Tuesday 30 April 2013

Brock and roll

Fashionable beer. Hip beer. Popular? Best selling? Innovatory. Favourite beer? What is a beer? I can answer the last question but trying to pin down a meaning for the rest of them is a Sisyphean task — when I get to the top and start metaphorically punching the air, the great big boulder of disbelief and cynicism starts tumbling helter-skelter down the slope and the questions keep being asked again. And during the last few days these questions have been tumble-drying around my brain for a couple of reasons. Last week I filed a piece on craft beer for the MA, which had involved a lot of questions and replies (people wanted to talk and I had over 7000 words of quotes), this had in its turn sparked off plenty of thoughts, which can be a bit cyclic, irritating even, a bluebottle buzzing around in the bedroom on a summer’s eve, but of one thing I am sure — all this talk about craft or not craft is good for beer.

Then there was a trip to Badger, where Pete Brown and I were shown around their new brewery and discussed beer with head brewer Toby Heasden, who was obviously proud of the new kit that started working last year but he was also very pleased with the 120-litre brew-kit that he was going to use to make some experimental runs when it was linked up. We also tasted an imperial porter that was slumbering like Smaug in the depths of a stainless steel conditioning tank. It was fruity, juicy, roasty and dry, with a finish that lingered and lasted in the mouth like an echo in a cave; there’s a lot of Galaxy hop in the boil and it’s going to be 7.5%. It’s part of a series that last year featured Wandering Woodwose — an old ale, dark chestnut in colour, with sticky banana and berries on the nose and a palate that was at once smooth, rigorous, spirituous and liquorice-like.

Head brewer Toby Heasman is also good company, a brewer who did a stint in the US, was then at the heart of Bass and now has his own brewery to play with. Like all family brewers he is passionate about brewing and can do it rather well as the imperial porter I tasted suggested. Sometimes, as I suggested in my last post about the men in the white coats, it’s easy to forget just how good some of these brewers are when they are given the freedom to let loose.

Badger is one of those breweries that are very successful but rarely feature on the radars of beer geeks. And why should they? They produce commercial beers, a fair amount of them being for the off-trade (there’s a 80-20 split between off and on, a figure that surprised me no end). English hops are mainly used, which was not a crime last time I looked, and I do enjoy their First Gold bitter — it’s a beer beer with the spring’s first flowering of magnolia on the nose; a restrained bitterness that remains appetising, mid-palate sweetness and a dry and I’ll-have-another-swig in the finish. Meanwhile their range of fruit-flavoured beers is not to everyone’s tastes and I will be honest they’re not my game either, but a brewery is also a business and if sales of the fruity-flavoured beers help to pay for imperial stouts then I’m happy.

So will Badger’s imperial porter be a fashionable beer? Hip? Popular? Best selling? Innovatory? Or just a favourite beer? My money’s on the latter.

Friday 19 April 2013

The men in the white coats

I wrote my first article about beer in the autumn of 1996, about a new brewery in the part of Somerset to which we had moved two years before, Moor Brewing. The brewer didn’t wear a white coat, neither did John Gilbert at Hop Back, which I visited with the local CAMRA branch, or most of the SIBA guys I met at Tucker’s Maltings. I then moved onto bigger breweries: Young’s, Adnams — here the head brewer wore a white coat, a commonplace garment in the brewroom of the family brewers at the time.

Has this fashion died out? Not entirely, but I don’t see the new generation of brewers looking like lab assistants (mind you, do lab assistants look like lab assistants these days?). Is it because it’s redolent of an older, browner time or will it return in an ironic fashion in the same way as flat caps seem to be worn by some ironic hipsters? Who knows, but the main reason I mention the white coated head brewers is because this week I received a press release about the retirement of Wadworth’s Trade Quality Brewer Adrian Wood, who was definitely a man who wore a white coat (after all he had been in the business for 44 years and remembered when the head brewer was routinely addressed as Sir and the sales reps wore bowler hats). I first met him at Palmers about 2001 (where he wore a white coat, as does his predecessor to this day), when the brewery still had a vertical open cooling system, and then saw him over the years through his SIBA activities and at Wadworth.

As his leaving gift he brewed the latest of Wadworth’s Brewer’s Creations, which given Wood’s time in the trade was a 5% amber-coloured bitter, of which I received a mini-keg. And I enjoyed this ‘brown’ bitter immensely.

There are times when my tongue needs a break from blitzkrieg hops, strong melancholy stouts and even elegantly crafted Pilsners and all I crave is the kind of beer that I soaked in during the cradle of my drinking time. As long as it’s well made and eminently drinkable then I’m happy. And this one made me happy, with its big sweet grainy nose, almost redolent of rich sweet tea, while in the mouth it was a bittersweet and orange-like flurry of white notes, classically Seville orange marmalade, plus a whisk of caramel, some deeper tones of berry (blackberry perhaps?) and a pleasing bitter note coming in at the end of the palate, before its dry, bitter finish. It’s very drinkable and while you could say that there was nothing challenging about it, there is something welcoming and wilful about it. The men in the white coats can still cut it. 

Wednesday 17 April 2013


In Victoria Wetherspoons as the chimes at midnight approach with a glass of Siberian Red and I watch the people come and go. The crowd is thinning, but there’s still a forelock of drinkers, one of which I notice. He looks lost, he checks his change, he looks flushed, he looks nervous, he looks like he wants to heed people and talk, his plastic bag is faded, his hair is white, his coat is clean, his smile is perplexed, his shoes are shiny, his trousers are gravel dark, his long coat is a gabardine the colour of brawn, he lifts a magnifying glass to the lager font, he’s patting his pockets, he’s got his beer, he’s left the bar, will it be the 00.10 to Ramsgate or the 00.06 to Woking that he wants, he looks at them all on the departure board, the 00.42 to East Croydon it must be then, his tie is fired with stripes of service and then it’s the 01.00 to Brighton that he must be on, but then when I look up again he’s gone and I suspect he’ll be back at the same time tomorrow night.

Friday 12 April 2013

Arbor Bock Star

This was brewed in early December after a series of conversations I had had with Jon Comer at Arbor; it was also inspired by a review in Beer Advocate of a beer called Hoponious Union. I kinda liked the idea of merging the clean canvas of colour that lagering brings to the bruising, one night stand of pungency that hops can come up with. So this was my idea but Arbor facilitated it and this is the result.

[clears throat, looks at the audience, acknowledges the pianist]

A burnished, well-polished, buffed-up, sleepy-eyed chestnut in colour, the sort of wine-dark sea colour that is suggestive in the northern European mind of chestnuts roasting by the fire in the middle of winter; the nose is as shy as a young child in a family snap, hiding but still wanting to be seen. Nose is almost like what you would imagine an orange pie to smell like; an orange liqueur perhaps; the straitened lace of toasted grain; the licentiousness of alcohol. A moth might want to drink this, but it would be wrong to offer it to a moth, but on the other hand how to bother this moth with a description? Here goes. The soft brushed skin of ripe peach, the sweetness of the malt bill, the luscious, lubricious touch of citrus on the tongue before it all tumbles down a dry, dusty, sweetened ravine of a finish, the sort of gulch, ravine, whatever, you will have seen in a Tarantino movie. It’s a bock in the sense that it’s sweet and alcoholic; it’s been lagered so it’s released from the pain of estery fruitiness so it’s a bock; but on the other hand the hops of which there are many kick the beer into a newer sensory territory. Hey it’s an India Pale Bock. Styles are like tomorrow’s parties at which you never intend to turn up. 

Thursday 4 April 2013

Let’s go to the Exmouth Arms

Exmouth Market. I haven’t been to this part of London for years. I used to drive this way on my Kawasaki 550 back in the mid 1980s, briefly opening up the throttle on the stretch past Sadler’s Wells (my idea of hell: the ballet), dreaming of the weekend when I could hit the A10 and see how fast I could go. And I don’t think I ever went to the Exmouth Arms. I probably noticed it as you cannot but help note the green tiling that clambers up its jutting, pugnacious jaw of a street corner like ceramic ivy. Courage it used to sell, in some distant past, announces the branding; Courage, whose Directors I remember drinking in my third year and being told it was ‘fruity’ (incidentally I think Charlie Wells are doing a good job with it at the moment); Courage whose Best Bitter used to give me indigestion; Courage, of which a bottle of a vintage Russian Imperial Stout I once won in a CAMRA Somerset raffle in the late 1990s and then gave away (my love of dark beers is comparatively recent). And now, it’s not Courage the Arms sells but beer from a hipster’s choice of spindly, rickets-like selection of taps including Schlenkerla, Arbor, Camden, Stone etc alongside a quarter of cask beers. And about me the world of this fabulous pub spins. Big windows open onto the street, passing figures roving home from work, while three folk conjoin and stretch their time on a table in what seems to be a work meeting (Adults drinking cola? In a pub?); elsewhere a group of blokes hog their space at the bar, laughter erupting, sudden irregular bursts of gunfire in a city under siege, tales told, jokes spared; the sound of country and western incongruous in the background, my wife left me for a John Deere or some such fantasy of a mind designed like a gated community. Bare board rather than bare arms, bare bricks, open spaced, flush and spaced with the quality and quantity of the beer on sale, the Exmouth reminds and rejoins me with the joy of discovery, that there are still pubs in London to which I will come and go time after time again. 

Wednesday 3 April 2013

When Charlie met Sam

Here’s what I think: the Atlantic as a massive millpond, measured, calm and tranquil, its surface still and inscrutable. Here comes an American brewer (or many brewers) to throw in a pebble. Splash. The ripples shimmer outwards, keep moving, and reach all the shores that are washed by the Atlantic. The craft beer effect, perhaps? Here’s what someone else might think: an English brewer stands on the edge of the known world that is Great Britain sometime in the 1800s and does the same. Elsewhere in another great brewing country another brewer does the same and so the world’s great beers are born (though I’ll suspend the watery metaphor when we get to Groll and Dreher).

Last night I went to the Wheatsheaf in Borough Market to attend the launch of the Charles Wells/Dogfish Head collaboration beer DNA New World and sat there while first of all Paul Wells, then Jim Robertson and finally Sam Calagione explained the meaning of what seemed initially like an unlikely meeting of minds — Robertson and Calagione met often in the US, while the latter was intrigued by Wells’ Banana Bread Beer. As I have discovered at events like the International Brewing Awards, brewers are a fraternity, a Guild, a brotherhood even, and the battles that hobbyists and beer writers (a sharing of the same DNA sometimes?) are viewed with bemusement but also enjoyed.

As for the beer brewed over here (a US version will be made later in the year with Wells’ yeast — get to the Philly Beer Week in June for the launch), there I was listening attentively, expecting Calagione to let the assembled know how he’d selected American hops and suggested this or that, but let’s not forget this is Dogfish Head. ‘We did a reduction of our 60 Minute IPA and this was then added to the boil in Bedford.’ I woke up. The idea of the chef as a brewer, which I think Calagione has always championed. ‘Yes, it’s a reduction of one beer used in the production of another,’ he repeated as if he thought we couldn’t believe what we were hearing. ‘We hope it’s the start of a long relationship.’

The 4.5% beer is also dry-hopped with Simcoe and has an Henry Cooper’s fist of citrus on the nose, while the palate has the dryness I’ve always associated with Wells’ beers, leavened with a peach-skin fruitiness and an English (crystal?) nuttiness. I like it a lot.

And what I love about collaborations like this (Wetherspoons has done a lot to further this cause — Stone at Wadworth anyone? — though I have recently heard that these international partnerships are coming to an end) is that it opens everything out in the world/fraternity/Guild/brotherhood of brewing. Now is beer’s time.

And afterwards I had a few words with Calagione and asked the question that was bugging me. Extreme beer? ‘It wasn’t about strength but innovation and flavour. I’m not hung up on nomenclature.’

And in that millpond the ripples keep spreading. 

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Steam beer

Seems like that there’s a lot of steam being blown about regarding craft beer etc in the world of CAMRA at the moment. In the letters pages of the current issue of What’s Brewing a couple of correspondents seem to be standing up for craft keg: ‘while a good pint of cask ale is always going to be nicer than a keg beer, these newer beers are not, as Peter Jackson writes (WB, Jan), the spawn of Satan’; ‘CAMRA should be all-encompassing, supporting and promoting all good beer, whether it is real or craft’. Then on page 7 there’s a piece with the headline ‘Taste not ideology must rule’; this is written by Jim Scott who has been in CAMRA since 1988 and the line that jumped out at me was this one: ‘I think we should judge with our palates and not ideology or — heaven help us — be shackled to that obstructive corpse called tradition. We should welcome the newcomers as separate but, unlike their effervescent predecessors, equal, and unashamedly enjoy both’. 

However, CAMRA also have their AGM coming up in Norwich and the Bradford Branch has put forward a motion, part of which says: (this Conference) ‘recognises and asserts that the terms ‘craft ale’, ‘craft beer’, ‘craft keg’ and similar terms are meaningless and misleading. Conference therefore instructs that these (and similar) terms should not be used in any CAMRA communications and publications except where absolutely necessary, for example when quoting other sources and use of the term cannot be avoided. Where it is absolutely necessary to use any such term in CAMRA’s communications and publications, the qualifier (sic) should be used after the term and where appropriate the term should be put in inverted commas.’ 

Some interesting conflicts seem to be arising here and I expect the steam to keep billowing for some time yet, though while all this agonising is going on more and more great beer is being made and drinkers are not worrying what container it arrives in. 

Monday 1 April 2013

Brains gambols on making a Lambic

I don’t normally put press releases on here but I thought this one a bit of fun…

Brains Craft Brewery launches Lamb-ic Ale
Brains’ craft brewery team has taken an interesting angle to their latest cask beer. Taking inspiration from the traditional lambic style of beer from Belgium, Lamb-ic has an added unique Welsh twist with the addition of finest Welsh lamb to the brew.

Brewed with malted barley, un-malted wheat and a blend of Fuggles and Golding hops, the beer has been matured for up to 12 months in open barrels with chops of finest lamb from the Welsh hills of Ceredigion. Open barrel fermenting allows Lamb-ic to be naturally fermented with wild yeasts that give lambic styles of beer their unique taste. A naturally cloudy, orange beer, Lamb-ic (5.3%) has a sour lemon juice beginning which blends into a deep richness from the lamb. Each pint will be served with mint sprinkles on top which adds fresh and herby notes to the pint.

The Brains craft brewery team were inspired by a trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver where they tried a hickory-smoked bacon porter. An increasingly popular type of beer in the US, the team set to it to brew their unique Welsh version.

Lamb-ic is the latest experimental brew from Brains’ 15 barrel brewery and follows a American White IPA, a Bavarian-style Weiss beer, a Czech style pilsner, and a coconut porter.

The beer will be available in 30 Brains pubs from Friday 5th April. For a full list of stockists visit www.brainscraftbrewery.com/find-our-beer