Thursday, 25 June 2009

Morris men are sinister

Morris Men in the pub transform the place, not always for the better it has to be said. In the bright sunlight there’s a sense of joie de vivre as you watch grown men (red-faced and stout some of them) throwing themselves about with abandonment. It’s not for me it has to be said, but at least they exist, a small two-fingers up to a world where everything is the same. Can this be said looking at the photograph alongside, as a group of the Morris gather in the gloom outside the Wyndham Arms in Kingsbury Episcopi on the Somerset Levels. They look like they are plotting some dreadful deed that will reach fruition in the early hours of the morning when all good folk are asleep, snoring off their pints of Golden Chalice from Glastonbury Ales (sort of Abbots Bromley meets The Wicker Man with Dennis Wheatley in tow). I know the Morris was featured in a Jeff Bell’s blog recently, but Clerkenwell is a bright and breezy place where all the ghosts have long been developed and chased out of town. The same cannot be said for the Somerset Levels (apart from the beer of course, which is excellent).

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Original Cin and cultural degradation

Drinking a glass of Achouffe’s N’ice and it reminds me of Cinzano…Ask the wife to confirm this taste memory and she agrees. I thought Martini at first and recalled the advert: we sang (well declaimed more like it) the line together — ‘any time, any place, anywhere, it’s the drink (?) you can share, it’s…Martini’. Or something like that — it’s a sign of cultural degradation when you can half-remember the lines from a rubbish drink advert but not some of the characters from Anthony Powell’s Dance To The Music of Time, which is one of the best series of novels ever (a rack of them stand to the right of me on the bookshelf). Going back to N’ice, another sip and there’s still the Cinzano meets dark malt effect, which is rather beautiful (botanicals and barley in one gulp).

Went to Achouffe several years ago and finally ‘got’ their McChouffe (toffee, caramel, whispers of milk chocolate) — but have still to really ‘get’ their Houblon beer, which I had in Delerium in Brussels last December; I know the place has a mega following but I was underwhelmed by it and it reminded me of a 1984 Simple Minds gig which I was so excited about after interviewing Jim Kerr. The result was total deflation and an emotional void as Simple Minds evolved (or degressed?) from an interesting Euro-band to pomp rock.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Helles vs Pilsner

Having just drunk a St Georgen Helles and then its Pils, I am slightly at odds with what is the difference. The Helles has a fresh and even fragrant nose and a malty snap, while the Pilsner seems to be cleaner in the palate though there is still some fragrance on the nose with bitter notes in the finish. Good beers both of them, but is this the German equivalent of the difference between Best Bitter and Bitter?

Beer gardens are heavenly

Beer gardens are just the most beautiful, sensual, relaxing, celebratory places to be when the sun shines and the beer in your glass is equally sunny. I sit outside the Exmoor Forest Inn in Simonsbath (the so-called capital of Exmoor — blink and you have driven through it) after completing my 16 miles on the annual Exmoor Perambulation (you can do either 16 or 31, I always plump for the former), a fantastic trawl through the glorious uplands of Exmoor where deep valleys cut through the heather and tough grass of the high moors. The sun is out, I have a pint of Budvar Draught in front of me, and contemplation has to give way to refreshment. It’s perfect though — funny to think that out here in the middle of nowhere a Czech lager is served with such joy and class. Pub gardens: last Sunday evening I was also out in the one that stands in front of the Crown at Churchill, an unspoilt, rustic, take-us-as-you-find-us place in the village of Churchill. The view was over towards Wales, while behind me the solid 19th century building was as still as a stopped clock. Beer and cider was dispensed: a pint of RCH was followed by a Thatcher’s cider (they make the stuff down the road). I was warned by the proprietor of the guest house I was staying in (early start for Bristol airport the next morning) that the Mendip Twister (I think) was lethal. At 9pm when a guest in the guest house shouted ‘wrong room’ as I tried to put my key into his door was sufficient evidence of a certain confusion.
The picture is of the Crown in Churchill, very Joy Division meets Edward Thomas if there is such a thing…

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A cidery detour

In northern Spain for a craft cider exhibition though am also learning some useful Spanish customs regarding beer. In the Asturian city of Gijon, where I have been based since Monday, the locals either drink cider or beer, wine is just for fine dining. There are cervecerias where Belgian and German beers are common (several excellent Gouden Carolus triples last night), then there are sideras where cider is king. I am told that anyone drinking cider alone is looked down upon as a little sad (does that stretch to beer I wonder as I recall myself ensconsed in a corner alone last night?), while the habit is to pour the stuff from a great height (to rouse it as it is very still) and drink it quickly. Yesterday at a press conference the head of tourism said that ´cider for us is a way to understand the way we live, our culture, when we want to celebrate something cider is involved in some way´. Can you imagine someone in a similar post in the UK (or even the US) saying the same thing in relation to beer? Having said that though, I think the Asturian cider producers are in a bit of a bind as their cider is very challenging (think lambic) and the idea of innovation (ie barrel aging, single varietal, single orchard, vintage) seems a bit off the radar - and that is probably why the stuff doesn´t travel. Imagine having to go to the Senne Valley to get your lambic fix? On the other hand...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Third Reich Brewing in Wetherspoons

Just reading Italy’s Sorrow by James Holland, an excellent account of the last year of the war in Italy. On a beery note I’m struck by a reference to counterfeit messages from Italian males spirited off to Germany for forced labour; one of them has this presumably fictitious chap extolling the virtues of Berlin and how he’s ‘swapped wine for good beer’. Given that this is was supposed to be sent mid 1944, not only was Berlin under constant attack and probably not that lovely, hadn’t brewing been stopped in the Third Reich in 1943? Typical Nazi mendacity or did brewing continue?
BTW this post come courtesy of Wetherspoons’ WiFi in Taunton, near the station prior to a trip to London for the British Guild of Beerwriters AGM. The WiFi works and the Exmoor Stag is rich and malty, not freezing cold, leaving the sort of lovely lacework a laceworker would be proud of (though I cheated by noting that three pints had been pulled before it was my turn to be served — it is a lottery) — there are a fair smattering of boozers who have reached the stage where their mundane conversations have taken on the import of a political summit plus several chaps with their straw hats taking a break from Somerset’s cricket ground (I feel like doing that with cricket full stop). Oh dear, a little stout chap has rolled past splattering the walls with a gush of swearwords.
BTW that’s Nottingham at night not Berlin in 1944

Friday, 5 June 2009

Hops and Glory

People mill about, chatter rises to the rafters like smoke from a fire; have a beer says someone to someone else; have another says another. White Shield or Sierra Nevada says a nice woman behind the table. On the wall, photos of the sea, ships and brewing following each other with clockwork precision — a lazy drift of snapshots like a punt ambling upstream. Who’s that over there? Oh it’s Neil Morrissey and Richard Fox. I’m pissed says someone from the Publican. I’m not says the Chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers, but I will be. A pile of books, the brickwork of a life in writing, rise from a table. Hops And Glory: the name of the book. The launch. Back in 2007 beer writer Pete Brown went on a journey with a barrel of beer and I thought him mad, while also admiring the inspiration that motivated such a journey. Beer writing is about journeys, but usually from brewery to brewery, from country to country, cocooned in the company of PRs and fellow writers — not with a bloody great barrel in tow. Yet Pete — by barge, by rail, by cruise ship, by sailing ship, by banana boat — went further than any other beer writer, in more ways than one. Forget about press trips to Polish or Czech breweries, smooth train journeys to welcoming English micros and barmy Belgians or even long winded drives around the hidden breweries of the biĆ©re de garde area — I have done them all, but I would never have had the courage or fortitude to do what Pete did. As the people come and go in the confines of the BrewWharf, the question to ask: was it all worth it? Reading the book, reeling at the cost, the logistical nightmares, the emotional toil and trouble, the single minded obsession, the energy and motivation to continue when all seemed lost, I think the answer is yes. Yes, as Molly Bloom said at the end of Ulysses (there I’ve given the ending away), the most positive word in the English language, yes it was worth it. The book is funny — Pete (and I speak as someone who has enjoyed many a drink with him) is a funny man with a fine sense of the absurdities of life; he’s the sort of writer who can make mockery of the moment he fell in the Burton-Rugby canal; is he having a laugh? Of course he is. Alongside the humour there’s also a well-observed sense of poignancy at the decline of the brewing industry in Burton; there’s much new information on the development of IPA and even if the history bits occasionally owe a lot to the John O’Farrell/Stuart Maconie school of historicism (ie historical characters seemingly straight out of the pages of Loaded or Nuts), the fascination that Pete has with the Raj and its roisterers and way that IPA became the drink of choice shines out through these pages. Then there is the sense of tension that ripples through the pages when he is writing about waiting for a replacement cask before boarding the boat that will take him across the Atlantic and up to India for the end of the journey. In an age where I have thought that there is nothing new to be written about beer, Hops And Glory comes along and refreshes the genre (see pages 234-235 for a new take of keg beer), while also managing to shed new light on a beer whose mythology we have taken for granted for too long. So back in the BrewWharf. As the people come and go the question to ask: was it all worth it? One word. Yes.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Cost cutters

I discover a website — — which tracks the price of a pint around the world; whether it’s the devil making work for idle hands or pretty useful for globe-trotting beer-hunters I have no opinion. However, cheapskates who are forever complaining about the price of their ale, might like to get to places like Panama, Bhutan, North Korea and the Congo where the price of a pint, according to this website is between 31-38p (wonder what the happy hour is like). On the other hand, if you’re marching around Bolivia, according to this website, it will cost £8 to refuel your noggin. Is there is an opening for a pub chain selling cheap beer out there? There always seems to be a tension between those who advocate a higher price of good beer, something which gives it a cache and value, and those whose wallets the moths have got at and wouldn’t mind a pint of decent beer without having the send the kids out to work. Brewers like their special beers to have a value, which is fine as long as the beer in the glass tastes pretty good, but the cautionary tale I always look to is that of Artois Bock. I recall it being launched in 2005 and various renowned beer writers congratulating InBev on producing a half-decent beer. It was launched with much fanfare and talk of provenance; the beer was a major sponsor of one of the British Guild of Beer Writers’ awards (though not without controversy). There was a special glass, it was reassuringly expensive. Next thing you know it’s 99p in the supermarket and now it’s been booted out of the Peeterman family (ie Stella, Peeterman and er, can’t remember). It’s like there’s this tension in big companies like InBev between those who treat beer as a commodity and those who want to give it some value. Wonder if they have the same issues in Panama?