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.