Friday 25 January 2013

Greenwich goes to Bamberg

One of the biggest gaps in my beer travel experience is Bamberg. Hate to say it, but I have yet to visit there. It will happen, but I don’t know when. But last night for the moment I felt as if I could see Bamberg just on the horizon, far away, shadowy, but still there, a beery version of Coleridge’s Xanadu briefly glimpsed. The occasion was an informal tasting of the Meantime collaboration with Bamberg’s mighty maltings Weyermann, whose bags I have seen in breweries across Europe and in the UK. In the opinion of Meantime brewer Rod Jones, who taking me through the beer, Weyermann is perhaps one of the most innovative maltsters in the world, offering dozens and dozens of malts to brewers. The beer we were drinking and talking about was called London Porter Bamberg style and had been brewed at Weyermann’s (like the Hop Institute in Zatec they have their own pilot brewery). ‘It’s a classic London style with a twist,’ said Jones as I dissected the darkness within the glass. Pale malt, Munich malt and Abbey malt made up the majority of the grist, while two dark malts (one caramelised, the other a huskless black malt) and beechwood smoked malt were also added. The hopping rate with East Kent Goldings was just enough to balance the sweetness and an ale yeast was used. The beer slept the sleep of the just for three months and was well attenuated. As for what it tasted like — it was smooth, creamy, bittersweet, faintly smoky, toasty, raisiny and chocolaty on the palate, an assembly of colours and notes that just about enabled me to glimpse those fabled towers and roofs in the distance before the night fell and they vanished back into the drenched trench of my imagination. It was rather noble and magnificent and at 8% was remarkably easy to drink. For me it was a reminder that beer isn’t just about hops, malt is more than just a workhorse, it can be the rainbow that lights up a wet day, the burst of colour and chaos that defines a symphonic movement from Shostakovich, it is, as is oft said and written, but seemingly forgotten, the soul of beer.

So if you’re in the vicinity of the Greenwich Union today it will be on draught, but be quick as Rod reckons it’ll be gone by the time Friday seques into Saturday. 

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Black Cat blues

It’s that moment that never leaves you; it’s the memory that itches, that demands to be scratched; the memory that you also use as a security blanket, a warm comfort against whatever assails your day-to-day life. It’s memory as a motivator: George S Patton with a speech that emboldened his guys to go up north after Normandy. It’s the memory as a firecracker sparking off a spitting, hissing, fizzing firework display of light, fire and noise within the cranium; it’s Marcel Proust dipping his biscuit into a cup of Rosie Lee and being brought back to his childhood.

For me, tonight, today, tomorrow, memory is the cold clear day, the crispness of the air, the big sky, and then the glass of Orval in the pub, but also the sight of Westmalle Dubbel in the fridge at the back of the bar, all of it taking me to one destination: Bruges. Which is where I was two years ago this week, researching the bars for an article for the Sunday TimesTravel Magazine (paywall I am afraid).

There is one bar, amongst the many I visited, that plays with me, that remains with me; not because it had great food (Cambrinus); not because it had a delightful crepuscular sense of seclusion (’t Poatersgat); and not because you have to go there when visiting Bruges (’t BrugesBeertje). This bar somehow takes me back to an imagined past, a mythical (in a personal sense) past, a past that I feel I might have briefly experienced back in the 1980s, but perhaps I didn’t.

It’s the Black Cat, a small corner bar at the folklore museum close to the Jerusalem church, one of Bruges’ hidden treasures. When I visited there were six beers, both bottle and draft, and I chose what was called Trappist Steenbrugge, a dubbel that was rich, dark and chocolaty. Even though it was part of the museum I felt I was drinking in a bar that would have been part of old Bruges as the large clock ticked away, reminding myself of mortality and time’s fleeting passage. The bar displayed bits and bobs of Bruges’ past, had wooden tables and chairs and a 100-year-old music box that worked if you put half a Euro into it; there was even a colourful vision of Gambrinus on a barrel raising a toast. A couple of men sat quietly in the corner as if meditating on their beer. Something about the bar (and the museum) gave me a false memory of the past, the feeling that I used to visit bars like this in the past (whereas in reality I was in school) — it’s a museum bar for Christ’s sake and yet it’s playing havoc with my memory.

The clock ticks, voices hum, the glass of beer on the lips revives and once again a bar takes me somewhere else in time, to somewhere I might or might have not been. As Yukio Mishima wrote at the end of his amazing tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, ‘memory is like a phantom mirror. It sometimes shows things too distant to be seen, and sometimes it shows them as if they were here’. For me that is the great, magical, enchanting strength of a bar or pub — it can sometimes make time fade into the shadows and let reality becomes a confusion of memory. And all with a glass of beer to hand.

Saturday 12 January 2013

The outdoor life

What’s this then? It’s a container with 600 litres of unfermented hopped wort that has been moved out into the yard. It’s going to have a bucket on the top and some gauze over the opening but crucially the lid is not going to be there. It’s dark in colour, as you might be able to see — Munich malt, caramalt, some roast barley, some wheat and some acid malt went into the mash tun earlier in the morning, plus some lactic acid. Hops included Simcoe, whose aroma as they waited in the hopback filled the air with their perfume. Unfermented? Yep. It’s going to be out in the yard for several months, a yard that is surrounded by farmland, so who knows who’ll pop by for a chat  (back in the brewery the rest of the brew that helped with is settling into the fermenting vessel, getting itself comfy with the three buckets of yeast that have just turned up at the front door and invited themselves in — we’re calling it a black gose, the wort tasted rather interesting, anyway back outside). That man is the foreground is Stuart Howe, head brewer at Sharp’s, and yes he’s playing with sour beer. Hurray! 

Monday 7 January 2013


Sour. I have known sour-faced men and women (not that many though for who wants to spend that much time with them) for whom the world is one big frustration; the sort of person I would desperately talk to when I was younger and in a new part of town and attempting to become part of the crowd in a pub I laughingly called my local.

I have had a sour look from a stranger when I suggested that she might like to dance and maybe afterwards could I buy a drink for her (not surprising if you had ever seen me attempt to dance during my — not that enthusiastic — clubbing days).

Sour beer I have had, enough of it to flood an ark on with assorted fauna clambering aboard, a kind of Life of Pi in reverse. I was in a pub just over the border in Devon where the landlord was sitting drinking with his cronies. When I asked for a pint I heard him say to the barmaid ‘pull it through a bit, it’s not been used for a couple of days’. I couldn’t finish it as my face was making strange shapes while my Jack Russell was picking a fight with the pub dog. Meanwhile another pub on Exmoor had warm Exmoor Beast on tap — in the middle of July, in a village whose largely ancient inhabitants seemingly went to bed at 8pm (ever had lambic porter?).

On the other hand one of my favourite post pub meals was sweet and sour pork (especially when fried in batter), while my wife and son chew on gummy, sugary sweets called sours when we go on a long car journey — when I chew on these I always feel that my face makes the sort of shapes that if translated into physical exertion would be called jazz dancing. They’re quite refreshing though and take your mind off the price of petrol.

And then there’s lambic and gueuze — along with sweet and sour pork the acceptable face of sour. Though it did take me about 10 years to really get Cantillon — back in the 1990s I used to put a sugar cube in my Christmas morning bottle of gueuze. 

I’ve been thinking about the word sour throughout the weekend, partly due to the fact I’m off to Sharps this week to brew a Black Gose (possibly) with Stuart Howe and due to a conversation I had with WildBeer’s co-founder Andrew Cooper on Thursday. I was writing a feature on them (and I will be honest, I regard them as one of the most exciting breweries in the country at the moment) and I’d called up to get some quotes, as you do. We got to talking about a sour beer that the brewery might be doing and then onto the semantics of the word sour.

‘Brett and I had a meeting today,’ Andrew told me, ‘and we were discussing what to brew and how to talk about it. We want to do sour beers in the spring, but there is the case of what language to use and how do we get it across to the public and try and keep a positive connotation. We haven’t made up our mind yet whether we should call them sour beers. There are lots of positive things that are sour, beautiful sour lemonade for instance, but it is something different to the audience.’

I like this thoughtful approach to beer. I’m interested in how some beers can be explained to drinkers beyond geeks (who might wet themselves at the thought of sour). Mention sour to people in my two local pubs and they might pull a face, but then you can ask them if they have enjoyed beef stroganoff (sour cream) or sauerkraut or just plain sweet and sour pork. It’s a bit like bitter. On it’s own, bitter is incredibly negative, but allied to espresso or Angostura bitters then it makes sense.

For me sour is similar to difficult music, literature and inclines in the mountains. It would be easy to walk away and think life is easier if I continue in the other direction, but on the other hand.

As I write I’m listening to some Benjamin Britten songs — sung in German, just piano and singer, slightly angular in their construction, not easy listening, possibly the musical equivalent of lambic or gueuze. I love them, I get something from listening to them, I don’t know what I get but there is something that stirs my soul about them. I struggled with these at first but I kept coming back and now they make some sort of emotional sense.

Sour beers are like that. Sure you can dismiss them and walk away, that’s fine. But on the other hand, they have a history and a provenance, a heritage, a small home base but by using the right words you can get them across to a wider audience — and by getting them across to a wider audience I believe it’s another way to help raise the profile of good beer.