Thursday 27 February 2014

Pale ale

Four points of the compass: amusement, entertainment, indulgence, discovery. I loved my (all too brief) two hours at Craft Beer Rising last Friday; I drank well from a collection of beers that would have halted the Dissolution of the monasteries if they’d have been around in the 1520s (Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII would have had far better things to do — come on, Tipopils, Renaissance Pale Ale, North Coast Old Rasputin or signing decrees, knocking down nice old buildings, winding up certain parts of the country, I know which way I would have gone). But there’s another angle of thought that has remained with me since Friday — a growing fascination with pale ales. I tried the Renaissance Pale Ale, all American hops, zest and sunlight; I tried a couple of pale ales from Truman’s, whose names escape me, one had American hops and the other English, the difference was intriguing: the American beer had a chime of fruity hoppiness, while the English one was more moody and brooding. Both were excellent but later on as I thought about pale ales, I thought about the pale ales that were around when I first started drinking and how I never took much notice of them, but then as American pale ales started arriving I did take notice of pale ale, but only if it was American. I’m a bit more open to English pale ales now but I’m still intrigued and it was this sense of intrigue that I tried to put over in an article on pale ale that I wrote for Beers of the World, when it was briefly resurrected in print last year. It’s down below and I’m still intrigued by pale ale and whether I’ve got it right or wrong is up for others to judge (but then I’ve often thought there is no right or wrong when it comes to beer).

A pale ale is not as pale as a ghost; a golden ale is paler but it’s not a pale ale. A pale ale can be amber, copper or dark gold in colour and even show off a red tint when held up to the light (in the same way as a German Dunkel can be chestnut brown as opposed to the darkness of a moonless night). A pale ale is never dark unless it’s a Black Pale Ale, in which case it is dark but is still a pale ale. Confused?

Despite all this ambiguity pale ale has a history and tradition, or to be more accurate the term pale ale has a history and tradition. According to Martyn Cornell in Amber, Gold & Black, ‘pale ale had been around since the 1640s after the invention of coke’. Following the advent of coke maltsters were able to control kiln temperatures and thus produce lighter malt; however coke was expensive, and pale ales were solely the province of the rich.

Fast forward a couple of centuries from the time of the English Civil Wars and we discover India Pale Ale, which itself grew out of 18th century October beers. There is also an end to glass tax and as ever people were drinking with their eyes — the sight of a pale beer (well pale as in much paler than the indigenous porter) sparkling in the glass was a wondrous sight.

So what’s a pale ale? In its time it has been designated as the name for the bottled version of draught bitter, a dinner or luncheon ale suitable for the table of the Victorian gentleman and even a Boys Bitter. Let’s leave India Pale Ale to its own devices.

Beer styles are slippery customers. In fact the notion of a style is a relatively recent creation, being popularised by Michael Jackson in his groundbreaking work of the late 1970s and 1980s. In my 1905 copy of The Brewing Industry, the writer talks about varieties of beer, which he divides into strong medium and light. Variety or type is the word that also crops up in the Whitbread Library’s The Brewer’s Art from the late 1940s — this time pale ale, mild ale, stout and Burton are the ‘four chief types of beer today’. The chapter goes on to say: ‘Pale ale is said to be made from the highest quality malt and is the driest and most highly hopped beer… It is sold both as draught beer (“bitter”) and in bottle.’

Does this splitting of hairs really matter though? I would argue no — if we are going to look at pale ale now then we need to look at what is being brewed and called pale ale in both the UK and the USA (let’s not forget plucky little Belgium either and of course Cooper’s Sparkling Pale Ale in Adelaide).

The English type is usually represented by Marston’s Pedigree, a classic example of premium strength Burton pale ale with its gentle whoosh of caramel sweetness, spicy peppery hop and a hint of sulphur/struck match on the nose. This is a style (or variety?) that, according to Marston’s former head brewer Paul Bayley, ‘was one of several Burton Pale Ales, including Draught Bass and Ind Coope’s draught version of Double Diamond’. Timothy Taylor’s floral and zestful Landlord, first released in the early 1950s, has been called a pale ale, while Fuller’s London Pride (circa 1959) was created out of a beer called Special Pale Ale, which apparently had its roots in the 19th century. Other British pale ales such as Castle Rock Harvest Pale keep the signature dryness but have more of a tropical fruit character due to the hops being used.

Meanwhile the craft beer revolution has let the genie of brewing creativity out of the bottle and English pale ale is being taken in another direction by the likes of Kernel, Hawkshead and Camden Town, breweries that are choosing brightly flavoured New World hops to make their point. Camden Town’s Pale Ale has a swaggering ripe peach skin note on the nose with mango, passion fruit and a hint of grapefruit on the palate; meanwhile Hawkshead’s New Zealand Pale Ale offers flinty sparks of bitterness and banana sweetness on the palate and a rusk-like dryness. The latter dryness seems to be a constant of pale ale through the years.

Then there are the Americans, whose craft brewers redefined pale ale back in the 1980s with Sierra Nevada’s version. However, according to Steven Pauwels at Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewery, American pale ale could be undergoing another regional change.

‘In my opinion and I think for most US craft brewers American pale ale is based on Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale, where the most important characteristic comes from the Cascade hop with its floral, citrus grapefruit aroma. Nowadays I find that there is a difference between West Coast, Midwest and East Coast pale ales. This difference is more noticeable in IPAs but I think that because IPAs on the West Coast are so extreme that a pale ale from a West Coast brewery can have the same hop intensity as an IPA in the Midwest or East Coast.’

As ever, pale ale is proving to be an elusive beast.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Punk’s not dead

On some long ago day, a long ago sunny day sometime in 1978, or maybe it was 1979 (something to do with the identikit punk haircuts and gear that I remember exploded into public view after 1977 — oh look there’s Sid Vicious and Paul Cook, while I suspect that the skinheads have been revived from the dead of the early 70s by the emergence of Sham 69), the locals of this Oxford pub came outside to be snapped, a pub community, an alternative pub community, a vibrant, brash and robust community — the pub after all was known for its music then. Lord only knows what the beer was like — was this a place where lager or Long Life or Strongbow held sway at the bar, while the punks pogo-ed and the skins did their peculiar dance that involved stomping up and down in their DMs and tugging on their braces? I can’t remember for the life of me what beers Ind Cooper produced, but here in this pub on this long ago summer’s day I suspect what beer was drunk would have been secondary to the crack and the celebration that a band on stage would have bought. Now this pub is called the Angel & Greyhound and Ind Coope has vanished into the annals of history and rugby is shown on match days and there is food and it is a Young’s pub (complete with the sort of signage the brewery had when they were still brewing). How did it become a Young’s pub I wonder? Meanwhile this marvellous photograph covers the wall opposite the bar (was this where the stage was?) and I sit in a comfortable chair and think about that long ago day and the people who were there and what on earth happened to them. Punk’s not dead you see. 

Friday 21 February 2014

BrewDog: diacetyl machine and all

There’s a machine for testing diacetyl, snug and secure in the cabin-sized, glass fronted laboratory that looks out onto the cavernous, cathedral-like (vast and open as in the starkness of a great northern European space for worship rather than one in the south, Malaga for instance) brewing hall with its steel ribs reaching out and holding up the sky (and keeping out the sky); there’s a machine for blasting more hops into the FVs, silvery, towering cylinders sitting out in the grey, chilly morning that is the colour of mud-streaked chalk, a hop cannon says Martin Dickie; who wants to climb to the top asks James Watt and a couple of hardy souls clamber up the steel ladders. Back inside the cathedral of a brewing floor there are miles of metal pipes through which beer flows; there is the hum of machines and there is the clang of metal and there is the voices of brewers as they get on with their day’s work.

Then there is the clinking, chinking, ice-and-a-slice-in-a-glass-of-G&T music of bottles of Jack Hammer as long lines twirl their way around the bottling line (Peter West really should be here). The bottles slow down, gather together, like wildebeest on one of their great treks, or a crowd being funnelled into the turnstiles when Saturday comes, crowding together for comfort and then they are bedded down, 24 bottles intimate in a cardboard box, no street drinkers these.

The brewing floor of BrewDog is noisy and purposeful, a vast conclave of stainless steel cardinals gathering together to elect the next beer pope. The noise is reminiscent of the 1980s band Collapsing New Buildings and thoroughly melodic in the effect it has on the brain. Come inside a container says BrewDog’s James Watt, quietly spoken, slightly shy it seems to me, nothing like the reprehensible, irresponsible that some have suggested, come inside where we leave Sink The Bismarck; there’s a wreath of cold air, it’s -25˚c inside here, gone in 30 seconds.

I’ve always liked BrewDog, I’ve always liked the swagger, the up yours and even the wind-up gramophone of slight hysteria, but in recent years they seemed to have slipped off my radar: the punk aesthetic was becoming tiresome (after all punks grow up, or in my case grow their hair a little longer). Hardcore is my favourite beer of theirs and I’ve always enjoyed visiting the bars in Camden and Bristol; I pick up Punk when I see it and Dead Pony is rather special. But…I have felt divorced from them, felt that they were doing lots of different beers, crowd sourcing and collaborations amongst them (didn’t enjoy the Flying Dog one for instance, which I felt disappointed with in a bar in Rimini), dude-ing it up, and there was nothing substantial for me to think or drink about. There’s also the revivalist nature of the fans. I’m always suspicious of evangelical movements, whatever the nature. It is just beer after all.

But…when the invitation came to fly up north to Aberdeen and spend a day in their company, drink their beers, see the new (13 months old) brewery, hear about their plans, visit their bar and eat at Musa, I said yes, even though there remained a cynical part of me that asked my inner ethicalist (a rarely awaken kraken-like segment of me that is usually asleep in an Arcadian grove where everything is jolly nice): would it be a stunt? Would we (there were 10 of us, from the UK, Norway, Finland and France) be met by a man in a gorilla’s suit on a bicycle with 10 seats? Would we discover that the brewery didn’t exist and that it was a cosmic joke on those of us who dare to approach the unstoppable and bewildering bewitchment of beer with the same seriousness that other writers treat rock culture? On the other hand, this wouldn’t be your typical corporate brewery trip where the PR type, eyes gleaming with a messianic beam of righteousness, would blab on forever why this brewery (or maybe it’s that brewery or the brewery over there even) had finally understood craft — here have a glass of our craft beer (re-badged and reborn and re-jigged with its own Grizzly Adams beard and aslant Tibetan prayer flat cap).

In the tasting room we go past friendly people doing the sort of jobs that all breweries require their people to do, whether craft, kreft or completely unaware of what point of the compass they should proceed; in the tasting room we gather, beer bottles popped, caps rattle-trapping on the table, glasses hustled by the quicksilver approach of beer. James Watt had sidled in earlier on, before our expedition onto the brewery floor, quiet, seemingly shy, introducing himself (well what was I expecting, Loki?), thanking us for coming in a voice that was mid-Atlantic Scots, and gradually warming to his theme: we make the beer we like to drink. Then Martin followed, a thicker Scottish brogue, slow and stately, deep, a ponytail in his wake.

And after the brewery tour we began tasting beer.

Punk IPA has its trademark pungent and arousing nose, peach and apricot skin (ripe and luscious after time spent in the sun); lychees, papaya, mangos trip off the tongue, while I pick up a gentle touch on the elbow of white pepper in the dry and grainy finish. Jack Hammer is a bigger beast, with the bitterness clanging away like an alarm bell announcing that the Vikings have just landed and all must fight or die. Dead Metaphors is the colour of a moonless night, smoky, coffeeish, chocolaty, both lean and creamy-smooth in the mouth, a counterpoint between the dark, dark, dark into which we all go and the soothing milk stout flurry of benevolent violins (for this we thank Richard Taylor and Rob Derbyshire).

This is something new says James Watt, AB15, an imperial stout with salt caramel and popcorn in the mix, a beer that has ruminated and contemplated time in both rum and bourbon casks before being blended together. It’s vanilla, woody, velvety, rich and spirituous, sweet, caramel-like and a sly shoulder-barge-when-the-ref-isn’t-looking of saltiness manifesting itself on the back of the tongue; there’s an opulent, silk sheets kind of sweetness, before there’s a knock on the door of the five-star bedroom that the beer has become, announcing that dinner will be served, but do continue to linger with the beer; it’s a multi-layered and complex-flavoured beer where flavour notes crash all over the palate like neutrons in a particle accelerator before coming together in a steady stream of all that vanilla, caramel, berry fruit, smoke, coffee and complete pleasure.

Later on James and a couple of others drive us to the original brewery in Fraserburgh, cold and closer to the sea than I would like to be, robust and rugged, experimental (white IPA, mango Berliner Weiss), friendly brewing staff. And it’s then that you begin to realise how small and near the knuckle things were for BrewDog in the early years. Two men and a dog (the latter sadly dead — James Watt and I shared a few quiet moments talking about dogs), equipment cobbled together, tight-fisted banks, so perhaps you can see why they felt the need to act the way they did in those early years (there are things we wouldn’t do now said James Watt). It got up the noses of the brewing industry, pissing off some pretty decent brewing people, but that’s the past. 

As we got into Aberdeen and drank beer at the BrewDog bar and then great beer and food matches at Musa I made up my mind: BrewDog are a force for good, they might not always get it right (my glass of Fake Lager had seemingly escaped the diacetyl machine but the next one hadn’t so this was that great issue that effects all beer: dispensation), they are not in it for the short term (for god’s sake they’re still in their early 30s), the beer often reaches heights that Buzz Aldrin would envy (though there have been lows that Dante Alighieri would have known about) and there’s a force of nature about them that suggests they might sometimes get it wrong but more often or not they will get it right.

Do I really have to spell out disclosure? I got flown out there, got my accommodation and beer and food paid for, but that’s my job. As it is with travel, if you expect journalists to pay their own way then you get people with private incomes doing the gigs — I’m independent but this trip came as a beautiful surprise.

Highbury in the late 1980s when we won the title after a 18-year drought, how times change…

Monday 17 February 2014

No thanks becomes yes thanks

Sahti. I read about this kind of beer in Michael Jackson’s books at the end of the 1990s and also in his What’s Brewing column — to be honest it was not a kind of beer I really wanted to try. Juniper berries — I only used them in cooking with venison; various cereals, no or few hops, baker’s yeast, little carbonation. No thanks. Times have changed and nowadays I love Gose, lambic and gueuze and the only Grodziskie I have had so far was also rather pleasing. So when Sharp’s Stuart Howe told me he was going to Finland and did I want anything bringing back I suggested a Sahti, which he duly returned with and here is Finlandia Sahti Strong. It’s cloudy in the glass, hazy, misty, a scene from The Fog though maroon red in colour. There’s a sweet banana nose, a yeastiness which is reminiscent of a strong bottle-conditioned Belgian brune or maybe it’s a sticky cherry-flavoured dessert wine. The palate is a multi-layered mixture of rye bread, some spiciness (all-spice or even a hint of cinnamon), cough sweets, stewed bananas, and a cherry brandy-like stickiness; as I take more swigs I’m going to suggest an alcoholic cough mixture that’s been filtered through a machine that adds a vinous character; meanwhile it’s a very fast finish that leaves a skin of stickiness on the tongue. The carbonation is low and slow. It’s a very rough-edged beer, a wiry, badly behaved terrier of a beer, though not without appeal. It is not a polished beer and the fact that it’s in a plastic bottle suggests a homespun or home brew character perhaps. It’s interesting and irrational in its appeal and yes I would drink this again. No thanks becomes yes thanks. 

Tuesday 11 February 2014

My girlfriend bought the voucher for me

A conversation with a former Young’s brewer the other day found me reminiscing about the time when I hosted several beer tastings there for an events company; this would have been 2000/01 and it was great fun (I also did Batemans a couple of times and I still remember the shiver of anticipation as I embarked at the station with the windmill in my sight line). We would tour the brewery, have something to eat and then I would take everyone through eight Young’s beers. There would be about 12-15 people there and they would have been bought the vouchers as gifts or just got them themselves alone; they enjoyed beer but weren’t that obsessed by it — for me it was a fun way of earning money and drinking beer, I’ve never been one for the beer writer as educator (and especially evangelist) schtick.

After my conversation ended the other day I recalled one particular tasting. We were at the end of the beers and had finished with Young’s Old Nick, their sadly defunct barley wine. Someone didn’t like it and passed it onto someone who did and he dived uproariously into the second bottle (500ml). We were all chatting, even the woman who had complained that her boss had sent her on the event because he couldn’t come; oh she didn’t like beer either and alone amongst everyone she’d not noted any chocolate notes on Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. A couple of blokes, mates, were joshing away, had seemingly enjoyed it, though one of them I seem to recall kept vanishing to the end of the room to talk on his mobile while I was explaining what honey did to beer (maybe I would have done the same thing). Meanwhile the guy with the second bottle of barley wine had turned maudlin.

‘My girlfriend bought the voucher for me,’ he said in between great heroic gulps of beer, ‘that was six months ago.’ He paused and took another gulp. ‘We’ve split up now.’ He started to weep, very slowly and slightly and looked down at his lap. The group of people went quiet. ‘Yeah, we’ve had the vouchers for a while,’ chirruped one of the brace of mates breaking the ever so English sense of embarrassment, ‘got them about six months ago.’ He paused; he didn’t have a drink to suck on. He pointed at his mate; for some reason I noticed that he was looking a bit strained. ‘We had to wait though because he was inside.’ Another pause, the room’s silence continued apart from the flutter of quiet sobs. The bloke carried on oblivious to everything. ‘Nothing serious though.’ His mate’s face was a still centre of an approaching storm you knew would break outside. Meanwhile the silent sobs of the barley wine man who’d been deserted continued.

These days I quite enjoy interruptions and spontaneity and even hostility but these were early days and such moments got me mixing up my malting with my mashing.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

A heady stroll on a blustery clifftop

First bottled beer from Burning Sky is a beautiful beer, a ramped up version of the brewery’s saison, called Saison à la Provision, which is then aged in white wine barrels, now that’s the kind of thing I like, something that’s a bit different, something that’s not mild and bitter or stout and porter or a lot of hops chucked into a boil because they’ve travelled a long way across the oceans or the introspection of crystal that makes whatever beer that’s newly launched different apparently (not that I dislike those kinds of beers, apart from the ones where crystal keens its deep mellow moan, but I just want something different something that takes my palate out for a heady stroll on a blustery clifftop where the wind booms and the sea churns), and yes this was sent to me, for the purpose of entry in a book out later in the year and thankfully it’s a beautiful beer, did I mention that already, and I drank it at the weekend, pleased as the proverbial punch with its juicy, voluptuous, Seville cathedral-like mouthfeel, as if the beer was taking up every corner and every angle and every space of my palate, spreading its acidity, its citrus fruit, its restrained sweetness, its quenching character, its moussec-like carbonation, its gentle not-up-the-nose carbonation, and if I really want to split hairs about it, I would say that this for me is closer to a gueuze than a lean and austere saison, maybe the wine barrels have added that body I associate with a gueuze, but it’s still a beautiful beer, the memory of which is still haunting me several days after I drank it.