Wednesday 9 September 2020

The severed moods of beer

I’m working on a book idea and trying to understand what I really want to say — this is a spontaneous selection of words that might or might not explain what I really really want to say as the Spice Girls might have sung (or not).

And what has this immersion in the world of beer told me about my life? Those with a search for an easy headline but who do not know me would suggest that it has been a blight and kept me from realising life’s full potential, that I have lost out on Minotaur-sized pay checks and a job in a corporate organisation that would have seen me retired by now, free to take cruises up and down the Danube or across the Atlantic where the captain’s table would feather the nest of sociability every other night; I could have been a contender in a big publishing house, moved into management, joined a golf club and been able to afford season tickets for the Emirates, to which I would have travelled across from the southwest by first class (or would I have had a big house in the country nearer to London?); others might suggest that it has been a journey I, as an adult, an aware adult, chose to take, that I have seen beer’s equivalent of attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion and C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, that I have been behind the scenes, been given a glimpse behind the curtain into the rich history of beer and brewing, seen the dreams, seen the magic lantern’s shadows on the wall, and been honoured to have had the chance to be able to write about it. 

Beer, however, has told me, like a whisper from a confidant in the back of a near empty church in the middle of an anonymous city in the Low Countries, that I have a restless soul, a restlessness that initated the search for beers and bars and breweries, first of all starting in the UK and then moving onto mainland Europe and then finally across the world; it is a restlessness that takes comfortable travelling out of my day-to-day existence and can, for instance, see me on an uncomfortable overnight coach to Heathrow, in order to get to Munich for a mid-morning snack of Weissbier and sausage in a sun dappled beer garden, or catching an early Eurostar (the coach once again) to Brussels so that I can get an early doors beer in a bar where the faces of the regulars have more stories than the Bible, or a cramped seat on a cramped plane across the world to somewhere like the city of Portland, where beer is the coinage and the currency and the wherewithal in tandem with a well-defined sense that beer is in the midst of the struggle and the message that black lives matter; it is a timetable of buses and trains and sometimes well-worn treks, a feat of logistics I once planned for three days of Bohemian breweries, sharing buses with small town shoppers carrying string bags straight from the days of communism alongside raucous school children who’d finished school at lunch and never wore uniform unlike I had to (and did I push the limits with school uniform); it is about this journey taking me through villages that I first of all think I will probably never visit again but I want to (and I probably will); it is a crammed budget flight, a strange city, the language of beer, the austerity of strangers, a loneliness as well, sitting in a well-lit bar whose beers sing with flavour and character and yet I cannot speak the language and neither can those around me speak mine and I so want to talk and be part of this family and when they go home it is to the familiar and the things that are similar from day to day, while I realise I have to be up early in the morning to move on up to my next destination from a hotel whose days last saw glory when I was young and cried for the death of a pet tortoise. 

It is about the homely nature of a pub or a bar, which I always felt from my earliest times spent sitting in them but couldn’t articulate until I started writing about beer; it is about the flavour of certain beers, the delicacy of an elegant Helles or the broody boost of a stout that crams the mouth with chocolate, coffee and roast barley, a beautiful looking ornament of darkness in the glass; it is about the moment or moments that you wish would never end, where your friends are always smiling and laughing and explaining stories and telling tall tales and making plans that deep down will be forgotten come the next day but it doesn’t really matter as we return to our homes by Kensal Green; it is also about the downside, the one more beer you ordered or took out of the fridge at the end of the night that come the next morning you wish you hadn’t, the ill-chosen word or string of words to a loved one or a close friend, the joke you thought you made but only ladled on more hurt, the template of supposed honesty in the air that douses all passion and the obsession that leaves a rift in the home; and then there is the recognised urge for solitude that a pub in a strange city satisfies, the lack of responsibility and fecklessness that too much beer can bring, the wayward lurch of drunkenness when you realise you have had too much, but also the childish glee that accompanies a vision of a brewery that seems to have more in common with Jules Verne than anything else you can think of, and let’s not forget the snake oil patter of the marketeer who has swapped the cant of yesterday for the craft of today, all this and more is what this book of mine I aim to write is about. I think I’m ready to start. 

Thursday 2 July 2020

Universal Stout

This is a stout, a universal stout, it is
not a sweetshop stout 
Sometimes when I wonder about the nature of beer I find it curious to think and ponder over the circumstances in which a particular name has been given to a beer that is brewed by countless people across the world. All of them have an idea that the beer they brew, under its given name, is going to taste roughly the same as the one with the same name that is brewed by other members of this host of countless people. 

For ease, we write down beer style, or variety, or family member or type even, but the reality is that the stout (for that is the kind of beer I am thinking about) a brewery down the road makes will have a commonality with one that is produced by a brewery 204 miles away as the crow flies or one brewed in a brewpub high in the Andes that I once visited. But why, I ask myself, should I be surprised? After all, I expect a pickled herring bought from that stall next to the Amstel in the middle of Amsterdam on a Tuesday to taste the same as the pickled herring I went back for on the Thursday from the same stall, otherwise I might be disappointed. So maybe what underpins the idea of a beer style/variety/family member or type is a sense of familiarity, the knowledge that when you ask for a stout wherever you are you will get something that broadly dovetails with what you know a stout tastes like (unless of course the brewer has seen it fit to throw in various confectionary or joints of meat, in which case we are on the wilder shores of disappointingly different tasting pickled herrings).

So the stout I have drunk is a universal stout, it has no name, has no home, has no parent, has no need of a name. It looks like a gentle sleep, beautiful in its shadowless sleekness, a mirror held to the soul, a soothing, soft and yielding shade that you immediately want to be friends with. If this is a stout, this is a stout, it is a stout, a stout that looks like a masterpiece in the glass. Let us now pass onto to the array of aromatics that emerge from the glass: the luxury of vanilla, the softness of childhood, the remembered laughter of a young child; the caressive nature of chocolate and coffee, the bittersweet memory of a long-lost espresso in a sweet-smelling cafe hidden away beneath the streets of Milan; the heft and weight of roastiness, the bracing bitterness of roasted malt that crackles with the intensity of a bonfire smelt several fields away on a still day. To drink a stout as complete as this is to start with the roastiness, which is then followed by the soothing chime of vanilla, coffee and chocolate and finally be replete with a dryness at the back of the throat which suggests that you do what you’ve just done time and time again until the glass is empty. Or maybe the ethereal presence of George Orwell comes along and asks if he too can have a glass of this stout he looked so diligently for when he wrote The Moon Under Water and I wonder if he ever thought of the anarchy that would be unleashed if when he asked for a stout he would be presented with a glass of something that smelt like a sweetshop he might recall from the days before the war swept all before it. 

Monday 22 June 2020

Do regional beer tastes still exist?

During the lockdown I have made a list of places I want to visit, it’s a sort of game, an arcade of dreams with an element of playfulness. On my wish-list, amongst bars in Brussels, Bamberg and Berlin, is the Vine in Brierley Hill, home of Batham’s. I haven’t been there for a few years and for some reason this has become one of those places I want to visit. I have even tried to devise a sort of pub crawl that would also take in The Beacon, home of Sarah Hughes Brewery, which I last visited in 1998. As I considered and planned this expedition, which is several months in the future I suspect, a stray thought tumbled around acrobatically in my mind, unclear at first, then becoming more cogent and focused: are these two pubs and the beers they brew one of the last outposts of regional beer tastes in the UK? 

When I first started writing about beer in the late 1990s the idea of regional tastes was pretty simple — mild in the Midlands, sweeter beers in the Southwest (though flat Bass in Bristol), brown ales in the Northeast and so on. I pretty much followed the party line of what had gone before and was being written then but my belief started to waver and when it came to writing Britain’s Beer Revolution with Roger Protz I was of the opinion that the idea of regional beer tastes in the UK was dead. 

It’s a view that seems even more steadfast these days as the most stubbornly resistant of regional beer tastes and styles seem to crumble before the widespread use of New World hops and a growing thirst for hazy, juicy pales. You’re more likely to find a beer style (albeit tweaked and turned inside out and in the company of fruit and herbs) from central Europe in a modern brewery’s portfolio than something your great-grandparents might have drunk. 

Or is that true?

I have spent a few days on and off thinking about regional beer tastes and am starting to wonder if they do still exist in patches, almost surviving in the manner of various speciality cheeses that Slow Food have always been keen to protect. Do drinkers in the Black Country still like the mild their parents and grandparents drunk even though the original drinkers were apparently drawn to it because they needed a low-ABV beer that could refresh and replenish after a day working in a car factory or foundry, most of which are gone? What was and remains the difference between a bitter made in Yorkshire and one made over the Pennines in Lancashire? I had an interesting conversation with Taylor’s head brewer Andrew Leman about that subject several years back. Do drinkers in the Northeast still hanker for sweeter brown ales?

On the other hand, could it be that regional beer specialities become a future trend? When we get back to the pub will ice cream stouts or Haribo IPAs (ok I made the latter up but you know what I mean) still be as popular? Or will there exist a thirst for more balanced beers that have a link with the locality in which the drinkers live, as is seen in food with writers and chefs rediscovering and championing traditional regional dishes.

Could it be that if a Black Country mild with its sweetness and low alcohol or a Kentish ale with its dryness and use of local hops were French or Italian, there would be campaigns for its survival and it would become a celebrated style? Or will they inevitably go the way of Burton, Dorchester Ale and South Devon White Ale? 

When I can start travelling again I will start my search. I wonder what I will find. 

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Wednesday Beer — The Cream Ale

Don’t laugh but apparently some people have been asking Anspach & Hobday whether their Cream Ale has lactose in it (as if the inclusion of lactose is some sort of craft beer Reinheitsgebot) — it doesn’t, but, being based on a beer style that was both pre-Prohibition and remains in the repertoire of a few US breweries, it contains flaked corn and oats. 

I first read about Cream Ale when Randy Mosher filed his review of Pelican Pub & Brewery’s Kiwanda Cream Ale for the first edition of 1001 Beers. The idea of this single-hop beer with a light colour and body but which Randy still thought good enough to be sampled intrigued me. 

Fast forward to 2015 and I’m driving between Seattle and Portland over six days for a travel feature and aiming to get to as many breweries as possible, which is how on a gloomy Monday lunchtime I arrived at Pelican’s Pub right down on the beach at Pacific City in Oregon (city is a bit of a misnomer as from what I saw the place looked the size of a suburb of Rhyl). Naturally, I ordered the Cream Ale, which was light and delicate with a moussec-like mouth feel. It was an excellent beer for lunch and dovetailed magnificently with a plate of fish tacos. 

As for Anspach & Hobday’s Cream Ale, I presume it’s the corn that helps to give it a lightness on the palate, while the oats add a smooth mouth feel. There is a floral and citrus nose, while the palate is herbal, delicately fruity and dry in the finish with a ring of bitterness continuing as if a visitor was pressing down insistently on the doorbell. 

This is a smooth and soothing beer, with a lot more character than I recall from Pelican’s Cream Ale. One other thing, The Cream Ale is a lightly hazy in appearance, which is a bit ironic as Cream Ale in the 19th century came about because US brewers wanted to emulate the brilliance of the lagers that were sweeping all before them (according to Jeff Alworth in his magnificent Brewery Bible). Next, I’d like to see a pre-Prohibition lager if anyone is interested in making one. 

Friday 12 June 2020

Travel stories

I am feeling itchy, in need of a roam beyond the run of home. I want to be on my way to Prague, or Berlin, or Bamberg, or even, at a pinch, London. However, I’m still in Exeter, a lovely city and I love living here and I drink some great beers here but after 12 weeks of my universe being constricted to the local park, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and the butchers around the corner, to paraphrase Jim Kerr, who I once interviewed in the 1980s, I want to travel. 

I want to walk along the platform at Midi in Brussels, and then make my way to Moeder Lambic Fontinas and order a glass of Tilquin Gueuze and feel its tingle and tapestry of flavours on my tongue. After several of these, I want to continue into the city centre, with the hope of catching the aromatics of fries drifting through the air like wraiths and aware of people going back and forth, with both purpose and the lack of purpose in every step, and I want to walk up the steps to Poechenellekelder, where I shall fall upon a freshly poured glass of Taras Boulba and then ask for a bottle of Dupont’s Moinette Blonde. Is that too much to ask?

Or if it is, maybe I want to walk out of Berlin Schönefeld in the direction of the train station and pop into the rustic-looking tavern that is run by Augustiner and set myself up for the roistering and rumbustiousness of Berlin with a litre of Helles. Then I shall get on the train into town, probably embark at the madness of Alexanderplatz and walk partly along the Spree to Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg and drink beer at Heidenpeters, somewhere I have been visiting and drinking at for several years. And with a bit of luck, if it this time of the year, I might be able to order the brewery’s full-bodied Maibock. Later on? I shall make my way back over the river to Hops & Barley and drink deeply of the Dunkles brewed there. Currywurst? Yes please. And tomorrow afternoon I shall head over town to Foersters Feine Biere and drink a lot of Franconian beer. 

I want to get off the station in Bamburg, glance at the massive maltings named after the town (there are two, did you know, the other being Weyermann’s) and then walk up into the old centre of the city and push my way into the wooden womb of Schlenkerla’s tavern, where I shall indulge myself in plenty of rauchbier and once my thirst is frequented I will stroll over, weather permitting, to Brauerei Greifenklau, in whose beer garden I once sat and heard the thunder in the surrounding mountains, while diving deeply into the brewery’s clean, malty, minerally and earthy Kellerbier. I think I shall be there for some time. 

But I can’t do any of this at the moment so instead I think and I write and this is what I think and I write because I write about beer and travel. 

Beer is the drink of the barbarians, the drink of the victors, the losers, the drink of the mother, the lover, the carer, the father, the misfit, the outlier coming in from the cold, the saviour, the coward, the bawler, the bawling baby, the refugee, the soldier, the minister, the spinster, the swimmer, the fastest person in the race, the one who preferred not to be paced, the other, the cut loose, the one with the juice, the tailor, the sailor, the tinker, the spy, the cry baby, the high roller, the stranded and you and me and you over there. That’s all. 

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Wednesday beer — Mondo Colouring In

Could you ever get bored of IPA? Will you ever get bored of IPA? Is there a kind of IPA that bores you to tears and makes you want to rip up your membership card of the great world of beer and return the celestial vouchers of beer appreciation by first class post? What is it that might rankle with you when it comes to IPA? The inclusion of fruit, spices and whatever else is hanging around and begging to be used in the kitchen? Or maybe it’s mixed fermentation, a Yeti-like yeast strain or the complete loss of hope when a soda IPA comes along (as it will)? I’m being rhetorical, not being me or you or anyone, but just wondering what it is about IPA that has made it the punchbag and the leaky cauldron and the three wise men of beer all rolled into one? 

On the other hand, I could just enjoy an IPA, which is what I have done with Mondo’s Colouring In, a 6.2% extra pale version of craft beer’s constant presence, that according to the sleeve notes has been dry-hopped with Mosaic, El Dorado, Enigma and Simcoe (oh and yes there is oats in the mash). Mosaic indeed, if the chopped chives alongside ripe mango on the nose is anything to go by. This is the kind of aromatic that is almost green in its sensuality and — to take a different tack — it is perhaps reminiscent of chopped spring onion with orange and mango embedded in it. More chives when I drink it, alongside a suggestion of orange, mango and blueberry, followed by a full-bodied mouth feel and a dry and lightly bitter finish. If this beer was a canvas the hops used would be bright and bold colours with splashes of reds, greens, blues and oranges, the kind of artwork that you would hang in the hallway to remind you that no, you won’t be getting bored of IPA. 

Monday 1 June 2020

Roger Ryman — an appreciation

Roger Ryman with Brian Turner (left)
and Alastair Gilmour (right), when he was
the British Guild of Beer Writers
Brewer of the Year in 2006 (see the official
citation is at the bottom)
This is not an obituary of Roger Ryman, whose death was announced at the end of last week. It is an appreciation of someone I had known for nearly 20 years. I first met him at St Austell in 2001, whilst researching my debut book West Country Ales (though we’d spoken over the phone before this). We got on well and over the years I went back to the brewery many times, had beers with him in various places and always contacted him if I had a question on the brewing process (I found an email from 2006 where I’d asked him about lautering when I’d come back from visiting a couple of Alt breweries). I remember when the news came through that St Austell had bought Bath Ales, I rather cheekily emailed him to ask if he would sort out what I then perceived was a diacetyl issue with some of their beers. He took it in good heart. He took me around the newly commissioned brewery in late 2018, I was fascinated by it and you could also see the quiet pride he took in overseeing the project. He was one of the great brewers of the last couple of decades and is rightly hailed as the person who put St Austell on the national beer map (I also think he had a valuable ally in the shape of former Managing Director James Staunton). Here is the profile I wrote of St Austell with a particular emphasis on Roger’s influence for Britain’s Beer Revolution, which was published in 2014. This is my appreciation of him. I will miss him.

Here comes a double IPA, bruised gold in the glass, sharp and zestful on the nose alongside a blast of tropical fruit (ripe peach/apricot skin perhaps). A sip from the glass and a further run of tropical fruit on the tongue, a big boost of bitterness with a juicy malt sweetness holding it together while its long tail-end finish of bitterness seemingly goes on forever and ever. This is a beast of a beer, whose heart beats wildly on the American west coast. You can almost hear the waves bearing the surfers to shore. Or can you? There are waves and surfers close to the brewery from where this beer emerges — we’re not in southern California but southern Cornwall. 

Big Job is crewed ashore at St Austell, the august family brewery that is definitely part of the British brewing revolution. There’s a delicious irony at play here — back in the 1990s St Austell (or St Awful as they were known then) would have been seen as just another brewery treading water as beer sales fell and pubs closed. Yet the brewery is still about and rocking the beer world. What happened? Two words: Roger Ryman. 

Late in 2014 and I’m at St Austell with the 
two Rogers (thanks to Susanna Forbes for this)
Back in 1999, a tall, gig-rowing, rugby-playing Lancastrian took on the top job in brewing, that of a head brewer. He’d come from Maclay’s in Scotland, hardly a den of seething innovation but he was iron-like in his resolution to change things at St Austell. 

‘When I was interviewed for the vacant Head Brewer’s job,’ recalls Ryman, ‘I made it clear to the MD-in-waiting James Staughton of the opportunity that I saw for the company. The business had a solid estate of pubs and a strong regional identity, while the brewery itself, although not modern, was housed in a structurally sound granite building, and not threatened with imminent physical collapse. Why would this brewery not be successful? I was clear in my ambition that with the application of good brewing practice, innovation and focus on beer brand development I could see no reason why it could not double its sales in ten years, own a nationally revered cask ale brand and sit proudly at the top table amongst regional and family brewers.’

If history, as James Joyce had Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, then Ryman was the alarm clock for St Austell. Granted they had a heritage going back to 1851, but what Ryman did was merge its traditional values with a modernistic approach that continues to drive the brewery forward to this day. 

The beer that made Ryman’s name and drew drinkers to the bar was Tribute, a luscious insurgent of a sparkling ale first brewed in 1999 under the name Daylight Robbery (a reference to that year’s eclipse). In his words, ‘it was a modern pale ale characterised by significant late hopping with US and continental varieties’. He used Fuggles from England, Styrian Goldings from Slovenia and the American hop Willamette with the result being a zesty, citrusy, juicy beer with a boisterous bittersweetness. 

However, important and successful as Tribute was (and remains), Ryman, supported by Staughton, has pushed to make St Austell one of the most successful and dynamic English breweries (it is said that some family brewers, when wishing to reinvent themselves, talking of ‘doing a St Austell’). A friendship with Karl Ockert from Bridgeport Brewery in Portland, USA, led to the birth of Proper Job, a sessionable strength (4.5%) American-style IPA. He did nano as well with a small microbrewery that can produce 10 firkins each brew. ‘It offers me,’ he says, ‘as head brewer the opportunity to get out of the office and back to sleeves-rolled-up-brewing. There is nothing better than a Sunday in the micro-brewery concocting a new recipe — no meetings, no e-mail and no phone calls!!’

There has been a fleet of beers produced over the years, some of them blazing a trail across the sky never to return others taking their place in the pantheon of St Austell greats. Dark beer? Then how about a smooth stout based on a 1913 recipe or that controversial style Black IPA with Proper Black. Lager? There have been both Czech and German lagers produced, as well as a Bock complete with billy goat image on the label, while beers from the wilder shores of brewing have included barrel-aging, souring and the addition of all manner of fruits and herbs. Early 2014 saw the emergence of Tamar Creek, which Ryman described as Flemish sour red ale that had been matured in oak barrels with Cornish cherries. The finished beer was polished and pleasing and pulsated with a tart, vinous character on the palate. 

These days St Austell’s beers take the drinker on an exhilarating voyage around the modern world of brewing, a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without Roger Ryman’s innovatory approach along with the stellar support he received from James Staughton and, of course, his team on the brewing floor. 

‘St Austell Brewery have been brewing beer for 160 years,’ he says, ‘and we plan to continue brewing beer for another 160.’ 

A blurry shot of Roger Ryman at Thornbridge in 2007 after
the wood-aged beer seminar I organised for the
British Guild of Beer Writers — that plastic bottle at the end of
the table contain’s Greene King’s 5X, which the then head
brewer John Bexon had sent up to taste.

British Guild of Beer Writers Brewer of the Year, 2006
St Austell’s Roger Ryman has brought a very traditional family brewer into the 21st century (making the old nickname of St Awful totally superfluous), made a success of Tribute in the guest ale market, introduced beers such as Proper Job, a Cornish Weisse and Admiral’s Ale, firmed up old favourites such as HSD and Tinners, as well as used his small micro-brewery to explore styles of beer not usually seen in companies like SA — Czech dark lagers, wood-aged barley wines, a luscious coffee beer, a Cornish Heavy and his refreshing take on a Kolsch amongst others. He is also the driving force behind the annual Celtic Beer Festival, which celebrated its eighth anniversary at the weekend — an event that celebrates beer and brewing’s connections with the local community. If you haven’t been to visit it then I suggest you do so now. All this, while still producing popular beers such as Tribute. You could say he works in a space where the pragmatism of regional brewing meets the innovation of craft brewing. He is our Brewer of the Year. 

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Wednesday Beer — St Austell Proper Job

St Austell in 2002, I dunno what the car is
I have had a long relationship with Proper Job, first drinking it when it was released in 2004, developed by St Austell’s head brewer Roger Ryman after he’d spent a month’s sabbatical in Portland’s Bridport Brewery (sadly no more, though during my only visit to the taproom in 2015 left me thoroughly underwhelmed). His inspiration was Bridport IPA, which is probably why the beer in cask and bottle was 5.5%, though the former was soon reduced to 4.5% to be more acceptable to British sessioneers. 

It’s a mainstay of St Austell’s pubs, of which there are several in Exeter (my son used to work in one during vacation), while the bottle-conditioned 5.5% version is very much a supermarket sweetheart. My initial tasting notes of the beer back in the 00s are of a Carmen Miranda-like fruitiness, pineapple, melon and guava with a striking bitter finish bolstered by a sweetness that perhaps is a characteristic of beers and palates in the southwest. I still think it’s an excellent beer, though have recently wondered with some bottles I recently bought from Aldi (how funny that going to the supermarket now has the same risk as driving a 550cc Kawasaki at 100mph on the M6 as I used to do until a near accident calmed me down) if the Carmen Miranda fruitiness had been muted somewhat. Now, it’s in 440ml cans, not bottle-conditioned, but still fresh and fruity and Carmen Miranda is still flying down to Rio, all manner of tropical fruit embedded in her hat. 

And while I’m thinking about Proper Job, I would like to raise a glass to Big Job, which I always had a couple of bottles while visiting (or should that be embarrassing?) my son when he was working at the quayside pub in Exeter. And now, even more thoughts crowd in on me — I do miss St Austell’s Admiral’s Ale, which was launched in 2003 during a British Guild of Beer Writers trip to Cornwall that I organised. This was chestnut/russet in colour with lush toffee/caramel notes balanced by a juicy citrusiness. It was a beer of which I drank deeply over the years, but it doesn’t seem to have been around for a while (there was a Big Admiral at the 2016 Celtic Beer Festival but nothing at the one last November). 

It is funny but understandable that during this time of Covid-19 a nostalgia seems to pervade through the soul of beer — I have read of beers that are missed (some before I began drinking), the moods of pubs in the 1970s and before, breweries that are no longer around and what their products would have been like and breweries such as Boxcar, Anspach and Hobday and Five Points doing up and doing over mild and bitter as if it never went away. All of which makes me ponder (with the thought of a glass of Proper Job later), maybe beer is more about nostalgia than we think and maybe in this time of Covid-19 we need that nostalgia. 

Friday 8 May 2020

Travel stories — the Vale of the White Horse

Thirty-one thirsty years ago in the middle of July I went to a wedding in the Vale of the White Horse. It was not a great time for me. I had split up with a girlfriend and the idea of celebrating a marriage was the last thing I really wanted to do. However, it was the marriage of my mate with whom I used to play in the same band, used to write songs with and with whom I once shared a musical vision that never took us anywhere (but on the other hand it did help me with writing oddly enough). We’re still friends, though we haven’t written a song together for a long time. 

I was staying in Goring-on-Thames and the wedding was in a small village called Aston Tirrold, in the non-conformist church where my mate’s father was minister. I walked from Goring to Aston, over the Downs in a suit and well-polished shoes beneath a gorgeous July sun and thought of how 100 years before my ancestors in Wales would have walked over hills to weddings and funerals similarly dressed. I felt connected. 

Despite the emotional turmoil I was then going through I felt a real sense of tranquility in those hills (and later that year I even thought of moving out that way), but apart from the wedding my main memory of the day was arriving at the village pub, which according to Wikipedia was the Chequers and is now the Sweet Olive gastropub. 

Here I met my mate, his brother who was the best man, and a couple of others, who sadly I can’t remember. I don’t remember the beer either, I don’t remember what I drank, but it was beer — but what I do recall is the quietness of the front bar, the murmurs and the conversations, nervousness in the ascendancy perhaps, the comfort of the bar, and then as I write this I recall the previous night when I had arrived from London and we had all gone to a pub by the Thames and drunk Brakspear’s and I thought how wonderful it was to live in a place like this where pubs like this were on the doorstep and were so much better than the pubs I knew in London. 

Then it was time to go to the church and then the meal and that evening there was a spare seat next to me and I was told that the married couple’s friend couldn’t make it as he had been invited to a party on a boat on the Thames. 

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Wednesday Beer — Augustiner Helles Lagerbier Hell

It is now nearly two years since I was last in Germany and nearly two years since I had a large glass of the pristine Augustiner Helles in front of me, a beer whose pale golden sheen suggests a sprightly nature, a fine-minded creature that glistens in the glass like a drop of golden sun; a fawn, perhaps, in a sun-dappled glade in a forest, scattered bursts and trills of birdsong the soundtrack. I love the lightly toasted grain on the nose, the spritzy hint of bitter lemon on the palate and the appetising dry finish that also harbours a rerun of the saintly and dainty lemon note. For me this is a quenching, refreshing and satisfying bittersweet beer best drunk in a one-litre Maß, which is how I last had it nearly two years ago at that wooden cabin-like bar that Augustiner Brewery has at the entrance to Berlin’s Schönefeld airport, a weird juxtaposition of Alpine/Bavarian rusticity standing in contrast to the slickness of Schönefeld’s bland airport chic. I always try and have a final beer here if I have the time and even though it is not Bavaria it feels just right to drink this wonderful beer as a farewell to a country I know I will want to keep going back to. Sure, if anything from Schönramer were on offer it would be an almighty tussle what to drink and I would probably drink beers from both of them and hope that I had an aisle seat on the plane (mind you, when in Berlin you go to Foersters Feine Biere to drink Eric Toft’s beers), but for me there is an iconic and symbolic nature to my final beer on German soil — this is a beer that I have drunk both in bars in Munich and Berlin, but also from the bottle, bought from a corner shop and swigged as I join other pedestrians in their street drinking or on a railway platform waiting for a train to Regensburg from Nuremberg in 2015. It is an everyday beer, an easy-going crooner of a beer, undemanding but always demanding of my attention such is the completeness of its aromatic and flavour profile. I know I can probably find bottles of it in the UK, even now, but I shall wait until I am next in Germany, whether Berlin, Munich, Bamberg or somewhere entirely new and then shall drink deeply of it, Maß glass in hand. 

A log cabin in Berlin

Monday 4 May 2020

What is it that I like and love about beer?

Oh, hello old friend
I often ask myself in the manner of an absent-minded professor what is it that I like and love about beer? Given that the question is delivered with the vagueness and insouciance of this absent-minded professor I don’t bother with an answer. However, I’ve just asked myself the question again and the inner voice is more questioning this time, urgent and curious, interrogative and even insistent, the absent-minded professor replaced by someone better attuned to a job of asking questions and wanting answers, an Oxbridge examiner perhaps? 

So the first thing I have to do in order to answer this question is to pour myself a beer, which today is Jaipur, cans of which have been a major sustenance during the past few weeks. I can sense an anticipation in holding the can, an anticipation that is chatting like a canary about the beer to me before I have even pulled the ring-tab. 

The sound of the ring-tab being pulled is next, a psst, the slightest resemble to the sound of calico being torn and if I put my nose close enough to the opened can I can identify the aromatics of ripe apricot skin, ripe mango and a suggestion of pineapple. It is not sweet though, slightly musky, pungent and adult. 

So why does that appeal to me? Perhaps it’s a childhood memory of tinned fruit, whether a single variety such as mandarins or fruit cocktail, both of which I used to insist for pudding instead of the much-disliked rice pudding and anything involving semolina (the latter was common at my primary school, usually served with a skin on top, which used to make me feel sick and I once told my teacher that the doctor had said I could be excused semolina, as well as mashed potato, custard and beetroot). 

As I pour the beer, listening to the light fizz as it bunches in the glass, its snow-white collar of foam pushing upwards, I can sense a slight salivation in my mouth, that anticipation once more, but also perhaps there is a slight expectancy of the beer’s influence on the mood, expectancy of a lift in the mood, which is what a 5.9% beer will probably do. After all, the alcohol in the beer is a drug and drugs enhance our moods. So would I have this anticipation if I was opening a can of Special Brew, which is even stronger? Here, I have to return perhaps about 30 years to the only occasion I drunk Special Brew — all I can remember is a sweet gloopiness (nothing to do with Gwyneth btw) and feeling a bit lost after a couple of large cans. I think it might have been an experiment at the time, which I didn’t repeat.

The expectation of the beer possibly has links to the places where I drink beer, the pubs and the bars, where the prospect of an evening with friends, sociability (remember that?), stories being told, jokes being exchanged (usually in the guise of stories rather than the here’s another one, you’ll like this kind of joke party), people and events remembered, sharpens the thirst. I can still recall the cold crisp edge of the first beer of the night at dimly remembered social gatherings from years ago when the thought of analysing a beer would have provoked a rather bemused look from myself — and as a downside, the bloated belly feeling at the end of the night, six or seven pints in, when your mate would bring back a couple more pints to finish before chucking out time and all I would want to do is go home and go to bed (and especially not go for a curry). 

I still have that expectation whenever I have my first beer in a pub, especially if it’s a favourite or an imperial stout/porter/sahti from a brewery I am fond of. There’s that thrill of discovery as well as the comfort of welcoming back an old friend who you haven’t seen for a long time. So going back to the Jaipur I have poured what do I feel about it now that I am ready to drink it. There’s that gleaming golden familiarity of the beer in the glass, the crispness and lush fruitiness, the bitterness and that feeling of satisfaction that usually elicits an aah, as if your soul was sitting back in a comfortable armchair. There’s a completion about the beer from the nose to the finish, but I’m still trying to understand what it is that draws me to beer in a way that wine, cider and various spirits don’t. As well as the flavour and the mood enhancement (two or three cans later, the world looks a brighter place even though grey clouds slumber like resting sheep over Exeter), there is the cultural association, the pub, the brewery, the people who drink it, the origin story of the beer, the tale told of Michael Jackson easing out a reticent Martin Dickie and Stefano Cossi’s thoughts on the beer when they first brewed it and even the colour of the can, which somehow reminds me of the orange football strip that Cruyff played in.

Having thought this far, I don’t think I can really answer the question I posed at the start — yes, culture, taste and mood enhancement are important, but there is something more that underlines my association with beer. Something metaphysical perhaps, something mystical, something beyond my reasoning, but I am going to keep asking the question and see what answers I come up with.      

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Wednesday beer — Westmalle Tripel

The first Belgian beer I ever drunk was Stella Artois. I was 15, it was in a hotel in Ostend during my first holiday on the European mainland. I can’t remember much about it but I did like it (I recall a little off-licence right next to Harringay Station in the late 1980s that used to sell little bottles of imported Stella, which I loved. I didn’t know that it used to be dry-hopped then, which perhaps explained my brief devotion to it). 

It was during this time when I really started to enjoy beers from Belgium. First of all there was Duvel, thanks to a friend who worked in Eindhoven (I know it’s not in Belgium but he introduced me to it, and one night we had eight bottles, which is not to be recommended if my hangover the next day was anything to go by). Other beers followed: Chimay, Dupont, Orval and Hoegaarden, the latter being hard to avoid in early 90s London. Since then I have been over many times, visited breweries, interviewed brewers and remain devoted to many of its beers (though my love for Belgian beer is not blind, there are some stinkers). 

I was last over in November and am currently hankering after Belgium, especially as I recently bought a copy of The Belgian Beer Book, by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker. It’s massive, full of lots of lovely photos as well as plenty of text on the beers, bars and drinking cultures of both Flanders and Wallonia. When it arrived last week, I just sat there, flicking through the pages, and my thirst for Belgian beer continued to evolve and has since taken me by the hand and led me to my Wednesday beer, Westmalle Tripel, bottles of which I have been getting delivered from Exeter’s fantastic bottle shop Hops + Crafts

Trappist brewing for me is a collaboration between the sacred world of Cistercian monks and the profane one of commercial brewing, a bridge between the spiritual and the temporal. After all isn’t brewing just another form of prayer, doing the same thing, day after day, with maybe the odd change of words or recipe? And for me, Westmalle Tripel is one of the most generously flavoured and elegantly structured of this union of beers, a corn gold apparition that shimmers in its Grail-like glass beneath a well-blessed billowing head of snow-white foam. There is lemon, barley sugar and a siren call of sweet orange on the nose, while on the palate there is rich orange, a hint of peach, malt sweetness and a Mousse-like mouth feel, before it finishes with a sprightly hop tingle that makes me want to dive straight back into the glass. 

I visited Westmalle five years ago. Actually, a correction: I visited the onsite cafe/restaurant but the closest I got to the brewery was on an autumnal walk around the site with a group of judges from the Brussels Beer Challenge. Apparently, some of us were jumping in the air with the aim of seeing over the wall and getting a glimpse of the brewing kit. Maybe this is how I got the photo below — I should have bought a stepladder. Next time I will, unless, of course, I’m allowed in the brewery.

Monday 27 April 2020

When you go to the pub

I think they’re open
You go to the pub to meet people or get away from people, but when you cannot go to the pub you sit in the kitchen, or in the back garden or perhaps in the front room, where shelves and shelves of books might be your only company. But the ambience still works as you pour yourself a glass of something from Duration or Lost and Grounded or Thornbridge or whoever’s beer you have in front of you and the characters from the books emerge from their word-ridden hiding places and begin to chatter and charm and put a balm on the harm that being locked up in at home can inflict on your soul.

You go to the pub to try out beers from breweries whose ethos or output is appealing to you, whose judicious mix of hops and malt and well thought out regime of fermentation is a wonder and worth spending money on. But when you cannot go to the pub, you go online and find the beers that you like and love and spend some money and hopefully bring a smile to a brewer’s face. And as you sit there with a book and the characters spring out of the pages with the agility of acrobats you say to yourself softly, that this isn’t bad, but you still miss the pub.

You go to the pub as a home from home, somewhere soothing and comfortable and whether you’re on your own or with a band of like-minded souls, you are home. But when you cannot go to the pub and you’re stuck at home, you try your best to give your home a comfort zone similar to the pub, whether it’s getting stuck in on Zoom or crunching out the words on your laptop with those who want to talk or shout or rave or just pretend to clink glasses with the object of sociability in mind. Or maybe you just listen to the stories and tales and histories that emerge from the books and characters you are spending your time with.

But when you eventually return to the pub it’ll be good not to forget what it was like when you couldn’t go to the pub and maybe, just maybe, you’ll not take things for granted again and give thanks to those invisible folk who kept you company during these trying times. 

Friday 24 April 2020

Travel stories — Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà on the night I visited 
So it’s like the early part of 2014, the first week of March to be exact, and on a sunny Saturday morning I’ve just boarded the 6.59am train from Rimini that goes all the way to Rome and gets in at half ten, and I’ve never been to Rome before but I’m only there for 36 hours, the first of three cities I’m going to visit by train over the next six days, on assignment for a travel article, so it’s Rome first, then Florence, and I’ve never forgotten the time back in 1990, when I drove from London to Tuscany via Paris with a then girlfriend and when we got to Tuscany I kept seeing signs for Firenze and wondering where it was, and I’m going to finish off in Venice where naturally I’m going to be thinking Don’t Look Now and funeral boats gliding along the canals, though back in Rome, I have a job to do and that’s about wandering through the famous places with my notebook and jotting down impressions, people’s behaviour, overheard conversations (English of course, my language skills diminish by the day) and which restaurants and bars can be recommended, but by the early evening, I have a full notebook and it’s time to relax and I go to a bar, which is an easy choice for me because I have wanted to go there for several years.

So six years ago, Italian craft beer was cool stuff, was becoming established, and Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà in the Trastevere district was seen as one of the coolest bars in the country, which was where I went twice during my very short stay in Rome, first time on the Saturday evening where I felt it had the feel of compact log cabin, a couple of rooms, wooden floor, chalk board with names of beers, lots of Lambrata, whose beers I have always enjoyed since visiting the brewery in 2008, and there was a real sense of a pub about the place, which was a contrast to the chrome and minimalist craft joints that were springing up all over the UK (well ok London, Leeds, Manchester etc), people greeting each other and I sat at the bar watching Ireland play Scotland in the Six Nations, while the music of Nick Drake played in the background and a couple of Brits talked about sour beers close to me. 

Next morning, Sunday, I went back, after visiting the Vatican Square where people were gathering for something or other, and it was the first day of the bar’s famous Franconian beer festival, which if I hadn’t have to get a train to Florence, would have been my home for a few hours, but I still managed to spend 90 minutes reconnecting with the previous night’s pub atmosphere, in the company of several beers including Schlenkerla’s dark chestnut coloured Fasten Bier, which had a quiet and reflective smokiness on the nose that somehow made me think of a wooden box that had once held smoked herrings ready to be shipped out of an old Hanseatic port, while the palate had an appetising smokiness and a malt stickiness, all of which were as well integrated as the parts in my Apple laptop, but were much more exciting, and as I drunk deeply of this beer I knew that if I didn’t leave soon I would miss my train and there was this slight tremor of rebellion about throwing everything up in the air and just changing my life, but that moment passed and a couple of hours later I was in a five-star hotel in Firenze/Florence/whatever ready for the next stage of my journey.

Have you ever found a pub or bar so sublime that you have considered throwing up in the air all your best laid plans and thought I’m staying? I have several times but that’s a different story. 

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Wednesday Beer — Lost and Grounded/Burnt Mill Big Thaw 2, 6.8%

Enough hops for you?
When I first started writing about beer back in 1996 my beer tasting notes basically followed what everyone else at the time was writing — the beer was malty, hoppy, fruity, very drinkable or various combinations of the theme. Then I started visiting breweries and began making connections, especially when it came to putting my nose in a big sack of hops. And given others were using the descriptor, I started to use the phrase hop-sack quite often, as in these words on Brakspear’s Live Organic sometime in the late 1990s: ‘Almost like putting your nose in a hop-sack.’ Sometime in the next decade, however, I stopped using it after a newer crop of beer writers suggested it maybe it was redundant given that very few people that we were writing for had smelt a sack of hops, so that was that.

I thought of the descriptor the other day when engaging with this exceptional collaboration of a West Coast-style IPA from Lost and Grounded and Burnt Mill. I felt the aromatics were resinous, oily, tropically fruity (mango, guava) and — here we go — had a raw hop note, a straight to the source character, as if there was no filter between the hops in their raw, pelletised state and their presence in the beer. I thought-hop sack with fear (because I have a visceral fear of using cliches), though the aroma from pellets is less intense than that of whole flower hops. But you would know what I meant if you had ever put your nose in a silver foil-like bag of hop pellets. Beyond the expression of the hops, this beer is a delight to drink and to study and to have and to hold, with its pizzazz, zest and general air of hop and malt showtime on the nose and the palate. It’s bold but light and has a good mid-palate malt bridge between the tropical fruit at the front and the suave piny bitterness in the finish. This is a beer that is bilingual in the way it talks the language of malt and hops with equal articulation. Hop-sack? Whatever.