Wednesday 21 December 2016


It’s close to Christmas 2017 and I’m drinking a beer that is at the cutting edge of British brewing; it’s devoid of Brettanomyces, it’s lacking a lactic edge and its prettiness is defined by what the brewer has done rather than the imp of perversity treading about in an oak barrel (not that I am averse to that sort of thing). Who is it? It’s a bitter, a beer that shines with the gleam of an aged sideboard, that creaks and breaks bread with the greatest in the brewing land, that has a hymnal of malted barley and the kind of hops that manage to marry their tangy orange outlandishness alongside malt’s crisp cusp of biscuit-ness; the kind of beer that generations of drinkers will have enjoyed in the past, which is a place beer all often sits within, bemoaning its lot, glad to be part of the gloam, adding all sorts of ingredients to the wizards’ pot. And as I wrote this, the beer that I desired the most on this Saturday evening, a beer whose aromatics cemented their place in british brewing history, a beer from a place where I would have hired a beach hut, a place where the siren of the sea would have called, was Southwold, a small town by the North Sea, a place dominated by its brewery, a place where the seascape added its own sense of place. Bitter.

Monday 14 November 2016

Resin. Pine. If a lion could speak.

Do you know what this guy is saying? Me neither.
Resin. Pine. I type in these words, my laptop resting on a pine table, which actually smells of nothing (apart from the beer I spilt on it a few minutes ago and the aroma like the day will soon pass away). These are words whose meaning has been gnawing at me for a while, not exactly the eagle pecking away at the liver of Prometheus but still gnawing away; these are words that are liberally thrown out like corn-seed for the birds when it comes to describing aromatics on a certain type of beer, usually an Imperial IPA (or Double if you so wish). Today I have drank deeply of a beer that I am certain hits the resin/pine bell with the same certainty as a prop forward wielding a hammer on a high striker in an out-of-town fairground. However, I’m puzzled. What does it actually mean? Heaven knows I’ve used it enough but I’m beginning to wonder if it is just my inner xerox reading about the resiny character of an Imperial IPA and then going on to faithfully repeat it? Am I reading the text or is it reading me? Or is it a weakness on my part? I have judged extensively in Britain and Europe and often been told by fellow judges that they have a genetic disposition for diacetyl or oxidisation; I do not doubt them. Do I lack a genetic disposition for resin or pine?

For initial guidance I turned to a file with tasting notes going back to the late 1990s. In 2000 I was at Adnams with the then head brewer Mike Powell-Evans. We tasted a test brew of Fisherman’s Ale (a replacement for Old Ale, which itself was replaced by, er, Old Ale) and the word resiny popped up. In July 2002, whilst researching my first book West Country Ales, I used the word resiny as part of the description of a beer called Speckled Parrot from the Hayle-based brewery Wheal Ale (it was based in a bird park, hence its name). Also in the same year I used it in a description of Fuller’s Vintage when I tasted several one Monday morning with John Keeling.

Then there was this from my Big Book of Beer in 2005 (the italics are my contemporary emphasis): ‘Hoppy aromas are fruity, resiny, aromatic, citric, peppery, herbal, spicy, lemony and floral. It’s possible to pick out Seville orange marmalade (sometimes even lime), tropical fruits such as lychees and passion fruit, resin (think varnish).’ That is what I believed at the time, even though the idea that varnish, a sticky, chemical-smelling creature you paste over the floor-boards, could have a warmth in the aromatic stakes, seems kind of odd. I know the connection when I smell it but there has to be a better word or is it somehow beyond our reasoning?

Then there’s pine. Sometimes it makes me think of a chemical cleaning fluid for the loo, an exaggeration of what we think as pine, almost in the same way a drag queen is supposed to exaggerate certain aspects of femininity — and then this leads me onto considering that a lot of descriptors we have for beer are linked to artificiality or synthetic recreations; fruity aromas and flavours are closer to the sweetshop or artificial flavourings than the real thing, for instance, when we think of raspberry do we think of the raspberry artificiality we might get in a cheesecake rather than the real thing picked from the garden in the summer, but then does it matter? (An afterthought: raspberry sours get closer than any old common or garden raspberry beer)

I would say it does. Despite writing my first article about beer 20 years ago (though there was little in the way of pine about then), it still bugs me, puzzles me, tears away at me like an itch; a twitch almost in the gap of the curtain of my knowledge. Maybe it’s like the fruity, malt and hoppy descriptors I started reining back on 12 years ago (after many late night discussions with other beer writers about the paucity of the language we used); but then on the other hand I do wonder if infinite breakdowns of the flavours a beer conjures up on a writer’s tongue (woodruff, bay leaf, white pepper, freshly laundered sheets, uncle Tom Cobleigh’s just polished shoes for instance) might be too off-putting to your casual type starting to dip their toe into the indie scene; it’s almost as if the beer is deconstructed into a sum of its parts that lacks romance (and I do think beer can have romance).

And so going out into the field and trying to understand resin and piny I headed off across the road to one of Exeter’s four Spoons and ordered a couple of cans of Sixpoint’s Resin. The nose was soapy, rich and herbal (perhaps bay leaf and sage), while I was reminded of a Bakewell tart-like spiciness (and almond creaminess) plus a sweetshop-like herbalness (cough mixture, liquorice, mint humbugs) and of course there was the obligatory grapefruit. Was I in a forest full of pine trees after a rain shower (in my limited experience whilst out shooting a few years ago I can recall a freshness, a one-note freshness unlike the broad symphonic cascade I get from Imperial IPAs deemed to be piny)? I don’t think so. Was I on my hands and knees daubing floorboards with varnish? Perhaps. I enjoyed the beer however.

Yet I am still left bemused by the resin/pine conundrum and think about Wittgenstein’s assertion that if a lion could speak we would not be able to understand him; that is how I feel about the lion in the glass when it comes to Imperial/Double IPA and its claim to be resiny and piny. I don’t think I can always understand what this lion is saying. 

Saturday 22 October 2016

Beer writing

I’ve always been an advocate of beer writing, that it can be valid as film, music or food writing (there are even beauty and luxury journalists these days for heaven’s sake) and this belief is in concrete, physical form with Beer In So Many Words, the anthology of beer writing (right) that I have edited and which is out next month. I’ve just received a copy of it and even though I’ve written about a dozen books I still have that excitement on receiving a copy of a new book. There are some great writers in it from the current wave of beer writing, both from the USA and the UK; we also came across some little gems on beer and pubs that I’d not seen before, such as Hemingway’s PR letter for Ballantine, Ian Rankin on the pub and Ian Nairn on CAMRA and cask beer. I’m very pleased with it and I hope that the writers inside its covers (those still alive that is) are equally pleased. And yes, there is definitely enough good writing out there (and in the future) to think of doing a second volume if this sells well enough. 

I haven’t really lost my mojo when it comes to this blog given the paucity of content in the past few months — when I’ve been writing all day the last thing I want to do in the evening is write, or maybe I’m just getting lazy, or maybe I feel that I have said everything I want to say. Maybe not with the latter, I still have plenty of words but it’s just a case of ordering them into something that resembles sense. 

Monday 22 August 2016


Say hello to my little friend
Here is a fillet of celeriac, yes you read that correctly, a fillet of celeriac, which has been smoked, then seared before being braised and presented on the plate, with the grace and elegance of the finest bit of steak. It’s tender, earthy, salty-sweet, malleable, wrong-footing the senses, sending a message whose meaning is clear: what’s the big deal?

Celeriac and I have always had a turbulent relationship. It’s a rough looking brute of a vegetable, a knobbly near globe, a rough-skinned creature with pallid, sick-room coloured flesh. Mashed with roast pheasant or wild duck, yes please, but otherwise, especially grated, I think I’d rather leave the room, but on this evening, in a small restaurant in Brixton, Salon if you must know, there’s the dawning of a new day, the reconfiguration of a relationship, the reconsideration of a long held belief.

And here is now a beer, matched with the celeriac and its other companions on the plate, steamed rainbow chard and pickled walnuts (the latter two words always bring a childish smile to the face, it’s as if I was listening to some low comedian telling a bawdy story which end in the words pickled walnuts).

In fact, there are two beers on the table, one of which is a Sticke Alt from Harpoon, while the other is Baba Black Lager from Uinta. American beers then, which isn’t a surprise as the dinner I’m at has been organised by the Brewers’ Association with the grand idea of demonstrating that beer and vegetarian food can be ideal partners on the dining table (not a new idea, I recall discussing similar matches a few years ago with a beer drinking vegetarian). There are other dishes and other beers, all of which work well, but it’s the celeriac that astounds and atones for its previous wickedness.

The caramel chewiness of the seared steak alongside the rich malt character of the Sticke Alt was an intriguing combination, as if the beer was searching to pick out new flavours (I think of the fingers of a multitude of searchlights roaming the sky during an air-raid); there was also a sweetness about the celeriac that seemed to be intensified by the beer and even during the odd moment a hint of umami, that event horizon of flavours, slipped in and added its own savoury sense of leisure. I tried a few sips of the Baba, which highlighted the earthiness of the chard, but it was the Sticke Alt that married itself to this dish and turned what on paper would seem like a dreary assemblage of plants into something more over-reaching and intense on the palate.

I rather like celeriac. At the moment.

Thursday 14 July 2016


Orange: such an easy and lazy term to be handed over onto paper or the adjudicator when it comes to classifying the colour of beer. This is dark orange, this is light orange, this is bruised orange; or you might want to suggest that this is orange that has become detached from the very idea of orange (or maybe you’re just colour blind by now). I recall the saffron-yellow-verging-on-orange robes of the Hari Krishna types who used to thread their way along Oxford Street, banging their drums, selling their cassettes, offering free food to those who wanted it; this was a vivid orange, an orange, allied to my understanding of what the HK types tried to sell, seemingly wanting to be seen as spiritual, sacred, clean and pure. Didn’t work though, it just looked gaudy, peculiar and not to be taken seriously. 

So where does orange stand when I classify the colour of a beer? The long, wasp-waisted glass that stands next to me as I write is full of a beer I would suggest is orange in colour, but a dark, battered, bruised, tanned, autumnal kind of orange; an orange that has been around, Iggy Pop perhaps, leathery and lined, doing somersaults on the stage when Ron and the rest of the Stooges grind out the riffs and make the noise. And then it leads me to think: can you drink a colour? Can I drink orange and what would I expect when I drink a beer that is this battered and bruised shade of orange? The rich sweep of sweetness, the child-play of citrus, the haunted castle of Christmas, the recoil on the tongue and the slight rictus that tartness takes to the mouth. Kia-Orange, Fanta, Outspan; I write out their names for better or worse and think of how with these names (or brands if you prefer) orange is a terrible beauty born, a sweetness, a cheat, a fleet-footed villain of instant gifts, those GIFs that gift thumbs-up to those who need that gift of assurance. But then I return to the beer and un-bewildered by the orange I switch to the smoothness that the beer bestows on my tongue, a smoothness that is — yes — spiked with a citrus shadow reminiscent of orange, adjoined to a crispness allied to malt, and a long dry finish that suggests a con-trail spreading across the blue sky on a long hot summer’s afternoon. Can I drink orange? I suspect I can. 

Sunday 19 June 2016


Whoever said brewing was romantic? Perhaps it’s the notion of brewing that’s romantic as opposed to the reality, in the same way we think of warfare as being ceaseless carnage where in fact those who have seen warfare suggest that it’s mainly boredom leavened with moments of pure fear and pain. And so looking at this photograph on a cold November morning in 2005, we can see Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre, which makes one of the most memorable beers in Europe, Trois Mont, a beautiful and elegant beer that I have drank deeply of for many years. It’s a boring imagine, wet tarmac, red brick, metal tanks, steam from that morning’s boil while I suppose the sight of the local church at the end of the street does add some romance, in the sense of community. On the other hand, perhaps the snap of some of the brewing equipment does have a certain resonance in that envelope of feeling that I like to call my soul; it’s a vision of industry, a vision of intent, a vision of part of the journey that Trois Monts makes before it ends up in the glass. Some perhaps brewing is romantic after all. 

Saturday 4 June 2016


I’d forgotten about bitter, forgotten about that citrusy-slow build of sweetness, the words of toffee and hop spice, the crosstown traffic, the blistering bitterness, the dryness, the siren call of English hops, the warp and waft of the raw materials, the full body, its common touch (at which I have unforgivably sneered), the monstrosity, the leviathan, the well water hoisted, the sheer sheerness of it all. And as I delved further and further into my glass of Gadds No 3 I realised how much I’d forgotten about bitter and how much I had missed it.

Monday 30 May 2016

Hop sack

Occasionally, sometimes, when there is an r in the month or when there is a moon that is suggestive of a time I never really knew, I find myself wishing I’d never put my head (or was it my nose?) into that first sack of hops. That I had never been beguiled and bested by the flurry of aromatics emerging out of the sack, the rough, textured Hessian sack into which a cluster and concentration of dried hops were packed, squeezed and suffocated into, expressing their individual identities cone by cone. Was it at Moor Brewery in late 1996 when I was writing my first piece for What’s Brewing? Or perhaps, ironically, given what the brewery was best known for, Highgate Brewery in 1997? I can’t remember, but all I do have a certainty about is that from this moment (of which I have little recollection) I was possessed of a passion for the aroma of hops, not a love as that is something for life, but a passion, a lust perhaps, a kindness and a benevolence towards the aromatics that hops bring to my sensorial world. Since that time I have sniffed my way around a world of hop sacks (and even crushed up hop pellets in order to smash up the aromatics and let them play their way to my brain).

I thought of this journey, this Jedi-like awakening as I stood in the brewery at Redwell on Saturday morning, while Dave Jones, the head brewer, worked out the hop ratio for a beer he was brewing called Hop Rocket. Chinook was one of the varieties engaged, Centennial perhaps and I stuck my nose into the container that was holding the first wave of hops. The aroma was green, chive-like, tropically fruity, pungent, musky even. We discussed hops, we discussed malt and what malt could do, we discussed beer and coffee beans and like a circle we kept coming back to hops. ‘Try this,’ and I was given Bullards’ Summer Ale, which is also brewed here. Whatever your thoughts on a brewery buying the name of a long gone brewery and brewing beers with their name attached to them and with little link with what the beers tasted like (I think British brewers are confident enough now to be able to celebrate the past, their forebears, those that came before them and besides as Jeff Alworth here argues maybe not everything in the past was good), I found this beer to be exemplary: juicy and bursting with flavour, with the kind of bitter dry finish that clangs away with the insistence of a warning bell. And once again I was drawn to the persistence of the hop sack and its influence on my senses. Oh how I do love the hop sack but sometimes, just sometimes, I have doubts on whether it was a good move on that long distant day when I let myself be led to the hop sack.

Monday 23 May 2016


I could be this. I could be that. I could be this. And that. Could I do this, could I do that? Could have been a contender. Could have scored that goal, ran that line, made that hit, smashed that ball. Could have left that drink, could have gone home. Could have grabbed the last bus. Could have called a taxi. Could have left the pub when I said I would. Could have joined the forces. Could have worked harder at school. Could have thought before opening my mouth. Could have run for the bus. Could have married her. Could have called my father more. Could have learnt how to speak French. Could have learnt how to say goodbye. Could have learnt how to say hello. Could have turned a blind eye. Could have left the island. Could have pined. Could have wined and dined and could have refined the argument (but I didn’t). Could have made this beer, could have sold this brewery, could have kept this worker, could have spoilt, could have soiled, could have toiled, could have boiled. Would I have sold the brewery? I would sell the brewery. The brewery could. Could have knelt and spelt and felt my way towards the future, the couture that would hold me, that would gild and gold me. Could have. Could have whirled around the world. Could have whirled and whirled until the world came round to me, but instead. Instead. I am the man who sold a world to bring the world in my whirl. Could/can/will you forgive me?

Friday 13 May 2016

31 litres of lager in 24 hours

Much as I love this beer
I doubt I could have
matched Maurice Healey
 in a boozing contest
One of the books I am currently working on is an anthology of some of the best writing on beer from across the centuries and featuring writers from around the world. This is something I found in a wine-focused book called Stay Me With Flagons, which was published in 1940 by Maurice Healey. This is from the chapter headed Beer and Cider
‘Lager seems to owe its otherness to the method of its fermentation. When after the last war I was trying to get beer for the troops in Germany I got one letter which spoke of “our by-a-special-process-top-and-bottom-fermented-beer.’ I felt it must be good with a description like that; and I ordered a consignment. It was good. English beer, on the other hand, is apparently only fermented form below. Also, hops are supposed to play a large part in English beer; I do not think that lager contains hops, but it usually betrays the presence of more than a touch of garlic. I know of no scientific reason why lager should demand icing to be served in perfection, while English draught beer is undoubtedly harmed if its temperature is brought down to anything below what would be described as coo. Our beers are more potent, also; ‘One over the right’ is a phrase to indicate drunkenness, whereas I have myself put away 31 litres of German lager  in one twenty-four hours, without being conscious of any evil effect. I may add that this statement so shocked the editor of The Listener that he twice cut it out of my contributions to a teetotal controversy in the columns of his paper. But there is really nothing to it. The late Father Tom Finlay, one of the wisest of men, once told me that when he as a young Jesuit went to Munich to pursue his studies, the Master of Novices addressed the young arrivals in friendly warning: ‘You will like our beer,’ he said; ‘and you will perhaps be tempted to drink more of it than is good for you, not knowing its powers. Well, I would counsel you to set yourself a limit, and not to exceed that. You may not know what limit to set yourselves; my own limit is 17 litres a day, if that will serve you as a guide.’ So I think that a tourist on holiday at a more mature age need not be ashamed of having merely doubled this minimum.’

Monday 4 April 2016

Gustatory in their joy

On my desk as I type, a bottle of Cloudwater’s Aus Hopfen Weisse, just finished. It was juicy and tropically fruity, full of passion fruit and banana, plus a peppery spiciness and a grown up lemon-brushed bitterness in the finish; a fascinating beer that managed to hold my attention all the way down the glass. Later on, I will take myself down to The Bridge Inn, dog in tow, and order a pint of Punk IPA, whose tropical fruit lushness (lychees and papaya) and malt sweetness contrasts with an almost Bachian counter-pint to the buzz-saw bitterness on the finish. If I have time I might also have a pint of Jaipur, whose lusciousness and lubriciousness puts me in mind of TS Eliot’s lines at the start of the fifth part of Little Gidding, What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Three great beers, gustatory in their joy, whole-hearted in the way they splash and spring about on the palate, enablers of taste and tailored to fun, enjoyment, consideration and a beseechment to a life well led. Oh, and for those who care about such things, one is served from a bottle, another is keg, and the final one is cask. As if it really matters.

Also on my desk, newly arrived in the post, still smelling of the printers (that fresh, brand new aroma that must be partly paper and partly the glossy, wet umami of ink), a size somewhere between A5 and A4, with a cover that sports a grid of colour photos and images pertaining to beer, is something from CAMRA called Shaping the Future. As everything is a project these days, it’s called the Revitalisation Project, a review, an exercise, a download of thought on the way CAMRA is going in during a time zone of beers that demand the attention and the attrition a man walking into a pub (unless of course it was a Belgian pub) in the 1990s would have thought a purity of fantasy and fancy.

From my limited understanding it’s all about where CAMRA goes now. Does it embrace all beers or remain what it set out to do when it started — promote and defend cask-conditioned beer. Does saving pubs fit in and other things?

To be honest, I’ve been as enervated by the announcement of this review as much as the whole EU referendum circus — bored and not really bothered. So why write anything? I suppose as a member, contributor to the excellent Beer magazine and CAMRA Books author, I should try and articulate something about it all, but the motivation is not there. I suppose I should have a look at the website and fill in the survey in the same way that I will drag myself down to the polling booth on June 23 or whenever it is (it was hammered into me when growing up one should always vote, suffragettes etc) and vote, but as the three beers in the first paragraph demonstrate, I’ve long stopped worrying where my beer comes from, whether its makers designate it craft, cask, bottle-conditioned, chill-filtered, pasteurised (well maybe not in this instance), or if it is served in a gourd or from the polished skull of a captured Frankish knight. Mind you, I still harbour a dislike for handled glasses and nonics, which are the work of modern-day devils with the aesthetics of the man who designed the cardigan.

But to get back to the project that CAMRA is putting forward, good luck to them and good luck to those who have long geeked off in a different direction. I’m just going to have a beer and think and talk and write about what it tastes like, what it does to my life, how it accompanies Beethoven, Eliot, a game of rugby or football, a conversation with a friend or a farewell to a friend or just maybe a moment of transcendence; how it props up an economy, how it defines a region, a district, a country, a way in which one lives a life; how it conducts itself in the presence of food and how it looks when it’s spilt on the floor and lapped up by a dog. And maybe that’s what my future is shaped like.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Homage to Barcelona

It’s a beer that reminds me of a mint chocolate, an After Eight perhaps, or maybe a mint-flavoured Aero. It’s minty but not gormless in the way the mint flavour comes through. There’s a smoothness, a spiciness, a childishness, a warmth and a swarm of thoughts produced by this beer that I’m drinking at the Barcelona Beer Festival, not long before I chair a tasting and conversation about cask and keg with Brian from Stillwater Brewery and Joe, head brewer of Garage, which is based in this city of cities. The beer? Oh it’s from Brooklyn and something like 9.5 or 9.7%. It’s called Old Fashioned Traditional or something like that and I actually rather like it but the co-founder of Garage, James Welsh, doesn’t. He pulls a face and turns down another sip. Still there are plenty of other great beers in this festival, which is held in part of the old boatyards, where Philip of Spain (he of the singed beard) built the Armada apparently. Up at the front of the vast arched space, on a stage, a young guy in braces, continually updated a massive blackboard of beers and rung a bell whenever a new one went up — expectant faces wait for this bell as if it was a warning from the nave of beer awareness.

I’ve always loved Barcelona (even though its football team seem to love putting my football team to the sword regularly). It’s a city in which I have always felt at ease, a place that is cool without being off-putting, that has wonderful food (I adore that market off the Ramblas) and architecture and now it seems to be a possibility that it might become a beer city. At the festival, which had crowds queuing to get in, there was a mixture of people, young, old, male, female, families, serious geeks, lads on the craft lash, and the odd brewer; I visited several bars, including Kaelderkold, not far from the Erotic Museum on the Ramblas, a narrow, wasp-waisted space that was holding a tap takeover by Garage on the Friday night. A babble of voices, all languages, beers being poured with a smile, a rock’n’roll sensibility, a blackboard of beers that included Garage’s Merlot Sour, which was gently sour and tart, the ghost of a wine barrel haunting the glass (and let us not forget Napar as well).

Then we went back to Garage’s bar, where at the back a shining brewery and a handful of barrels announced their intention. This time I had the Pale Ale, which had the assertive savoury scent and sensuality of its American hops. This was a beer that said: here I am and here I am to please you, which it did. And while we drank and talked, there was one name that hung over us, especially as it had been written on a blackboard at the back of the bar: Steve Huxley, a Liverpudlian who had settled in Spain years ago and set up a brewing school and some people call him the godfather of Spanish craft beer and as you can see from the photograph above he is highly revered and mightily missed. He died several months ago. I wish I’d met him.

Monday 14 March 2016

Conversation on a train

On a train. Taunton to Bristol. First stage of a journey to London with a break in between in Bristol. Laptop open, searching for an opening para for an article that is already late, interviews done, theme agreed with inner manager, but searching for an opening para. Blank page in front of me, pristine white, waiting for the footprints of the muse that bite the hand that feeds it. What’re you writing mate, Scouse voice, opposite chair, big fella, bald, open face, his mate on the other hand, eyes half closed, fighter’s face, seemingly on the edge of sleep. Writing, I say, my job, trying to get it started, I tell him the theme. Why don’t you just start it with did you know or not many people know this. I smile, not really that sort of piece, need inspiration, given that I’m writing about beer, which is what I do as well as write on travel. You permanently on the lash then, innocent query, no malice. Not really, do a lot of travel, drink beer, but spend most of my time at a desk with a laptop. He speaks. You know what my favourite beer is? Hobgoblin. I love it, can drink loads of it. Went there once, to the brewery, I say, in Witney Oxfordshire, then owner took us out to taste the beer in a pub and it was off. Not really my sort of beer I say, but I don’t want to say that I feel Hobgoblin is a collaboration between the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz and a caramel-flavoured gush of insignificance. Why should I? He loves the beer, I don’t but we’re talking about beer, striking up a conversation about pubs and beers and then briefly and bizarrely Bicester’s shopping outlet, which I visited once and bought a reduced price copy of a book on stouts. Do you read he says, have you read Chicken Soup for the Soul? Best book ever. I say no but have heard of it. Not really my kind of book I want to say. Oh I must go as Bristol is here and so I shake their hands, wish them a safe journey back to Liverpool and leave the carriage with no opening para but instead having experienced a shining and gleaming 30 minutes of conversation that I usually get in the pub. Railway carriages are the new pub?

Tuesday 2 February 2016


I have of late turned my back, consigned to the lumber-room of precious memory, marked down as moderate and minding my own business, that sweet child of Belgium, the witbier, the spicy, fruity, refreshing beer that I first tasted, as did many, when someone suggested I try a hazy pale beer served in a chunky glass. Yes, Hoegaarden, though now this beer is undreamt of, unkempt in my mind, and part of the past as a foreign country. I last had it in the late 1990s, when it was juicy, orangey, silky and refreshing. And then its soul fell off a cliff. There have been other witbier moments along the way: 11 years ago on a sunny July afternoon at Du Bocq and a glass of Blanche du Namur was an easy drinking, engaging, uncomplicated companion chattering away in the glass. More grown up and with a sense of broodiness that would have suited Macbeth in one of his more lucid moments, there is the creamy and luscious Blanches des Honnelles from Abbaye du Roc. And yet, the Belgian witbier and those versions made by breweries from all over the world have remained in the memory room, locked up and forgotten. What went wrong?

As ever and in search of untying the ropes that had tethered my tastes, I went In search of new sensations, the rapaciousness of an avalanche of hops, potent potentates of dark beer, irregular shapes thrown by this yeast or that yeast or that sour bug bugging away in the wood. The witbier became an irregularity in the world of my beer drinking. And then this weekend, as if it had never been away there it was again and I remembered how I had forgotten that I knew when made at its best the Belgian witbier was an elegant, cheerful, uncloistered, friendly, thirst-quenching troubadour of a beer, something to be calibrated and celebrated when it came to the palate.

And the beers that reminded me, were kind to me even though the style had been left all alone as if waiting for a bus that never came? They were both from the Americas: Allagash White, smooth and flirty in the dance its spice and fruit made on the tongue, throat catching in the thirst that it quenched, a beautiful beer; then there was C5 Saga Ale Blanca from Mexico, which was sent to me with several other Mexican beers, though this was the stunner amongst the bunch. With a coriander spice and pepperiness, edge-of-palate sourness and Orangina-like fruitiness it brought in a big searchlight of summer to the dank and dark January night on which I tasted it. Both beers reminded me of the beauty that could be a Belgian witbier and it’s to my shame that it’s a beer style I’ve neglected for so long. Sometimes, in the rush for nirvana and newness we forgot the sturdy, the survivor, the subtlety and surprise that a beer we thought we knew can still bring.

Friday 15 January 2016

Fruit of the (IPA) Boom

Fruit in a brewery: Cantillon, not for an IPA, though the
 time of the cherry IPA is presumably about to dawn, craft eh?
Do I want a fruit-infused IPA? Of course I don’t and I’m even more certain I don’t want one when I drink a can of Vocation’s gorgeous Session IPA Heart & Soul, in which the soul of passion fruit and grapefruit shines through courtesy of whatever hops are being used (I’m too lazy to check out the varieties); it’s a gorgeous beer, juicy and luscious and loose in the way it tempts me to open up another can. But it also makes me think, especially as I see that a few Mystic Kegs are predicting that IPAs with fruit in them are going to be humongous in 2016. It will probably be true (and I do so wish I had their skill when it came to horses) as breweries that I really respect are putting all their Carmen Mirandas in some of their IPAs, which I presume is something to do with the apocalyptic hop shortage that is coming our way (it always makes me laugh that there’s a hint of the Daily Express’ annual approach to winter in July — ie Coldest Winter on Record — in the way the shortage of Simcoe and co is being reported), which is why some people are turning to fruit. I’m all for stretching the boundaries of what constitutes beer, but I cannot help feeling that adding fruit to an IPA is sucking up to a sweet-toothed crowd in the search of the next gimmick. But then that’s me and I’m probably completely wrong. It’s just that I like rice to be used in risotto, corn to stay on the cob and fruit being directed, traffic cop style, to either the maturing tank in a Belgian lambic brewery or the kitchen blender rather than the brewing kettle (and on that note I hope no one thinks that the next trend is veggie or vegan beers — in 2013 I tasted an artichoke beer from Puglia, it was dire).  

Thursday 14 January 2016

The joy of drinking copious amounts of beer with gusto and abandonment

One photograph was taken in Munich during Oktoberfest in 2012, while I was waiting for the bus to take me to what is laughingly called Munich-West Airport; the other snap comes from a visit to Pivovar Zatec three days before. On that Saturday morning I think I was drinking their 11˚ beer, which was superb (my notes: ‘delicately hopped, good mid palate sweetness, dry semi-bitter finish that lingers, grainy undercurrent that gives it a crisp chewy character’). 

There is an immense sense of joy in drinking beer that those who come up with guidelines about how much we should drink seem to miss. There’s a sociability about it when it’s drunk in a bar or a pub — the beer is a bridge between people, transporting ideas, jokes and gossip, lightening up moods, bringing on smiles and also giving you a chance to make friends, especially if you’re a new kid in town (yes of course there’s the dark reflective nature of too much beer but I’m a grin reaper rather than a grim reaper). So then there’s that moment when the first beer of the day hits ground zero in your mouth, washes over the palate and calves great chunks off that iceberg that we call day-to-day life, the cares and hairpin cracks that we carry with us are gone for a while. More people should try it.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

Everything changes

Yesterday I asked a brewer what was the reason for the apparent decline of a type of beer that remained comparatively popular but seemed to have been in decline over the past 20 years. This was a beer that also has a history going back over a century.

Was it changing trends, younger people drinking this or drinking that? Was it the onset of clever advertising for rival brands, for beers that maybe made people feel better about themselves or maybe convinced them that their beers had less calories/units/whatever?

His answer was simple: fashions change and styles change with them. When he was in college my brewer drank one kind of beer that was drunk by everyone around him; then another kind of beer became popular and the beer from his college days declined until it rose again. Now the style of beer we spoke about was in apparent decline but it would come back again my brewer opined. Everything changes.

Before anyone mutters mild or builds a barricade for Black IPA/India Dark Ale, the brewer doesn’t make his beer in the UK and the beers he drunk aren’t made in the UK, either. Where the beer is made is irrelevant — though I have always said that there are reasons why some beer styles die on their feet: they’re horrible, but then again that’s my opinion, which hasn’t stopped mild from being the, er, comeback kid of the past 30 years.

However, what is relevant to me is that with his comment a secondary point seemed to be worth thinking about. Throughout the 70s/80s/90s and beyond for all I know, the rise of faux-lager and nitrogenated smoothies was seen as the consequence of the wool being pulled over drinkers’ eyes; of them (mainly men) being seduced by clever adverts, flash posters and the promise of a lifestyle beyond their dreams.

Really? People aren’t children (unless they’re children of course and some of them are pretty smart), they know how to make choices; they are conscious of why they drink this over that (those of us who suggest these lager/smoothie/good-knows-what drinkers are swayed by advertising can go away and give ourselves a pathetic illusory superiority pat on the back). There were a lot of reasons why these beers took off, but people weren’t stupid. 

So the next time, you hear someone rant about ‘stupid’ people drinking beers that this person doesn’t like, remind them that life changes in the most random of ways (not too forcefully I hope, I’m not advocating a barney in the pub). But it does change, which in some ways is the reason why I, for one, continue to be swayed and somersaulted over and over again by beer, its varying moods and its continual surprises.