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?