Wednesday 26 June 2013


Even though my grandmother came from Liverpool and my father has been an Evertonian since the 1930s and my school produced Joey Jones (and Neville Southall) and growing up in Llandudno there was an awareness of what used to be called the capital of North Wales, I don’t know the place. I was last there a couple of years ago researching Great British Pubs and before that in 2006 on a British Guild of Beer Writers trip to Cains. Reading about recent developments at Cains motivated me to have a look at some pictures I took in 2006 on the Guild trip — here they are. This is not a comment on the whys and wherefores of what has happened but just a bit of documentary.
The brewery tap, we had just arrived, the chap second
from left was a boxer 

Canning, rather mesmeric

Stainless steel…

Slats in the roof — from Victorian times, keeping out bugs?

Nice bit of stone work

A brewery

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Three-C’Son — my Brains Saison

Three weeks ago I went over to Brains in Cardiff to brew a saison as part of their continental beer challenge, which has seen a group of writers swap laptops for lauter tuns and come up with a beer with its roots in the European mainland. I immediately decided that I wanted to do a saison, a pale golden one albeit with a  rigorous transfusion of American hops. We choose Centennial, Columbus and Citra, hence the name. On Sunday I was able to taste a couple of bottles of the beer and found it rather delicious, especially when paired with an aged, blue-veined Cheddar from Green’s of Glastonbury. It is pale and hazy in the glass, almost like a sunset seen through the filter of a disintegrating summer’s day, perhaps with the promise of something less benevolent to follow on the morrow. A sweet-sour nose, led by a snappy green apple note (plus a hint of fresh ripe peachiness); on the palate there is green apple snappiness, medium sweetness, a hint of white pepper and some fatness from the alcohol. The carbonation is sprightly with a moussec-like mouthfeel, while the finish has a initial light sweetness that is followed by an good dry finish. I loved it and am looking forward to trying it on keg at my local pub in the next couple of weeks. I like these brewing awaydays — I like the idea of suggesting various malt and hop combinations, I like the idea of trying to play with beer styles. It doesn’t make me a brewer anymore than the time I went up in a Hercules made me a pilot, but it all adds to the richness of life and given that 30 years ago you would have been hard-pressed to discover the ABV of most beers, never mind suggest that a major family brewery make a beer based on your own ideas, demonstrates how things have so changed for the better.


Monday 17 June 2013


There’s a dartboard, its red foam surround pockmarked with many nights of games; the score from the last game is still up there, a survivor of a good night perhaps? 501 the game, ‘S’ was on 33 while ‘C’ finished off on 6, double 3. There’s a story there, the nights spent on the ochre, the old-fashioned pub game that possibly had its origin in the bowmen of the middle ages (or not). The bar is central, there’s a parquet floor and the tables and chairs have a school dining hall design; there’s a big telly and the game machine flashes on and off, urgent and epileptic. ‘I love you baby,’ says the woman at the bar on her phone; ‘he’s got 12 days leave’ she says to the barman after finishing her call. Next door, there are tables dressed for food. The Burton Bridge Porter is twangy and tweedy with a lambic like vinous character that suggests it’s spent a lot of time in the pipes. This is a friendly, very local, neighbourhood pub that stands in the middle of a row of terraces, picked out in cream. As I sit there more men come in with their wives and someone says ‘come dine with me’, while the pump clips continue their journey across the bare brick wall. Pub.

Sunday 9 June 2013

At Brains, or enjoying a brief holiday in other people’s working lives

Three Cs being added to an FV
It was Thursday morning at Brains, and I was helping to brew a saison on the brewery’s pilot brewery, which, as I tasted later on at the Great Welsh Beer Festival, has produced some gorgeous beers including Coopers Reserve, a 10% barrel aged beer that has so much depth I half expected to find the Titanic at the bottom of the glass. You can see me talk about it here.

The grist was pretty simple — lager malt and wheat, which means that it should be light in colour and hopefully slightly hazy. No spices were used but three hops — Centennial, Citra and Columbus — were added throughout the process with a handful going into the FV. With the aid of Brains’ head brewer Bill Dobson, I wanted to get the flinty, spicy, near-austere character of a saison (we used saison yeast), but also wanted to give it a bit of an aromatic kick. From what I remember I think it’s going to have over three weeks of fermenting and lagering before it goes out into the world. Oh and it’s called Three-Cs-son. If you try it I would like to know what you think.

My time as a journalist has always seen me parachute into other people’s working situations. I have been out with the oyster fishermen of Falmouth, gone up in the air on a Hercules for a piece on female RAF pilots and been backstage with a band about to go on at the Albert Hall. It is the same with brewing when you become very briefly part of a team, though I always know that I wouldn’t last two minutes in reality (I have a chemistry and general science deficit). For a moment though, on a morning like the one I had in Brains there is a sense of a different path I could have taken. But on the other hand I think it’s the fact of this holiday taken in other people’s lives that I have always enjoyed in journalism.

Philosophical musings over I went along with Bill and a couple of lads from the production team to the Great Welsh Beer Festival and enjoyed beers from Brains, Otley and clean sweepers Tiny Rebel. What did I learn? Not to drink a 10% Belgian Pale like it was cola and then run to catch my train.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

30 beers

Sharp’s: big boys, the men that sold out, the multinational, the unmentionables; but hold on there’s also Stuart Howe, the head brewer, the man who writes a great blog, who writes about how he will put meat and offal in beer and then does it; the man who brews Doom Bar and keeps it consistent, whatever you think about it, and the man who took me to Orval several years ago (that makes me biased I presume but I wouldn’t seek the hospitality of any one brewer unless I rate the beers that he or she makes).

Come and taste 30 beers goes the invitation and how can I resist and so there I am at Sharp’s in the company of fellow beer writer Tim Hampson, both of us in return in the company of Stuart and his sidekick Carl Heron. Out in the yard there is a container full with a beer that I helped to brew back in January, Panzerfaust, a beer part of which was pumped into this container and has been left to spontaneously ferment since then. There’s an aluminium bucket on the top to keep fruit flies out but all manner of other bugs have wheedled their way in and at the moment there’s a vinous, dark malt, alcoholic nose on the beer and I hope to try it one of these days.

Our 30 beers odyssey begins with Doom Bar, forest fruits on the palate, rounded, dry and bittersweet and great with cured meats. Worthington’s Red Shield is fudge and vanilla and doomed to be forgotten. Sharp’s Own is roast and chocolate and old school, as is the plummy Special, with its brisk brush of deep fruitiness. Here comes Single Brew Reserve 2012, a brunch beer with an appetising aroma of tropical fruits that have been sunning themselves on the kitchen counter. Carl’s first WIGIG is Hecheweizen, a Belgian blond witbier with a bunch of herbs in the mix — spice and bubblegum, which suggests the beer also undertook a visit to Bavaria.

We also try some of the beers from Molson-Coors’ craft range, including Franciscan Well’s Friar Weisse, IPA, a Coffee Porter whose nose suggests ground coffee grits and a stout aged in Jameson barrels (smoked bacon/mackerel and a blood-like metallic character) — there is the feeling of by-the-numbers craft brewing; then there is Blue Moon and its associates Agave Nectar, Blackberry Tart, Rounder and Short Straw and oddly enough it’s the orangey Blue Moon, which comes out best.

Yes please. Cornish Pilsner, one of my favourite beers of the last 12 months, juicy, lubricious and luscious, or how about Chalky’s Bite, which is fluffy and Riesling (German) like (we also have a 2006 vintage that time has given a sherry/oloroso note). Now emerge some of Stuart’s 52 creations including Citrus Tripel 2010 (a big sexy aromatic beast), Chilli IPA 2010 and Heston’s Offal Ale, which has developed a Marianas Trench depth of port-like flavour in the three years it was brewed. 

Dubbel Coffee Stout is a toffee apple taking a bath in treacle with a shower of mocha; Spiced Red is jammy and strawberry like held together with a spine of bitterness, Honey Spice Tripel rings and chimes with Riesling like notes, Quadrupel is soulful and lush  and we rise a glass to the much missed Dave Wickett with DW.

We keep going. A couple of surprises gents, says Stuart, and two big bottles of Bass Celebration beers are brought to the table. 1982 is meaty, vinous and slightly smoky, but not that lovely; though 1977’s Jubilee’s Strong Ale is cognac fiery, Stilton cheesy (in a good way) and has a bitter finish that lingers like the curl of smoke from a detective’s cigarette in a 1950s pulp novel. It is rather gorgeous and demonstrates the importance of time in beer. That’s it apart from 3000, a limited edition Blue Moon strong beer that leaves no trace and Turbo Yeast Ten Zuiden van de Hemel — a distilled beery thing of 22% with dustings of doughnut sugar on the nose and a ferociously spirited sense of its own malice towards those who would drink too much of it — 12 hours on I could still taste it.

30 beers in a day, it can be done. 

Monday 3 June 2013

Westward ho

Back in 2002 I spent several months diligently travelling around Devon and Cornwall visiting every brewery (apart from Sharps for some reason or other) for the purpose of my first book West Country Ales. It was great fun and it gave me a snapshot of the beer scene in the west as it was at the time. Challenger seemed to be the most popular hop, but several breweries were using US varieties including Mount Hood, Willamette and Cascade. There were IPAs, most of which were low-alcohol session beers in the tradition of Greene King’s, though Teighworthy at Tuckers Maltings produced a citrus-tinged East India Pale Ale (they also brewed an Arctic Ale and a Russian Imperial Porter). That was then. Now, all manner of beers are being brewed in the West — sure there are trad bitters and some are very good, but there is also a sense of exploration (and maybe bandwagon jumping as well…) and consolidation.

The reason for this train of retrospective thought? Last week I was sent some beers by Penpont in Cornwall, a brewery that first came to my attention last year after they attempted to brew a white ale, which was apparently popular in south Devon around Newton Abbott in the 19th century (I think they left out the pigeon droppings, which were supposedly to be added to the brew). 

So here goes. The immediate impression of Penpont Porter (5.8%) is as if someone has sprinkled an earthy, not so sweet cocoa powder on the top of the nose of this creamy but slightly acidic (in a good way) beer. 19th century porter says the brewery, but who knows what the beer of that time tasted like? Meanwhile back in the present, there was a ringing, singing tone of bitterness going on in the finish that brought me back to take another taste. I swooned over the juxtaposition of the sweet, slightly bitter chocolate character in the mouth and the accompanying acidity that sat in the middle of the palate; meanwhile I doted on the nuttiness that wasn’t too overwhelming (hazelnut dipped in cocoa perhaps), the nudge of mocha coffee, and the boost of bitterness that made me think that this beer would prove to be an excellent appetiser for something like a juicy frankfurter. 

Then there was 1127 (6.4%), Penpont’s take on Abbey beer. The nose was sweet and crystalline, leathery and petrolly (Riesling?) with a chime of delicate fruitiness (no single fruit but just a universal fruitiness); it was aromatic on the palate, aromatic woodiness perhaps; it was sweet and boozy; dry, vinous, berry-like; with a fat mouth feel — I discovered that it went furiously well with an artisanal Red Leicester, urging out the cheese’s elemental creaminess.  I liked it. 

Finally, there was An Howl Reserve IPA (7%), which sadly I wasn’t so impressed by. This felt a bit flat in the glass, with a cut apple greenness on the nose, with some accompanying solvent notes; on the palate it was boozy, thick and viscous, bittersweet, with some banana and papaya, with a dry, bitter and boozy in the finish. It wasn’t a disaster but I wasn’t moved and it also made me wonder, what on earth is an IPA these days? Does anyone really know?

So there you are — a couple of excellent beers along with something that could be called a work in progress perhaps. Maybe it’s time for me to update West Country Ales.