Friday, 20 November 2015

Thoughts on brewing

Thoughts on brewing: in which a beer is brewed and hewed into the world, leavened and heaved followed by a sense of me-too as other beers join in and to-and-fro their way into the glass, as careful as an aunt, as fretful as an aunt, as artful as the kindest thief.

Brewing is the beginning of the end: hops that were picked at harvest are changed and juddered into a different state of being in the dry heat of kiln; dead; packed together, forced, turned out into the world; the end of the journey that barley took from the field, cut down in its prime, crushed and eviscerated, its insides transformed, the death of John Barleycorn; the vanquishing of water, in thrall to a process that expels it into the air (only to start the journey all again). And, of course, the yeast, microscopic beasts, tumbling and turning over before coming to rest in the cool limpid liquid that will eventually end up as beer. Maybe, after second thoughts, brewing is just a means to an end, an end that is always beginning.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Christmas Day

Are you open on Christmas Day. From 12-4 sir, comes the reply. I’d normally be at my daughter’s but I’m here this year, she’s at her mother’s in Jersey. 

At the bar of the King’s Arms in Oxford and ordering a second glass of Young’s Ordinary. As you do when you’re in a pub you start talking with strangers and I discuss the joys of a pint on Christmas Day with the man. 

I retired a couple of years ago and I started travelling around the country on my bus pass. Seen most of the country and off to the Orkneys in the spring. There’s a brewery there, I say. He nods. 

He had a tent, pitched at a site on the edge of town. No home either, but an address at his daughter’s in Suffolk. I’m free, he continued, I can go anywhere my bus pass takes me. The beer is crisp, bittersweet, eloquent in the way it wakes up the palate, and now sitting on a coach to Heathrow I wish I had one in front of me. Meanwhile I think of this man who is ranging across the country, light in possessions, able to change direction at will, and at ease with strangers. Welcome to the world of the public house. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Balance and not balance

The idea of moderation in brewing is not the idea of capitulation, of surrender, of turning your back on the way forward. It's a way of seeking silence in between the gaps that modern life manages to create - it's a polite cough, a feather stroke on the inner thigh, a reflective passage from an ├ętude by Chopin, the intermission between nothing and I love you. And sometimes we need beers like that in the way we also need beers that cackle and burn like a martyr's bonfire or ululate across the night air like a trident in its tracks or even leave us unsure of what we're tasting. Like an Earth on its axis beer also needs balance.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Pike Brewing shows it doesn’t have to be Siegfried’s funeral pyre

Part of the brewing kit in the pub, the rest lurks below
As the dominoes fall and the disinterested call wolf and those with a stake aim to stake their lives on a different way of doing things, here is a refreshing route, a three cheers, hip-hip-hooray way in which a brewery changes its structure.

I’m writing about Pike Brewing in Seattle, which has been around since 1989, when founded by Charles Finkel (though he sold it in 1997 before buying it back in 2007); Finkel also started the influential beer importing company Merchant Du Vin. Last week, in the midst of what seems an on-going beer equivalent of March 1918 on the Western Front, he declared that he’d expanded the ownership group of Pike Brewing to include three key, long-term employees. The story can be read here.

I’m pleased about this, having spent a very enjoyable afternoon with him back in late May when working on a Seattle-Portland Pacific Coast road trip for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine (it’ll be out next year). We’d first met at Michael Jackson’s funeral in 2007 and when I turned up in Seattle I headed for his brew pub at the heart of Pike Place Fish Market, where singing fishmongers serenade their customers and the smell of grilled chicken fills the air.

Finkel was in fine form having had spent lunch launching the first beer in his Pike Locale series, a light golden beer called Skagit Valley Alba, which used local malted barley from the eponymous valley and Yakima Valley hops (the barley farmers had been at the launch). The beer had an aromatic lemony nose, and was crisp and light on the palate with a dry finish, a refreshing corrective to the exceptionally hot day.

He was a genial host, taking me through the beers that his team produced in the brewery below the pub (a brief visit made me think of a cross between the Tardis and a Bond villain’s lair); the pub, meanwhile, is like old England transported out west, with plenty of dark wood and several massive spaces whose walls and shelves were devoted to beer and brewing ephemera. As we tasted a glass of the peaty Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale, he waxed lyrical about the foodie reputation of Seattle and Washington.

‘Washington is the largest onion, potato, cherry, mint, lentil, apple and hop state. Add to this salmon, crab and other shellfish equaled by few places. We also have more than 250 breweries. People say that it is the damp winter weather that encourages people to stay inside and read (we also have one of the highest library usages in the country), eat and cook.’

He was chatty, enthusiastic and friendly (he seemed disappointed I wasn’t able to join him, his wife Rose Ann and friends on a boat for dinner that night, but I had to head out early) and above all he was passionate about the beer he made. On my trip I enjoyed plenty of resiny, headily hopped West Coast IPAs but what I wanted to try that day was his brewery’s take on the traditional styles that American breweries first picked up on in the 1980s (we had a tripel that used Westmalle yeast, a saison that was more Belgium than Soriachi this, Citra that). He talked about Sam Smith, whose beers he first brought into the US in the 1980s, Michael Jackson, the White Horse and food and beer and the afternoon slipped away. He had to go, I had to go. I hope to meet him again (not at a funeral I hope), and I like how he’s dealt with his brewery — which means it doesn’t always have to end in the brewing version of Siegfried’s funeral pyre. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Prince of Wales Ale, 1929, Bass

I feel the hand of history on my shoulder as I take the cork out of the bottle, an elongated, battered-looking cork upon whose side are stamped the words ‘Prince of Wales Ale, 1929, Bass’. As I dig into the cork with a corkscrew, I expect it to crumble like the bones of a long-dead saint upon being exposed to air, but it holds firm as I slowly twirl the spiral of metal into this ancient cork that has lasted a whole lifetime.

The men who cut the barley for this beer have long gone to their graves, as have the men and women who picked the hops, as have the brewers, as have the men and women who corked and bottled it, as has anyone who had anything to do with this bottle of Bass’ 1929 Princes Ale.

Last year, on an online local selling site, I bought a couple of cases of Whitbread’s 1977 Jubilee Ale for a fiver; it was still drinkable, if very low in its alcohol. Once home, hidden away in the box I saw what I thought was an old bottle of wine, some memento of a European jaunt perhaps, a souvenir that had never been drunk. However, the faded label with the written name of Bass gave the story away — a pint bottle of Bass Prince’s Ale, especially brewed in 1929 for the then Prince of Wales, who later on became — briefly — Edward VIII.

The oldest beer I have tasted is the 1869 Radcliffe Ale, brewed in Burton, bottles of which were discovered and opened in 2006. All I can remember is writing down sherry and smoky bacon. There has been plenty of Thomas Hardy (there is a case of 1998 slumbering in the cellar waiting for my son’s 18th in 2016), last year a Bateman’s barley wine from the 1970s, Thornbridge Alliance (one left) and several Bass royal specials, including the 1902 Kings Ale. What I like about tasting vintage beer is the empathy I feel with these long gone brewers, rather than just the taste, the link with the past; it’s metaphysical and also quizzical in that I ask myself what the drinker of the past tasted when they popped the cork and poured? Is it a case of changing palates, a different approach to tasting, a different approach to beer?

So the beer in the glass was the deep crimson colour of aged Madeira, while on its nose I caught wafts of Bovril, blue cheese (Stilton rather than Danish Blue), solvent hints, a pungent cheesy nose that wanted to be sherry, though sherry was much more evident when I took a sip. As was beef stock, some sweetness, though the more I drank the more I thought that here was a beer attenuated out of existence. It was like a woody sherry minus the sweetness; there was also stewed apple, some cinnamon, a sour-sweet character and a very dry, almost woody, finish. I don’t think there was much alcohol left in it, but this was a beer to be drunk for the simple reason that it still existed. It was a beer that was brewed in the year of the New York Crash, and then hidden away while the Battle of Britain was fought, the atomic bomb exploded, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sang, and the world kept on turning. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Here we are, three beer books, arriving out of the blue, review copies if you like; three authors, three different viewpoints, though travel is the link that binds them together.

Stephen Beaumont: The Beer and Food Companion; Jeff Alworth: The Beer Bible; Mark Dredge: The Best Beer in the World; all seasoned writers, writers whose work I have always enjoyed.

I’ve reviewed a few books over the years. Some stand out — JM O’Neill’s Duffy is Dead for the NME back in the late 1980s, a wonderful tale set in an old Irish boozer in Stoke Newington and worth sending a search party out for.

Others not so — in 1989 I reviewed Iris Murdoch’s A Message to the Planet for Time Out. I’d never read her before (and haven’t since) and found the book tedious and dull; I wrote a review and it never got published. God I shudder at it still.

There are been others down through the years, most recently Shakespeare’s Local for the Telegraph (butchered by a sub with a degree in serial killing).

So that’s the qualifications over with, what about these books?

Beaumont’s is coffee-table in its design, plenty of gorgeous photos of beers, bars and dishes (typical of publisher Jacqui Small’s approach to design), though coffee-table does seem to imply lots more visuals than words — in this case, coffee-table does the book a disservice. There are plenty of words, good words, mesmerising chains of words.

Stephen Beaumont is one of the most incisive, elegant and satisfying writers on beer and food in the English language; in fact as I progressed through the book it reminded me of the thrill I received when reading Jackson. I feel like I’m learning something, but not in the ‘I’m a beervangelist’ mono-mania approach that ‘beer educators’ employ; this is journalism that happens to be about beer and food.

I like the way Beaumont approaches style, which he defines by general flavour traits such as bitter or sweet, light or robust; for instance in ‘very dark or roasty ales’ (which gets the sub-heading ‘satisfying’), we have London Porter, Porter, Baltic Porter etc.

As I wrote above, travel is the link that binds these books together and Beaumont has travelled about the world searching for beers to drink and bars to experience — an approach I think is essential to understanding global beer. Sure you can stay at home and tap this and rate that and open up a parcel from a swap-buddy on the other side of the world but I would suggest you travel and experience the beers of the world in all their various subtleties.

This is what Mark Dredge has done for his third book in two years. From conversations with him a couple of years ago I knew that this book was the one he most wanted to write, a globe-trotting travelogue that would experience some of the world’s most acclaimed beers in their natural habitat. So he has a brewpub crawl in Portland (an activity I can thoroughly recommended having spent a hot Thursday doing that in June), drinks Snow in China, gets fresh and cheap beer in Vietnam, Oktoberfests in Blumenau — you get the idea. There’s even something on home-brewing.

The book is a mixture of feature length narrative along with guides to drink in various places around the world; I found myself flicking through the guides and then getting embedded in the stories, which show Dredge at his best.

His style is very personal, as he places himself at the centre of the action; this gives the text a dynamic drive. I like it a lot. Though one caveat (something I’d mentioned with the choice of title in Shakespeare’s Local, given that there was no proof the Bard had even been to the George) — I initially felt that the ending is a bit of a cop-out given the title of the book, but on reading it again I’m not so sure. 

The Beer Bible is dense, there’s a lot of text. Photos are black-and-white and have a faded look, almost rustic, antique even. It’s an encyclopaedic guide to dozens and dozens of kinds of beer, from Bocks to bitters to Zoigl to steam.

There’s history, the brewing process, tasting notes, beer and food and notes on cellaring and storing beer. However, what gives this book its lustrous appeal is Alworth’s writing, his knowledge, his erudition, which like Dredge and Beaumont’s has come from travelling around the world and tasting and talking about beers in their home territory.

This is a book that I feel I learn something new every time I dip into its pages, and like Beaumont’s there’s a feel of excitement that I used to get from first readings of Jackson.

We might be more used to the world of beer now but reading about Alt or IPA from a fresh perspective is like watching Citizen Kane or the Godfather l and ll again and learning something new. I love the feel of the paper and I love all those words. This is a book I shall be taking on my travels.

There you are three books, all different in their approach but all linked by travel and of course that tap on the window that beer brings to one’s life; excellent writing, in different ways and plenty of beer to bring on that essential itch in the throat and rumble in the tumble of the stomach.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Give me gose any day

A gose in its natural habitat Leipzig
yeah about this whole gose vs mild thing, has anyone who complains about breweries not making mild and having a go at ‘weird’ gose ever drank the stuff in Leipzig, it’s an easy going beer, with a saline quality that adds rather than detracts from the beer, but then I don’t understand why those that have a go at making gose need to change it, add this or that and the other to it, to slap it in a barrel, when it’s a perfectly good beer without half the fridge in the mix and a trip to Travis Perkins the day before, and on the other hand those that turn their nose up at the idea of gose perhaps have that fear of newness, that fear of the other, of a beer that doesn’t sound like the beer they consider to be beer, while the breweries perhaps have a fear of running out of novelties, a pathological rawness that keeps refusing to heal as rabid beer fans jingle and jangle in the search for more newness and reasons to be cheerful and pretend that fear is something lesser beings feel, and then back to mild there is a reason why beer styles die out, they’re not very nice, I hated mild when I started drinking, though my paternal grandfather probably drank it as he was a pub man and left Wales for Brum in the 1930s, wet and wishy-washy, thin and sweet, I don’t mind strong milds but as for the 3%ers, give me gose any day