Wednesday 30 May 2012

Jubilee beers: Harvey’s and Windsor & Eton

Jubilee beers, Jubilee beers, of which I have had several sent to me; one of which is Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale, 7.5% in the bottle, barley wine, wine of the barley. Debutante beer in 1952 and Harvey’s for this bottle have gone back to the recipe books to recreate it as it was (with black malt, flaked barley, plus Goldings and Fuggles, some of which come from growers who supplied hops for the original brew — so it’s slightly different from the regular 8.1%). It hangs limpid in the glass, glassy eyed, a calm surface, the mirror of the nostalgic view that invisible posters on certain newspaper posting boards have for the 1950s (forgetting nuclear scares, wars throughout the world and race riots) in the same way other newspaper posters have a nostalgic view of the 1960s. Deep molasses influence on the nose, while on the palate it’s plummy, woody, port-like, boozy and warming, bitter almonds, baked apple topped with brown sugar (oh the freedom that the end of sugar rationing brought only to end in the addiction we have for it now), more molasses. It’s a ripe and roisterous barley wine whose prodding bitter notes in the finish (and then there is the spice of white pepper) are an urge to the drinker not to forget to have another swig. Yummy, as I understand was the colloquial expression of delight of those days. 

And then I was sent a bottle of Windsor & Eton’s Kohinoor, named after a massive diamond in the Coronation Crown (I have also had Treetops, of which I have yet to taste). The brewery says it is a ‘classic Indies Pale Ale’ that also uses jaggery sugar, jasmine, cardamon and coriander as well as New World hops — I don’t think, unlike Harvey’s beer, that this was a typical brew in those days. Dark gold in colour, it’s got a sweaty, ripe peach skin nose (I’m thinking peaches in a bowl on a sunny kitchen table for a couple of days). After this initial swipe of ripeness the nose calms down a bit and develops a Epsom bath salts kind of freshness that I have always found appetising (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale sometimes has this). A bit of green apple stuck in your aunt’s Jubilee hat makes a slight appearance as well, and even a hint of spearmint gum from a fresh wrapper left in the sun plus — a bit late in the day — a cut grass sweetness can be noted. The path of palate enlightenment is peppery (white) and minty (spearmint) and fruity (pineapple) and dry and bitter, all working together with the preciseness of an engine in the latest Audi. It’s an angular beer, pretty intriguing, with all those various spices and hops. The dry, chalky finish reverberates with the equal precision of a metronome keeping time. And time and the passing of is what these beers are about. 

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Grub’s up at Wadworth

Chop chop chop. Sizzle, thresh, rip, roar and panic as the mixture of flour, butter and beer becomes a dough to be laid like a fallen comrade in a tin that will take it to the next level through the medium of heat. We shall remember you forevermore. Chop chop chop, sprinkle, spread, add, stir, splay; chillies, onions, garlic, herbs and currants if you so wish find themselves being tipped over the edge into the series of open coffin-like tins on the shining stainless steel plain of a table. We’re making beer bread.

And so, evidence as if a crime had taken place, bottles of beer stand around like hoodies on the corner, uncertain of what role in life, what path in life, they should take. Empty vessels, others half full or half empty as the mood takes one. Names: Olde Timer, 6X, Swordfish.

Yes, this is Wadworth, a brewery visit no less, with a difference though, the cookery school to be exact, which has the feel of an engine room on a ship as the heat from the ovens clings to the skin with the patience of a sunbeam and the throbbing sound of the air-con adds a deep bass note to the ambience. Yes, a brewery visit, but instead of gathering around the mash tun and asking questions on strike temperature we undergo a physical, 3-D, real-life essay in the making of lunch, under the tutelage of Scott Ferguson, the brewery’s catering development manager.

Stainless steel, chef’s whites, the clan gather of sweat on the brow, what shall we eat today? As well as the bread, there’s rhubarb and raspberry crumble (to which I add Olde Timer, old school strong bitter, a beer that I always enjoy); the macho mash of sausage meat, herbs and garlic along with debris from a downed black pudding, the prism through which we shall see a hefty, spicy, rumbustious, rollicking medieval knight of a sausage roll (I added 6x to the mix); finally, some delicacy, beer batter (Old Henry IPA), in which strips of sole were ducked before their immersion in hot oil.

And then it was lunch. The sausage roll was like a great big spicy mother of a machine gun hammering away, while the sole goujons in their slightly sweet batter were light-footed fauns dancing through a green forest, a contrast of crunchiness and the giving texture of the new potato accompaniment. Oh and the brewery’s recent addition to the keg stout front — Corvus — was a dreamy creamy, bitter, mocha dusted, slightly roasted glass of dark goodness, 

Then there is a book. Ferguson and Wadworth published A Taste of Wadworthshire last year, and, I must admit, having tried out several recipes on this heated, Hussar-light morning of fun, it is rather good and can be bought from the visitor centre — next on the list fruity coronation chicken on beer bread (how apt given the weekend ahead of us) or maybe beer and rum ice cream with chocolate chips? It’s not a big book, but it’s got good photos, robust dishes and a nice feel to it. I’ve got plenty of cookbooks, beer or otherwise, but this is one I will be using. I don’t want to always eat tagine, Szechuan cuisine or whatever some geeky geezer with a blowtorch, tube of Smarties and pheasant feathers has dreamt up.

I got the feeling that this was a real attempt to introduce food and beer in an honest way (like their Beer Kitchen range), a way that I don’t always recognise elsewhere when TV chefs or wandering minstrels with silly names go all beer cooking on us cause there’s either a sponsor or some advertising sandal wearer has said beer is the cook thing that month. You might not like 6x and think the Wadworthshire ad tag a bit Ambridge, but beer needs the old school guys as much as it needs the tyros and tyrants of taste. 

The next challenge? This will be for Ferguson and Wadworth to get this idea of beer cuisine out to their pubs, a idea that becomes as natural as the use of salt and pepper. Licensees of all schools have for too long adhered to the F├╝hrerprinzip nature of thinking that wine is the only gain in town. It isn’t.

Wednesday 23 May 2012


Down in the cellars of PU in 2005; in 2010
this unfiltered PU came in a plastic cup…

In his perceptive essay Pivo at the Heart of Europe (Drinking Cultures), Timothy O’Hall starts off with a quote: ‘A Czech never says that he’s going out to have “a few beers”, and he never counts the beers while he’s having them. You go out for a beer. A beer is like a woman: when you’re with a woman, you never think of women you have been with before, and you never think of the next woman. It would be disrespectful. It’s the same with a beer. You go out and you have one beer… and maybe, when the unfortunate time comes that you reach the end of your relationship with your beer, then maybe you’ll have another.’

I like this theme of universality, which was similarly expressed, albeit on a human level, by Borges in his poem You.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Do I blame Elizabeth David for postwar beer decline?

I’ve had a theory for some time that the decline in beer consumption in the UK was partially due to the influence of Elizabeth David on British middle class cooking habits. Back in the 1950s, olive oil was something you got from the chemist, while aubergines were probably thought to be the vegetal props of red-nosed, low comedians and garlic a salve against those teddy boys who fancied themselves as Christopher Lee. Then comes Elizabeth David with her cook books full of Mediterranean sun — and voila garlic, aubergines and courgettes all feature in the British middle class kitchen. Coq au vin, Greek salad, Navarin lamb — what is the drink that is served alongside dishes like these? Wine of course. This was obviously not the only reason (and actually David is by far my favourite cookery writer with French Provincial Cooking being my desert island cook book), but maybe it added to all those other things that eventually stripped British beer of its dominant status (foreign holidays didn’t just mean lager but also Mateus Rose and Liebfraumilch, both of which could be boozed while sitting in front of the telly). 

This thought occurred to me as I remembered about how one British cookery writer (possibly Arabella Boxer) believed that David’s prediliction for the south stunted the growth of British cooking, which was just showing signs of emerging from its tunnel of Brown Windsor and steamed cabbage. Bit unfair to blame one writer of this decline (and by association the decline of beer), but at roughly the same time (mid 1950s) just as David was weaving her magic on the middle classes, another food writer Elizabeth Craig released Beer and Vittles, totally dedicated to recipes cooked or served with beer (I love the idea of the Weissbeer Zuppe, which suggests one and half pints of ale). The opening line of the introduction has Craig write: ‘if there is one form of cookery that has been neglected more than another in Britain it is beer cookery.’ Back in 1955, did anyone think that this observation was right I wonder?

Sunday 20 May 2012

I meet a Page 3 girl at the European Beer Bloggers Conference

‘I was a Page 3 girl in the Sun,’ says the woman. How long ago I want to ask (as the hymn Rock of Ages springs to mind), but merely nod, politely of course, and take another swig from a glass of Revolutions Clash London Porter (yummy). ‘It was during the Falklands War when I took my top off for the lads and ended up in the Sun,’ she continues. I’ve heard some funny lines in pubs over the years (‘I was in Broadmoor for 15 years so I’m just getting used to drink again,’ was one jaw-dropper) — and here was another jewel to add to the crown of conversational costume-stretching that I have been steadily creating. Then there is her companion, who after admitting that he was nuzzling 70, then goes on to add he’d been in the army. The Green Howards. Then the Royal Marines (ask which commando and he says he can’t remember). He was also in the SAS. Not at the same time he adds. Hmm. I am in the Whitelocks, a Charles Dickens of a pub as done by Simon Callow in full whiskers, stovepipe hat and a sparkling silver fob watch just right for reflecting the dancing flames of a pub fire on a winter’s day, in the company of Leeds pub guru and ace beerwriter Simon Jenkins, with whom I was going to spend an hour the following day rattling on about better beer blogging for the European Beer Conference. We get our collective eyes in by going round Leeds’ pubs and bars, whilst bumping into various parades of bloggers. At North, Tipopils is being launched on draft and if there’s a more sensuous, seductive interpretation of Pilsener then please let me know.

And so on the following day to the conference, only for one day for myself, and unsure of what about to expect. In the afternoon we did our stint, sitting on stools like unsure Val Doonicans, going on about what we liked and didn’t like in blogging, with post size being seemingly the most controversial subject. I have a personal disinclination to read long blogs, believing that anything can be said in 500/750 words but as I kept saying this was my personal belief (and one other thing I didn’t say and that was because I didn’t think of it at the time is that if I am going to write 3000 words I would like to be paid for it). I found the whole day great fun. The dinner with Sharps Connoisseur Collection and introduced by the ever-entertaining Stuart Howe, was fabulous. The Honey Spiced Tripel demonstrated his godlike genius (as they used to say about Scott Walker, though I wouldn’t like to hear Stuart sing given the rubbish he listens to). While afterwards a tasting of some new (to me) European beers yielded Browar Kormoran Olsztyn’s Grodziskie — smoked barley, weizen yeast, TCP-lite with a great refreshing quality. Their porter was equally plucky and heroic in the glass, an old library of leather bound books, in which I would like to spend many a windy night. There were also beers from the De Molen and Brew Fist. And then that was that, one day at the two day conference, lots of friendly people, bloggers and brewers, having a laugh, learning stuff, talking a lot and finally reacquainting myself with the marvel that is North. And of course meeting a former Page 3 girl.

Friday 18 May 2012

What I like about the pub

Eve and Aaron are sitting down, then standing up, then sitting down, sitting down, half a crown, around the big fat wooden barrel that serves as a table at which you sit, at which they sit, at which I sometimes sit, while their small terrier Jack mulls about in front of the fire, the fire we sit love, the fire we still need, one eye on the water bowl, recently filled once again by the barman Jim, the barman Jim who doesn’t come from here but from there, and has made himself both friend and foe to those who come and drink in this pub.

Then the door to the pub opens, a bell of the back of the door rings, and locals look towards the door, to see who is icumen in, whether it’s a local who is looking to pass the time of evening or someone who’s heard of the reputation of this pub and wants to order a meal or drink a glass of beer that was brewed somewhere in the neighbourhood or the manor or the locale or whatever you want to measure space with. Sometimes it’s a lost soul who has glimpsed the light that shines itself on the sign of the bar and looked in through the windows and liked what he saw — yes the unexpected visitor is always a man.

And at the bar, the oak hewn, oak walls of England bar, a sort of wooden cage that allows Jim to come and go and think of Michelangelo or whoever his favourite painter is, Chaz and Challenger enjoy the first pint of the day, while exchanging the sorts of words that James Joyce usually noted down in his pocket book (though the mere act of jotting down the words of men handing out words like sandwiches at a funeral was perhaps enough for him). ‘The day.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Thought you were out later than normal.’ ‘No.’ ‘He died the other day, found his body in the bath, just like Whitney Houston.’ ‘Except he was white and a man, unless there is something we should know.’ Silence pushes itself with the nerve of a queue jumper between the two sparring partners for a while. No rhyme or reason in the words exchanged, but then after all this is the pub, the British (or should that be English, for after all I am in England, now, here and I suspect forever) pub, whose provenance and providence echoes down the centuries.

There is Gareth at the table, on his own, as he is most nights of the year, unless someone wants to suffer the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune, night after night, in the darkness of his soul, where only the glass of Guinness, as dark as the night through which his soul suffers day after day, helps to calm matters down and make him feel as if he belongs to the men and women who drink in and out of the pub in which he knows he belongs; the pub in which he belongs. The sense of belonging is what has kept the English/British/whatever pub on its feet since the Vikings organised drinking games and the Normans brought in wine. And cider we are meant to believe.

Ah cider the fruit of the apple, the drink that causes dropsy, the farmer and farrier’s tipple, the drop of golden sun that Julie Andrews never had in mind when she sang a song in defiance of the storm-troopers of the Reich, all of them dour, mean men with a penchant for punishment. And if we drink too much of the farmer’s tipple then we are perhaps guilty of a much lesser crime, the punishment of the pancreas and the end of our days as a sane and rational man or woman.

But in the pub the people are coming and going, hello Jack, hello Jim, hello all, evening all, swaying on heels at the bar, the wooden cage of the bar, surveying all around with the jerky neck movements of CCTV, CCTV TV, robotic balletic movements that are suddenly soothed and slowed by the glass of beer sifted through the invisible spirits that patrol the space between the start of the act and the act carried out, the culmination that will end in a flood of beer across the tongue, the Goths riding across the eastern plains again. I like this pub, I like that pub, I like the pub, I like all pubs but I like some better than others. The end. Goodnight ladies, goodnight. 

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Dave Wickett

Tonight I read with great sadness about the death of Dave Wickett, founder of the Kelham Island Brewery and the man who did more than anyone to bring Sheffield to its current status of one of the great beer cities (if not the greatest) in the UK. I knew him a bit, through work with the British Guild of Beer Writers and through general beer writing. He was a member and always supported our events. In fact, I first met him when he had a saffron beer brewed for a Guild dinner in 1999/2000. I remember writing an article about fish and beer not long after and interviewed the then head brewer about it: 'it was a one-off for two reasons,’ I was told. ‘It was for something special, such as the reopening and the meal, but saffron costs an arm and a leg. It's very expensive. If we sold it over the bar at one of our pubs it would be well in excess of £3 (!!!!).' Trust Dave to help out. 

Then there was the time I organised a trip to Sheffield for the Guild and we met at the Fat Cat, a pub which I immediately fell in love with. This was also the time I really got to grips with Kelham’s Best Bitter, a beer I enjoyed as much as Pale Rider, one of those beers to change people’s perceptions of what you could do with American hops (he was a good friend of Garrett Oliver and I recall the Brooklyn Smoked Porter Kelham did in 2006). Dave the visionary. After we had been round Kelham, we then went out to see this new brewery in a stately home out near Bakewell. Dave was involved with it at the beginning and they had an Italian brewer. Dave the visionary once more. 

On the pub front The Fat Cat was and is a fantastic place and stands as a great testimony to Dave’s vision: great beer, a constant collusion of ambiences and the chance to plant yourself into a local and listen to other people’s lives (naturally the Fat Cat is in Great British Pubs). A further example of the measure of his standing in the beer world is the fabulous DW that Stuart Howe at Sharps brewed in honour of Dave a couple of years ago with the proceeds going to a Cornish hospice charity. 

Dave had been ill for some time and I knew things were not getting better so in some ways the news is not surprising, but it still shocks and saddens. One last thing: despite the plethora of controversies, egos and marketing ups and downs, the beer world remains a convivial world that I am always glad to dive into but tonight that world will mourn the passing of Dave Wickett. 

Dave Wickett and Garrett Oliver at the
time of Brooklyn Smoked Porter

Monday 7 May 2012

One moment

There is something poignant and memorial-like like about sitting in a quiet pub on a Monday afternoon, watching the barmaid rush about trying to get ready for the evening trade, in a small rural place, where there is only one other table occupied, and the Dark Star wisdom is going down well, while on the muted soundtrack there is a whisper of some female singer caressing Elton John’s Your Song (the best song he ever wrote, apart from Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting of course) and making you feel as if all life is concentrated into this moment, and the dog is sitting quiet beneath the table and the words have tumbled onto the page. Death is always around the corner but for some reason death has been held at bay with this poignant and memorial like moment. And if by some strange sense of synchronicity the beer that I drink is called Revelation. 

Friday 4 May 2012

Session #63 — the beer moment x 3

Too many beer moments to count so on walking the dogs came up with three and decided to stick with the ones that spontaneously fermented in the mind, rather than pick and choose and trim and tail.

Travelling through Suffolk, decided to stop for a pint at the King’s Head in Laxfield, one of my favourite all time pubs. A glass of Adnams Best Bitter, as it was then called, its backbone of English Maris Otter (as was then used) and spicy, pithy citrus Kentish hop character; muscular and mandatory in that I felt that I needed another. Car outside though, expected at home later in day — a quick weakening of resolve, a scan through a notice board to see if there were any local B&Bs and the creation of an excuse for why I needed to stay another night. I’m glad I didn’t as sometimes you cannot recapture that first beer moment of the day no matter how many pints you have.

At a CAMRA meeting in the mid 1990s, at which I was asked to take over the branch newsletter, effectively my tipping point into beer writing. In the Royal Clarence Hotel in Burnham on Sea, which was then the home of RCH brewery. ‘Try this,’ said someone (I forget who). A pint of RCH’s East Street Cream, the deliciousness of which made me stay with it the whole evening, in the enjoyable company of an elder chap who was called Freddy Walker (yes the former submariner after whom Moor’s beer was named in the late 1990s). ‘I think we’ll have one more,’ was the constant refrain for the evening. A beer that I still enjoy but that first meeting was glorious.

From the maturation tank a golden stream of beer, topped with a marsh-mallow head of foam. ‘We call this Spezial,’ said the brewer at Chodovar, before pointing in the direction of nearby Bavaria, ‘and over there they call it Marzen.’ If there was ever a moment of beery epiphany that set me off on a quest this was it. The beer was creamy, fresh and perky, fulsome in the mouthfeel, with a bittersweet buzz followed by a notable bite of bitterness; it felt both smooth and rough, a heady combination that made it one of those dreamy beer experiences to be had when tasting a beer straight from the tank.  I’m still dealing with the consequences of this experience.

Hawkshead — nice beers

There I am, first trip north of Liverpool, with college climbing club. Some town we arrive in, name now lost in the mistiness of my personal time — Kendal perhaps or confusion with awful confection for the mountains Kendal mintcake, I prefer Twix — and to a pub we go. The Woolpack might have been its name or am I thinking Emmerdale (of which I have never seen an episode in my life) but then my memory persists that the name had something to do with wolves. Long time ago, many fell off the ledge, but recalled and relodged in memory is a moment in the cold, in the north, my first term on a club trip, that one of the second or even third years got out a book and read wisdom about this pub (being young I didn’t care for this wisdom, it reminded me of church). My first experience of the Good Beer Guide. Of the pub I can little remember and lager was what I probably drank (ale in those days always made me feel full). And so the Lakes connection is renewed with a trio of bottles received from Hawkshead the other week, their well-hopped range, three bottled beers that sing and zing with the essence of the hop: Cumbrian Five Hop, Windermere Pale and NZPA.

I haven’t had their beers for some time. Brodie’s Pride was in 1001 Beers cause I loved it. First drank in Brussels in December 2008 in the evening at some reception after a great boozy afternoon with the brewery’s founder Alex Brodie (along with several other SIBA brewing members) in Poechenellekelder. The brewery’s Tap is also in Great British Pubs. Would I like this trio of beers? And I did, though some more than others and I also wondered how they would transplant down the alcoholic scale — they are all over 6%. So here they are, three of a kind.

NZ Pale Ale On the nose, imagine the starcrossed lovechild of a grapefruit having spent a lustful night with a banana and nine months later this is the result. The love continues on the palate issuing forth sparks of bitterness, a banana sweetness, a rusk dryness, cracker like even (cheese anyone), a cough of dryness and the old hessian sack that’s been in the dry barn throughout the summer. Full and stringently fruity, rather than indulgently, lazily and sloppily fruity.

Windermere Pale Citra and Goldings. Hark the golden chime of hop fruitiness — grapefruit, lychee, ripe papaya, a fruit bowl of existentialism —along with a Riesling petrolly kind of character. As I drink I am reminded of the fulsomely rich robe of a medieval merchant overtly fond of his gold and silver; a big fat bellied man who made his money with wool and furs. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Flanders recently, but that is the image this beer evokes — a richness, an indulgence, but also a friendliness and sense of fun.

Cumbrian Five Hop Here I felt this beer had a harsh bitterness riding along like some outrider from Mad Max alongside the sexy fruitbowl character; it had a thinner character than others and I also found it frosty, with the bitterness dominating. However I loved the mouth puckering bitterness and the dusty peppery spiciness as in the spices you use for curry. Mixed thoughts and in the end I felt it a shrill beer, with the bitterness a bit like some saxophone squawking away in a late night bar to no one in particular. But then some people like this sort of music.