Thursday, 22 January 2015

In which I try to make friends again

Leffe Blonde. It was a beer I used to enjoy a lot of in the early 1990s, an easy-going beer, an easy-to-drink beer, but a Blackpool rock of a beer that I soon discarded as the tide went out and uncovered plenty of better beers. But last night on passing a pub in central London, a local-looking pub; it’s so rare an occasion to see a local pub in this part of central London; and this pub that I used to go into when I worked around here some years ago (the beers drank? I can’t remember), but I thought I would go in. And there is Leffe and I think why not (£3.50 a half is so craft). The beer? It’s so sticky and sweet and toffee like, crystalline even, the sort of beer that you would use for cakes (now there’s an idea, as it’s certianly not fit for recreational drinking). Oh well, I tried (nice people at the pub though, nice pub actually) and I finally said goodbye to Leffe.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

There’s a man in a pirate outfit

It must be a beer festival as there’s a man in a pirate outfit on the stage where bands normally play in the bar at Exeter City FC; the stage is small and there are about four tables and chairs arranged upon it. The pirate and his equally buccaneering companion are on the table that is directly opposite the small stairs that lead onto the stage — this means that if you want to get onto the stage then you cannot miss the pirate and his missus. It must also be a beer festival as at the other end of the stage there’s a lonely looking man on a small table on his own, with books stacked in front of him. He’s got a pen in his hand and looks so relieved when a man climbs up the small stairs, passes the pirate and crosses the stage and asks to buy a book and yes he’ll have a signature. I, Ghent-loving reader, was the writer at the other end of the stage to the pirate, the lonely man sitting at a table looming gently over a bobbing, hob-nobbing crowd of drinkers at the Exeter beer festival last Saturday. Yet I always enjoy this sort of thing. Who wouldn’t? You get to chat and drink at the same time.

Book signing is the slap on the back, the ego booster, the brief spot in the sun, the this-wouldn’t-happen-if-I-was-a-subeditor moment of journalism, which I have always enjoyed, but then I like the sound of my own voice (though I’m not always sure on the accent); so there I was on Saturday lunchtime with a glass of Coastal’s Erosion and then one of Penzance’s Scilly Stout, finding something fascinating about a piece of paper I had found in my pocket, looking at my pen with a new sense of admiration, and willing more people to come up on the stage (and let’s not forget they had to pass the pirate, who at one stage at my public exile on the stage poked a — I presume — plastic sword at a balloon above his head).

I have always enjoyed Exeter’s festival of winter beers: they’re strong and I like beers that have the ability to place themselves in the front row and grunt and groan as if pain was a word that involved more than mending windows; I see people I have known for years there; this beer festival also gives me a nostalgia for a time when I used to visit quite a few, not travel the country you understand like some folk did and presumably still do, but they would be ones I would go to if I was in London or there was one on a farm or in a village near where we lived before moving to the beyondness of Exmoor (which we hope to escape this year to more benign surroundings). 

These were times when I used to search out beers with names that resonated with me or they were from parts of England that I loved (usually East Anglia, where I lived for six years); I don’t think that I bothered much about beer styles, even though I was reading Michael Jackson and in love with Bavarian Weiss (I do remember ramping up on the Rauch once though); it was fun, it was beer, it was getting drunk with a friend or two or sitting in a corner with a good book, but it was never about education (alright a few tasting notes, but they were more like the autographs my mother collected from friends when she was a kid) and it was certainly never about ticking; it was about inebriation, sociability and a vague link with landscape. Those times are all gone and I don’t think I miss them, apart from a brief moment on the stage, looking at the glass of Coastal’s Erosion in my hand and thinking about big waves hitting some Spartan slice of Cornish coast. Time passes and the drunken man continues to look at the thistle.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Local

Local: another one of those debates that is running through beer with the assurance of an arrow in flight, possibly during the battle of Agincourt, let loose by an archer from the Welsh Marches, whose right arm is markedly stronger than the other, unless he’s left-handed of course.

Drink local, drink beer from the brewery or brewpub that has just opened down the road, make mine local; if you don’t drink local you could be letting down the side, hiding the light that the brewery down the road lets shine on the wall behind a bushel, or something similar — or on the other hand, you could just drink good, imbibe intelligently, guzzle with due diligence and just before you dive into the idea of local you should really think about the beer, is it any good?
  
Drinking local is ok if you live somewhere like Southwold, Bermondsey, Chiswick, Seattle, just outside Bakewell, Bamburg or across the road from Cantillon, but in other places? Local doesn’t necessarily mean good as I recall when a brewery briefly opened up on Exmoor over a decade ago. Even though its sole beer won beer of the festival down in Minehead (due to the nefarious influence of the neophiliac drinker who had mastered writing the art of jabbing a Biro on a clip of paper; ten years on not much changes — some elements of beer remain a neophiliac’s game), it was a beer that I didn’t get on with and I rarely drunk it. It’s long gone.

But this is not some digestive tract on local; instead it’s a memory I have of a local beer, which I recall from when we moved out of London in 1994 to a small Somerset village outside Bridgwater called Chedzoy (one of a trio of –zoy villages in the badlands of the Somerset Levels — our neighbour, an old farmer, who crossed the Styx a few years back, made his own cider with an ancient cider press, it was as acidic as a working day with Haigh with just one glass being enough to dissolve the following day into tears). The local pub was a bit American werewolf but in other pubs in other villages along the Polden Hills I fell heavily in love with the beers from a — trumpets and accolades please — local brewery, called Bridgwater Brewing Company. I haven’t got any tasting notes and I can’t remember too much about the beers’ characters, but I do recall that I loved one of their beers, which was called (you have to recall that this was a different time, for instance, the word awesome was more useful in describing an American air force strike in the first Gulf War) Copperknob; there was also Cannonball. Both of these beers, I described (in retrospect I apologise for the use of the word) as being ‘very tasty’ in my journal at the time — tasty is one of those prescribed words that should be sewn into a Hessian grenadier’s sack along with a ratebeer of rats and then thrown into a very deep cavern; it is a word on a par with ‘nice’ and ‘lovely’, words that are commonplace and irritatingly cosy and somehow coordinate themselves with slumped shoulders, rumpled cardigans and well-meaning grannies.

Back to the beers though, back to the local beers — I do remember being incredibly enchanted by Bridgwater’s beers (naturally you could not find them in the seven circles of hell that comprised the pubs of the eponymous town), enchanted enough to ask my wife-to-be if we could have a cask of the brewery’s beers at our wedding reception alongside the traditional glass of carbonated carfuffle. She wasn’t very impressed (it was 1994 after all) and we didn’t. I tried.

Bridgwater Brewing Company’s beers and I got on famously (when I could find them that is, which was usually beer festivals and the odd Polden pub) for the next two years until I went along to my first ever CAMRA meeting at the Ring o’Bells in Moorlinch and discovered that the brewery had closed: ‘over-reached themselves with the battle of Langport celebrations I was told by the sepulchral-looking landlord,’ I wrote in my journal. And that was that. Was it the end of local for me? Not consciously of course, but over the years I’ve spent writing about beer and spoken about this and that with all manner of people the idea of local beer has waxed and waned, a totem pole one minute, an irrelevance on a par with golf the next. Now? It’s about the beer in the glass, rather than the elasticity of the relationship with where it’s made, but I still remember Bridgwater Brewing Company’s beer with fondness.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The drift from the Pangaea of craft beer

Tables overturned in a crowded restaurant; temple columns shaken and toppled on a Mediterranean island; lipstick daubed on the Mona Lisa. Then a Wall Street Journal piece covers a Belgian spat between those who sweat and toil and build a brewery and those who come up with an idea and have it brewed elsewhere — the two main protagonists seem to be De La Senne and the Brussels Beer Project; I have interviewed both outfits and love what they do, especially De La Senne.

Then over in the USA, Andy Crouch, a beer writer I really respect and enjoy reading even if I don’t always agree with him, produces an excellent story on what you could say is the drift from the Pangaea of craft beer by one of the founding fathers Jim Koch. It’s the sort of in-depth beer journalism I wish I could read (or find an outlet for) over here. Both stories have stirred up passions, especially Crouch’s.

Others have written much more concisely and adroitly about the controversies here and here, but what I wanted to do was to think aloud about the nature of beer and how it’s always had this obsessive undertow, always had an ability to drag people along in its wake. Certain beers encourage a sense of ownership amongst a segment of drinkers, an obsession even, that brings the beer (and the brewery) in their own psychological Google + circle. It reminds me of the outrage that exists amongst Archers fans whenever a plotline hits the bumpers and Nigel whatshisname falls off the roof to his death on Christmas Day or whenever.

Is it about the breakdown of the boundary between one’s personal life and the imagined? I’m not suggesting that Dark Lord Day fans hear voices telling them to camp out three days before the beer’s release or that London beer drinkers dress up in animal masks and robes for the release of Camden’s IPL (you never know), but I do wonder if what for the lack of a better word we call craft beer is something that fills a gap in the life of the most devoted of followers (the rest of us just like the taste, the branding and the feeling of being part of a club, like teenagers wearing Abercrombie & Fitch) as does cask beer in a different kind of beer drinker’s life (or as Guinness used to do for others).

I’m not suggesting I’m any different. At various times in my life, punk rock, Joy Division, Inspector Morse, beer and football have probably been unhealthy in their presence. I presume it’s the psychological need to be part of a gang, to belong and of course this also expresses itself in the way people dress (along with that all important haircut); again we’ve all done it at one or two (or three) stages in our lives. I would also hazard a guess that beer has always had an element of tribalism in it, perhaps linking back to perceived regional differences; for many drinkers it seems to have engendered a sense of belonging (or disconnection even — my mate used to call anything from a brewery called Wilson’s ‘death brew’, because he thought it so dreadful; growing up I loathed mild and couldn’t understand why anyone under the age of 70 would drink it as it seemed to watery and thin). Maybe the ups and downs in the British brewing industry after the Second World War also sharpened that sense of ownership (while paradoxically loosening it). The beer that your father drank and your grandfather drank was there for you and there didn’t seem to be no reason why it wouldn’t be there for you too when you were their age — unless you were part of the generation that didn’t want to drink what the old feller drank and didn’t want to sit in the snug or stand around the piano singing rubbish songs.

This is all thinking out aloud, writing along a thread of notes that I made, an attempt to clarify what I feel about Yvan de Baets’ objections and Jim Koch’s sense of rejection and some of the reactions on social media (the latter story has provoked the most florid and bizarre reactions — blimey it’s only beer, but then on the other hand I had a conversation with a British brewer yesterday about sour beer, bugs and time which at last brought to life my slumbering post-New Year apathy towards beer). These are issues that are more complex than some of the comments and counter-arguments I have seen online make out, especially on Facebook. But then social media is the modern equivalent of a noisy drunken bar where opinions are enflamed and declaimed and someone somewhere puffs out a bullfrog of a chest and says ‘boo’. On the other hand, I’m glad that people care enough to think and drink and plink the piano keys of their outrage and approval, otherwise what is the point of that beer in the glass?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Eternal

Eternity captured in a glass. Bubbles, rising, long lasting, forever, a chain forging links between the beer and the drinker; eternal as long as the beer remains in the glass. In the city, in the day, in which I drank this beer, the streets around the Basilica were striped with cheerful anarchy, chaos with a soulful grin, ice cream and coffee, spliffs and sausages, sitting on steps, the act against authority, the nimble mind of revolution, skipping from stone to stone, crossing with ease the river of wine that this city is most often associated with. But back to the beer that is forever in the glass, drunk to the accompaniment of the scrape of a chair leg on the floor by the bar, the bow across the violin, the tuning up before a performance; a reverentially splashed glass of bock (though I could have had an IPA but I chose to drink different). And outside after the day had dropped its head and as I drank this eternal glass of beer the snow began to fall, the streets cheered and then cleared, but for this moment and forever more I had this glass of beer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Chewing the craft beer carpet

Is there someone out there who is angry that Founders has allowed San Miguel to buy a 30% share in their business? Is there anyone out there who is miffed a corporation that makes a series of beers best drank Arctic-cold on the beach in Malaga has bought 30% of Founders? Is there anyone out there who is chewing the craft beer carpet and frothing at the mouth with righteous self-importance?

I don’t doubt there is. If you boil down the geek into a fan and then envisage them as an individual you have actually met rather than relying on stereotypes; if you remember a fan of beer that you have met, an engaging man or woman, someone whose company is pleasing and pleasant until the subject that they are most interested in comes up for air — with others it might be football, steam trains, military uniforms, Komodo dragons or fracking but here we are talking about beer and it will be a subject that once aired becomes an obsession and a passion and a dressage to get them through the day — then you will have a photo-fit of the fan, of the person who might be angry that Founders has sold 30% of its business to Sam Miguel.

On the other hand, I wonder if those with a healthy interest in beer (or maybe even an unhealthy interest) are beginning to get used to such collaborations, beginning to see it as normal aspect of a business growing up; understanding that there is a need for an outfit such as Founders to get an injection of cash under the right conditions. Some fans, especially those who go dewy-eyed at the thought of exchanging a few words with a head brewer whilst bagging a one-off brewed with echinacea or whatever, might feel let down in the spirit of fan ownership, but I reckon the majority of people who drink Founders beers will continue to drink their beers.

For an intriguing aside to fan worship of brewers see Tomme Arthur’s column in November’s AAB.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Landscape

So what influence does the landscape have on this brewery’s beers and the way it carries out its business? How has this land, this flat, featureless, tree-shy landscape been prevalent in the brewers’ collective minds when it came to creating their beers and shaping their pub estate’s planning? In a train carriage I sat, having left Wainfleet, where the aromatics of the morning brew drifted over the platform as if saying farewell, looking onto the flatness of this part of eastern Lincolnshire, a land some might call monotonous, but I find beautiful in the bleak, seemingly barren face it presents to the world. It’s a land of endless horizons; a land stitched with channels of water; a land flattened with vast, dark ploughed, shorn stalked fields, clumps of trees and in the distance, the pillars of church towers and the collected colonies of compact villages.

I think of communities hidden away in valleys, enclosed in by mountains, and imagine that this location keeps minds and currents of thought equally closed. Then I think of this part of east Lincolnshire, in which Bateman’s Brewery has its home, and wonder if the wide open spaces engenders a sense of freedom and a Marco Polo-like need to explore; or conversely, could it breed a need to pull up the drawbridge, to shake a fist at the world and venture into this same world, prickly and pumping up the volume as the beers are introduced into this world.

Of course, the landscape, if it does influence the way Bateman’s views the world, this landscape is just one feature that helps in their direction: the beer market, the beers the brewers drink and read about, the market trends and the customers’ preferences in Bateman’s pubs (of which there are 60 or so I am told and once there was one in Bethnal Green, but like Carthage it is no more) all have an input in the way Bateman’s passes through this world.

After a day spent in the company of Jaclyn and Stuart Bateman, engaged in a tour and time spent looking around the brewery, tasting the beers and gleaning scraps of information from head brewer Martin Cullimore, I’m inclined to think Marco Polo rather than an inclination to pull up the drawbridge. As Stuart Bateman and I investigate a bottle of the barley wine BBB that was brewed in 1975 and then match it with the 2013 Vintage, whose added ingredient included time well spent in a port barrel, we talk beer, brewing, touch on trends, discuss American hops (the brewery were using them in 2003 or even earlier I seem to remember), future beers, a multiplicity of ingredients (black pepper, dried orange skin, cocoa nibs), key kegs (this is booming for them) and fermentation. The BBB has spent 39 summers in this dark bottle, it was a beer that Bateman’s finished brewing in 1975 because demand was descending, but at the time some cases were put away for Stuart Bateman’s 18th birthday in 1978 and then these cases were promptly forgot about until 2010. The beer has aged well, it gleams in the glass with its sleek chestnut-burgundy tones; there’s a sherry-like character on the palate, flighty, light, sprightly, joined by sultanas, raisins, and a touch of alcoholic fire. The 2013 Vintage, whose recipe is the same as BBB’s, is rich and bracing, port-like, nutty, chocolaty and a solemn foil to its ancient cousin.


But let us not forget the workaday beers, the beers that Martin Cullimore and his team produce day in day out: XB, XXXB, Salem Porter and so on. A glass of the session beer XB has a sweetness mid palate and a ring, a chime of jelly-like fruitiness, a delicacy, movement seen out of the corner of the eye, a brush from a feather before its dry sardonic finish. It’s not a boldly flavoured, vividly hopped beer — instead, it’s balanced and ineffable in its attraction. And so in the Red Lion out in the countryside, this flat featureless countryside between Boston and Wainfleet, I sit in a pub that has the feel of a large, comfortable front room, furnished with blanquettes, tables and chairs and comfortable sofas, while in the adjoining restaurant over 40 people have gathered to drink a wake to one of their own, and I drink XB with Jaclyn Bateman and think of how much character goes into this glass of beer. And later on, after a night spent carousing with Bateman’s people at the brewery’s Visitor Centre, this home to old brewery artefacts, ancient brewing books and a massive collection of bottled beers, I now start to wonder what influence people have the way Bateman’s conduct their business and brew their beers.

People, landscape, trends, traditions, tastes: so many influences on the way a brewery goes its way in the world; and I’m still seeking the answers to my questions.

I was invited to the brewery, ate lunch, drank beer and slept it all off in one of the brewery cottages; such is life.