Tuesday, 22 December 2015
Friday, 27 November 2015
Why drink this beer?
Because I’m on a train going home.
Why drink this beer?
Because I had five minutes at Birmingham New Street and it was easy to grab.
Why drink this beer?
Because it was cheap and cold and I could get three of them.
Why drink this beer?
Because sometimes I’m just looking for a beer and this one is much better on my palate than Carling or Carlsberg.
Why drink this beer?
I don’t really know, I keep getting sweetcorn DMS notes in the middle of the mouth and I’ve just noticed a sickliness in the flavour that reminds me of Tiny Tim hobbling along on his crutches.
Why drink this beer?
Because it’s cold and wet and carbonated and slightly sweet and has the ghost of bitterness somewhere in the flavour.
Would you drink this beer again?
Where would you drink this beer again?On a train.
Friday, 20 November 2015
Thoughts on brewing: in which a beer is brewed and hewed into the world, leavened and heaved followed by a sense of me-too as other beers join in and to-and-fro their way into the glass, as careful as an aunt, as fretful as an aunt, as artful as the kindest thief.
Brewing is the beginning of the end: hops that were picked at harvest are changed and juddered into a different state of being in the dry heat of kiln; dead; packed together, forced, turned out into the world; the end of the journey that barley took from the field, cut down in its prime, crushed and eviscerated, its insides transformed, the death of John Barleycorn; the vanquishing of water, in thrall to a process that expels it into the air (only to start the journey all again). And, of course, the yeast, microscopic beasts, tumbling and turning over before coming to rest in the cool limpid liquid that will eventually end up as beer. Maybe, after second thoughts, brewing is just a means to an end, an end that is always beginning.
Wednesday, 18 November 2015
Are you open on Christmas Day. From 12-4 sir, comes the reply. I’d normally be at my daughter’s but I’m here this year, she’s at her mother’s in Jersey.
At the bar of the King’s Arms in Oxford and ordering a second glass of Young’s Ordinary. As you do when you’re in a pub you start talking with strangers and I discuss the joys of a pint on Christmas Day with the man.
I retired a couple of years ago and I started travelling around the country on my bus pass. Seen most of the country and off to the Orkneys in the spring. There’s a brewery there, I say. He nods.
He had a tent, pitched at a site on the edge of town. No home either, but an address at his daughter’s in Suffolk. I’m free, he continued, I can go anywhere my bus pass takes me. The beer is crisp, bittersweet, eloquent in the way it wakes up the palate, and now sitting on a coach to Heathrow I wish I had one in front of me. Meanwhile I think of this man who is ranging across the country, light in possessions, able to change direction at will, and at ease with strangers. Welcome to the world of the public house.
Saturday, 31 October 2015
The idea of moderation in brewing is not the idea of capitulation, of surrender, of turning your back on the way forward. It's a way of seeking silence in between the gaps that modern life manages to create - it's a polite cough, a feather stroke on the inner thigh, a reflective passage from an étude by Chopin, the intermission between nothing and I love you. And sometimes we need beers like that in the way we also need beers that cackle and burn like a martyr's bonfire or ululate across the night air like a trident in its tracks or even leave us unsure of what we're tasting. Like an Earth on its axis beer also needs balance.
Wednesday, 21 October 2015
|Part of the brewing kit in the pub, the rest lurks below|
I’m writing about Pike Brewing in Seattle, which has been around since 1989, when founded by Charles Finkel (though he sold it in 1997 before buying it back in 2007); Finkel also started the influential beer importing company Merchant Du Vin. Last week, in the midst of what seems an on-going beer equivalent of March 1918 on the Western Front, he declared that he’d expanded the ownership group of Pike Brewing to include three key, long-term employees. The story can be read here.
I’m pleased about this, having spent a very enjoyable afternoon with him back in late May when working on a Seattle-Portland Pacific Coast road trip for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine (it’ll be out next year). We’d first met at Michael Jackson’s funeral in 2007 and when I turned up in Seattle I headed for his brew pub at the heart of Pike Place Fish Market, where singing fishmongers serenade their customers and the smell of grilled chicken fills the air.
Finkel was in fine form having had spent lunch launching the first beer in his Pike Locale series, a light golden beer called Skagit Valley Alba, which used local malted barley from the eponymous valley and Yakima Valley hops (the barley farmers had been at the launch). The beer had an aromatic lemony nose, and was crisp and light on the palate with a dry finish, a refreshing corrective to the exceptionally hot day.
He was a genial host, taking me through the beers that his team produced in the brewery below the pub (a brief visit made me think of a cross between the Tardis and a Bond villain’s lair); the pub, meanwhile, is like old England transported out west, with plenty of dark wood and several massive spaces whose walls and shelves were devoted to beer and brewing ephemera. As we tasted a glass of the peaty Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale, he waxed lyrical about the foodie reputation of Seattle and Washington.
‘Washington is the largest onion, potato, cherry, mint, lentil, apple and hop state. Add to this salmon, crab and other shellfish equaled by few places. We also have more than 250 breweries. People say that it is the damp winter weather that encourages people to stay inside and read (we also have one of the highest library usages in the country), eat and cook.’
He was chatty, enthusiastic and friendly (he seemed disappointed I wasn’t able to join him, his wife Rose Ann and friends on a boat for dinner that night, but I had to head out early) and above all he was passionate about the beer he made. On my trip I enjoyed plenty of resiny, headily hopped West Coast IPAs but what I wanted to try that day was his brewery’s take on the traditional styles that American breweries first picked up on in the 1980s (we had a tripel that used Westmalle yeast, a saison that was more Belgium than Soriachi this, Citra that). He talked about Sam Smith, whose beers he first brought into the US in the 1980s, Michael Jackson, the White Horse and food and beer and the afternoon slipped away. He had to go, I had to go. I hope to meet him again (not at a funeral I hope), and I like how he’s dealt with his brewery — which means it doesn’t always have to end in the brewing version of Siegfried’s funeral pyre.
Tuesday, 20 October 2015
I feel the hand of history on my shoulder as I take the cork out of the bottle, an elongated, battered-looking cork upon whose side are stamped the words ‘Prince of Wales Ale, 1929, Bass’. As I dig into the cork with a corkscrew, I expect it to crumble like the bones of a long-dead saint upon being exposed to air, but it holds firm as I slowly twirl the spiral of metal into this ancient cork that has lasted a whole lifetime.
The men who cut the barley for this beer have long gone to their graves, as have the men and women who picked the hops, as have the brewers, as have the men and women who corked and bottled it, as has anyone who had anything to do with this bottle of Bass’ 1929 Princes Ale.
Last year, on an online local selling site, I bought a couple of cases of Whitbread’s 1977 Jubilee Ale for a fiver; it was still drinkable, if very low in its alcohol. Once home, hidden away in the box I saw what I thought was an old bottle of wine, some memento of a European jaunt perhaps, a souvenir that had never been drunk. However, the faded label with the written name of Bass gave the story away — a pint bottle of Bass Prince’s Ale, especially brewed in 1929 for the then Prince of Wales, who later on became — briefly — Edward VIII.
The oldest beer I have tasted is the 1869 Radcliffe Ale, brewed in Burton, bottles of which were discovered and opened in 2006. All I can remember is writing down sherry and smoky bacon. There has been plenty of Thomas Hardy (there is a case of 1998 slumbering in the cellar waiting for my son’s 18th in 2016), last year a Bateman’s barley wine from the 1970s, Thornbridge Alliance (one left) and several Bass royal specials, including the 1902 Kings Ale. What I like about tasting vintage beer is the empathy I feel with these long gone brewers, rather than just the taste, the link with the past; it’s metaphysical and also quizzical in that I ask myself what the drinker of the past tasted when they popped the cork and poured? Is it a case of changing palates, a different approach to tasting, a different approach to beer?
So the beer in the glass was the deep crimson colour of aged Madeira, while on its nose I caught wafts of Bovril, blue cheese (Stilton rather than Danish Blue), solvent hints, a pungent cheesy nose that wanted to be sherry, though sherry was much more evident when I took a sip. As was beef stock, some sweetness, though the more I drank the more I thought that here was a beer attenuated out of existence. It was like a woody sherry minus the sweetness; there was also stewed apple, some cinnamon, a sour-sweet character and a very dry, almost woody, finish. I don’t think there was much alcohol left in it, but this was a beer to be drunk for the simple reason that it still existed. It was a beer that was brewed in the year of the New York Crash, and then hidden away while the Battle of Britain was fought, the atomic bomb exploded, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sang, and the world kept on turning.
Tuesday, 13 October 2015
Here we are, three beer books, arriving out of the blue, review copies if you like; three authors, three different viewpoints, though travel is the link that binds them together.
Stephen Beaumont: The Beer and Food Companion; Jeff Alworth: The Beer Bible; Mark Dredge: The Best Beer in the World; all seasoned writers, writers whose work I have always enjoyed.
I’ve reviewed a few books over the years. Some stand out — JM O’Neill’s Duffy is Dead for the NME back in the late 1980s, a wonderful tale set in an old Irish boozer in Stoke Newington and worth sending a search party out for.
Others not so — in 1989 I reviewed Iris Murdoch’s A Message to the Planet for Time Out. I’d never read her before (and haven’t since) and found the book tedious and dull; I wrote a review and it never got published. God I shudder at it still.
There are been others down through the years, most recently Shakespeare’s Local for the Telegraph (butchered by a sub with a degree in serial killing).
So that’s the qualifications over with, what about these books?
Beaumont’s is coffee-table in its design, plenty of gorgeous photos of beers, bars and dishes (typical of publisher Jacqui Small’s approach to design), though coffee-table does seem to imply lots more visuals than words — in this case, coffee-table does the book a disservice. There are plenty of words, good words, mesmerising chains of words.
Stephen Beaumont is one of the most incisive, elegant and satisfying writers on beer and food in the English language; in fact as I progressed through the book it reminded me of the thrill I received when reading Jackson. I feel like I’m learning something, but not in the ‘I’m a beervangelist’ mono-mania approach that ‘beer educators’ employ; this is journalism that happens to be about beer and food.
I like the way Beaumont approaches style, which he defines by general flavour traits such as bitter or sweet, light or robust; for instance in ‘very dark or roasty ales’ (which gets the sub-heading ‘satisfying’), we have London Porter, Porter, Baltic Porter etc.
As I wrote above, travel is the link that binds these books together and Beaumont has travelled about the world searching for beers to drink and bars to experience — an approach I think is essential to understanding global beer. Sure you can stay at home and tap this and rate that and open up a parcel from a swap-buddy on the other side of the world but I would suggest you travel and experience the beers of the world in all their various subtleties.
This is what Mark Dredge has done for his third book in two years. From conversations with him a couple of years ago I knew that this book was the one he most wanted to write, a globe-trotting travelogue that would experience some of the world’s most acclaimed beers in their natural habitat. So he has a brewpub crawl in Portland (an activity I can thoroughly recommended having spent a hot Thursday doing that in June), drinks Snow in China, gets fresh and cheap beer in Vietnam, Oktoberfests in Blumenau — you get the idea. There’s even something on home-brewing.
The book is a mixture of feature length narrative along with guides to drink in various places around the world; I found myself flicking through the guides and then getting embedded in the stories, which show Dredge at his best.
His style is very personal, as he places himself at the centre of the action; this gives the text a dynamic drive. I like it a lot. Though one caveat (something I’d mentioned with the choice of title in Shakespeare’s Local, given that there was no proof the Bard had even been to the George) — I initially felt that the ending is a bit of a cop-out given the title of the book, but on reading it again I’m not so sure.
The Beer Bible is dense, there’s a lot of text. Photos are black-and-white and have a faded look, almost rustic, antique even. It’s an encyclopaedic guide to dozens and dozens of kinds of beer, from Bocks to bitters to Zoigl to steam.
There’s history, the brewing process, tasting notes, beer and food and notes on cellaring and storing beer. However, what gives this book its lustrous appeal is Alworth’s writing, his knowledge, his erudition, which like Dredge and Beaumont’s has come from travelling around the world and tasting and talking about beers in their home territory.
This is a book that I feel I learn something new every time I dip into its pages, and like Beaumont’s there’s a feel of excitement that I used to get from first readings of Jackson.
We might be more used to the world of beer now but reading about Alt or IPA from a fresh perspective is like watching Citizen Kane or the Godfather l and ll again and learning something new. I love the feel of the paper and I love all those words. This is a book I shall be taking on my travels.
There you are three books, all different in their approach but all linked by travel and of course that tap on the window that beer brings to one’s life; excellent writing, in different ways and plenty of beer to bring on that essential itch in the throat and rumble in the tumble of the stomach.
Monday, 5 October 2015
|A gose in its natural habitat Leipzig|
yeah about this whole gose vs mild thing, has anyone who complains about breweries not making mild and having a go at ‘weird’ gose ever drank the stuff in Leipzig, it’s an easy going beer, with a saline quality that adds rather than detracts from the beer, but then I don’t understand why those that have a go at making gose need to change it, add this or that and the other to it, to slap it in a barrel, when it’s a perfectly good beer without half the fridge in the mix and a trip to Travis Perkins the day before, and on the other hand those that turn their nose up at the idea of gose perhaps have that fear of newness, that fear of the other, of a beer that doesn’t sound like the beer they consider to be beer, while the breweries perhaps have a fear of running out of novelties, a pathological rawness that keeps refusing to heal as rabid beer fans jingle and jangle in the search for more newness and reasons to be cheerful and pretend that fear is something lesser beings feel, and then back to mild there is a reason why beer styles die out, they’re not very nice, I hated mild when I started drinking, though my paternal grandfather probably drank it as he was a pub man and left Wales for Brum in the 1930s, wet and wishy-washy, thin and sweet, I don’t mind strong milds but as for the 3%ers, give me gose any day
Wednesday, 23 September 2015
‘Bruce Lee was brought here when he died and his coffin was carried out by Steve McQueen and Lee Marvin.’ A pause in the conversation. A sip from a glass of Speedway Stout — chocolate, vanilla, booze, darkness visible. I looked at the man next to me at the bar, friendly, tattooed, probably politically aware in a way I’m not, willing him to continue the conversation, he was drinking North Coast Old Rasputin. ‘I guess there would have been others helping to carry it but the Cooler King and the Wand'rin' Star man are the guys.’
In Seattle at May’s end, stumping the streets, listening to the singing fishmongers in Pike Place Market and asking the barman at the Elysium bar Avatar why the place was so quiet on a Wednesday night, I went up the hill to Pine Box. A former funeral home (this brief home to Bruce Lee), this was the bar that most people I met recommended I should visit. So I did.
Inside, there was hip-hop in the background, which I always used to enjoy, and stools at a long bar, with 30 taps behind, the steel glittering in the light. Robust, young, friendly, lively, noisy — I liked the noise, the starling like chatter, it reminded me of a Brit pub on a Friday night, people unafraid to have a few beers and make sounds that might frighten those who come in with a smartphone and a list with which they would like to tick off in silent. This was smart beer drinking, enjoyable beer drinking, pleasurable beer drinking, beer drinking as a joy rather than a duty (which is what I’ve always said), beers from the likes of Rodenbach (Grand Cru), 21st Amendment, Hopworks Urban Brewery (Kronan the Bourbarian Baltic Porter) and Hair of the Dog (Session IPA), all thrusting their way forward, all vying for space in my glass.
‘Any ghosts here,’ I asked the barman. He handed me my serving of Kronan and smiled and went on to serve someone else. I relaxed and listened to the river run of voices and wondered which one was the one who wasn’t really there.
Tuesday, 8 September 2015
Empires rise and fall, kings and queens come and go, all political careers end in failure, while the sale
of a potent striker to a neighbouring football team is cause for grief. Kids leave home, girlfriends
and boyfriends grow apart, parents die.
Breweries and beers also wax and wane. In some towns people used to define their identity by the brewery, the football team and the regiment — all gone, apart perhaps from the football team who now play in a different place under a different name. Pubs close and their shades stand on the corner of a street in a house through whose windows a lampshade might stand where Fred the butcher went in for a ‘alf-and’alf. Rock groups fall apart, singers deliver destructive habits, guitarists go awol and the last song is sung and we mourn and go on.
Heineken buys 50% of Lagunitas and the earth falls off its axis if some of the responses on social media are anything to go by. What took them so long is all I can say? The men and women who set up the breweries of the 1980s and 1990s are growing older; they are not patriarchal family breweries like you still see in patches of England; the kids might have gone onto do something else (and maybe been just as successful). You want the beer to be good, the people around you still to have jobs, and it’s life, it’s business and you get a good deal (but don’t get your beer made by Grolsch, that’s the pits even though I like a Grolsch now and again) and life goes on and great beer remains to be made and if the deal really goes sour there’s plenty more beer to be drunk (not Heineken though, I always find it overly sweet and prone to cause biliousness). Commons for instance, Hair of the Dog, Buoy, Fort George, Odd Otter, Cloudwater, Thornbridge, De La Senne, Birrifico Italiano.
Heineken takes a 50% share in Lagunitas: it’s hardly Isis at the gates. Now that would be worrying.
And the other day with my palate pithed to hell all I felt like for my next beer was a pint of Old Hooky, a stunningly fresh Old Hooky, the kind of beer that would leave a delicate trace of lacework down the glass as I emptied it; the kind of beer whose maltiness was both silky and mocha coffee, bossed about by a rich and bold citrus fruitiness and ending with a biscuity, cracker-like dryness. It was sunny outside but I wanted to sit within the cloister-like silence of a bar and concentrate on this kind of beer, a beer that I would remember and recall, a beer that is as much a part of my cultural network as the Passacaglia in Rubbra’s Third Symphony or Joe Strummer, standing legs astride, forever fixed on the stage, telling a cultivated mob that London’s Calling. That was the kind of beer I really wanted to have next. But I couldn’t, so I made do with a memory and walked out into the sunlight.
Tuesday, 25 August 2015
Beer town, beer city, go to Tacoma I was told. Never heard of the place I replied. Go to Tacoma I was told. And so on my way out of Seattle, off to the Pacific coast and the trail to Oregon, I did what I was told and spent 24 hours in Tacoma, a city that seemed like a pleasing ghost town after Seattle.
Downtown was lined with regenerated warehouses whose façades were wispy with the names of long gone businesses. The six-storey high former Hotel Olympus with its name carved on a stone façade seemed particularly poignant. The clanging of a trolley bus in the next square rounded off the whole Edward Hopper effect. In the east, the snow capped summit of Mount Rainer rose, a legendary home of the gods, perhaps?
Downtown was lined with regenerated warehouses whose façades were wispy with the names of long gone businesses. The six-storey high former Hotel Olympus with its name carved on a stone façade seemed particularly poignant. The clanging of a trolley bus in the next square rounded off the whole Edward Hopper effect. In the east, the snow capped summit of Mount Rainer rose, a legendary home of the gods, perhaps?
Before checking into the hotel, I walked through downtown and came across the Odd Otter brewpub, a newly renovated space with brewing kit skulking at the back. I enjoyed a mid morning glass at one end of the bar, looking through big open windows onto the street, while a woman in running gear dashed in and asked for a growler of watermelon Hefeweiss. I conjoined with a glass of Jolly Otter ESB, a custodian of malt character with a jangle of hop.
‘We’re in Tacoma.’ A beer fan and his wife settled at the other end of the bar, a flight of beers asked for alongside Connect and as the couple played, the plastic counters clicked as they tumbled down. Meanwhile outside, the sun shone in the wide streets and the breeze ruffled the leaf-heavy branches of a tree.
Beer town, beer city? Indeed. Apparently there are 15 breweries and brewpubs in the area, which form part of the South Sound Craft Crawl, though I went for moderation and only visited a handful of breweries, including Odd Otter again, where I spent some time chatting with co-founder John Hotchkiss (me: ‘as in the machine gun?’; John: ‘yes’). And this time as the day was well-worn I tried Poppa Bacon Breakfast, warming and roasty and smoky, a matrix of flavours.
Elsewhere my beer experience included Tacoma Brewing Company’s fascinating Simcoe-hopped Cigar Box IPA, which was aged on cedar wood; Pacific Brewing’s Simcorilla, where head brewer and co-founder Steve Navarro explained hop bursting to me; Wingman’s refreshing cucumber farmhouse beer Brux 2 and a good chat with Harmon Brewing’s head brewer Jeff Carlson, a former Enduro bike racer — after going through the regular beers, we switched lanes and went for the experimental barrel-aged stuff, including an exemplary two-year-old sour, which had been aged in red wine barrels and had a cider-like nose, a hint of petrol (think Riesling) and bananas on the palate and a dry tart finish. ‘This was my take of a Berliner Weisse, with apples in the mix,’ said Harmon as we sipped this marvellous beer.
Next morning I left Tacoma, Mount Rainer looming over the highway. One question had been answered. Tacoma beer city? Yes.
Thursday, 13 August 2015
Soaring. That was the moment I knew I’d nailed the talk. Using the word soaring. The beer that I loved sent my spirit soaring, handed me a warm feeling, made me think of childhood, of a river bank on which as a child I had sat watching the glassy-eyed flow of the water, of a particular lunch that had explained French food to me during a break between working on a magazine in Paris, of a glinting glass of amber coloured beer primed to refresh the palate, of a moment associated with a happy time that made me feel warm and wrapped up in a forever feel. Soaring. And then I moved on, Swanned on, ‘the hops in this beer are’.
Friday, 7 August 2015
How do we look at beer, how do we evaluate it? What do we think of it, how do we think it helps us to pass our days, how do we order it, how do we think it should be ordered?
First of all, the most immediate aspect of a beer is the colour, it is what it looks like in the glass, it is the baby who sees its mother for the first time on opening its eyes after emerging from the warm viscosity of the womb (but does the baby see and sense the relationship with the mother or even father, is it the novelty rather than the colour, the look of things, which leads us back to colour); is it the former virgin who realises that what he or she has just accomplished and experienced is on a par with feeling like a god (or does she or he feel good about themselves, replenished with a confidence that they never felt before); it is every new experience that has ever existed — and as for the colour it could be straw yellow, burnished gold, bruised gold, dark gold, amber, torn amber, dark amber, chestnut brown, Nescafe brown or perhaps it’s akin to the darkest night that has ever been, the caves of Moria, through which the ghosts and the phantoms of the dwarves still roam and the need for a glass of beer to calm the nerves and steady the imagination is still concurrent.
The colour of a beer is the first thing the senses detect, the first thing that is seen, that is witnessed and from this all too often flows the judgment of what the beer is — light gold is weak, dark is strong, but a mild is weak while a Hellerbock is strong and then the world is turned upside down and monsters roam the earth and cups and saucers rattle like skeletons that have been told their time is up. The world tumbled upside down.
Then we have the aroma but let’s be honest the aroma taking on the mantle of the next stage of beer evaluation is a rather tenuous conclusion — some beers have a stronger aroma than others. In the right circumstances it can be a crucial crucifixion of the character of the beer, a nailing down of its reason for existence. An IPA made with an excess of American hops will leap out of the glass, like a whirl of smoke, while an imperial stout, having spent time locked up in a joyous prison of wood, will send out signals of smoke, coffee, Brett, chocolate, cherries, aged wood and whatever spirit kept itself in the barrel prior to the entry of the beer. On the other hand, a mild’s nuttiness will be shy and hidden away in the corner, the recalcitrant child, the quiet teenager, and the softly spoken uncle that you rarely see. The aroma is important, the aroma is potent, and the aroma is the next stage in the journey of the beer.
However, it is the taste and the effect of the beer on the palate that is the most visible, most vocal, most vociferous, most identifiable particle of a beer — we taste and then we take ourselves back to some imagined golden age of Arcadia, looking for signposts that point to something that we had forgotten, to a comfortable bed that we once awoke in and broke into tears because it was so homely, so forgiving, so ‘is it really time for me to go?’. The full-bodied nature of a stout, the roastiness, the darkness, or is it the creaminess, or maybe the bitterness and the fruitiness and the herbiness and the dryness and the baked bananas, and the softness and the saltiness, and the spiciness and the unctuousness of it all. The sourness and the wheatiness and the lightness and the sprightliness and the pungent and the hunger for the overpowering urge of a flavour to lay down the law and say that it is the law.
Or is it the carbonation, the long walk towards refreshment, the short stalk, the fountain that bursts the air, the bubbles that fart and fidget on the tongue, the brisk and brusque scrub of bubbles that cleans the tongue for another draught? Then could we be forgiving towards the finish, the dryness and the fruitiness and the sometimes total emptiness of a finish that will leave you in an abyss that suggests another sip of this beer won’t be that beneficial after all. Or the finish of a beer, bitter perhaps, and don’t be afraid of the bitterness in a beer, it is your friend, the bitterness lasting, lingering, clanging, clinging, singing its way.
This is then the beer that will be in your glass and then in your mouth and then tippling down your throat, its constituent parts all playing a role in a play that has been going on since the first time a human drank something he’d made by accident and called it ‘beer’.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
The white-haired man in the corner studies several newspapers, which are spread before him on the table as if they are maps for his cultural campaigns. Phew, there’s room for a plate and a glass though. He studiously chews his food, sausages, slowly and deliberately, a pen in one hand, a fork in the other; books to read, music to listen to, TV shows to catch, perhaps. An assiduous ticker.
He wipes his lips with an ivory white napkin, scratches his chin, clean shaven, dimpled, takes a last sip of his Eden-Pils (fresh, lemony, light and noble, I have the same in my glass) and then asks for another. It is after all only brewed at the back of the pub.
In this long, dark wooden panelled space, there is no music, just the murmur of voices and the scape of cutlery on plate. There are antlers curled around the lamps that hang from the ceiling, the aroma of sausages and the sour-sweet wrench of sauerkraut piled on plates. The bells of the nearby Dom sound the hour, honest and uncomplicated, an ancient liturgy heard every night since the metal was cast. On this night, the old town of Regensburg is easy going, local, quiet, unhurried and calm and the beer at Kneitinger has an equal serenity about it.
And on the next day, the old town breathes again, lets its hair down, engages with the hordes who crunch their way down the narrow streets, glance and pay heed to the medieval streets and the emerging remains that the Romans left, while we, my son and I, who is 16 now and can buy me a beer, sit in the garden of Eden that is Brauerei Spital’s, across the Danube on the island of Stadtamhof, with the spires of the Dom in the distance, and toast our good fortune to be here with Spital Hell — full-bodied, a shadow of lemony hop in the mid palate, clean, refreshing minerally, gently carbonated and with a creamy mouthfeel. And afterwards we walk across the Danube, and look at its pliable surface, a snake’s skin, dark green, and a carp, reddish brown, lazily breaks the surface, while the river continues on its way to the Iron Gates and the oblivion of the Black Sea.
Monday, 6 July 2015
|Doing my talk on beer and travel, no cabbages were thrown|
Monday, 29 June 2015
A couple of years ago I had an idea for a beer book that would fuse travel, history and beer together; it would be (and still is) the book that I wanted to most write, the book that I hoped would bring together my thoughts and ideas on beer, the book that would allow me to flex my writing muscles, to stretch beyond the boundaries of earth, to touch the face of literary godliness, to make me feel that it’s all been worth it. This is the opening chapter I sent out. So far, no joy, but I thought what’s the use of the words sitting away on my computer. I’ve given the idea a rest for the time being but if I do start on it again it will be radically different, so this is a kind of first draft, that I wanted people to have a look at and let me know what they think. Share. Work in progress? Perhaps. Who knows. It’s about lager and trying to find out what it all actually means.
It was going to be a long night at U Fleku…
I had parked myself at the end of a long wooden table, lights reflected on its well-tanned surface like a crooked selection of smiles. It was a mighty, majestic table and as well as bearing witness to the buff brush of thousands of elbows it was pock-marked with all the warts and wattles of age, as were its fellow travelers in the room. For a brief Lord of the Rings moment I thought it carved out of a single tree — but an inner voice whispered (with the treacherous hiss of a latter day Gollum perhaps) that its real maternal home might actually be a warehouse (and associated website) whose owner had made their name in supplying Czech pubs such as U Fleku with suitably Gothic adornments. Meanwhile the bench that the table held dominion over seemed pulled straight from the suffer-the-little-children school of canes, cold baths and compulsory Latin. And yet in spite of the forbidding and elemental appearance of sternness, the furniture was surprisingly comfortable in the chiseled, gravel-voiced, Valhalla-lite ambience of this central European beer-hall.
The table belonged to a family of eight that I counted laid out barrack-square tidy against the wooden panels that reached halfway up the wall on both sides of the room; the pub had eight similarly furnished rooms into which tourists were funneled as soon as they crossed the threshold from the street outside. If you’ve never been to Prague and know nothing about the city, or if you have but shown no interest in its beery heritage, then imagine a place like U Fleku as a beery totem pole standing at the centre of the city’s tourist industry, a station of the cross at which disciples pause and pray, or maybe a place from where the call from the muezzin conjoins the faithful to the evening’s reflection. It is on the map, part of the plan for a Prague stroll, a go-to place and in the top 20 hits that revolve around Prague. I think you might get the idea.
My visit to U Fleku had not been planned when I emerged from the smooth confines of the metro, wary and weary, but eager to catch a wave on the swell of people tramping through the late afternoon September sunshine. I walked amongst them, but not of them, through the canyon-tall streets, gazing upwards at Prague’s fabulous architectural pick and mix of baroque, art nouveau, Renaissance, Gothic and French Imperial styles. A quicksilver decision, a look at a map; there was time enough to take myself off to U Fleku, before an appointment with a brewer at another brewpub (U Medviku if you must know). Carrying on, I had stopped again and looked at my map. A man in a bobble hat, thick coat incongruous in the sunshine, a face like a scrawl on a wall, asked me if he could help. I replied that I was ok, a bit sharply perhaps, suspicious, perhaps, as is my way (years ago I learnt while travelling to reply to anyone I felt might be undesirable in Welsh — that soon had me left alone). No offence taken it seemed, he then asked, ‘do you want to buy some Krona?’ I smiled, said no thanks, flapping my hand in front of me, and carried on, puzzled by the sort of exchange I thought had gone out of fashion when the Cold War had toppled off the catwalk of history accompanied by the mood music of a disjointed model’s fall.
I thought briefly of him as I took my table and wondered what his life was like. A rapid flurry of images of decline fed some inner conveyor belt before I returned to the now and nodded to the couple on the adjoining table, against which I had squeezed, rucksack clamped to my torso with the familiarity of a firm handshake, aware of the ripples of sweat rolling down my back. They were holding hands across the salt and pepper and for a brief moment I thought they looked aggrieved to have a neighbour. I was sweaty, unshaven and wearing worn (but comfortable) climbing boots, dark blue cargo trousers and a combat jacket out of whose numerous pockets poked a variety of pens, notebooks and maps.
Settled in my chair, table flat in front of me like the Hungarian plains across which the invaders of Europe progressed century after century, I opened my notepad and started to write, to record my thoughts on what I saw and felt.
‘Are you a writer,’ asked the man on the next table, ignoring his companion who looked at me with a certain sense of irritation. He spoke uncertain English with a brisk German inflection. He’d probably noted the tiny Union Jack stitched onto the arm of my jacket, a heraldic reminder of its secondhand surplus nature.
‘Journalist,’ I corrected him kindly, ‘yes, also a writer, I’ve wanted to visit this place for a long time, taste the beer, it’s good, I’m told, I write about beer.’
‘The beer,’ he said, ‘is not bad for Czech beer but we have good beer in Germany. Perhaps better.’ He paused. ‘Write about beer? You must have the best job in the world.’
I nodded and smiled, but really wanted to tell him to see my tax returns. Writing about beer isn’t the most lucrative career in the world, but on the other hand… He lifted his glass of beer to me in salute and returned to his companion who gave me a brief tight smile of cold politeness.
The room in which I sat, within the company of a smattering of drinkers, no doubt tourists like myself and my neighbours, unveiled itself to me as a Teutonic-like shrine to dark wood though September’s late afternoon sunlight softened the hardness as it reached in and stroked the stained glass windows. I noted the large metal chandeliers that swooped down from the ceiling, cold, cruel-eyed predators dressed up as a nice interior design feature whose creator perhaps hoped for a touch of the Nibelungenlied. Sadly they really looked like they’d emerged from a job lot in an out-of-town DIY store whose wares were bedded down on an industrial estate. Perhaps it was the same place from where the tables were torn from their womb.
As I waited to be served by waiters who rushed about, their trays held high, leathery, battered money bags hanging like ancient sporrans on their aprons, I continued to look: the floors were tiled, sounding boards against which clicked the waiters’ heels.
The men, and yes, they were all men as far as I could see, were typically European (no New World have-a-nice-day schmoozing here) in their froideur, imperious and the very opposite of idle in the rush with which they scurried about, holding trays studded with glasses of the rich dark lager brewed somewhere else within the building. Somewhere in the building, somewhere near and yet far, somewhere this beer that I hadn’t tried was brewed within the building.
I tried to catch one’s eye.
A chap of medium height stalking the next row of tables, looking about, CCTV on two legs, short stubbly hair, cropped almost to the scalp, saw me. He reached the end of the row, turned left and approached. I was reminded of the waiters in the Alt beer-halls of Dusseldorf — hard faced, attitudinal, fast movers, forever hunting for customers, with the glacial calmness of supermodels, leaving you gratified that they haven’t been rude. I presume they worked on being paid for every beer sold. The law of the jungle, Darwinian, brought to the pub. No matter. At last I was going to try a beer that had haunted me ever since reading about it within the pages of Michael Jackson’s books on beer (that’s the beer hunting guy from Yorkshire who died in 2007, not the former child star who became a man child and died in 2009). This was my fourth visit to the city and with a bit of time and being on my own for once, cut off from the usual press pack I normally turned up with, I was not to be denied.
As I anticipated my beer the evening’s entertainment begun: a scowling, mustachioed accordionist stood in the doorway and started to play the melody from Que Sera Sera. As his fingers jabbed away with a mesmeric fluidity, the newsreel that still existed in one part of my brain uncovered an image of Doris Day singing the same song in some film from the 1950s. It was a surreal memory that I shook away with the natural ease of a large dog shuddering itself after emerging from a dip in the river.
Dressed in Rupert Bear-style checked trousers and wearing a cap of indeterminate shape, it seemed to me that the accordionist had the air of a 19th century Corsican bandit albeit with a general comical air of buffoonish villainy. He was meant for a bad opera.
I had seen a similarly dressed chap with an accordion the previous year in the courtyard at the Museum of Plzen. The musician there was less comically menacing. He was older, slightly comforting in a grandfatherly sort of way, though also dressed in the same style of chintzy, cushion covered furnishings as the man in U Fleku. When the chap in Plzen played away I was struck by the fact that none of the journalists I was with wanted to look directly at him. I certainly didn’t. It was as if we were embarrassed for him, but on another level as the notes squeezed themselves out of the instrument, a flurry of folkloric tunes that sounded vaguely familiar, I made a joke about how we should be in a tavern in Where Eagles Dare. We could have been in Bavaria.
Meanwhile, back in U Fleku the beer arrived. It was creamy and dark with satisfying notes of licorice and mocha coffee, all held together with a sparkling condition that gave it a beautiful drinkability along with a deft dab of bitterness in the finish. As I let the beer transport me into a different state of reverie, the man with the air of a 19th century Corsican bandit finished his song, slung his accordion on his shoulder like it was the sort of bag that usually held shot pigeons and other game and began to root through his pocket. He brought out what I presumed was loose change and looked at it in a meaningful way, occasionally glancing up at the drinkers in the room.
The table opposite me, in the next row, was home to another young couple, Italian I guessed from the few scattered scraps of conversation that came my way. One of the imperious waiters approached them, an approach that I noted was strangely unhurried in its gait though still possessing a briskness that seemed to say ‘hurry up, eat your food, drink your beer, tip me and then leave’. He handed down two plates filled with a bomb-site of Czech cuisine: a mound of dumplings, red cabbage, gleaming and steaming, a monstrous cut of pork with a knife stabbed into the top. The waiter also had a bottle of liqueur and two small glasses on his tray. He poured a tot into each, the liquid as green as the weeds waving in the current beneath the surface of a river that would gladly take any Cordelia into its embrace. The couple demurred but then accepted what seemed like a gift. Did they know that this drink would be added to their bill and was one of the practices of U Fleku that guide books warned about?
Meanwhile, the accordionist was still looking through the coins in his hand. Was this a big hint that the meagre audience should be lobbing money his way? As the waiters continued to roam up and down poking menu cards in the air possibly in the hope of summoning diners out of nowhere while flourishing silver trays of the local liqueur for more victims, I thought that for them and the snarling accordionist it was going to be a long night. Time to leave. I was due at U Medviku very shortly but more importantly I had an early start in the morning.
I finished my glass and covered it with a beer mat (as one does in places like this) and beckoned a waiter. I wanted to pay and leave. The drinking culture of the this part of the world is replete with all manner of symbols and behavioral tics: for instance in 19th century Prague, as Peter Demetz wrote in Prague in Black and Gold, ‘Waitresses made a little cross on the wooden top of the mug, the assumption being that nobody would be satisfied with one beer alone and that it would be difficult later to account for the many consumed (the custom has endured: present day waiters make pencil marks on the round cardboard coasters for the beer glasses).’ So that was why I covered my beer with a beer mat, I didn’t want any more. I had been to U Fleku and it was doubtful I would return on my own again.
So why did I go? Everyone — it was said, I had been told, I had read — must go to this pub at least once on their visit to Prague. The attraction? Beer was obviously one, being brewed on site, while the rumbustious beer-hall nature of the place added another cog in the machine that drives the attraction of Prague. Roll out the barrel in a central European fashion: drink lashings of beer, fill your stomach with meat and dumplings and tell the folks back home where you went (and of course don’t forget to pick up a postcard and jot down the impressions of a city that until 1989 was well off the beaten track).
Then there’s the pull and pause of antiquity: beer has been brewed here since the late Middle Ages. So when you sit down for a beer at U Fleku you are merely the latest in a long shuffling line of drinkers to come through the door.
As I sat at my is-it-antique-or-not table I had read in my Rough Guide to the Czech Republic that 1499 was the date when brewing commenced at U Fleku, a time when Bohemia was under the lock and key of the Polish monarch. It was also a time when the ravage and rage of the Hussite Wars that had gutted the earlier years of the 15th century had finally spent themselves with the finality of a drunk who could drink no more.
1499 was the year when a local man with the name of Vít Skřemenec, a man who made his living malting barley for brewing beer, bought the place. And who was this chap whose footprint on the historical stage of Prague left such a time-shaded mark? He is in good company with the massive majority of folk around this time in that we do not know much about him apart from his name; that has survived but nothing remains of his history. He is amongst a unique club. The overwhelming majority of humanity that has ever lived is well and utterly forgotten.
We can speculate with the idleness that velvet smooth caresses an evening spent chatting in the pub with a glass in front and friends all around. Was he a man in search of a fortune? Or was he just a man, a businessman perhaps (or what passed for a businessman at the start of the modern age — Columbus had ‘discovered’ America in 1492, a date as good as any to announce, retrospectively, as the end of the middle ages), who thought it sensible to combine the first step of beer making with the rest of the process, to have everything under the roof? If it was the latter then this was an early example of rationalisation in the Prague beer market, something of which Czech brewing has known a lot about in the decades since the country rejoined the west.
So with this sense of antiquity it’s not surprising to discover that U Fleku claims to be one of Prague’s oldest pubs and brewpubs, with, it is claimed, I have written, I have believed, over 500 years of brewing the same dark beer (until the 1840s the vast majority of beers brewed in Bohemia would have been dark so the claim for the colour might not be so outlandish). It is a place that with the add-on of antiquity probably welcomed all manner of Czech drinking celebrities down through the years; this is where the great and good all came, it is said, names and fame trailing in their wake, a glass of beer to sate their thirst. Though I cannot help wondering if, before the Czech national awakening of the 19th century, perhaps German would have been the language that people used to ask for beer? And what about the years between 1939 and 1945 — the language of the occupier would I guess have been heard more than not.
Into these rooms, I know for certain that Ema Destinnova came, the great opera singer remembered with a mixture of sadness and joy at the Smetana Museum down on the city’s river Vltava. She apparently would occasionally pop into U Fleku for a cheeky half of Pivo. The idea of her dolled up to the heavens as a Valkyrie singing Wagner with a massive foaming flagon of beer propping up her sense of soprano-laden excellence gathers the imagination and rockets it to some sort of moon where the bars are open all day and there’s Wagner on tap, usually the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde. She was also the owner of a brewery when the congregational clasp of a stroke embraced her in 1930. The death and the silence occurred in Ceske Budjovice, home of the Budvar brewery (the coincidance of a branch falling off the tree and landing a beer connection is not lost on one). So I don’t feel that history won’t crack with the thought of her enjoying a Pivo at U Fleku, Wagnerian outfit or not.
Yet she was long gone, Time in a beer-hall is the same as time in a bar as is time in a pub, as is time spent in any place where people gather — this time well-spent is the engine of thought and 500 years of brewing and serving pivo is well worth thinking about. What did it mean?
1499 is close to the acknowledged start of the modern world in Western Europe, several decades after the fall of Constantinople, when the Ottomans’ cannons breached the walls of the last remains of the old eastern part of the Roman Empire. A new world had opened out to the west, over the ocean, and gold and silver and slaves would soon be kegged into galleons and flowing back to Europe.
Then I thought 1599. Europe in conflict as catholic kings and protestant princes jostled for power. The Defenestration of Prague and the Battle of the White Mountain existed a couple of decades away, bringing with them the decline of Bohemia. And on the throne of England an elderly queen sat while the Spanish empire was about to enter its twilight of decline.
1699. Europe on the edge of the enlightenment though the coming century would still see men being torn apart for crimes that the state deemed beyond the realm of sense, such as in the case of the regicide Robert-François Damiens. He had attempted to assassinate Louis XV in 1757 and after been found guilty was tortured and dismembered by four horses (though it is said an axe helped to sever his limbs). ‘Today is going to be a hard day,’ he is supposed to have said on the morning of his execution. There’s a man with an iron-like sense of fatality, which I can only salute.
1799 was the age of revolution as it ebbed away to the age of authoritarianism, every corporal with a marshal’s field baton in his knapsack. Armies of Europe on the tramp, though Prague was mainly spared from the fires of war.
1899, ah that’s nearer, fin de siecle, Oscar Wilde dying swamped in poverty in Paris, the Czech lands revival. Hold on, in a few years time, who’s that down-at-heel Prague citizen trying to sell dodgy greyhounds before the nations of Europe grasp each other in a strictly balletic dance of death.
In the following years the Czech nation found freedom only to lose it again within a generation and I imagine the people who might have come through the doors, sat down and ordered the beer in those days. And one man comes out of the darkness, the devil’s advocate, an easy reptilian smile, to be extinguished with the throw of a grenade and revenged with the death of thousands and the destruction of Lidice, a village whose ultimate destination was the end. Heydrich, his death’s head cap carelessly flung in a corner with a host of others. And does Patrick Leigh Fermor give us a glimpse of what U Fleku might have looked like then, on a passage on drinking beer in a Bavaria beer-hall in his masterpiece of sore feet and worn leather, A Time of Gifts?
‘I strayed by mistake into a room full of SS officers, Gruppen- and Sturmbannfuhrers, black from their lightning-flash-collars to the forest of tall boots underneath the table. The window embrasure was piled high with their skull-and-crossbones caps.’
And then the German speakers who vanished in 1945/6, an exodus that many still today would speak of as just punishment for their actions.
1999, Havel was still in the Hrad, and communist unitarianism had been driven into the ground, while U Fleku had now struck a commonplace concord with the ravening hordes from the west. It was on the tourist trail, a trail that I was now treading. And the tourist in me knew that I was offered eight lounges and restaurant rooms that if they weren’t in magical Prague would be seen as living breathing suburban rooms decorated with mock Gothic fantasies. But there is still the beer — and if you’re going to go to a tourist trap it’s worth going to one with a decent beer on tap.
Beer has always been big in Prague. Writing in 1967 Joseph Wechsberg recalled that ‘When I lived in Prague between the two world wars, beer was an important topic of conversation: what kind of beer, when to drink it, how to drink it. My friends talked about beer as knowingly as the people in Burgundy talk about their wines. Everybody had their own special beer, in some favourite haunt, where the beer was drawn from the barrel (bottled beer was for people who did not know better).’
Meanwhile, in his perceptive essay Pivo at the Heart of Europe, Timothy O Hall starts off with a quote: ‘A Czech never says that he’s going out to have “a few beers”, and he never counts the beers while he’s having them. You go out for a beer. A beer is like a woman: when you’re with a woman, you never think of women you have been with before, and you never think of the next woman. It would be disrespectful. It’s the same with a beer. You go out and you have one beer… and maybe, when the unfortunate time comes that you reach the end of your relationship with your beer, then maybe you’ll have another.’
And what did I think of beer? I had been drinking it since I was 16, not always enjoying it at first, adding lemonade (bitter top), making it sweeter, making it stronger (a depth charge of Jamesons into a pint of Guinness in a pub in Lower Baggot Street in Dublin); from a bottle, from a glass, from a can, and, latterly as beer writing took hold, from a tank in the brewery, from the source, fresh and alive, the primary colours of beer. So what did I think of beer?
Sometimes the beer in the glass that I drank was brisk and busy, but not too busy, with bubbles drifting to the top, ease in their ascension, an escalator upwards of carbonation and friskiness (a young pup perhaps, eager to play and gain approval); and above them, the place into which they merged and morphed, the snow white collar of foam, a Table Mountain of ultimate achievement.
And the colour of the beer in the glass? Some would say the pale gold of a ring forged in an ancient mine high in the mysterious mountains of a long disappeared people’s legends. Or maybe it was the sum of the egg yolk sun that inched itself, fingers tensed on the ledge of morning, gaining strength and confidence as it emerged into the day. Others will think of an heirloom — an old sideboard willed by a much loved great aunt, the burnish of dark chestnut on its surface, a gleam, but also the dream of childhood’s end.
Then there is a beer that is stygian, the knife of night cutting into the soft underbelly of the day, pray please pay the ferryman for his work in transporting us into the dark where no stars fall and no moon rises. And let us not forget the beer in the glass the colour of a piece of amber that emerged into the light of the world after spending millennia with an insect in its craw, and then by man’s hand was polished and perfected like some jewel in the crown.
So there was the beer, the beer in the glass, a sparkling ring of confidence surrounding and circling, an orbit of sensation, the bite of flavour on the palate, on the tongue and in the mouth; there it was, the thirst quenching draught of beer that covers all the sensory nodes that sit on the tongue, serious scholars in judgment, the Academy in congress about this work of art. The wash of sweetness, but not too sweet, a sweetness restrained, belt buckled in; the splash of fruit — tropical, citrus, soft — the crisp crunch of the malted barley’s influence, a ghost from the field where thousands of stalks swelled beneath the summer sun or shivered and sold themselves dearly when the fret rolled in from the north. The hop? There it was, the essence of fruit, as recalled above, but also the rasp of bitterness at the end of the throat, sometimes a stick rattling on a tin roof, other times, as pithy as a Wildean quote recovered, dusted down and thrown out into the sunlight. Then the beer was finished, Sahara dry perhaps, the return of a bounty of fruit, windfalls in the orchard, just brief, a glimpse, a flash (the green ray perhaps, glimpsed over the still ocean), before the beer vanished into legend.
And if we really think about it; if we really let ourselves think about the beer that we have just drunk, the beer that we have fallen in love with, this is the beer that brings the chimes of midnight closer with every sip or slurp, and every beer we devour and fall in love with must bring us closer to heaven.
So what did I think of beer?
When I think about it, safe in the lounge that is labeled retrospection, my snap decision plan for a visit to U Fleku had started so promisingly. From the outside the look of U Fleku said lager: a homely Bavarian pension, long slung, longhouse-like almost in the Devon style, gabled windows like eyebrows, a massive pastiche of a carriage clock hanging from the marigold yellow facade. This for me conveyed a sort of Mitteleuropa steadfastness perhaps, but there was also a sense of Germanic camp, which was perhaps exaggerated for me at the entrance when a tall chap in a suit, looking suitably officious and a little supercilious (I had a rucksack and it was obviously that I was travelling), said something, possibly good evening, and I blurted out Pivo. I didn’t want to eat, but just try the beer and I was directed into the room where an accordionist lurked with the look of an 19th century Corsican bandit.
For him as I found out, it was going to be a long night… for me it was the start of a journey that I hoped would make the beer I drank more than just the beer I drank.