Friday, 24 March 2017

Teak

What colour do you think that this beer is, I ask a friend and fellow judge at the Dutch Beer Challenge (to give it some context we are are at Brouwerij Noordt in Rotterdam and drinking its Bok). I suggest the colour is mahogany brown, but he says it reminds him of the teak coloured deck of a sailing ship, which is perhaps an apt description, as the river that has made Rotterdam is only a street or so away. And then I think of the connection with the open sea — the beer is cold, 5˚C perhaps, a watch bundled up and shivering on the deck in the Atlantic, and then I think of the great steel ships abed in the harbour, the ships I’d seen earlier in the day, standing at anchor, their hulls a story of the travels that had taken them about the world. Then I smell the beer, the chocolate and coffee on the nose of the Bok, which suggests to me the emotional cargoes of Europe brought to the port, a history of several centuries brought together in a glass. Then there is the alcohol, 7%, alcohol that combustible constant of civilisation. The beer is also crisp and cold — a night spent on deck, keeping watch, crossing the Atlantic, and then there is more coffee and chocolate, followed by a brisk carbonation and finally a quick finish, as if this beer suddenly decided it wanted the BlueRiband. The tales that beers do tell.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Are sours the new alco-pops

A train of thought is waiting at the station and if you don’t mind it’s waiting for a new passenger: ah here they are, a little late but on they go. Are sours the new alco-pops, asks the passenger to no one in particular. One person looks up and asks in what way are sours the new alco-pops and the answer is shot straight back, down a well-rifled barrel: when they were first introduced alco-pops were seen by some as easy going drinks that those hitting 18 went straight to, an easy avoidance of trying to work out trying to get one’s tongue around the contusions and customs of bitterness? And did those who walked the green hills of ancient pub land have to work so hard and heft their shoulders to the wheel before they left the sweet seductions of their childhood behind (though lager/bitter top and diesel are remainders of this memory of times gone by), while those who enter this magical world through the portal of sours not have to do much at all (hence the comparison with alco-pops).

And so why does this passenger think that way? The other night they drank a can of Chorlton’s Amarillo Sour, followed by Cloudwater’s Vic’s Secret Tart IPA, both beers going down as easily as a soft drink, despite their relative alcoholic strengths of 5.5% and 7.3%. They were, I was told by this passenger, juicy and restrained in their sweetness, while the tartness was unbridled in its friendliness and sense of wonder, like the face of a child, eyes closed, slyly smiling, as it lifts its face to a warm sun. They were both beautiful beers, of which the passenger said ‘I could drink deeply’. They were also both what are generally called sours,

Similar thoughts had whisked over me with the soft petulance of a feather duster a couple of weeks ago whilst giving a talk at a beer conference in Cusco, Peru, on the state of sour beer in the UK — within the audience of brewers, both newly pro and stay-at-homers, there was a real interest in sour beers, with several putting their hands up when I asked who was making a sour. A few days before I’d also filed a piece on sours for Imbibe magazine, making the point that sours had the ability to appeal to those who had always said that they didn’t like beer, ie wine drinkers who like their acidity, of which there is plenty within a sour beer.

Sours (or wild beers or acidic beers, or whatever you want to call them), when they work are exemplary in the way they both tease and trounce the palate with their visions of a beer beyond what we know as beer. They have the ability to shush the palate and to rush their way along the gustatory highway to deliver refreshment and also compress sensations of acidity, juiciness, sprightliness, dryness, saltiness, tartness and a piquant bitterness all in one. And because they have the ability to introduce those who say they dislike beer they are the new alco-pops, but on the other hand I hardly think Amarillo Sour is the new WKD. But you never know.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Peruvian Gold

Yes, that’s one of them craft jam jars

Here is an IPA, an India Pale Ale. Hazy, orange-yellow in colour, flurries of tropical fruit (ripe fruits sitting in a bowl in a sunny kitchen, on a pine table) emerging from the glass like the furies of Greek myths, benevolent though, beneficial even, bending one’s thoughts towards taking a sip or maybe a complete submergence in the beer. Petrol, as in Riesling, tropical fruit, that ripeness again, that sun-stroked ripeness, and then a dry rasping finish that lingers like the memory of a long lost love affair. That savoury allium note of a West Coast IPA (the Pacific rather than the Cornish Riviera), the tropical fruit sweetness and pungency and sensuality, the dry graininess of a malt backbone, the charkas of grain, and that dry finish all combine, a combination once forbidden and now bidden to all, and create an assertive and expressive IPA, the dominion of lupulin. And outside in the sun, the foothills of the Andes rise, steep and sudden. This is IPA country but it also the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and I have been drinking Inti Punku IPA from Cervecería del ValleSagrado and immersing myself in it with the rhapsodic and revelatory nature of a traveller who’s found themselves in a new land and discovered a small slice of home.


Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Bitter

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

Celeriac

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.