Monday 27 February 2012

Original beer

Blank page. No words, just a constellation of thoughts, spots the edge of the darkness of the mind; attempts to articulate thoughts, bring together words and introduce them to each other, the networking of language. And then the process begins, the words take to the floor to show off their moves and wow the crowds and something that makes sense is created. But is what I write original, or is it just a reflection, or a rescrambling of everything I have ever read and digested? Is what I write down to the influence of language and the environment that I have grown up in or is there such a thing as an author? 
I wonder if it’s the same with brewing a new beer, that maybe unconsciously the brewer is dealing with an idea of something that might work, a remembered flavour, a dream of colour or a style that needs to be subverted? But then this leads me backwards, leads me to think, is there room for originality in brewing or are brewers just brewing what other brewers are brewing, who in their same way are brewing what others are brewing? A circle of brewing. Do brewers make singular beers or do they unconsciously echo the beers that have gone before, merely adding different varieties of raw materials and updating the technical process. But then maybe this is why brewing is often seen as a unique fusion of art and science. There’s the artistic swirl of creation along with the applied graft of science.
The reason for all this Monday morning mulling is that I have been thinking a lot about various beers and how they come to be. The question I ask all too often, what’s behind this beer, can all too often be answered with the words, ‘we had a gap in the 4-4.5% range’ (pick your own abv). On the other hand there are brewers who wonder what will happen if they add A to B and use C at a certain stage of the process. Are they artists or just more perceptive in the way they make their beer? More questions than answers here I think but it’s good to ponder all the same. 

Thursday 23 February 2012

Tap East, a retail experience that is forever craft

Steve Wonder’s Superstition plays, the jerky, almost epileptic, seemingly out of control electronic riff snapped back into place by the tight rhythmic embrace in the background. An apt track as Tap East, which is where the music plays and I sit, is equally funky, a well-embedded corner of the humongous mall life of Westfield Stratford, a part of the British retail experience that is forever craft. Recycled wood, painted in a colour scheme reminiscent of a line up of beach huts in Southwold, forms part of the decor, while 10 taps dispense beers such as Grolsch, Arrogant Bastard and something from Magic Rock; three of the six handpumps are devoted to the beers brewed in the space that I can see through to the right of the bar — burnished copper vessels that look like vessels designed for exploring oceanic deeps. John Edwin Bitter is a traditional English bitter, as upright as a Guardsman, while the 5.2% stout is an appetising amalgamation of roast, char and cream. And while I drink, the people come and go through the entrance next to Tap East, eager to explore this mall with the sensibility of Waitrose (I didn’t see a single KFC), and in the outlet across the way a pregnant woman looks for the ethical life (called As Nature Intended so I suspect it’s the ethical life for her, hey diddly dee). Tap East is not a pub or a bar in the sense of somewhere that has locals but it’s still a place I would suggest you visit even if shopping isn’t your god. If coffee and food can have their craft presence in a place like Westfield, then why not beer? And as I leave Bigmouth Strikes Again starts up — am I being told something?

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Rubbing along with Marston’s

Rubbing one’s hands together. In glee, with joy, with anticipation. When these hands are full of the green green glaze of hop flowers then my sense of glee, joy and anticipation knows no bounds. The palms are sticky with essential oils, the leaves crumble and flake themselves all over my clothes, there is a pungent, resiny, sweaty, boot-room smell in the air, not unpleasant. I’m not the only one in this ridiculously enjoyable situation — the room above the pub in the West End is full of adults, both men and women, some with latex gloves, rubbing their hands together, and smelling the musk of the plant that gives beer its perfume. 
Marston’s Single Hop beers is the reason why. It’s an attempt to explain the thinking behind 12 beers the brewery is releasing throughout the year, all of them with a single hop, an attempt to get drinkers to think about the hop in their beer, in the same way the wine guys devour information on single varietal grapes. There are three beers to taste, January, February and March. Wai-iti, which comes from New Zealand, offers a hint of lime zest on the nose (though the nose on my sample in the glass also has that trade mark green apple note of acetaldehyde); the East Kent Goldings is earthy, with this particular hop allowing the malt to come through — it also adds a spicy note, a dryness that makes for that classic British beer character. Galaxy has Cantaloupe melon and peach on the nose and is rather swish in an Lana Del Rey sort of way. 
Paul Corbett from Charles Farum hop merchants gives us a talk about the prospects for the hop industry, a brief historical resume (the peak of hop production was 1879 with 17,000 acres under cultivation and there is now 2500 acres), the ongoing trials to produce more intensely flavoured British hops and a look at the idea of terroir for hops. I like the way he conjures up the hop growing area of Nelson in the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island — here the air is clean and comes straight from the Antarctic thus helping to give the hops more intense features than the same hop varieties would have if grown in the damp and variable climate of the UK. And did you know that more and more US brewers were using British hops? 
And now to the hop rubbing. We have six bowls on our table: Saaz (pellet form), Citra, Kohatu, Nelson Sauvin, Strisselspalt (used in Orval when I visited in 2010) and Styrian Goldings. It’s a fun exercise, even if I start sneezing in the middle of it (allergic to hops? I hope not) — I am particularly intrigued by the Kohatu which brings forth notes of lemon and dust burning on the bar of an electric fire that has just been switched on. 
Ok, you could argue where has Marston’s been? Especially as the ‘awesome’ side of hoppy craft beers has rippled out through the land. On the other hand Marston’s is a large brewery and it has the chance to educate a lot more of the beer-drinking public about the beauty of hops than — sadly — the sort of craft brewer that gets my juices spluttering and fizzing like a Catherine Wheel. To my palate the beers are not world-beaters and they got one notable beer writer next to me itching for an IPA, which we had at Craft Beer Bar later on, and as they are all 4% I along with several others felt that more alcohol (not in the Hardknottian sense of extremity, but maybe 5%) would have given the hop flavours a more bolder character. However, if this is just the start of Marston’s beers leaving behind an often monochrome world and embracing a more colourful future then I’m all for a bit of rubbing. 

Monday 20 February 2012

Institute of Beer and Distilling beer books

One of my favourite pub books
and on the list
Presciently it arrives in the inbox, just as I was lazily gearing up to write up a list of my 10 favourite beer books (but then I realise it’s very difficult to keep it to 10 so I’m glad of the diversion). The Institute of Beer And Distilling Beer Book Sale/Auction is an annual event in which the Institute gets rid of a load of second-hand books on brewing, beer, the industry, history and pubs — I’ve got a list with guide prices in front of me, which as a member of the Brewery History Society I received yesterday. They are some intriguing titles here including The Brewers Pocket Companion (1901, guide price: £26), the magnificently off-centre London Pubs (1962, guide price £6), my own Big Book of Beer (2005, a snip at £6) and plenty of brewery histories, pamphlets and so on. I must admit to being tempted by a few things on display. For more information go here where there will be a full list of books and details on how to bid. And perhaps my best beer books list will have to wait a bit longer. 

Friday 17 February 2012

The Monkees meet the MC5 in a glass

That’s nice, Video of the Week (page 16 opposite Pete Brown’s column) in the Morning Advertiser for Nathan Nolan, an actor who parades drink reviews under the title of Mr Drink ’n’ Eat. I often taste beer with him and have been doing it for a couple  of years now and it’s thoroughly enjoyable — the MA has picked one I did with him recently. As you might guess from watching this I have no desire in going on TV, I’m a writer not a puppet as Lawrence Camley said to Alan Partridge when he was asked what the capital of Kenya was (it’s bloody Nairobi by the way), I just like talking about beer, tasting beer and seeing what it has to say to me. In this case we tasted Stone’s Cali-Belgique IPA — the Monkees meets the MC5 in a glass was my conclusion. But then I have always loved the Monkees, the MC5 and Stone. Oh and the beer really goes well with Nepalese curry.

Thursday 16 February 2012

And so to Bristol Beer Factory

And so to Bristol and its Beer Factory and I do like the beers these guys produce in the old fermenting room where once the ales of Ashton Gate slept the sleep of the just. Southville Hop, Milk Stout, Sunrise, the 12 Stouts of Christmas and now this gleeful little bottle of Vintage 2011, that I was given on a recent visit. What do you want to know? There are five malts and four hops; it’s aged on oak and has the mark of the beast on its alcoholic strength, 6.6%. In the glass it’s reddish mahogany brown, the colour of rum and coke perhaps? The nose has a fragrant floral character, but before you can get all lovey-dovey and hand a bunch of chrysanthemums to your beloved, there’s also a hint of fresh graphite pencil and mixed spice, plus a woody, tannic wisp from the oak (and is that a hint of berry fruit?). This is complexity that should increase with age. It’s big and fat and alcoholic on the palate, the scumptiousness and adulthoodness of bitterness, plus a sweetness that is like the saltiness in a good Stilton — it doesn’t mean that it’s sweet anymore than Stilton is salty, but it all works. More from the glass and I get a luscious lubricity, a sensual feel that contrasts benignly with the grainy dry crisp malted barley character; it’s a beer that is both delicate and strong. Fiery hop pepperiness towards the end of the palate enlivens things up before a firm dryness with hints of cracker-like rye notes and more bitterness leaves the beer to finish with a bow before it’s time to start the whole glorious cycle again until the glass is empty — and when the glass is empty my song has ended.

Friday 10 February 2012

where’s this then?

I had parked myself on the end of a long wooden table, coloured the burnished brown of a well-varnished chestnut and seemingly carved out of a single tree. It was a comfortable table that I wouldn’t have had in my house, but it was the sort of pub table at which I have always felt secure. It was one of about two dozen that had been laid out barrack-square tidy in the main bar of this beery institution where beer had been brewed — it is said, I had been told, I had read — since the late Middle Ages. What do you feel when someone or something makes the claim that they are the oldest, wisest, hippest? I have a newspaper cutting a decade before I was born with the obituary of a great grandmother — ‘she was one of the oldest families in Llandudno’. What did that mean? 
The room I sat in, within the company of a smattering of drinkers, tourists perhaps, probably?,  was seemingly a Teutonic-like shrine (or was this the effect of my meditative thoughts that had turned to the Austro-Hungarian Empire?) to dark wood though evening sunlight softened the hardness as it reached in and stroked the stained glass windows. I noted the large metal chandeliers that swooped from the ceiling, cold, cruel-eyed predators dressed up as a nice interior design feature whose creator perhaps hoped for a touch of the Nibelungenlied. Sadly they really looked like they’d emerged from a job lot in an out-of-town DIY store whose wares were bedded down on an industrial estate. 
As I waited to be served by waiters who rushed about, their trays held high, money bags hanging like sporrans on their aprons, I continued to look about: the floors were tiled, easy to wash I briefly thought, then remembering all the myths and stories of drinking of the so-called six-o-clock swill in 1960s Australia. Meanwhile, more genteel, more European than the brash Aussies that briefly held onto one corner of my brain, waiters, imperious and the very opposite of idle in the rush with which they scurried about, held trays studded with glasses of the rich dark lager brewed somewhere else within the building. I tried to catch one’s eye, knowing that my time was limited and that I had to be somewhere else soon. 
A chap of medium height in the next row of tables, looking about, CCTV on two legs, short stubby hair, cropped almost to the scalp — I finally caught his eye. He reached the end of the row, turned left and approached me. At last I was going to try a beer that had haunted me ever since reading about it within the pages of Michael Jackson’s books on beer. This was my fourth time in the city and with a bit of time and being on my own for once, I was not to be denied. 

Thursday 9 February 2012

Old Manchester

A 7.3% ale from Marble that is brewed in collaboration with Fall fan and Fuller’s head man John Keeling is what I have in front of me. Opens with a soft phut — like the sound of a bullet being shot through a silencer in a Hollywood movie where the heroes get one in the shoulder and carry on rather than suffer major blood loss. The sweetness of the malt reaches me from the glass as I stand typing on the kitchen counter and then I raise it to my nose and there is a jellied fruit aroma of English hops (some grapefruit and some sweat), plus a sweetshop aroma of slightly baked bananas (before the caramelisation takes hold), and then the floral, ripe tropical fruit skin (peach perhaps and some papaya?), plus a hint of cherry brandy even. Spritzy on the palate at first, champagne like, the bubbles and beer gathering together in a host upon the tongue to let the dark malts in the beer lift upwards like angels — it’s a bitter beer, old fashioned bitterness perhaps, you know that fist in the face, that call from the captain, that rousing to action that gets good teams going; there’s a hint of bubblegum and ripe plum, some marizpan or is that Bakewell tart?, some white pepper, a sweetness without sweetness, a nutty alcoholic sense of its own finery; this is not a hop bomb, neither is it a malt bomb, it wears its strength lightly. I wish I had two as I would like to compare it with one in a year — there’s also a dustiness, a dryness within the bitter finish, a counterpoint as beautiful as any employed by JS Bach. I’m reaching towards suggesting that there is a hint of a Brune about it as well, that candied brownness (though lacking the medium to high carbonation). Old (Brown) Manchester — dare I use the word brown again? 

Thursday 2 February 2012

Bath Ales Gem

Bath Ales new beer bar Beerd, pretty good pizza and beer 

So is this boring brown beer the colour of an old sideboard that has been polished slavishly by the family over the years yet still retains the gleam in the eye that caught the fancy of whoever bought it when they saw it and fell in love with it. It looks good in the glass in other words, a bit like an old sideboard that becomes part of the family (sentinent of course). Still in the glass, limpid almost, though the gleam and the condition suggest life. Is this limpidity a reflection, an homage to the old Bristolian preference for still Draught Bass, as was related to me recently? Do brewers think that deeply? Or marketeers? Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. This is just an idle fantasy of mine at the end of the night. A drink if you don’t mind, of this bottle of Bath Ales Gem. I’m thinking Hessian sackcloth in a dry hay-barn after a thwack with a pole, chocolate digestive biscuit smugness though not without its attractions, more crunchy malted barley seeds that are handed out whenever one goes on an official brewery tour and a lasting bitter finale that sets me up for an encore. It might be boring and brown to some but it’s also a robust and roistering version of a best bitter that might just work with a chilli con carne.

Thanks to Bath Ales for sending me some beers — I’m researching a couple of Bristol beer features at the moment and the place is beer city west (also think Bristol Beer Factory, Arbor Ales and Zero Degrees for a start).