Monday 23 February 2015

Remaining fascinated with dirty beer

Dirty beer, of which I have written before here and here, but it remains a subject that fascinates me. Not so much murky and muddy, but a beer with corners, jutting elbows, noisy children, a plot that requires some thought. Not easy. Good though, dirty beer is good, a bit like Iggy Pop’s Gimme Danger, uneasy but also easy to understand. Certain hops give dirty beer a character, maybe something like Chinook or Amarillo, but used in a way that makes them drinkable and memorable. Some fermentation processes as well, maybe those that give us the likes of white IPA, saison and sour. Naparbier’s Back In Black, for one, is a dirty beer, with its intense level of dryness, an ululation of roastiness, a flutter of deep orange pungency, and a bumpiness, a meatiness, a sweatiness that draws you into the glass. It’s adjudged to be a black IPA and eminent in its dirtiness. Bristol Beer Factory’s Belgian Rye is another one, uneven in a good way, rich, grainy, vinous and adventurous in its dryness. I like this idea of beer being dirty. After all, there was a literary movement in the 1980s called Dirty Realism. It’s not about inept brewing, it’s about beers whose aromas and flavours change and challenge, make you think, make you drink and make you clink the glasses of good fortune together. Other dirty beers come from Kernel, Beavertown, Orval. Beers with a certain swagger, a take-me-or-leave-me kind of approach to the world. There’s nothing wrong with clean beer though. The bottled beers that Sharp’s produce, beers such as Atlantic Pale and Dubbel Coffee Stout, they always seem clean, full of flavour and character but nevertheless clean. However, at this moment in time what I want are dirty beers.

Friday 13 February 2015

Beer judging

Beer judging, a swirl of the beer in the glass, a discreet sniff, a sip, a spoonful perhaps, a swallow, then carefully writing down the evaluation, discussing the beers, a brief eruption of laughter, a flurry of conversation, then back to contemplation, while the stewards bright and cheerful flit about and it’s ‘good morning table 8’. A judge puts the glasses of beer in a semblance of order, slightly higgledy-piggledy, another has them in a regimented line, while the brewer next to him has his gathered together, huddled together as if they discussing an urgent secret. Yet another has his glasses in an arc around his notebook. This room in which they judge in the National Brewery Centre is a place that resonates with the past of brewing and beer and pubs — retired wooden inn signs hang from the ceiling like regimental flags in a chapel, The Merry Minstrel, the Railway. A measure of past glories, names consigned to history, memories of a simpler time perhaps?

In this space where the judging takes place at the International Brewing Awards and mindful of the sense of silence the chief of judges sits on a chair, alone, silent, watching, observing like a father prior keeping an eye on his younger charges. And then the murmurs seem to have stopped and I am aware of a silence, a sudden silence as the judges laser-beam their concentration on the job in hand. The silence passes and small bush-fires of conversation flare up, ‘this is the one I have a problem with’, ‘it could be a conditioning issue’, ‘it was in the middle that I thought that there was some slight diacetyl’, ‘this is my favourite’, ‘overripe fruits’. And now the chief of judges is off his chair, patrolling the tables, words here and there, the watchful father and as the morning goes on the conversation ebbs and flow and I’m put in mind of some lines from Arnold’s Dover Beach: ‘Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,/ Listen! you hear the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/ At their return, up the high strand,/ Begin, and cease, and then again begin.’

Today though the time for contemplation and evaluation is gone and the medals are due to be announced and the mood will change to one of jubilation and commiseration and meanwhile most of the judges have flow, returned to Portland, Cornwall, Patagonia, Bavaria, while the beers they judged, the ones that win, will gleam and preen themselves for this is the moment of their glory. Brewing champions indeed.

Brewing Champions, my history of the International Brewing Awards will be published in the next few weeks. 

Wednesday 11 February 2015

The International Brewing Awards

Beer judges back in the 1920s, they’ve changed a bit since
Like cardinals in a conclave, coming together to elect a new pope, the brewers gather, pens poised, whispers rising to the rafters with the assurance of curls of smoke, their concentration all too evident as another sip of beer is taken and tasted and adjudged as to whether it might be classed a champion. It’s the International Brewing Awards once more, here in bleak but beloved Burton, a competition that stretches back three centuries, all the way to 1888 when the 10th Annual Brewers, Maltsters, Distillers, Mineral Water Manufacturers, Licensed Victuallers, Caterers and Allied Trades National Exhibition and Market (snappy title indeed) was the venue for what an unknown scribe in the Brewers’ Journal wrote: ‘A very happy idea was that of Messers Gillman Spencer Limited, who had a competitive exhibition of beers brewed with their patent rice and torrified barley malts. Over 100 brewers responded to the invitation with the prospects of substantial prizes apparently having proved an incentive not to be neglected. The awards gave general satisfaction and were fully appreciated by the fortunate winners.’ 

And now as it ever was, the brewers remain in the judging chair (though beer writers have occasionally dipped in and helped out including Michael Jackson, Roger Protz and Mark Dorber), men and women from all over the world, including Portland, Patagonia, Bavaria and Cornwall; and in a room at the National Brewing Centre they sit, their faces a collective mask of concentration, noting this, noting that, the eternal patience of the beer judge, carrying on a tradition and securing and anchoring a competition that began when Victoria was on the throne. For three days these week, the brewing world is in Burton and the town is all the better for it.

I’m here keeping an eye on things, a guest of the competition’s organisers, but there’s another aspect to my visit — I have written a history of this competition, Brewing Champions, which should be out in the next few weeks, I’m rather pleased with it. And when the judges go home, the hundreds of beers in bottles, cans, casks and kegs will be thrown open and shown to the public at the International Festival of Beer, which starts on Friday. Roger Protz and I are there talking and tasting on Saturday, followed by Stephen Beaumont. It should be great fun, do come.

Thursday 5 February 2015


Beer as a luxury item? That’s right, the drink you love, the drink you linger along with and look to to provide a guide on how to pass through life, a good friend, a pal, a paid companion (for when you hand over some money to the bar-man you are paying for the companionship of a glass of beer) — a luxury item?

For a moment let’s ponder on the meaning of luxury. Sometimes luxury is a catnap, time off from an arduous life, a snatched moment with a loved one, or it can be the possession of something that might make you feel good and gives you a platform from which you can observe the rest of the world and hope that they see how good things are for you, a miserable, pale-faced attempt at elitism oh-do-look-at-me-up-here-on-the-catwalk. 

But back to beer as a luxury item? If you believe this website luxury is about expensive beer, expensive processes, expensive ingredients and possibly taking the punter for a long ride around the houses and back again. It’s about the money, about the honey that glides down the throat and sweetens the soul of the beer-inclined one who harbours a need to stand on the platform and stir up and stare at the rest of the world.


Chocolate can be luxury, as well as smoked salmon (not the one bought in the Co-op though), but fruit pastilles and coley cannot be luxury, unless perhaps the coley has been smoked in a smokehouse on the edge of the earth in which case the smoking process and the place in which it took place is the luxury item but what we eat is still the fish that my grandmother always reckoned was fit only for cats. Fruit pastilles equally have no chance at being anything other than fruit pastilles, unless perhaps they are served in a tube of pure gold, but then the tube is luxury (how vulgar a tube of gold seems though) but the pastilles aren’t. Rare beef is a luxury as is lamb coming from a flock located on an island with unusual seaweed, but on the other hand this breast of chicken that that I have just bought from the supermarket in order to be breaded and go into a sauce is not a luxury. It is a commonplace piece of food that can be made and served any time during the week. It’s all very complicated this idea of luxury and I haven’t even started on suitcases. 

So perhaps luxury if we think about beer is scarcity as well as isolation and showing off good fortune; the scarcity of a grain or a hop or its price which means that the scarcity devotes itself to the brewing process and in the process turns the beer into a luxury. Or does it?

I don’t think beer is a luxury item, unless of course in the case of the fruit pastilles you have the bottle in which it is served made out of a valuable luxury item (such as a dead animal I suppose) and then it becomes a luxury item but there is still the beer, whether it is delicious or not. So the whole point of a luxury beer is something that would make you feel better about yourself or even higher on the evolutionary stakes than the person who says that Beavertown or Hook Norton or De La Senne or Carling is the drink for them. So as you caress a bottle of beer that cost you more than a case of something you would normally drink then are you doing luxury? Or is the one-off, rarely brewed, showed-off-on-Twitter bottle of Double IPA or the one made with ingredients sourced from Holland & Barrett that is an act of luxury? Or is luxury best left to those who fancy standing on a platform and spying on the rest of us? Answers on a fur-lined papyrus postcard please and btw I rather enjoy coley when making Thai fish-cakes (for myself that is, not next door’s cat). 

I’m just pondering on things at the moment, trying to work out ideas in the public sphere, reading and writing my way through a variety of things, bit like a mental workout, with beer in hand.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Beer fashion

And so I start thinking about the fashion of beer amid the spaces in which it is drunk with a deepness that is beyond all human understanding or dissected and a love of delivered with a joy and a rattle and a hum that can shake all numbness…the baseball hat and the big woolly beard and the shirt that a lumberjack would love and the mustard-yellow work boots with their child-friendly, artfully designated scuffs and cuts and then there’s the shiny suit that did service on a wedding day and the nice dress from the sort of shop that likes and the glad-rag handbag in which there used to rest a packet of Lights but now there is a mobile with a message from a grown-up son out on patrol somewhere or other in another part of the world and-I’m-fine-mum and then there’s the flat cap, country style, hitched up trews half-mast, Nelson’s dead, Churchill’s passed, gran’s gone, above the nice canvas shoes, which really need to be on the deck of a three-master but are really at home on the tearless, brutal hard concrete of whatever quarter we are in and let’s say hail to the parka, the scuffed anorak and the roomy, Aldi-blue denims and the big woolly jumper that could engulf a nation in its warmth and by the way there’s the sharp suit and the quiff and the man bag and the ironic look that says I’m ironic and gathering apace there is the dirndl and the lederhosen and the hat with the feather in it and those funny thick socks that start halfway up the leg and finish below the knee and ooh look over there at the cargo shorts and the box-fresh, egg-white trainers and the messaged t-shirt and the bunch of keys in the company of a bottle opener on the belt but then you realise that everyone no matter how they dress drinks beer, there is no code, no fashion for beer and oh yes, while we take breath, to our surprise there is more: the sloven straight out of Life on Mars, palm down on the shiny caramel-brown counter, the cove-like, cheeky-half, half-wit booze-hound, the found gear second-hand hand-me-down beer iconic, the we’re-all-in-it-all-of-us-together-even-you-mate preppy sports hall look and at the end of this thought process I realise that everyone drinks beer in all manner of spaces, apart from those that don’t and those that don’t drink it don’t understand it…

Tuesday 3 February 2015

The Beer Vault of Bristol

Can I send you some beer? Yeah, sure, I reply. Get this sort of communication quite often; part of the job, used to get free vinyl and CDs back in the music writing days, and then tickets for gigs, especially if I was going to review them. Part of the job. So can I send you some beer? Yeah sure I reply to an email from Bristol-based beer writer Lee Williams, whom I met last year behind the counter at the Small Bar, on a rainy bank holiday. Eight beers turn up with a carrier, part of the new beer box venture, the Beer Vault, which is managed by Williams. Another beer box scheme, but this one intrigues. I’ve got eight beers in my ‘Lock Box’, from the likes of Weird Beard, Kernel, Partizan, Buxton, you know beers of the ilk that doth not speak its name (unless of course they’re a chin-stroking peach pumpkin masala butyric kind of beer dreamed up by glad men and women, but I digress).

My beers are a happy family of beers, bright and bold, bubbling over with character and flavour, not the sort of beers I can get out here on Dulverton. Hold on a minute though, there are two other categories in the Beer Vault, the ‘Vault Reserve’, where three rare beers are offered every month, while finally there’s the Cellar Builder, which offers special collaboration beers and one-offs. This is a beer box for the collector, the cellar-owning connoisseur, perhaps.

So I’m tempted to open a beer and in need of a mid-afternoon sweetness, but not the sort of sweetness that clambers all over a beer with the persistence of a honeysuckle; I’m in need of a discrete sweetness, a sweetness that is only kidding in its threat to take one’s teeth by storm and make them jangle like a fist of keys on a railing; a sweetness that you only notice when the beer is gone and the glass is empty. So it’s a milk coffee stout that I turn to for sustenance, a beer that has the name of Black Perle and is made by Weird Beard, whose beers I have always enjoyed. I enjoy this little number with an intimate ease, an appeasing of the palate, a free and easy, creamy, coffee-entwined sweet stout that is bold and brassy for such a low alcoholic intake (3.7%). Beers of this weakness and at home in the bottle are not usually what I fall for, but as I sip my way down the glass there’s an element of fun as the smoothness of the beer jiggles against the brace of coffee and I even find some black pepper in the background. This is a rather fun glass of beer. I like it a lot; this is the kind of beer in which time spent in its company in a vault would be a very snug and secure time.