sawn off bongos. 

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Kvass-conditioned beer?

Kvass. The Russian cola I am told. And it’s a superb soft drink. Rye dough, slight hint of honey on the nose, refreshing, honeyed, pleasing sweetness and firm breadiness on the palate, quick finish. Refreshing as anything, once you get used to it. Much better than coke or Shandy, doesn’t have that mouth rattling sweetness of stomach poking gassiness. Is it a beer? Not in the way one thinks of beer, but it’s the juice of fermented grain, so you might say it’s the person next door who shares a taste in music but doesn’t play it so loud. The Kvass I drunk was made by a brewery, Ochakovsky, and I had it in a cafĂ© in GUM, the massive mall on Red Square in Moscow (Lenin looks like a mannequin lying there in his tomb). The brewery says that their Kvass is ‘made by a unique technology of two-level fermentation… special ferment from pure culture of kvass yeast and lactic bacteria.’ No hops of course but honey or herbs are often added and connoisseurs of Kvass eschew brands like the one I had and search for the homemade stuff, one of which I was told was made in some monastery in Moscow and was the very best. It shares a similar malt character to beer and chestnut brown in the glass (with a reddish blossom) it certainly has the look of a beer. It’s low in alcohol (I couldn’t find any information on the bottle), which is why kids and adults both drink it. Not a bad lunchtime drink and possibly a good way of introducing young palates to the complexities of beer. Kvass with hops? Now you’re talking…

Sunday 15 May 2011

An ad for Bombardier featuring Rik Mayall, that’s it really

Occasionally enjoy Bombardier now and again, if it’s in good nick, I think it was the first pint of ale that I drank when I went to college, though I can’t remember what I thought of it. Cider, lager, bitter, whatever, I wasn’t too choosy what I drank in those days, with the ferocity of the hangover the next morning being more of a yardstick than anything else (for that reason I avoided Abbot). So (along with many others I suspect) I get an email to tell me about a new ad for Bombardier featuring Rik Mayall doing a riff on his Blackadder Captain Flashheart character, except here he’s called Bombardier. It’s vulgar in a seaside postcard sort of way, Young Ones-ish with cobwebs on, Sharpe rather than Sharps, while the shots of Mayall nutting cannonballs brought a smile to my face, but it’s an advert (and you can see it here). I’m not interested in whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s good for beer’s image or not (plenty of others can mount the podium on that score), whether it’s effective in its message. It’s an ad. Others with an interest in such things can disconstruct, declaim and dissent about the meaning. But it’s an ad. Bombardier, like Greene King IPA and London Pride, is one of those beers that you will probably pass if there’s a Thornbridge, BrewDog or whatever is the beer of the week on at the bar, but it’s still a beer and I’ve enjoyed the odd pint, last time about a year ago, a freshly tapped glass in a country pub while out cycling. Delicious. Maybe it’s time for my yearly pint.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Taking a holiday in other people’s happiness

Halfway House, Pitney, where I engaged in a scintillating
conversation with  a local about the filthiness of farmhouse cider
Am currently writing a pub book that has involved visiting loads of them (for instance I’m hoping to get to four today, was at one last night and two on Thursday) — it’s very much brief visits, taking a holiday in other people’s happiness as the Sex Pistols might have said if they’d been happy types. However, what it’s reminding me, as if I really needed to be reminded, is that despite difficult trading, pessimism over pub cos, beer prices etc, the pub stands firm. I don’t subscribe to the notion that we are seeing the last of pubs, but I also don’t feel that there is a need for complacency. Last night I was at the Yarcombe Inn, a rural roadside boozer that was shut for a couple of years and then — with the help of a TV programme — opened up again with the help of the local community. I walked in and the barman immediately engaged me in a conversation about the rain — I felt welcome. At the bar, people came and went, knew each other, there was a real sense of community; the beer — Otter Amber — was light and refreshing and the interior a mish mash of old agricultural inn ambience with various amendments down the years. It was homely, comfortable, uncluttered and organic. I loved it. I’m not surprised that the local CAMRA branch made it their pub of the year. Another pub that I also swooned over was the Crown in Stockport and you can read my review of it in today’s Daily Telegraph here.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

What’s an unfashionable brewery?

What’s an unfashionable brewery? Is it one whose staff don terrible clothes and refuse to look like rock stars? Or is it a brewery whose beers refuse to — as what is commonly known — stretch the boundary of what we know as beer (guilty of using the phrase several times but…shrugs shoulders)? What’s a fashionable brewery then? That’s an easier question to answer. BrewDog, Thornbridge, Kernel, Camden: four names that swim into my consciousness with the sleekness of a torpedo slamming into the steel plates of a rusty old destroyer (the latter a metaphor for unfashionable beers perhaps?). Hops, collaborations (it’s good to see that beer has reclaimed the word collaboration from its taint of Vichy and Quisling), a certain swagger, shout-outs from the fans, expectations, great epoch shattering beers (if beer can shatter an epoch which it palpably cannot but what the hell). What about the unfashionable breweries then? Are they doomed to linger alone and unloved by those who see themselves in the vanguard of beer fashion? To be picked up and preened by the nameless many?

These navel-gazing thoughts come to me after I’d drunk a bottle of The Leveller from Springhead, a defiantly unfashionable brewery in defiantly unfashionable Sutton-on-Trent. Visited them several years back, always enjoyed Roaring Meg, their strongish blond beer whose naming following the brewery’s tradition of using an English Civil War theme for their beers’ names (Roaring Meg was a cannon used during that period — it roared and like ships the guns were given women’s names, perhaps a subconscious male desire to haul pacifistic women onto the militarist bandwagon). At the time the Springhead brewery was an internal landscape of stainless steel, pumps and undeterminable metal instruments. A brick-built, single-storied home that had little romance about it — they had moved there in 1992 and expanded to four units. Now their expansion continues and they’ve recently moved to a converted old mill in a north Notts village and I suspect that the new plant will have a similarly abstract ambience about its interior. They might be unfashionable but they’re doing well.

And The Leveller (I don’t think I have to explain the origins of this name)? It’s a dark chestnut colour with crimson tints. The nose has a dusty, powdery chocolate — milk — character. On the first gulp I’m minded to enjoy its milky, coffee-mocha chocolate feathering with the sweetness kept under reins by a resiny, earthy, almost woody-like sternness; there are also some hints of blackcurrant. The carbonation is a bit brisk but it’s nevertheless a beer that I rather enjoyed. And all this from a brewery that slips below the radar — it’s not going to change the world but it’s rather delicious and a pretty satisfying partner to roast lamb (even use some in the gravy).