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.