Monday 30 January 2012

How to do Norwich City of Ale in a weekend, 2013 style

The beautiful Adam & Eve
First of all, The Vine, part of the medieval patchwork of streets, Lilliputian in character, we are the smallest pub in town I’m told, within one room just capacious enough to swing a Manx cat within. The Friday night swell of custom heaves against the bar, in search of winter ales, of which there is a festival. A strong mild, from a local brewery, soothing, a calming hand on the fevered brow induced by the crowd. And it’s on to the…

White Lion, run by Ben and Becky, young, beer-centric, alternative. Milton Brewery own the joint and so Pegasus is crème brulee on the nose with a green apple snappiness on the palate. Favourite is Marcus Aurelius, strong and potent, balsamic vinegar and dark soy sauce notes, with treacle, coffee, and a plum richness filling the mouth. A superb foil to pan fried duck with crushed potatoes and red cabbage — I could be in the Czech lands, but I’m really in the White Lion, comfy, cosy, collected and quite a treat.

There’s a swirl of people in the Plough and who says pubs are dying. Grain Brewery own the place and their beers are dispensed into beautifully stemmed half-pint glasses. I’ll have the Blackwood Stout, a big mouthful of vanilla, chocolate and creamy oats. Are you in tomorrow asks a woman to a man at the bar, I should be comes the answer. And I would be if I lived in Norwich, but I don’t.

Rockabilly hillbilly dudes stand on the small stage at the Walnut Tree Shades. I see DAs, quiffs and the singer’s arms sleeved with a multitude of tattoos as his reverb-heavy hiccupping voice belts out a Jim Reeves song. Around me, Ted-types, Friday night pub-goers, scowlers, Fred Wests, all nursing their pints of Wherry stand about and experience the music. Meanwhile a couple — she in a big skirt that spreads out like a well-manicured hedge, he in motorcycle boots and a red plaid jacket, hair combed back, push to the front. Are they going to jive? I never find out as we go to…

The Gardeners Arms, or maybe it’s the Murderers? In the town centre it stands. Phil the landlord has nine beers on, one of which is a porter from a local brewery, whose name I forget to note, but nice and chocolaty it is. Ah I see the Gardeners is the pubby bit, while the Murderers has more of a café bar feel. As Friday night takes hold, the out of tune voices in the bar area generate several levels of sound, while the son et lumière of fruit machines attract the eye and two drinking friends mimic a boxing move beers to hand. There are nooks and crannies, regular beer festivals and as I enjoy my beer I espie a man with a short gait sloping off home — to an empty room or a lonely sleeping wife or a raucous party where he will be greeted with whoops and hollers? Maybe not the latter, but he will be back I guarantee.

For Saturday for sure, there are a dozen pubs to be seen, starting with the fabulous Adam & Eve, sitting in the shadow of the Cathedral, for whose builders the pub was built a long time ago. Southwold Bitter cracks the code that I have been trying to solve since getting the bug of asking the question — why am I on this earth? And I will write about the Adam more, it’s a gorgeous place that I would have put in Great British Pubs if I’d visited.

The Wig & Pen is close by and from its name you would be right about its legal provenance; it was once called something else (the King’s Head below is the only Norwich pub that has kept the same name apparently) but the nearness of the Law Courts offers a clue to its nomenclature. Inside a couple of TVs show the football, the Southwold Bitter once more says good morning to me and a couple of mates enjoy their late breakfast or early lunch with a pint.

Take 5 is a curious amalgam of slightly bo-ho eaterie, coffee house and bar. We enjoy a beer in the vaulted undercroft and wonder what a band would sound like down here. Meanwhile the landlord at the Ribs of Beef has been at the helm for donkeys’ years and runs a well-measured ship that sits alongside the river in a scene oddly reminiscent of Bruges (the Belgian connection continues with the pub’s luscious beef in ale). In the King’s Head, Green Jack brewer Tim is taking his time to enjoy a beer or two out of Lowestoft. His smoked Red Herring is on and I enjoy it. Then it’s across the road to the Plasterers Arms, a backstreet pub, recently reopened, refurbished and renewed in its place in the world Ten beers on, Oakham’s Preacher pleases and I spot that the pub is next to what was once a Victorian era Sunday school. The righteous shall inherit the earth.

More pubs more pubs more pubs, all rammed with folk, Adnams’ Rumsey Wells has Sole Star on — fine and fabulous. The Trafford Arms has couples and friends out for a night, though I enjoyed their vintage beer bottle collection with a Southwold Bitter to hand. Ketts Tavern is the tap for the Norwich Bear brewery, their Norwich Pale Ale is smooth and spicy and peppery — bet this looks good on the chilli-influenced dance-floor. The Pawter is chocolate and more smoothness. I like this gaff. And over at the Fat Cat it is jumping and jiving as hearties and their girls play noisy games, while young guys tweet about the beer they’ve just tried for the first time. In the Duke of Wellington men are eating a brought in curry and the Whalebone is crusted with folk, all sorts of pub goers, a heartening sight, with a landlord who has been there for a long time (seemingly a fact of life in Norwich as many of the licensees I met over this weekend all had long roots in their pubs). 

And so what was this odyssey all for — think of the Norwich City of Ale festival that runs from 23 May-2 June 2013. I used to think little of Norwich but after this weekend, I think it’s become part of me

Friday 27 January 2012

Picture this

Here we are in our pubs, safe and secure, fastened in from the storms outside, coming and going, talking to each other, talking to dogs, giving them a pat on the head, all of us with a drink to hand. Here we are in this place, the pub, where we return tomorrow night, the night after or next week, our laughter and words raising to the rafters like smoke from a fire — does this laughter and do these words linger on the ether so that future generations might perhaps hear a whisper that might or might not have come from the person who stands against the bar, laughter and glass in hand. I like the idea of pubs as repositories of experience and feeling — after all people have had such a great time in them (and continue to do so) over the centuries and war and riot and chaos and the smoking ban will not stop these scenes from continuing. These are taken both on a Sunday lunchtime and on a Friday evening when people descend on this pub (as they do most days) and use it as a social club, which is no bad thing. Those that want pubs where fights and football and bad form are the norm should look elsewhere.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

So why do you go to a beer festival?

Do you go for the beer or the companionship or the architecture or the place where people go for beer? Or do you go with a piece of paper on which you bring to life words that will remind you in later years that you went to this beer festival and wrote down words that would remind you in later years about this beer festival? Or do you go to look at the people about you and thank heavens that you are not like the people around you or you have a higher more nobler intent in going to the beer festival even though you might think you could lose some weight and stop talking in such an excited voice when you have had too much beer? Or do you go to a beer festival to meet friends you see once in a blue moon, who are friends even if you rarely see them except at beer festivals but you have been seeing them at beer festivals for a few years now and you regard them as friends? Do you go to a beer festival at the local rugby club that has been organised to raise money and features the usual round of beers that you see in your local pubs, but you go because it’s a good cause and anyhow you weren’t doing anything that day? Do you go to the beer festival because it has been organised by the local CAMRA branch and you know that there will be some interesting beers there, well you hope there will be? Do you go to the beer festival to meet that special someone who will share your love of beer and with whom you might be able to set up home with one of these days? Do you go to a beer festival to drink beer and sit in a quiet corner, getting socially sloshed with a smile on your face and spend time flapping through the book you don’t have the time to read at home because of work/child/DIY pressures? I went to the Exeter Beer Festival on Saturday to sign copies of Great British Pubs, to see some old friends, to drink a couple of beers and swap Exmoor for a bit of time out in Exeter. Why do you go to a beer festival?

Monday 23 January 2012

This beer is not IKEA and thank the lord for that

There’s a harshness, a deep dark Marmite mash up of sweetness and peppery bite that gives the beer somewhat of a coffee like jolt to the senses when first tasted; it’s also got Bournville dark chocolate in the mix though after some time in the glass flurries of orange circle about, as circular in their routine as trained circus dogs who think nothing about sitting up and begging for their supper. There’s an amateurishness perhaps about the beer, an artisanal feel, something rough edged and hued, a piece of wood carved by instinct rather than instruction, and therefore much more pleasing than the sort of wood you see planed and perfumed and plumed in a place like IKEA. There’s an honesty about the beer, something that says take me as I am, and as I continue to drink it, I keep finding nuances and moods and tones of colour that weren’t there in the first place. The beer keeps changing in the glass, the sweetness edging up to the bitter peppery character (high alpha hop I think) and asking for a dance, a merging of differences as if they were two folk on the dancefloor dissolving into a smooch. It’s a barley wine of sorts, unpolished, a rough diamond, a bit of rough, but also interesting and intriguing, growing in confidence as it grows in the glass. I think I like it. 

Friday 13 January 2012

Stuff the detox — here’s some grub with beer

Here’s something different: venison with Kriek sauce and Trappist mushrooms
I live on Exmoor where the red deer roam and provide sustenance for the table. Beer and food is slow to take off here but one of my locals offers beer choices on its menu, while I’m going to be working with a couple of other chefs in the area on developing a beer dinner (as well as a beer vs wine event). Who knows this particular favourite might end up on the table — the Chimay-marinated meat is flash fried and then served with a robust sauce based on Liefman’s Cuvee-Brut Kriek alongside mushrooms that have been cooked in the reduced marinade. I usually accompany this dish with Abbey de Roc’s rich and bittersweet brune or with my old standby Orval, a beer that brings so much to the table. Here goes then, if you do decide to do the menu and it works, call me Delia.

Four venison haunch steaks, 6-8 oz each
330ml bottle of Chimay Red
Juniper berries

8oz of mushrooms (if you can get wild mushrooms all the better)
Several fat cloves of garlic

330ml bottle of Liefman’s Cuvee-Brut
3 oz of brown sugar
7 fl oz of chicken stock
One shallot
Butter/olive oil

Marinate haunches in Chimay Red for up to eight hours, along with two/three crushed juniper berries. Keep marinade and pat meat dry with kitchen towel, put to one side. Sprinkle potatoes and parsnips with sea salt and roll in extra virgin olive oil before putting into oven to roast. Give mushrooms a quick fry in butter (or olive oil) with chopped up garlic cloves and add Chimay marinade; boil until reduced. Check for seasoning.

Meanwhile make sauce. Chop shallot and fry in small pan until soft and translucent. Add rest of ingredients in small pan and boil until it thickens. Check for seasoning. This should take four/five minutes.

When everything feels close to readiness flash fry the venison on both sides (use either butter or olive oil depending on your predilection, butter adds a nice sense of unctuousness though the reward for such extravagance is 40 extra crunches in the gym). I like my venison near raw and tender, but you might like it as charred as Joan of Arc at the stake. Sprinkle with the tiniest amount of sea salt. Place on plate with potatoes, parsnips and mushrooms, spoon sauce on the meat, pour beer and eat and drink to your heart’s content.

PS Another good dish to aid digestion during this dark and dank month would be cassoulet with Toulouse sausages, duck confit, pork and haricot beans topped with breadcrumbs — with this dainty feast I think I would pair several bottles of Hardcore IPA.

This is nothing to do with the recipe, being a nice display of meat
in a Prague shop windo, especially relevant given the news from Ceske Budejovice yesterday

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The loneliness of the non whisky drinking beer lover

I think I might be a solitary soul amongst beer writers and bloggers in that I don’t like whisky (or whiskey even). Too fiery for me (but I love chillies), too woody for me as well (though I also used to swim joyfully through the tannic wines of southwest France when I drank the stuff) and then there are those who have enough iodine to make me return Proustian-like to some swab on a broken knee of childhood (they don’t make me drink them though). Maybe whisky is just too… whisky like. But on the other hand I have always liked whisky as an ingredient — out here on Exmoor, I remember a local bakery coming up with an Exmoor Beast cake with whisky icing — I had to stop after the second helping, it was unctuous, a dark deep coal-fired red-eyed devil of a cake tamed by a sweet but delicately fiery whisky tasting icing; beauty and the beast indeed. I used to like whisky in my tea as a teenager cause I felt it gave it a blas (one of the few Welsh words from my childhood that I still continue to use). The BrewDog Paradox set feature some of the most illuminating beers I have ever had shine on my life. So no whisky no cry, but given all that it’s no surprise that I like beers that have had some sort of congress, illicit or not, with whisky.

I recall being introduced to Fischer’s Adelscott Malt Whisky Beer back in 1996 by stalwarts of the local Somerset CAMRA branch; it is brewed with peat-smoked whisky malt and comes across as a whisky soft drink. I haven’t had it for some years and it probably tastes like some devilish concoction made by a perverted Willy Wonka out to ensnare ‘our kids’ (hold on, we’ve already got alcopops), but you get my drift: whisky as a flavour rather than the primary source to Nirvana. Sorry.

There’s a reason for this preamble: I have been sent a bottle of Innis & Gunn’s Highland Cask — it’s presumably their blonde beer that has spent a holiday in the wood of a 18-year-old single malt whisky barrel (69 days according to the bottle). I remember when Innis & Gunn was launched (2004 perhaps?) with a great fanfare — it was an easy drinking beer with a whisky overtone. The launch was at the White Horse and the clear bottle aroused the ire of several British Guild of Beer Members. I was given a bottle over Christmas (a present so I wasn’t going to turn it down) and I didn’t enjoy the sweet butterscotch buttery soft woodiness — it went over my head. But I don’t think it’s a beer that is designed to appeal to me (though I am told it does well with scallops). I much prefer barrel aged beers that remind me of Benjamin Britten — complex, uneasy looking chaps like Peter Grimes or Albert Herring that I have to listen to a few times before I got them. Then when it comes to his Noh-influenced Curlew River it’s a bit like the old joke about Mao Tse-Tung being asked about the influence of the French Revolution: it is too early to say.

So back to the beer. Having enjoyed various ‘expressions’ of Innis & Gunn, the rum one for instance, I am very happy with the shapes thrown by this little chap. It comes across as an alcoholic smoothie (and what’s wrong with that?), flashing out notes of vanilla, buttery toffee, unctuous smoothiness worthy of the great Lesley Phillips though with enough bite to stop the smoothiness going over the top, Somme-like, into a bitter grave of Pintersque like bile. It’s a friendly beer, not too challenging, but reminiscent to me of my reading patterns. I labour for weeks over a difficult book and sometimes have the urge to throw it across the room but after finishing it and completely spent I then pick up something that is easy and undemanding but still enjoyable. At the moment I’m flitting through a biography of Guy Gibson (the ‘Dambusters guy’) and the beer goes just fine with it. 

Friday 6 January 2012

Brewers are not rock stars

I always relish the tale told by Pete Brown about the time at the White Horse when Michael Jackson asked the then Thornbridge brewers Stefano Rossi Cossi and Martin Dickie what went through their minds when they brewed a certain beer (Jaipur I think it was, but am prepared to be corrected on that one, I wasn’t there). According to Brown, the two guys had been pretty monosyllabic up until then (some brewers can be like that), but this question from Jackson just opened them up and their passion shone through. And that’s what I often think about when I thoroughly enjoy a beer, what went through the brewer’s mind at the moment of creation? Ask the question though and you don’t always get the answer you would like: there was a gap in our portfolio between 4 and 4.5% and this fitted…we didn’t have a dark or fruit beer…we needed a celebrity endorsement. Even though some would paint them (or paint themselves) as rock stars, they are human, all too human, doing a job that they love (mostly), working in an industrial environment (even the smallest brewery is an industry) and mainly doing the same thing day after day — so is it any wonder that the answers can verge on the prosaic? I mean, when I used to write and edit TV listings years in the mid-1990s no one asked me what went through my mind when I wrote a particular TV Movie (the futility of life would have been a correct answer), while during my time writing about rock I got some stultifyingly dull answers when questioning rock stars about the meaning of life (what’s the album about? Well, I noticed that we didn’t have an album between 4 and 4.5%). On the other hand, maybe it’s the glorious beer that sparkles in the glass, as sunny and smiling as a wedding ring made from Welsh gold, or as dark and brooding as George Mallory en route to die on Everest, maybe this is what answers the question and the brewer is just the adjunct (though brewers should always be asked, brewing is a perfect meeting of art and science after all and even the most monosyllabic will come up with the odd polished word or two). All this is leading up to the fact at the moment I am drinking a ferociously robust glass of Dark Star’s Smoked Porter that has blackberry, creamy toffee and the smoke from a bonfire in the next field on the nose, before it rasps and rock’n’rolls in the mouth with notes of smoked peat, toffee apple and hedgerow jelly with a dusty, straw-like dryness at the finish. It’s a magnificent beer and I wished I had tried it before I met Dark Star’s brewer Mark Tranter (below) on a Czech beer and brewery weekend back in September (Mark meet Josef Tolar, Josef meet Mark Tranter, it was that sort of trip). Doubtlessly, based on my brief experience of his gloriously enjoyable company studded through with bone-dry humour, he would have come up with something witty and concise. Or would he?
Here’s Dark Star’s Mark with some chap

Wednesday 4 January 2012

The elliptical nature of beer

Elliptically the beer spreads itself out on my palate, a series of wide spaced dots of darkness-influenced flavours — a coal tar sweetness, a honey roast hazelnut hint of toffee and an iron hand of English hop (perhaps Fuggles) that acts like a whip to bring these meandering flavours to attention. I like it and it’s an English, West Country, bottle conditioned beer that has the gumption (or should that be audacity?) to call itself a porter. Oh who cares, it’s a beer whose soul has a depth I would willingly plunge into if it were a pool where a fast flowing river took its rest on the journey to the sea. Oh it’s Cheddar Ales Totty Pot

And who is this that walks amongst us, a dark framed figure whose shape changes as often as the sand in the Sahara? Black IPA, Cascadian Dark Ale, black bitter, or just a mere mortal of a beer? Who cares? What I have had in my glass this Christmas has been a magnificent beast of ringing singing hop diligence and dark tarry eroticism, a beer that once again comes out of the West Country, via West Point and the West Coast. Oh it is Moor’s Illusion, with which I have spent some time with and hope to explore more of. Black IPA — I kind of like it, its detractors remind me of the accounts I have read of some unnamed person who shouted ‘Judas’ at Bob Dylam when he started rocking up his folk (and did you know that the Stasi allowed their informers to choose any name apart from Judas — the power of names indeed). Elliptically yours…