Tuesday, 28 April 2009

It’s all about the beer, stupid

Beer festivals and I have grown apart. There has been a parting of the ways. The tyranny of choice is the main reason for this; too much beer, too little time and then some of the beers don’t feel at their best. I used to have a calendar of beer festivals: Exeter Winter Ales, Tuckers Maltings, the Newt Festival near Bridgwater, GbbF, maybe the odd pub one in the summer, Somerset CAMRA at Minehead railway station and then the Pig and Whistle which was always a guilty pleasure, given that its former location at Stratford was for a former North London person like myself the very end of the world (and it was municipal, bleak and full of people, no let’s be honest, mainly men, who peered intently at their beer lists, pens poised, lips licked, samples salivated over and wandered aimlessly about the hall until their bladders forced them to vacate, though I remember one chap in about 2003 whom I passed on the stairs — he was so drunk that the stains on the front of his trousers suggested that he had forgotten to open the zip whilst answering the call of what obviously was a very savage call of nature). But hey, I shouldn’t be judgmental, I was also there, looking at my beer list, looking for interesting beers, letting beer from other parts of the country do what it always has done to me, take me to these places, for a moment, for a few sips, turning back time, taking me to a pub when gastro meant something wrong with your stomach and the old man in the corner could tell you tales of old England and the rolling road the drunkard made. Because I lived for six years in Cambridge and also love Suffolk with its flat fat tire-friendly roads, heavenward pointing churches, with the sea in prospect and for me the prospect of a pint of a beer that I still count as one of my great loves —it’s grown old with me, Adnams Best Bitter — then because of all this East Anglia intrigues me still. But I digress: the whole point of this post was a visit to Tuckers Maltings Beer Festival last Friday, at one of the very few floor maltings left in the UK, a place where beer begins its journey to our glass. The event is organised by the southwest arm of SIBA and — you know — it’s not a bad event. I used to judge but found myself tired and jaded by the time the place opened and rarely able to enjoy the beers. Now, as I sat on a tyre of a trailer (don’t ask) in the sun, with a glass of RCH’s sublime East Street Cream in my hand (it was the beer of the festival) I thought what a wonderful thing a glass of beer is. People were friendly, the sun was shining, the beer was good in my glass — surely at the end of the day that is all we want. There’s a lot of chatter about beer with food, beer for women, beer for youngsters, beer styles, pub closures, pub companies, fat ugly blokes looking like Mr Toad with notebooks in hand (there was one at Tuckers and one of the first aromas I detected at the bar was more halitosis than hallertau but hey), but I remember from this glorious day was that it was all about the beer, an emotion that inspired me to make what seemed (and sometimes still seems) a pretty stupid career decision to move to writing about beer.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Marstons Pedigree at 5 — Chum or Chump?

I’ve only just drank the 5% Marstons Pedigree I was sent last month and am pleasantly surprised. Sadly, it’s long been a beer that I’ve not really enjoyed mainly because I’ve not had it in the best of conditions. Usually too cold, which has helped to mask the fact that it wasn’t in the peak of condition (something one discovers halfway down the glass when it’s too late) and there are a lot more interesting beers out there. I don’t know what others think about Marstons putting it up to 5% but I was pleasantly surprised, discovering that there was still that hint of bath salts freshness on the nose along with a gentle handshake of light caramel, but the hop spice and bitterness alongside the soft billowing malt in the mouth was certainly very appetising. The carbonation is not as soul-destroying as I used to find on some of Marstons’ bottled beers (for instance, they bottle Exmoor Gold, which has long been a bit of a no-go for me in bottle). However, this is a surprise and welcome at that — it’s not a world-beater, but still an enjoyable old favourite. At the moment I’m savouring a three year old bottle of O’Hanlon’s Port Stout, which has really come of age: burnt currants, restrained sweetish port notes and a mouth-watering crispness that makes a mockery of BBDs.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Lager than life

Sunday afternoon after a rigourous morning spent watching my 10-year-old lad in an enthralling game of rugby in Tiverton — it’s getting more like the real thing as he gets older. To the pub then when we get back to Dulvie. By the river, at the Bridge, as the sun shines. As J and his mate drift downstream in their wetsuits, it’s time for an ale. Or is it? I fancy a Budvar on draught. So here it is, all golden in the sunlight as the birds sing and the passing river pipes it own song. ‘It’s got to be lager when the sun shines,’ says Jools, who lives round the corner, ‘you’ll not be having your usual Otter then,’ thus perpetuating the eternal myth that lager is for the summer alone, while anything darker is for colder times — I hardly need to remind beer lovers that there is a lager for every occasion and that there is also a bitter for every passing of the day; in fact there is a beer for every moment. This all starts me thinking that the whole lager-ale divide is such an artificial war, such a contrived division — lager has its baggage as does the family of ale, and while, thanks to the work of good people like the late Michael Jackson, the past 30 years has seen this Berlin Wall come crumbling down, but there’s still a lot of work to persuade people that good beer is good beer whatever the temperature it is fermented and matured at.*
The thing of wonder is that there I was sitting by a slow moving, lazy old crystal clear Exmoor river enjoying a pint of Budvar that had been brewed with the sort of aesthetics that wouldn’t be out of place in the way this old Exmoor river flowed and drifted its way down towards its ultimate destiny.
* I have always loved all beers and the book of all books that I would like to write would be on lager, though how I would approach it and how I would avoid all the usual claptrap I haven’t got a clue — perhaps I should hire a coach (and horses) and dress up as Schubert and take a barrel of beer around Europe and call it Lager Than Life. Or maybe not…

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

BrewDog in their own words…

Once upon a time I ventured out of my flat and crossed the Holloway Road to watch the Jesus & Mary Chain play a gig at North London Poly. Interviews had been conducted, records had been reviewed, hype hyped — I’m on the guest list was always a sweet thing to say, especially if there was some cute Goth babe on the door. A mini riot broke out during the gig — after about 30 minutes or so — and they trashed their equipment on stage; predictability was attached to their name that night I felt. This is what the audience expected, this was what they had come for — rock’n’roll was as cosy and comfortable as The Archers, you knew what was going to happen. Previous generations had been led up a similar garden path by Jimi Hendrix pouring lighter fuel on his Strat and set it alight night after night, while others waiting with bated breath for Pete Townsend and Keith Moon to conduct a double demolition derby.

I was reminded of this Mary Chain gig when reading about BrewDog’s travails with the Portman Group — was this not to be expected? Hip young gunslingers on the brewing scene, calling out the cask alers, flash-mobbing the morality police, sticking a two fingered salute of barley sheaves in the direction of all and sundry. With a rare fit of Mary Whitehousism I felt that calling a beer Speedball, which was brewed in a town known for its desperate love of pharmaceuticals, was something akin to taking a holiday in other people’s misery. Yes, it was two hop-stained fingers up to the Portman Group and all its misplaced Victorian cosseting pity, but it also seemed to be  making light of the undeniable problems that people in Fraserburgh suffer from. Unless, of course, the brewery was made up of ex smack addicts and junkies who were proud to use the language of their addiction, eager to slap the faces of the censorious. I wasn’t sure of their lager — diacetyl hell I wrote somewhere.

After a while, I had another beer…
Read more on BrewDog? Go to www.beeralewhatever.com/breweries.html for further enlightenment.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Beer blends: recipe for success or alcoholic anarchy

So there we were in the Penrhyn Arms in Penrhynside hoovering up vast quantities of Williams’ Midnight Sun and John the landlord suggested that we try some cider (after all, his pub is one of the best in Wales for the stuff). My friend the Maltworm, who had already been warming the seat since 5pm, was solubly enthusiastic, while the Farmer, who we were trying to persuade to have a beer festival on his grounds, made his excuses and staggered off home to dream of the new German girl who had just started work at his place. Try this, try that, came the command from John, who used to be the gravedigger in town (‘would you like to come to an exhumation,’ was the subject of one phone call recalled the Maltworm, he turned it down), and especially try this: The ‘this’ was Pider, a blend of perry (not pear cider) and cider, which underwhelmed, but made me think about beer blends. Mild and bitter, old and bitter (mother-in-law according to some drink lore), special and ordinary and bitter top, which as I recalled, having cut part of my drinking teeth around this part of North Wales (the other part occurred in the east of England involving drinking lots of Greene King IPA in the company of Tetley Bittermen — the blend there was Burt St Edmunds Ale, I think, and Abbot, one bearded old wag, an rustic anarchist with Kropotkin forever on his lips unimaginatively christened it Braindeath) was some keggish sort of bitter with lemonade sprinkled in it to make it palatable. But I digress: is there any future in beer blends? I once attended a meeting at Wychwood where Manns Brown Ale was seductively introduced to Tia Maria (it was also done over ice). The match with Tia Maria was sweetish and sickly, while the ice just watered down what was already a rather thin beer. I hear of beer cocktails but have yet to try them, though brewers have long blended various brews, especially for pubs who want a beer named after their establishment. It leads me to the question: blends these days for beer, are they frowned upon? Or do they fulfil a need? Anyone fancy a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale sharing its sap with, say, Meantime Porter? Jaipur and Hook Norton’s Double Stout? A Thomas Hardy Ale and a Punk IPA? Or is this the road to the bearded old wag’s anarchy?

Monday, 6 April 2009

Container traffic

The first thing I noticed when settled down in the Crown Posada with a pint of something substantial and nourishing was that everyone who ordered a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale had it carefully decanted into a half pint schooner shaped glass (and it came out of the fridge). Mentioned to the half-drunk man on the next table, carefully scrutinising his newspaper but ever so eager for a chat, and I was told that it was always served like that. No concerns about the feminising influence of a half pint here then. He then asked me what I was drinking but given his advanced state of intoxication i refrained from saying: ‘mine’s a…’ I told him. Hadrian & Border’s Gladiator. He replied: ‘So you’re a real ale man.’ Why on earth do people think that because you have a glass of cask beer and because you seem to be enjoying it, that you belong to a secret society, a cabalistically inclined group of types who also walk round churches the wrong way in their spare time. Getting back to the glass, seemed like safer ground and I said to my new friend that sometimes I just want a half pint of whatever I want to drink, but I don’t like those dreadful thimble-lookalikes that masquerade as glasses in many pubs. I think they’re the younger siblings of the nonic glass, which is a pretty ugly looking thing at the best of times. He looked at me with pity in his face and went back to the newspaper. At the bar the man with the attractive looking glass of carbonated caramel carried on reading his newspaper. I looked forward to another pint.