Wednesday 26 December 2012

When a pub that is flooded reopens for business

A couple of days ago I wrote about how one of my local pubs had been flooded on Saturday night. Herculean efforts obviously took place as the Bridge Inn opened today — there was still the smell of dampness in the air and no food was served, but Kenny and Rachel plus staff had moved mountains (and dealt with the post-traumatic shock of the flood) to make sure we could enjoy Boxing Day drinks. And I’m sure Jim will be able to enjoy his Exmoor Ale this afternoon (by the time Jim came in I had moved on to my other local before attempting to cook the traditional bubble and squeak). That’s it really — I just wanted to make a point, once again, about how pubs are more than places to get a few beers down. They are as much as part of our community as the church or — dare I say — the local Coop. Cheers. 

Sunday 23 December 2012

When a pub floods

The River Barle at 6pm a couple of hours before it broke

There’s a moment in the film The Battle of Britain when you see Londoners crowding together in a hall after they’ve been bombed out of their homes (sadly the hall gets it not long after). An old boy wanders about, muttering to himself, mantra-like ‘they’ve got the Rose & Crown, they’ve got the Rose & Crown’. 

I thought of this scene last night when all of a sudden my wife started seeing panicky messages on Facebook about the River Barle breaking its banks in Dulverton. We’re at the top of town and so I wandered down to find that the river had ‘got’ the Bridge Inn. Its downstairs lights were out, the doors were closed and water was flowing over its low wall, through the beer garden and into the pub. The firemen were out, the garage opposite was also flooded, as were several other properties around. 

This morning we walked the dog past and I spoke with Kenny the landlord. He’d been optimistic he would be open again by tomorrow but now he wasn’t sure when beers would start flowing again. The cellar had not been flooded and in an attempt to lighten things I asked him if there was much beer left in the casks. What about Jim I then asked. Jim is a lovely old chap who lives nearby in sheltered accommodation and most days takes himself to the pub for a couple of pints of Exmoor Ale. He was on Lancasters in the war and also supports Arsenal so we’ve got a lot to talk about. He and the Bridge will miss each other for a few days — this is something that those who directly or indirectly talk down the pub forget: the pub is a home from home for many, even those of us with a warm (or not so warm in our case) comfortable house. 

For a few days I will miss the Bridge, I will miss the general chit-chat over nothing in particular, a perusal through the papers, freshly pulled Proper Job or — if I’m feeling flush — a bottle of Duvel or Orval. It’s only for a few days but happening just before Christmas it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Kenny and his family. Hopefully though they’ll be open again before the end of the year, but it is at times like this that one remembers that the pub is much more than a place to drink. 

Thursday 20 December 2012

My favourite beer books of 2012

Words, food and beer: how a book begins (Marble Arch, Feb 2011)

Been some good books this year, but for me five stand out and here they are in no particular order. I loved Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont’s gorgeous World Atlas of Beer with the duo’s incisive and elegant styles of writing bringing the beers of the world to sparkling life allied with lush, luxuriant and lively photography. This is the beer book as a backpacker.

Then there was Chris Arnot’s Britain’s Lost Breweries and Beers, an elegiac and yet uplifting social history of those that were once at the centre of their community but have now gone. It might have been a yomp along memory lane but the lacrimosa was absent — some of the beers now vanished, Arnot suggested, might not have been that good. It’s a valuable record — Brian Glover’s The Lost Beers and Breweries of Britain covered a similarly melancholic subject but I have not seen it yet, but knowing how good a writer Brian is I will look for it in the new year.

Then there is Pete Brown’s exceptional Shakespeare’s Local. I did my first serious book review for the Telegraph of it and devoured it in one sitting. Even now I have been listening to Tony Robinson reading extracts from it on Radio 4 and continue to enjoy it. The strength and skill of the book is that Brown brings to life Southwark, seeing it through a beery eye and putting the George at the centre of things. I love it and think it’s his best book yet.

You will probably have a job getting these three books in time for Christmas but not with my final two choices, which are by the same writer and can be downloaded onto your Kindle within minutes. Evan Rail’s Why Beer Matters and In Praise of Hangovers are beer writing taken to a new philosophical plane, beer writing as a matter of musing, personal recollection, philosophical probing all brought together with an erudite and personable writing style. They are essays, elegant in their design, but also robust in the way in which they celebrate beer and its universe. In Praise of Hangovers was a particularly welcome company on a train journey I took from Pilsen to Munich back in September — a crowded carriage, a slight mustiness in the head after the Purkmistr festival the day before, the growing carousing of Oktoberfest-bound travellers, a desire to go home (though it would be another four days before that happened) and a disinclination to have another beer for a while. That essay made me feel much better and I remembered it that evening as I wandered open-mouthed around Oktoberfest’s carnage.

So there you are five great books and I haven’t even mentioned Mitch Steele’s book on IPA and Stan Hieronymus’ For The Love of Hops, which are for 2013.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

India Pale Bock anyone?

Joy of joys: part of the fun is digging out the mash

Why is collaboration with a brewery important to me? Why do I do it? There’s an element of ego — it’s satisfying to see your name linked with a brewery that you admire, a brewery that makes beers that you (and others) enjoy. It’s good fun to hang around a brewery for a day and find out how beer is brewed, rub loads of gorgeous hops such as Chinook, Bullion and Amarillo between your hands and take a Marianas Trench of a sniff and just for a day leave behind the potentially ruinous world of trying to put words together so that they form some sort of sense. I also love beer, love certain beers more than others and when I find a brewery that is willing to riff on a style that I love then I want to join in. There’s a sense of ‘let’s see what happens’ when certain combinations are tried; there is also a sense of experimentation, a sense of creativity. I can’t brew but I can devise a recipe and someone like Jon at Arbor (which is where I was on Friday) is happy to let me loose. That’s it really. Oh and the beer we have made will be called Bock Star and we’re saying that it’s an India Pale Bock and it will be released sometime late in January. That’s it really.

Monday 17 December 2012

Craft, craft or craft?

Christ I am so sick of people trying to work out whether a beer is craft or not, whether the beer that they might enjoy in their glass is made by one man in a bathtub or created beneath the whip of an evil, moustachioed corporate type (and who doesn’t probably pay their fair share of tax either). Good beer is good beer, though if you are the sort to boycott a company because what they do offends your view of the world then good luck (I must admit to a small chuckle when I saw that someone had written that they thought ‘we’ are boycotting Amazon when it came to discuss buying a certain beer book — who’s ‘we’ when they are at home?).

My mock outrage is fuelled by the furore (smallish I suspect in the context of the worldview of beer) over a press release issued by the Brewers Association the other day. It is entitled Craft Vs Crafty and goes on to state (or maybe restate) what a craft brewery is, making specific connections to breweries that are owned by big corporations.

This is the part of the press release that jumped out at me and bit my nose: ‘Witnessing both the tremendous success and growth of craft brewers and the fact that many beer lovers are turning away from mass-produced light lagers, the large brewers have been seeking entry into the craft beer marketplace. Many started producing their own craft-imitating beers, while some purchased (or are attempting to purchase) large or full stakes in small and independent breweries.

‘While this is certainly a nod to the innovation and ingenuity of today's small and independent brewers, it's important to remember that if a large brewer has a controlling share of a smaller producing brewery, the brewer is, by definition, not craft.’

I was sent the press release and my first thoughts were of the UK regional breweries that are using the word craft and crafty for beers produced on both their big kits and pilot micros. Greene King ‘craft’ their beers, while others like Brains, St Austell and Wadworth have small ‘craft breweries’ to produce excellent beers such as Brains’ series of IPAs, St Austell’s incredible array of one-offs for their beer festival and Waddies’ Beer Kitchen range. And the other day I enjoyed Thwaites’ Crafty Dan, a 6% American-style Pale Ale produced on a micro kit. Are these beers craft? I don’t give a monkeys. I enjoy Crafty Dan and Shepherd Neame’s Double Stout as much as I have recently loved Arbor’s Dr Rudi’s IPA, Otley’s Oxymoron and anything by Wild Beer.

It’s up to the BA to say what they like and I suspect that there might still be a vestige of David vs Goliath in their mental make-up, something which you could probably apply to the mind-set of some within a beer group closer to home. Goose Island are owned by the Evil Empire, but I still love their IPA, Matilda and Bourbon County amongst others, so I couldn’t give a flying fig whether it was classified as craft or not. I don’t care very much for the effluent of Pabst Blue Ribbon (is it still a hipster’s ironic choice?) but on the other hand I have also been under whelmed by some US (and UK) self-proclaimed craft breweries.

Craft, craft or craft? Who knows, who cares?

Thursday 13 December 2012

Moeder Lambic Fontainas

A long straight bar, solid wood tables Guardsman-straight, arranged in rows, the elements, the hardness, an Atlantic coast bashed by the waves, Cornwall, Brittany, Kerry, take your pick, the sense of being rooted to one place. The glitter of glasses from behind the bar, tubular stainless steel from where the beer flows; signals and signs and symbols dashing through the air and by this way drawing in the drinkers. Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

Babbling voices raising like steam from a street grill in some 50s noirscape, guttural Flemish, fluted French, English flitting in and out like bats twirling through the air of a summer’s evening. Bowls of stew, sweet, fulsome, meaty, a sleet storm of flavour; stoemp ladled out, creamy, buttery, root vegetable, potato mashed and smashed; rough and rugged cuts of charcuterie and pungent cheese that stills the restless tongue for a while. Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

The beer selection, chalked up, V for Victory, the resistance fighting back perhaps. Tapped into glasses come along the likes of Cantillon’s Kriek Lou Pepe and Fou’ Foune, De Ranke’s scorchingly bitter Hop Harvest 2012 and the same brewery’s ever dependable Cuvee, plus many others, whose names stand out on the blackboard, chalked up there: V for Victory. Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

Thank you Brussels.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Watneys Pale Ale

On pale ale I’ve been engaged in research and contacted several brewers here and in the US on their definitions, the idea being to build up a composite picture of what seems to me the broad spectrum of the contemporary beer style with reference to its past (but not dwelling on it). I’m especially indebted to Simon Yates, head brewer at Marston’s in Wolverhampton and the chap who’s been producing essential information on the hop varieties used in Marston’s single hop series. He has supplied me lots of information, but what brought a wry smile to my face was his mention of Watneys Pale Ale. It’s not a beer I ever had (same goes for Red Barrel — were they the same?), but even in my non-beer drinking youth I was aware that there was something off about Watneys. Simon also mentioned the fact that the Scaffold (of Lily the Pink fame) sung on an advert for the brewery, which went out on the TV. I don’t know much about the Scaffold except that they seemed a bit of a joke band and featured Paul McCartney’s brother, but they didn’t seem to mind being associated with Watneys (perhaps this was just before the Red Barrel fiasco). However just for the record here are the words of the ad, which makes me think that Stella had travelled a long away when they turned to French movies for their inspiration…

We’ll drink a drink a drink/To make you think a think a think/Of Watney’s Pale,
The greatest a-a-ale,/So you can keep your medicinal compound
Now we’ve discovered Watney’s Pale.
W-e-e-e’ll drink a drink a drink/To make you think a think a think,/Of Watney’s Pale,
The greatest ale.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Pilsen dreaming

I love the Czech Republic, love the cities, love the countryside, love the people and naturally adore the beers produced over there. I seem to have visited quite a lot in the last couple of years and produced a fair few stories: this is the latest one, on Pilsen (the entrance to Pilsner Urquell, right), which appears in today’s Daily Mail here. As the sun streams in through the window I wouldn’t mind taking myself off to Klub Malych Pivovaru in the city to enjoy a couple of 12˚ pale lagers or heading out to the city limits to Purkmistr, where one of the best beer festivals in Europe happens every September. Instead I’m at home, but there is a bottle of Konrad’s 12˚ pale lager chilling in the  fridge. Let’s see what happens.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Dark Star/Bristol Beer Factory Southern Conspiracy

Pale and pure Helles gold in colour, New Zealand hops leap out of the glass with the grace of a gazelle filled with the joy of life unaware that the same skill will be called on to escape a lion the next day; a joyful crushing of white grapes in the hand, the imagined fragrance of the scented, sage-like brush of the Corsican marquis. Hey it’s 7% but in the mouth the feel is elegant, full without being coarse (a greatcoat as designed by Paul Smith perhaps), grape must sweetness, gooseberry jelly delicacy with a nod towards sourness and earthiness, grapefruit, adult parma violets even, all trifled with by the hard-backed dryness of the desert, white pepper bitterness, both contributing to a finish that thunders at the back of the throat, the echoes of the hooves of herd of wild horses long after they’ve passed. I was sent this from Dark Star’s brewmeister Mark Tranter, who was very proud of what he did with Simon at BBF. The use of the white wine casks in which the beer has aged is a bit of a change from the usual whisky/rum/brandy cask finish and it does give the beer a lighter touch than its abv would suggest. Its beers like this that remind me of unorthodox bands I would hear on John Peel late at night, fusing this and that and making sense of the mix. If there’s ever a moment when I feel a bit bored with what’s going on in beer then something like Southern Conspiracy beats me up and throws me on the floor and suggests I go outside to carry on the discussion, a suggestion I willingly comply with.