Monday 30 July 2012

Lager of the week: Brio Number 1

Currently reading Gavin Francis’ True North, a fascinating account of his travels through the Shetlands, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland — so it’s entirely pertinent that this little beauty from Borg brewery in Iceland turns up on my desk. It’s a fairly pale creature — the sun is a stranger, maybe a result of spending time in the caverns of maturation; though the paleness is of the golden ilk and so perhaps we’re thinking of fields of barley ripening in the sun. Whatever, it looks pretty beautiful with bubbles lazily tracing their way up the glass to meet their destiny in the Kate Moss thinness of the collar of foam. Bavarian-style Pilsener is apparently the aim (with Mittelfruh adding nobility, though the website talks of Pilsen), and according to the can I have (yes it’s a craft can or whatever you want to call it) the beer was developed in close collaboration with several pubs in Iceland.

There’s a gorgeous freshness about the nose, a sensation of freshly kilned lager malt, a bath salts freshness, a brewery source freshness that amazes me given its long travails from the far north (to be drunk in tandem with a hot spring perhaps?). The palate has a great lemony snickett of hop notedness that I adore in noble hops (when I wrote said entry for the OCB I was amazed to discover that the whole concept only went back to the 1970s), along with a quenching semi-bitter, bitter lemon bite that Pilseners seem to emerge into the world with. The finish has a dry and Wildean crispness about it, with lemony hints rushing backwards and forwards. It’s a rather delicious Pilsener and I for one are now thinking of how I can get to Reykjavik to taste it in situ (perhaps in a hot spring). 

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Beer Fetish

Some people don’t eat food, they consume calories or celebrate a lifestyle; other don’t drink an alcoholic beverage but consume units or allow the glass or bottle in their hand to magic up some imagined personal achievement (‘You deserve a…’). Before the fork hits the plate the question is asked: how fat will I get; before the glass hits the lips, the question is asked: how drunk will it get me? Come Dine With Me could turn into Come Die With Me if the wrong fats are consumed, while MasterChef is more masturbate than masticate. Cookery books everywhere but fewer are said to be able to cook unless it’s some creation they treat with the same fetishitic approach of a Victorian gentleman’s obsession with cleanliness (nothing annoys me more than loud people in a deli telling all and sundry about their knowledge of this or that artisanal bread/cheese/condiment — I feel that they’re not interested in eating as so much in telling the world how much they know and next year they will move on to whatever attracts their magpie-like penchant for shiny things).

Foodies (how I loathe that word, especially when it’s self-proclaimed) write about the passion with which they approach eating and cooking, but what does that mean? For me, whenever I read about someone howling that they cook (or eat or even brew) with passion, it seems such an empty, throwaway phrase — anyone can do something with passion even car park attendants or house burglars though doing something with passion doesn’t necessarily mean that it will turn out well either (I wonder if intelligence, energy and expertise would be better adjectives — the intelligent cook or brewer would more likely get my vote). I love food and cooking and eating it but I have no liking for food fashion — I have no real interest in the Hestonisation of cooking either, but on the other hand I don’t want to be stuck in a mire of shepherds’ pies and liver and bacon. It’s food and I like all of it and after a stint spent in Spain, Italy or France where food is there to be enjoyed without an accompanying bogeyman in the shadows waiting to make you fat, I always feel a bit disheartened on my return to the UK.

Hold on a minute though, this is supposedly a beer blog and I’m writing about food (with a couple of cursory mentions of brewing thrown in). However, here’s the beer moment: what I’m trying to grapple with in the manner of my inner Giant Haystacks, what I am trying to understand, is what I see as the growing fetishisation of beer (that’s fetishisation as in an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to (a) particular thing rather than anything to do with gimp masks and god knows what else). My evidence? I think about the Holy Grail-like hunt for new varieties of hops, the more New World the better; the spillage of words that goes hand in glove with the debate of is it craft or not; beer evangelism (I’m waiting for the emergence of the Beer Salvation Army with its associated newspaper WortCry); the campaign for this, the campaign for that; beer for her, beer for him, beer for that bloke with a funny hat.

So what people will say, beer is noticed, taken seriously, respected, talked about — which is all very true and I am not advocating that people stop doing any of the above, but what concerns me is that there is emerging a predilection in dealing with beer that all too often gives it a arcane, fetishitic glow on a par with trainspotting (I’m not advocating banning that either, but on the other hand…). It’s beer for heaven’s sake, a glowing creature of many colours and shapes, bringing with it a thousand stories of history, people, moments, lives lived and loves lured into the room where a warm stream of wort (golden, amber, chestnut, the darkest night where vampires from Venice meander, take your pick) starts its journey to our glass. Sometimes it’s just there to be devoured rather than debated, and on other times it brings with it its own tales and states of being and people’s journeys. These thoughts are all very random at the moment, but they were kick-started by a couple of things: a recent holiday in Spain where my enjoyment of many cold cans of Alhambra Especial was more of a pleasure sensation than a flavour experience and reading about an upcoming book called You Aren’t What You Eat by Steve Poole.

As I have said I’m currently grappling with this subject and you could argue that all I’ve done is add to the fetishitic nature of what I’ve drawn attention to. Maybe I have but on the other hand it’s something I felt needed to be written and as a writer I cannot help but scratch that itch. All thoughts welcome.  

Monday 23 July 2012

In search of lost time

Men and women in a pub together, sometime during the early 1950s or at the end of the 1940s, and the beer is as dark as it always was then. It’s Yorkshire brewed, Hepworth I think, given the use of a magnifying glass to see the start of the name of the label. Why do I know this? The bloke on the left, in the uniform of the Royal Engineers, is my father and he did his square bashing in Catterick (first in last out he still says today with pride of the RE, though I always ask if he means going to the Sappers’ Arms or some similar institution). I look at the beer in their glasses, I presume it’s mild, it’s dark after all and this is the time when mild was the go-to drink. Interesting enough the bottle is clear, was this something to do with the rationing of glass? I have asked him what the beer tasted like and he can’t remember but then he was never a big beer man (Mackeson, or Mackie as his mother used to call it, with Sunday roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and that was it). I like this photograph, it shows an unconscious element of beer drinking that was just part of the life of Britain at the time. My dad went on to enjoy Scotch and the odd glass of wine, but it was when I started writing about beer that he began asking about beer again. I remember his interest in O’Hanlon’s Port Stout and his recoil from a glass of Goose Island IPA. This historical, Proustian search for lost time comes as I start on a feature that will include the NFT’s magnificent Roll out the Barrel dvd and makes me think that we all must have personal family pictures with beer to the fore — I’m now looking for one with my mother nursing a glass of Bass No 1 Barley Wine, which she does recall enjoying in the 1950s. 

Monday 9 July 2012

Going nano at the Guildford Beer Festival

So come and open the Guildford Beer Festival I was asked and so I did and was snapped for the local journal, hair slicked back with nature’s Brylcreem, rain in other words. And before this I drank in a town I’d never been to before going on to enjoy the festival, which is now in its third year. By the Wey, within earshot of the tarmac thunder of the A3, watching the rain drop down, I spent a restful afternoon in the Rowbarge, drinking Ascot Ales’ Posh Pooch, a pleasing old school bitter. And then to the festival I went, at the cricket club, green and flat and grandstanded. Beer festivals I don’t visit that much these days, but this one at Guildford I thoroughly enjoyed and made several new beer friends, including Dorking Brewery’s Red India Ale and their rich, grainy mild called Black, as well as WJ King’s Sussex Downs Ale. ‘Come and meet Jim’ I was then told and in the marquee where the beers flowed there was Jim Taylor with the sign Little Beer Corporation behind him. There were bottles on a table, chunky, low slung chaps, similar to the ones I have seen from Italian craft breweries (and that’s the country they come from), an IPA, a Californian Common, a Pale Ale with chestnuts, while coming soon the promise of an eight-week matured Pilsner (clean modern branding on the labels helped as well). Talking with Jim, tasting the beer and burbling with excitement as I connected with the IPA (all done in cahoots with Columbus, Chinook and Cascade), a heady, aromatic, romantic brew (with its roots perhaps in East Coast IPA rather than West Coast?). Meanwhile the Californian Common soothed and smoothed its way down my throat. ‘I’m a nano-brewer,’ said Jim. I’ve heard of them in the US, so is this the first British one? Brewing is not Jim’s day job, he works for SAB-Miller, who are very understanding, and he has a desire to produce beers in these lovely, lyrical bottles, individual beers, experimental beers, beers that please. That’s not all — there is the business model. ‘We’re looking to build up the business as a Cooperative, at the moment the business is a ltd co, but come Christmas we’ll swap over to a Cooperative,’ he told me in between dealing with queries from intrigued punters, one of whom asked if he was local. Jim was able to point and say with a smile ‘about a mile away’. I like what Jim is doing and I like his business model, but because I got thrown out of Economics O-Level and am officially a dunce when it comes to explaining business I would suggest that if you want to know what Jim plans to do (and of course buy his delicious beers) I would recommend going over to and find out all about this brilliant nano-brewing lark. 

Friday 6 July 2012

English Pub

For a moment you might think of the front of an old galleon, rigging done away with, landlocked and laid up until the anchor of time drags it into the depths; or maybe there’s a more metaphysical effect on the senses, the Jaffa orange light that washes on the top window and its surround of brick and flint conjuring up the vision of a shelter from the storms that toss and turn us through our everyday lives, a haven, a den, a cave, an inn. The leaf-free branches of the neighbouring trees are traced across the sky, nature’s idea of a child’s squiggle (and what are the graffiti artist’s epileptic daubs but a child’s squiggle in adult clothes?), reach out to the redbrick chimney — late Victorian, early Edwardian perhaps? — that lifts itself in the style of a perpendicular beacon up to the heavens (an ironic gesture on the behalf of the builder given the closeness of the city cathedral?), and behind the curved fa├žade, beyond the shipwrecked benches, is the pub to which I am drawn to on this winter late afternoon, when that season’s mockery of a sun wipes itself out beyond the bland, mole-blind cloud cover that drapes itself across the sky with the finality of a shroud. Inside, through the door that has seen thousands stride in search of that indefinable something that only the pub can provide: a glass of beer, a tot of rum, a snifter of red, a plate of bread and cheese, ham and eggs, fish and chips, the prospect of conversation, compatibility with one’s fellow man or woman, the consolation of silence in a corner with a book, a journal, an iPad, the passing of time, the passage of time, the ease of time that the pub provides. And in this pub I know as soon as I pass through the door that I will choose a glass of Adnams Southwold Bitter, a break-dance of a bitter, flexible, complex, simple seeming, the crisp biscuit-like, grainy body mixing it with the deep voluminous orange notes from the English hops that gave themselves to this drink of mine. And in the Adam & Eve I finish my glass and turn the page of my book and tune in and out of the voices of those who come in here day after day and decide that I will have another one. In this pub and that pub and every pub there is always time for another glass of beer. 

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Sharp’s Quadrupel Ale

This has the colour of a reddish bronze warrior, but then in a different light it looks stygian, as dark as the Styx (and who shall pay the ferryman?); it’s a colour contrast that draws the drinker in, crooked finger beckoning. A thin collar of foam on the top, not as thickly daubed as you would find with an espresso, more like thin ghosts wafting through an arena of the unwell. Cherry, wood and alcohol major on the nose for me; while the palate features a big Brian Blessed kind of bear-hug of different flavours with more cherry, the warmth of booziness, a whisper of woodiness, the big fat embrace of malted barley (a real come hither sort of character), the tightly corseted sweetness always found in this strength of beer, a nuttiness that reminds me of Bakewell tart and a general lush richness that has the sheen of a oily, buttery Oloroso. I tried it with an unpasteurized Red Leicester and it dovetailed perfectly with the salt and buttery creaminess of the cheese (it is the sort of cheese that has an austerity of flavour and earthiness yet there’s also a bosomy, dirndl-wearing creaminess that wouldn’t be amiss in a Munchen beerhall). In other words, this is a magnificent beer. 
This is part of the Sharp’s Connoisseur’s Choice that Stuart Howe was kind enough to send me. 

Monday 2 July 2012


On a trip around Vermont a couple of years ago for a travel piece (which you can read here), I visited a load of breweries and brewpubs, but ironically enough one of my most memorable beers was Boston Lager at the eponymous airport. And why was this? The glassware. I had a serving of Boston Lager in the Junoesque (Picasso inspired perhaps?) glass that Sam Adams launched to bring out the best in their beer — and it did, especially with the noble hop character. Then when I was airside I had a Boston Lager in a normal glass and it was nowhere as good. To be honest I’ve long been a convert to the right glass for the right beer, but the latest innovation I have come across in Beer Advocate (written by one of my favourite US beer writers Lisa Morrison) has messed with my drinking head. Have a look at the picture. It looks weird; for a start I would worry about spilling it down my front and initially I wasn’t sure which part to drink from (I’m not the most spatial minded of people). Yet the company that produces it (Offero) promises that it brings the ‘cupped hand’ experience to drinking beer. Given that we are supposedly led by our noses when drinking beer this glass therefore should lasso us into a greater craft beer experience. Without having drank a beer from this truncation of a glass I cannot say how good or bad it is but on the other hand I do think that this innovation should have a massive hand of applause — it might just be the future of craft beer glassware rather than just another gimmick on the way to nowheresville.