Thursday, 30 December 2010

Croglin Vampire draws blood

Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Croglin Vampire Sod Twilight with its designer bloodsuckers and undercurrent of Mormon denial, the Croglin Vampire was there first, back in the 19th century when some toothsome member of the undead fancied a bit of Cumbrian life. True or false? Who cares when you’ve got this beauty of a beer sent to me by Cumbrian Legendary Ales. Will it bite or will it be just a toothless old hag? Here goes. Sweetish Marmite on nose along with green apple after it’s just been cut — or maybe green apple jelly beans, a synthetic green appleness; palate is sweetness, warmth, fatness, fieriness, chocolate (though with a restrained sweetness), several coffee beans crushed half-heartedly between two stout spoons, ripe dark plum left in the sun, toffee apple in the sweet shop, plus some hint of pepper (white) in the background; slightly quiet in the glass but then I’m not after the sort of carbonic bite that puts me in mind of a terrier rather than a vampire. I like the sound of a British bock, though this hasn’t totally embraced the creamy, dreamy bitter sturm und drang of a Bavarian bock, but it’s still a great English take on the style. It has that intense drinkability of a bock — long satisfying draughts from a long satisfyingly pleasant glass while sitting by the fire and completely underwhelmed by both Twilight as well as True Blood. Is Cumbria the new Bavaria? Are vampires the new beer geeks? Probably not. Who cares.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

2010 and all that beer

2010… The clock in the church tower strikes 6pm and from several alleyways that feed the centre of Laxfield groups of villagers urgently make a beeline for the Kings Arms. For me this was the most striking and visual confirmation of the paramount importance of the pub and its role in our national community (and being an Adnams pub, the beer was pretty good as well) — people still set their watches by them. Pubs might be closing, pubs might be losing money, pubs might be getting as rare as the hair on Oz Clarke’s head, but this image, which I witnessed, as I joined in the common stream and ambled across the churchyard, was a sign of hope. I hope. Long may it continue.

Like most people, I look back, cherish lost moments, and in the beery sense have a shed load of fond times that come back to me from my journey across 2010 — great beers delivered straight from the tank on their home territory, getting a bridgehead in the US with All About Beer, seeing 1001 Beers continue to sell (even though I don’t get royalties), getting major beer and travel stories in the national press (a front page story on beer in the DT was a particular highlight), meeting loads of great people and still being surprised by new beers (as well as being irritated by those who don the Emperor’s new clothes), but it’s hard to really pin things down, say that this was the best, this was the worse, so all I can is offer a few views of the year in beer as I witnessed it.

Arrived hot and sweaty at the Von Trapp Lodge high above the mountain resort of Stowe, VT, and greeted with one of the most sublime Helles that I have ever had.  The Von Trapp brewery might sound like some gimmick to entrap the Sound of Music masses, but under the stewardship of brew master Allen Van Alda this is a serious lager brewery, which also produces a chocolaty Dunkel and a crisp Vienna Amber. The hills are alive with the sounds of triple decoction.

Lager was very much on my mind on a Pilsen press trip in the summer. This was a first: you normally have to place a feature in a magazine or paper to get on these trips, but the organisers wanted blogs instead. As well as getting a vision of the new Czech beer revolution thanks to Evan Rail, there was the Chodovar brewery where in the lagering cellars brewmaster Jiri Plevka filled a metal jug with the brewery’s Spezial straight from the tank. The beer was creamy, fresh and perky, fulsome in the mouth feel, a bittersweet buzz followed by a notable bite of bitterness, it felt both smooth and rough in the mouth, a heady combination. ‘It is like a Marzen/Fest,’ he said. And then followed one of those beer epiphanies — a light-bulb moment when I realised the close relationship between Bohemian and Bavarian brewing. I have donned my deerstalker and investigating further.

Other memorable moments: drinking in Poechenellekelder in Brussels with Stuart Howe, the Martin Johnson of the mash tun (regular tastings of his 52 brews have been spectacular and I’ve got Monsieur Rock to try later this week) and then over to Orval for it on draught in the company of the mouse-like Jean-Marie Rock; the lagers of Vermont from the likes of Alchemy, Northshire and Bobcat; Ray McNeil in Brattleboro and Paul Sayler at Zero Gravity, Burlington, VT — unsung US brewers who don’t do the rock star or celeb trail but are immeasurably talented; a moment with a pint of Tanglefoot when I noted a dryness and grape-like character reminiscent of Gewürztraminer; the fun and sociability that always follows a committee meeting of the British Guild of Beer Writers; Thornbridge’s Jaipur running out in two hours in the Bridge last Whitsun during the folk festival; the sumptuous magnificence of Otter Head at Woods this Christmas; loads of pubs throughout the country and plenty of new discoveries (Euston Tap, The Harp, Kilvert’s, the Coopers, the Jolly Butcher’s, the Triangle) and then…
— the fantasticness of Kernel Brewery: as someone who spent 11 years in London and left pretty pissed off with the place, the idea of the London Brewers’ Alliance would have had me fulminating about bleeding Londoners, but with Fuller’s and Meantime continuing to rock my boat, I am SO in love with the beers of Kernel and look forward to trying the rest of the Alliance’s beers.

So there it is, 2010 and all that — and I didn’t even mention the things that irritated me… Happy New Year.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Another brown beer

Another brown beer, has orange marmalade, crisp rye cracker, maybe some plum (ripe) on the palate, with a dry very bitter (2 espresso beans crunched in mouth) finish with a rerun of the ripe plum factor (having sat in a bowl being warmed and ripened by the sun); bitter bitter bitter but also creamy in its mouthfeel, intense and very satisfying for a 4% brown beer. Just a brown beer. 

Thursday, 16 December 2010

I get Burton-on-Trent

There are many rooms in my father’s mansion. You could say the same thing about Burton-on-Trent, albeit with a brewing rather than biblical twist. Everywhere I go, there seems to be an old malt house here, a former brewery there and — CCTV-like — it seems one cannot escape from the all-seeing eyes of the conditioning tanks of Molson-Coors, that rise tube-like, rockets without their cones, to the glowering Staffordshire skies. Redbrick houses from the middle of the nineteenth century line the road from the station into town: an old tower brewery here, a former grain store there. Over onto the road that leads down to the bridge that spans the River Trent, plaques tell a story: this was a brewery in the eighteenth century, this was the site of the Lamb, this was a malt house and just before the bridge we get to the Bridge Inn, home of the Burton Bridge Brewery. Early doors at 11.30am, jostling with the coalman to get in. A pint of Golden Delicious — a creamy mouthfeel, dry brittle finish.

Last night I was at the opening of the William Worthington Brewery in the old Joiners’ Store next to the National Brewery Museum. Lots of beer, beer and food, the ever excellent Steve Wellington (below right) leading the crowds onto the platform that overlooked his new stainless steel kit, White Shield with venison pie, and a special Celebration beer. And afterwards, all to the Coopers, where one of our party was nearly knocked onto the floor with surprise, such was his appreciation of the Draught Bass (it used to be so Heart of Darkness: the horror, the horror).

I will be honest: in the past I haven’t got Burton-on-Trent. I first went there in 1997 to interview Steve, my first ever beer interview (I was nervous, even though I had been interviewing pop stars for years, but it was a feeling, what could beer people have to say? They work in a factory, they’re not artistes. How wrong could I be?). I thought it a ghost town. I loved what Steve was doing but I thought so what? There was a shabbiness about the place, an malnourished quality (a downhearted man in clogs lounging on the corner, work a memory). Past glories. This was the past.

I should have known better, especially as I studied history at college (ask me about 1930s disillusionment, George Orwell and Spain, the International Brigades and people’s armies and you’ll not escape for a while). This contempt came to fruition when I wrote the criminally overlooked Big Book of Beer, I had a spread called the beer towns of Britain — BurtonOT was included more for nostalgia than anything else, it was almost written as a lament rather than anything else (I always thought BurtonOT represented all that was red-faced and big-bellied about beer). The spread was dropped for space reasons (I can send it out if anyone’s interested). That was me and BurtonOT until now.

The thing is: BurtonOT is certainly no Bamberg with a brewery on every corner while the past weighs even more heavily here than any other former beer town than I know (perhaps you get an echo of the past in parts of Edinburgh and London). Yet, this visit has filled me with a desire to get to know the place better. Yes, it’s rundown, it’s got the feel of a place that the 1980s bypassed (maybe a good thing) and I didn’t always get good beer (I don’t normally name names but the Bah Humbug at the Roebuck was appalling), but…

If British brewing has to have a centre, an ancestral home, a place where people can come and pay homage, a place where ghosts can be seen and the past remembered then it’s got to be BurtonOT. And before I got my train back this lunchtime I spent a jolly hour in the Coopers, a place that Pete Brown recently told me was one of his favourite pubs on earth. I drank Draught Bass for the first time in donkey’s years and enjoyed it, I chatted with regulars who brought their lunch to eat with their pints, felt at home, took a carryout of Sarah Hughes, didn’t want to leave. Here was the essence of BurtonOT.

To cobble something together with Yeats in mind: Pilsen, Munich, Edinburgh, London, Burton. I have seen them at the close of day. A terrible beauty is born.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The fifth element

To an Exmoor pub for the purpose of a review. The place is empty when we arrive about 12.30pm. There’s been heavy snow in the past few days and custom has been low. There’s a village but the houses are scattered (though enough folk support the pub for a darts team). We sit in the long bar, the landlord at the end folding napkins and the landlady behind the bar as we look at the menu. There’s no piped music, just our whispers as we debate what to have for lunch. It’s an old place high up on the moor, which must have seen some community action in the days when the snows came and people had no choice but to get to the pub. Through the window I can see three Landrovers draw up in the car park and a group of lads gather. The door opens, creaky, the birdsong of a latch returning to its catch, and in they come. Voices fill the place, we talk louder, the licensees become less withdrawn, after all they’re on the stage. The lads crowd around the bar, order their drinks — Guinness, coke, Carlsberg. Discuss the food, discuss the morning’s shooting and the place is transformed. The place feels warmer, friendlier. And the motto of this brief post? Sometimes it’s easy to forget in our search for the things that make the perfect pub — beers that baffle and buff up our lives, good grub that gets right to the heart of the matter, log fires whose flames curl and dance in the orange regions of the grate and pub gardens that resemble Eden in their spate of innocence — that people also make a pub: the fifth element.

Monday, 13 December 2010

A weave round Wiveliscombe beertown

A pint of Bays Gold for my non-existentialist friend, and me, I think to myself as I sit in the White Hart in the small town of Wiveliscombe. Drinking alone, are we, the man in the unwashed clothes at the bar seems to say when he looks at me. Well not really, I think back at him, I’m waiting for photographer Bill (good website, see it here) in a bar in a town, which in the past, I’ve called the Burton-on-Trent of the west (a bit of journalistic hyperbole which I won’t repeat now). Ah here he is wearing his Somerset Levels cider boots (he’s done some great snaps of the cider life, which I suspect he is starting to live), and we head off to the Bear across the road, a pub I have been visiting since 1996 — it had one landlord who was a total pot valiant and was alleged to have placed microphones at the bar because he reckoned that the staff of Exmoor Ales (five mins away) was conspiring against him. What I like (and have always liked) is the community aspect of the Bear, as well as a healthy selection of beer. But what I am interested in now is Butcombe’s intriguing keg ‘gateway’ beer Blonde as well as Veltins. The Butcombe beer has a sweetness that is almost reminiscent of a light fruitcake plus liquorice notes though I found the harshness of the finish a bit off-putting. Asked the young barman how it sold and he thought well, while a youngish lad, mate of his, said he enjoyed it now and again. Maybe a gateway. The Veltins was superb: vanilla, bitter lemon, crispness on the palate, dry finish, another swig please. Out into the town because I told Bill that this was a beertown, once and now. Hancock’s started brewing here in 1807 and were then bought out by Ushers in 1959 (they were then called Arnold & Hancock) and the brewery closed (it was a chicken shed or something for a while). Brewing boomeranged back in the late 1970s with Exmoor (then called Golden Hill) followed by Cotleigh. Exmoor is in the old bottling shed of Hancock’s, while Cotleigh are down the hill in a purpose built place. Despite the two breweries being so close you could lop a weighted bottle-top down the hill from Exmoor and hear it rattle on Cotleigh’s roof, there’s a real difference between their beers. The old brewery still stands above Wivvy, while a walk around the town brings you face to face with the attritional warfare that pubs have been engaged in during the 20th century. A few years ago, the local civic society (I think) organised the mounting of plaques on the front of all those houses, which used to be pubs. So we have nice ceramic designs (Wivvy is always a bit arty I think, hippy if I’m being ungenerous) for long gone pubs such as the Anchor (a fish), the Bell (a bell) and Noah’s Ark, whose design I cannot remember — but I would love to know why it was called Noah’s Ark. It was a small cottage in a terrace, down an alley and I wondered when it closed its doors. I think we counted about 10 former pubs and you just wonder what life was like when all these pubs were open and thriving. A beertown — was the beer palatable, would it have been totally different from what we drink these days (I think John Keeling, Derek Prentice and Ron Pattinson answered that question comprehensively at Fuller’s recent tasting of their XX Strong Ale), were the pubs any good? We shall never know. And that’s maybe just as well. 

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The 12 pubs of Christmas

Sod the partridge in a pear tree is the inspiration for my latest contribution to online mag Sabotage Times — the 12 pubs of Christmas. Someone has already commented that I have missed out a good Brum pub, and suggested the Barton Arms and the Victoria (I presume they mean this one) All other suggestions will be welcome. You can read it here.

Monday, 6 December 2010

52 years ago this month

Here we are, a copy of Mild & Bitter (thanks to Steve who handed it over yesterday in the Bridge), the house magazine of the long-gone Ely brewery of Cardiff. Christmas 1958 it says on the cover, and there’s a cartoon of a humanistic wooden cask on the back alongside some doggerel suggesting a selection of the company’s beers to go with Christmas lunch: ‘When turkey’s served on Christmas Day, My I suggest an IPA? If festive fare makes father groan, then bring him round with Brewer’s Own…And when the moon and stars come out, it’s time for Gold and Silver Stout.’ Stand down Shakespear there’s a new quill in town. Another reminder that beer and food is not a novel invention, but it’s just that drinkers and brewers forgot about it during the nice shiny modern 1960s. Inside the mag there are black and white pictures of long-dead licences (well they would be long-dead now, but were very much alive in 1958) taking up the helm of a new pub, an article on good cellaring (how very Cask Marque), an ad for Rhine wine and one for Babycham, plus a four page piece on the moon (that’s the big pearly thing in the sky not some broken down boozer in Cardiff docks). The editorial sounds familiar: the headline is WHY PICK ON PUBS? and the text contrasts the difference in opening hour regulations between pubs and hotels and clubs and then there’s a spread of cartoons detailing 10 things that a licensee can do — for instance, keep their pubs open during non-permitted hours for customers to watch the TV (but obviously not have a drop), chuck out drunks and allow customers to do their pools coupons in the pub. There’s a sense of cheery optimism running through the whole magazine, a sense of permanence in the attractions of the pub and the brewery’s fortunes — how very poignant to see that within a year Ely merged with Rhymney and then Whitbread turned up in the 1960s. The whole place shut in 1982. Do you think that the people who produced this magazine would have had an idea of what was coming?  

Friday, 3 December 2010

Pork chopolate anyone?

I recently went to a pork scratchings and beer dinner at the White Horse. Great fun even if I did overdo and at the end of the night as I enjoyed my last pint of Grand Ridge’s Brewers Pilsner I had that rare occasion — I had to leave my beer. A surfeit of pork scratchings indeed. I was tasked to do something small on the event for Scoff and wrote the piece below before I realised I’d not read my brief and was way off course. Having done the rewrite (I should have a link on it soon — and here it is here) I thought it a waste to leave the original languishing in the depths of my laptop so here it is. It a good night, but the lesson I learnt? Don’t eat the little buggers when they’ve covered in chocolate, it’s a bridge too far that I reckon even the most devoted of gluttons would baulk at.

There’s pork scratchings and then there’s pork chopolates. Several dollops of what looks like curled up chocolate sit on my plate. Appearances deceive. One bite and several sensations car-crash on the palate: salt and sweet, bacon and dark chocolate. It’s delicious if weird in a Heston Blumenthal way. These chopolates are actually pork scratchings dipped into chocolate and served alongside vanilla ice cream and a glass of Mackeson’s venerable Milk Stout. It’s a gastronomic universe of weirdness but actually works.
   I was at the White Horse pub in Parsons Green, West London, where food and beer dinners are the norm, but this is something else. Prior to the pork chopolates the biblical sounding Ram’s Horns and crunch scratchings plus guacamole dip was served with the tropically fruity golden ale JHB — the beer’s intense fruitiness fire-fought the guacamole’s chilli spiciness and lifted the salty pork flavour. A spicy Belgian wheat beer Blanche de Bruxelles was an elegantly accompaniment to Ram’s Horns and a gooseberry dip, while fish pie topped with gratinated pork scratchings devilishly did the tango with Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat Beer.
   The whole event was the idea of beer evangelist and Beer Academy founder Rupert Ponsonby who began the evening by declaring: ‘this is a slightly loony idea’. Minus mad-scientist laugh he detailed the styles of Black Country pork scratchings: ‘single cooked’ has a luscious layer of fat; ‘double cooked’ is crunchy and salty; ‘crunch’ is double deep-fried (think Prawn Crackers minus prawns); there was also a curry spiced crunch. Finally, for scratchings connoisseurs there’s leaf. This is pure fat —my poor arteries screeched in protest.
   Who needs designer crisps when you’ve got these tapas of our beer and pub culture?

Monday, 29 November 2010

Gose Immer Leipzig

Burnished copper vessels (stainless steel inside), bags of Weyermann malt jostling to be hoisted, the low susurration of voices, the sharp chink and high scrape of knife on plate, the satisfaction of a beer well drained. Another day, another brewpub. This time it’s Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig, home of that most elusive of German beers: Leipziger Gose. Top-fermented, salt and coriander added plus lactic acid, making for a tart and appetising sourness, this is yet another German beer the Purity Law forgot, a native beer of Leipzig, which nearly died out in the 1960s. ‘Do you want a drink?’ Yes please. Brewmaster Matthias Richter hands me a tall 500ml glass filled with a pale yellow cloudy beer. ‘This is our Gose,’ he says. I’ve waited a long time for this, ever since reading about it in one of Michael Jackson’s books. Here goes — and I remember the hotel manager’s question when I said I was looking for Gose, ‘you will drink it on its own?’ Said with an evident bemusement. Of course I will and I’m glad I am. On the nose: a flurry of salty, delicately spicy, fresh ozone-like notes; the palate is spicy and delicately salty, with the latter condiment seemingly adding to the body of the mouthfeel (there’s a tingle of salt but it’s out there on the edge of the known universe of taste); a lemon flavoured boiled sweet character also takes a bow. The end contains more boiled lemon sweetness, alongside a saltiness and spice of coriander. It is damned refreshing and is one of those glasses of beer at which you cannot but help make eyes and ask: ‘where have you been all my life?’ Richter also makes a robust and bittersweet Pils, plus a doppel porter and a Dunkel, while a further project of his involved a glass of Berliner Weiss into which Brett has been added. This had an earthy barnyard nose while bananas hovered in the background — it was a great Mexican standoff between sweetness and sourness. The doppel porter was a revelation though — think Schwarzbier, porter and Dunkel all rolled into one big creamy, chocolaty, orangey, spirituous glass of goodness. ‘Am I still in Germany?’ I asked. A massive plate of ham hock, cabbage and dumplings assured me that yes I was. And I was glad.

The next night saw me at Gosenschenke ohne Bedenken, which until the arrival of Bayerischer Bahnhof was the only place where you could drink Gose. It was here that the words of the hotel manager managed to come back and haunt me, but that, as they say, is a story for another time. 

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Beerwriters’ din-dins and awards

The annual British Guild of Beer Writers awards and associated slap-up feast was held on Thursday night, featuring a wonderful pairing of beer and south Indian food, prepared by Sriram Aylur, the Michelin-starred chef at Quilon in London. Simon Jenkins was crowned Beer Writer of the Year, an excellent choice whose work can be read here, while other beneficaries included Brewers’ Guardian editor Larry Nelson, Mark Dredge and the ever chirpy Zak Avery. Oh and I won a silver in the Best Journalism in National Publications category (an award which I have won three times now); if you’re interested here are several links to the work I submitted — my DT piece on beer, an All About Beer piece on Brit craft lager (plus recommended beers here) and a review of the Sheffield Tap. The rest of the awards can be seen on Pete Brown’s blog. And if the food and pairings below whet your appetite (they were matched by Messers Brown and Avery) then don’t forget to put your name down for next year’s do when it’s announced, it sold out rather quickly this year.

British Guild of Beer Writers Menu 2010
Popadums with coriander chutney
to drink...
Jever Pilsener
Hailing from Friesland in Northern Germany, Jever is a wonderfully dry and bitter pilsner-style beer. These characteristics make it a perfect aperitif, and its herbal hop character matches well with the condiments accompanying the popadoms

Crab cakes with soya bean chop
Crab claw meat tossed with curry leaves, ginger, and green chillies and cooked on a skillet - served with minced spiced soya bean stuffed with fresh mango yoghurt
to drink...
Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale
Brewed in Chicago, 312 is a lightly-hopped wheat beer. Delicacy is often a euphemism for blandness but here the lightness of touch in the beer helps lift and expand the spicing in the food, which in turn brings the beer to life

Black cod with Quilon salad
A subtly spiced baked cod served with Quilon Salad – the chef’s creation of mixed greens with pink grapefruit, patty pan dressed in lavender and kokum infusion
to drink…
Chimay Red
This Trappist ale may seem an unlikely pairing for baked fish, but there is something about the soft, berryish sweetness in the beer that marries well with the subtle spicing of the fish. A Belgian classic, repositioned by contemporary pairing

Lamb biryani with spinach porial
Lamb cooked with traditional malabar spices in a sealed pot, with basmati rice served with pachadi and a lamb sauce. Accompanied by a spinach porial of shredded fresh spinach cooked with mustard seeds, whole red chillies and freshly grated coconut
to drink...
Badger Blandford Fly 
Dorset may seem like an unlikely source for a beer to pair with lamb biryani, but the forthright ginger character of the beer, coupled with its slight sweetness, is a great foil for the richness and gentle heat of the biryani

A Goan speciality served warm with vanilla ice cream
to finish...
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout  
People are always taken aback by the intense, espresso-like appearance of this imperial stout, but for all its bluster, it’s a perfect dessert beer. A soft sweetness is balanced by a long bitter chocolate, mocha and vanilla finish

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Euston Tap

Where’s the Tap keened we three? Lost at the front of Euston and looking for a way across the bus line, as keenly defended as the goal in front of Petr Cech (until last Sunday — heh heh), then we found it. A blockhouse in front of which stretched a banner for Bernard provided the answer — and on our way we were. Spatially the Euston Tap is the Rake twice two, expanded into the air. Two floors of keenly fought over London space where craft beer (yes craft beer) can be consumed and enjoyed, whatever the consequences of the medievally inspired how-many-angels-can-you-get-on-pinheads debate over dispensation that has roused such passions recently. A specially made metal (copper?) underback, bristling with taps the like of which I last saw in the US, looms over the bar; resorting to cliché I believe it’s great theatre. Several businessmen and an indie fan and his girl walk in and scrutinise the taps — and then order: a Wild Swan for her and a Saranac Black Forest for him. The ceiling is high, while a massive spiral staircase takes the drinker away from the compact bar to the second floor; it’s a magnificent concept, in an unlikely but welcome position offering great beers — I had a Bernard unfiltered, which was then followed by a Mahrs’ Pilsner (bitter lemon without the sweetness of the soft drink), while the Matuska IPA called out its siren song, but I had to leave for a train. It was a rush to get there after a Budvar event at the Draft House at London Bridge (great place, great beer, need to get there again soon), but I was glad I made the effort. London has just gained another stellar place in which you can drink great beer.  

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Badger beer but no badger hams on the menu at River Cottage

Chop. Chop. Tear. Pull. Chop.
Glass of beer, quick swig, wipe of brow. 
Chop. Tear of skin, peep of flesh, smell of gut. Swig of beer. 
I do like pheasant. Especially when I’ve got a set of kitchen implements that cost more than the car outside our house. 
Chop, wipe, swig — we’re in a kitchen at River Cottage, stations piled with gleaming kit, various (carnivore-eating) journalists seeing their first ever dead animal, and the freedom to cook with beer. Badger idea. Good one at that.
But first, back to the night before, a cosy meal at the River Cottage, the cottage industry set up within spitting distance of Lyme Regis by Hugh Whatisname. Swig of beer, Stinger it is, minty grassy aroma, earthy in that it makes you think of the land, good impressions, hard to pin down, bit like the stink of the farmyard that manifests itself in a good red Burgundy, elemental, herbal and fresh. 
Food. Try this with the Stinger we’re asked. Ham rarebit or maybe hot smoked pheasant breast. Carrot and cumin hummus with which the Stinger seems to act as if it were champagne, scrubbing the palate clean of the creaminess of the hummus, before letting the flavours of carrot and cumin come through.
 Sit down, ladies and gentlemen. Another glass. Golden Champion. Sweet elderflower notes grabbing a slice of smoked pollock and taking it for a twirl around the electric ballroom of the mouth. Sound of heavy boots on the polished floor as the smokiness of the fish thumped and trumped its way through the delicate sweetness of the beer. A pass but only just. 
Then there’s deer on the plate: roast loin of venison, slow roast shoulder made into faggots, fallow I’m told — knock knock who’s there, why it’s the Poacher’s Choice, Badger’s strongest beer. A riot of health shop liquorice and a groan of roasted grains and sweetish stone fruit: it lifts the slow roast shoulder and exhibits a JS Bach-like moment of counterpoint, sweetness of the beer against the meaty saltiness, well-toasted toastiness just shy of being burnt in league with the deep, dark urgency of the liquorice. 
Meanwhile we’ve a glass of Pickled Partridge alongside, shoulder to shoulder, a band of two bottled brothers, this beer, not so sweet, currant cake fruitiness, acts as a chaperone for the venison as it disappears down the throat. 
Then pudding. Not for me, but all around, sticky toffee pudding alongside Blandford Fly; as they might have said in Friends if it had been about a gang of bottled beers hanging about instead of irritating thirtysomethings: the ginger one. I’m told it took a peek beneath the skirts of the toffee coating. 
Next morning it’s back to River Cottage. Kitchen. Pheasants. Stations. Chef’s briefing. A haunch hanging up. Provenance. Prepping. Chop. Evisceration. Spill a handful of herbs and vegetables into the stock of pheasant, mallard legs, venison and salted belly pork. Guys, we are told, you will chose a beer and then prepare and cook your lunch. 
Away we go, Exmoor Jane and I, a bottle of Poacher’s Choice. Reason. The making of rowanberry jelly each summer gives us the making of a sense of being close to the land. Sweetness, hence Poacher’s Choice. And by golly it works. 
Elsewhere BWOTY Pete Brown is adding spices to his stew, and the beardless Melissa Cole is deep frying parsley. No matter, oh and we all make a fruit cake, ours with Badger’s cider. Rather nice, all those currants, sultanas and cinnamon. 
And then it’s food. Eat, drink, eat, drink. Merry.
Badger move into a new brewery soon and there are signs that they might be looking at having a bit of fun with some limited edition beers. Dark and strong, more hops, I said, oh yes, but and then I said Brett? Hey this is England, yon fool I told myself.
Oh and I once interviewed a man who ate badger before it was placed on the proscribed list in the 1960s. What was it like I asked? A bit like pig, though stronger in flavour he replied. And being from Bridgwater, no doubt he had a glass of Starkey Knight & Ford to wash it down his gullet.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Lager of the week — Charlie, Fred & Ken’s 30th anniversary Imperial Helles Bock

Those who dislike the American penchant for ramping up beers to imperial strength can look away now. In the post courtesy of Vertical Drinks comes this Imperial Helles Bock, which has been produced by Sierra Nevada in conjunction with Fred Eckhardt and Charlie Papazian. It’s a sort of tribute to their work in advocating and writing about beer in the past three decades (there are a couple of other beers produced including a barley wine in which US craft brewing pioneer Jack McAuliffe has had a hand). It’s presented in a big 750ml bottle and is therefore ideal for sharing with your invisible friend who doesn’t like beer, so there’s more for you. Let’s take a drop. It’s the colour of Golden Syrup and has a rich, fat, bitter and alcoholic nose, all perfectly in balance as if they were figures doing their Tai-Chi in a Saturday afternoon park; I’m also put in mind of lychees if steeped in alcohol, while the petrol like nose reminds me of a Riesling. And just when I think I have got the nose to a tee along comes the scent of honeyed dates. These notes return on the palate, making me initially think of a Sauternes-like beer, a dessert beer — yet that’s too easy. It has a lazy Sunday afternoon, sitting in a hammock ease about it one moment and then a complex dissertation on the human condition with Joyce in mind next. My mind keeps working on it —a golden bock with a fistful of hops here, big blast of grapefruit there, oh and there’s a real gorgeous pungent hop character as well. It’s a luxury Helles, but it’s also pungent and dirty, robust and rollicking in its ride across the tongue; clean it is not. I like the idea of imperial Pilsners/Helles in the same way that I liked the way Joy Division ramped up the Doors. Why not fuss about with a beer, what works works, what doesn’t doesn’t (Doug Odell told me in an email the other day about the Wild Pils he tried to make — it didn’t work). So is it a style? Of course not, it’s a variation on a theme, a riff on a note, a symphonic dance and if you want to be basic, a pretty fine beer. 

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Ooh look, a competition to win a book

Don’t do competitions, am not the sort of person who wins anything (though I did win £50 worth of books in a Time Out Short Story Writing comp back in 1987 and I think my daffodils got a commendation one St David’s Day in school), but on the other hand I quite like the idea of hosting a competition. Which is where Doug Rouxel and Sara Paston-Williams’ gorgeous looking book Home Brew (Pavilion) comes in — a copy of it landed on my desk (well was delivered to the front door) last week and I was pretty much impressed with it. It’s a very handsome and stylish looking book that has loads of recipes for beer, cider, wines and even cordials — great photos, clear design, hardback cover and recipes for your own saison, chocolate stout, modern mild and so on. I’ve got a copy going spare if you would like it — all you have to do is email me with the correct answer to the following question and the first correct one I get then the book is yours. Who was the British Home Secretary when restrictions on home brewing were lifted in the UK in 1963? Oh and you’ll find my email address on Good luck.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Lager of the week — Schloss Eggenberg Hopfen König

Austrian brewery Schloss Eggenberg is better known for Samischlaus, that Bad Santa of a beer that the brewery started producing after Hürlimann gave up the ghost on it. It’s a lovely fiery drop, which at 14% is not something on health and safety grounds I would leave out on Christmas Eve (after all you don’t want to be responsible for Santacide as Tim Allen was in The Santa Clause do you?). I picked up a bottle of the brewery’s Hopfen König recently, and this is much more manageable at 5.1%. Pale gold in colour, it’s got a mineral iron sweetness on the nose (rather a delectable combo) with some stern bitter-lemon (minus the sweetness) in the background. Soft and bitter and dry in stages, I found it an attractively bitter Pils, very German in its tightness of flavour as opposed to what I often think is the expansive character of a Světlý Ležák. It’s rather delicious as an aperitif or handsome with a piece of grilled haddock that hasn’t been lying around on the supermarket counter for too long (the haddock in its pre-grilled state of course). And all this reminds me that I should get in some Samischlaus for Christmas (now that James is 12 there’s none of that note by the fireplace nonsense anymore).

Monday, 8 November 2010

Thornbridge — at the beginning

In the spirit of the farewell-to-Kelly mass blog postings I thought I would reprint this — it’s my impressions of Thornbridge when I first went there in 2005; this was used in The Big Book of Beer (CAMRA), as part of a spread of breweries in scenic locations — the brewery was already starting to think beyond a pint of the normal. As for Kelly, he’s one of the good guys, great brewer and — and from my point of view — always ready with an articulate quote (I got a few on Friday for a Pilsner piece I’m currently researching); I remember him doing an excellent talk on continuous fermentation at the Guild’s Lager seminar at Thornbridge a couple of years ago (I suspect his past as a teacher came in handy). Never seen him do the haka though…
Thornbridge Brewery, Ashford in the Water, Derbyshire A trip to Thornbridge Brewery, based at Thornbridge Hall in the village of Ashford in the Water, is as much a visit to the land of Homes & Gardens, as it is to see and taste the fruits of John Barleycorn. The Hall boasts sweeping staircases, high-ceilinged rooms, gorgeous views over ornate gardens and windows by William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones. It also houses a new 10-barrel brewery which has been set up by local businessman Jim Harrison (who owns the house with wife and entrepreneur Emma), along with Dave Wickett, the owner of the Fat Cat pub and its adjoining Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield. Initially used to brew Kelham Island ales to cope with increased orders after Pale Rider’s championship title at Olympia 2005, the brewery is now producing Thornbridge’s own brews including Craven Silk, an aromatic, rich and fruity session bitter whose palate is enlivened by the addition of elderflower into the mix. The elderflower is part of Jim’s brewing plans as he hopes to use other herbs, flowers and fruits from the estate to create Thornbridge’s special beers.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Bar staff rubbish, parts 1 & 2

In a Fuller’s bar I see that the guest beer is Red Fox and order a pint while making general chitchat about London Porter and asking when it’s the turn of said beer to be the seasonal choice. I’m told it’s in bottle, to which I reply that I know, but when it’s on hand pump (or even better in my view on keg). I don’t know comes the reply from the nice enough guy, I don’t know my ale; I like beer the right way, cold. Said with a smile and I bat back some niceties with a smile, rictus like, while thinking that it doesn’t matter what you like matey, but when you’re working a bit of information might be in hand. Then I’m in a Welsh food festival and I’m in the beer tent — try this beer I’m told, it’s all Cascade. Nice. And then there’s another that’s also got the same hop grist, but it’s totally different I’m told. I do as bidden and the second beer has a green apple note, acetaldehyde — crisp green apples lying in the supermarket, lying in wait at the front of my palate. A youngness of beer. I take it back, look about because I don’t like to declare to all and sundry my problem with a beer — I think this might have a fault I say, quietly and carefully, green apple, don’t you know. It’s meant to be like that comes the reply, have you been eating something, said with a calmness and friendliness. A couple more words said, but I don’t want to make a scene, maybe I’m wrong, and so I walk away and try the beer again. No good, I leave it on the table and order another brewer’s beer, which is magnificent. Interesting point —I don’t make a fuss because I respect the brewery but I wonder if I’m being a wuss, but it definitely had a green apple hint upfront of the palate, which I didn’t find enjoyable. You win some you lose some. 

Thursday, 4 November 2010

I finally get Butcombe Bitter

I never used to get Butcombe Bitter. From my early days living in Somerset from 1994 onwards I never got it. It was ok was the best I could say. So what was the problem? I don’t really know. It was brown, bitter in an old fashioned sense and malty in an equally arcane way, everything in balance; it was said to be ferociously hoppy (in the same way Holt’s Bitter was), but all I did was sit there waiting for a leonine-like hoppy bite that never came.

You know how you get dead set against a beer, find it bland and that’s the end of it? That was me, for whom the 1990s was all about Adnams Extra, Taylor’s Landlord, ESB plus West Country beers such as Archers Gold, Norman’s Conquest and at one stage anything from the short-lived Bridgwater Brewery. I changed my stance a bit on a visit to the brewery in 1999 or 2000 and enjoyed it at the source, but was far more excited when they produced Butcombe Gold and Blonde (the brewery’s founder Simon Whitmore was famous for sticking to one brand from the brewery’s start in 1978 to the late 1990s, though there was the brief appearance of a beer called Wilmott’s — stop sniggering at the back there! — in 1997).

Well (as you can guess from the title of the post) I have finally got Butcombe Bitter. A glass or two of it in the Ring O’Bells, a Butcombe owned pub (they have 17) in the Mendips village of Compton Martin saw my palate ring and sing with its crisp, cracker-like character exchanging joyous high fives with an over-arching, invigorating punch of bitterness and dryness; with a stupefied smile I kept returning to the glass to take another sip. The finish was Sahara dry with a crisp biscuity, cracker-like character clucked over by delicate citrus notes.

This is old school bitter at its best, but what I find equally fascinating is the loyalty the beer (always beer for me, never brand) commands in its home territory around Bristol, Bath and the Mendips (and further afield) — yes this is beer country but it’s also ciderland with Thatchers at the top of the pile. According to Butcombe’s owner Guy Newell, with whom I was enjoying this beer at the Ring O’Bells, ‘Butcombe founder Simon Whitmore learnt a lot from his time at Guinness about customer brand loyalty, which is why he stuck with one brand for years. It’s got a loyal customer base and is the best-selling beer in all our houses.’ The brewery has also brought out a 4.5% bottled version of its Bitter, bottled for them by Fuller’s (the launch of the beer was the reason several of us were sitting in the pub).

Obviously it’s not the same and I prefer it in cask, but the fact that they have taken 32 years to bottle it is intriguing and a tribute to both Whitmore and his successors’ patience. It’s even more striking when you consider that in the past 15 years one of the first things a new cask beer brewery does is get their beer bottled (all too often bottle-conditioned much to the beer’s detriment). Another intriguing thing is about Butcome is this beer loyalty thing. Over the years I have spent in service at the easy side of the bar, I have noticed loads of men (yes it’s usually men) who stick night after night to their pint of Ordinary, Best, Ale through thick and thin. Brewers ignore the I-know-what-I-like crowd at their peril, for at the end of the day brewing is a business (and I’m sure that there are people out there who will only drink Jaipur or Punk IPA).

And one last thing about Butcombe — for the past few years they have produced a kegged and cooler version of their blonde (only for summer sadly), a beer that is actually rather delicious. It’s a ‘bridge’ beer (rather than Trojan Horse) I’m told, for younger drinkers, a recognition that for a cask beer brewery to progress there are times when they might have to try other modes of dispensation, especially if, like Butcombe they have an estate. Which brings me to one last point about Butcombe: unlikely as it might seem this unassuming brewery quietly producing beer in the foothills of the Mendips has been at the vanguard of the coming keg revolution. Get it?

Sunday, 31 October 2010


As I’m not American Halloween doesn’t mean a thing to me, while being an atheist means that the religious aspect of All Hallows Eve doesn’t ring my bell either, but on the other hand I’ve been thinking that now is as good a time to remember those with whom I drank with over the years and are now longer here. Back in Wales in the 1980s at the Royal in Colwyn Bay a few lagers were had with Pesmo, The Kid and Chris; professionally I lift a glass to John White and Michael Jackson; while on a family level my grandfather Owen Jones was a consummate man of the pub (though I think my father might call him something else), as was great-uncle Ior — he lived opposite the local pub in Glyn Ceiriog and one evening my exasperated great-aunt Kate crossed the road and plonked his dinner on his lap. Cheers to them all.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Hit the North (Wales beer scene)

The Conwy Feast. A food festival overlooked by the Edwardian stone scowl of a castle built to subdue the locals; a food festival that recognises the role that beer and local breweries have in this place that washes up against the hard fastnesses of Snowdonia; a food festival that is rather good.

Some recollections. A pasty faced chap in an army surplus, knee-length, well-washed parka with a West Germany flag on the shoulder wandering about holding a gnarled new staff (I later passed him doing something that smacked of new age nonsense and Celtic cobblers); a wispy bearded thirtysomething bloke in medieval robes standing on a corner and holding an owl on his gauntleted hand — as we queued to pass, a Scouse voice suggested that this sage of an ancient craft might have chosen somewhere else to stand, more colourfully that I would have voiced; in the beer tent a ‘Celtic folk’ band sung a song by (or about) Bobby Sands, which seemed a curious throwback to the 1980s when Irish rebel music was all the vogue; meanwhile outside on Conwy quay all sorts of marquees, performers (including a Brazilian, sorry, Liverpudlian, street band in massive white flares and local teenagers trying to pretend they were Britons — or Taffs — getting talent) and food booths vied for the attention of us masses who passed through the narrow streets of Conwy with the pressure hose persistence of piss down the stainless steel, single-sided canyons of your local pub’s jakes.

And in one of the food tents, a stall offering direct beer sales was doing its best for promoting beer as a comedy event. Bottle-conditioned beers (from whence I know not) were labelled Horseshit, Dandelion & Birdshit and Big Cock (amongst other names) — an attitude that would probably be defended as humour but felt totally out of place in an event where food producers were rightly proud of what they did (the crab from here was wonderful). And then I had a reunion with fellow deckchair warrior Tim at the beer tent. Four breweries — Purple Moose, Great Orme, Bragdy Nant, Conwy — had their beers on sale, and their brewers were in attendance, something I found heart-warmingly wonderful, collaboration and collusion.

Look, there’s Gwynne from Conwy, one of the first in the reawakening of North Wales’ beer culture (those that tried and failed before include Cambrian and Ynys Môn). His Autumn Gold (Hydref Aur) was a reddish bittersweet delight, that both soothed and sorted out the palate with its mixture of dark crystal and Chinook. I would also recommend his Telford Porter, named after the chap that built the first Conwy Bridge. Great Orme’s Welsh Black was its usual dependable creamy, mocha coffee self, a delicious drop that is now bottled. It’s only 4% but CAMRA in their wisdom gave it an award in the strong mild category. Another beer from Great Orme, Celtica, was a citrusy heaven.

Amongst its selection of award-winning beers, Purple Moose had Myrtle Stout — a minty, peppery, herbal beer that reminded me of Froach. Where do you get the myrtle I asked brewery founder Lawrence, hoping he would say that he picked it himself  — which he did, though he wouldn’t tell me there (a bit of mystery always gives the beer a story). Then there was the big surprise for myself, who always wonders if small breweries get it right: Bragdy Nant over near Llanrwst, a small market town up the river Conwy. Their Chawden Aur was a robust flinty beer with Cascade all the way through, while Mwnci Nell was a strong-armed, hefty big hitter of a bitter that drank far too easy for its 5.3% strength. All in all this was all good stuff and a demonstration of a healthy beer culture in the part of the world where I started my drinking career (Greenhalls or Ansells bitter top…). And as if to make it absolutely clear how things have changed since those miserable days, a loose remark on my part that the four breweries should make a collaborative brew for next year’s feast met with a positive reaction. Hit the north.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Vermont beer in the Daily Telegraph

I was over in Vermont in July, visiting breweries, meeting great people and drinking fantastic beers. I was there to research a piece on the place and its beers for the Daily Telegraph and it’s published today — so if you want to have a look at what I thought go here. Amidst all the wonderful debates about beer styles that seemed to have simmered into life after this week’s British Guild of Beer Writers beer styles seminar (the latest is here), there seems to be a growing consensus that the American brewing zeitgeist is all about more and more beer styles and that perhaps it’s getting out of hand (to put it in my own mild way). That may be so, but I still believe that the US is one of the most exciting places on earth to drink beer (even though, just like hundreds of micros in the UK doesn’t guarantee 100% faultless beer, I did have a sort of anti-IBU epiphany after one DIPA that was all throat rasp and little else) and this article is my personal love letter to that belief.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

More thoughts on beer styles

After the British Guild of Beer Writers’ seminar on beer styles the other night, there have been been some great follow-up debates about the nature of styles, here, here and here. However, what I find fascinating on a personal level is that these debates are encouraging further thoughts on beer styles going off in all directions with one particular thought nagging away at me: what are beer writing and beer writers for? Obviously communication about beer is paramount, enthusiasm, expertise and excitement — but there’s a further e-word that seems to be cropping up: education

So we communicators of beer need to educate the consumer (not the drinker, the bar fly, boozing pal but consumer by the way) about beer styles, make it easy for them to understand what it is they are drinking. Fine, I do tastings, write with the hope of exciting the reader into trying this beer, visiting this pub or using up their carbon units by going to this country, but I’m not sure that I am an educator, or want to be one. For me beer writing is also a journey of exploration and I’m lucky to be paid for it: I’m fascinated by beer and the people that brew and drink it, excited by the role it has in other countries, and yes I hope that people drink the beers I love otherwise they won’t get brewed. However, education is not my job. That surely is the job of the Beer Academy, Cask Marque, various publicans and brewers, PR departments, CAMRA etc etc. 

So does this desire to educate make us an arm of the industry, which is fine if that’s where you want to be, but surely there has to be a certain sense of independence (which is hard given that we rely on breweries to send us beer, organise visits and events, it’s all balance). This navel-gazing is on a par with that fearsome train of thought that has been buffeting its way through beer writing since the 1970s — that campaigning is a major part of beer writing. Again if that’s your bag then great (in the same way as some sports writers tackle corruption, drugs and cheating, others celebrate the sport), but I wonder why I felt when starting to write about beer in the late 1990s that I had to metaphorically raise a clenched fist whenever I wrote a story. 

So getting back to beer styles, if the brewers want to come up with a 1000 styles to sell their beer to the drinker (not the consumer) then fine but after that it’s up to beer writers to try and make sense of things. For instance, I’m beginning to wonder if we should categorise beer by colour and then branch out and I also like the idea of someone saying here’s a Black IPA, I’m interested in trying it, who cares if it’s a non-style if it tastes good (it’s also post-modernist in the same way as Oasis channelled the Beatles to make for a very good tribute band).

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Get a beer style and riff on it

Ahead of me, brewing Valhalla: the gleam of light, rosy red, cold spotlights of white at the centre of the glow. Copper highlights, triple decked (a trinity of brewing kettle, fermentation and maturation vessels); the soft bready note on the nose of the Helles in my hand. Soon to come, Oktoberfest, a gorgeously elegant interplay of malt and hops, Arsenal stroking the ball around on the field delivered into the glass. The British Guild of Beerwriters’ annual seminar has just been held at Meantime’s fabulous Old Brewhouse in Greenwich. Beer styles, the nature of, whom, what and why, are being debated, discussed and dissected; commerciality, the customer, light and dark, mild and bitter? Over 100 beer styles now, we are told, chime and charm at the Great American Beer Festival; if this goes on there will soon be a style for every day of the year. Then the three speakers start. Meantime’s founder and brewmaster Alastair Hook charts his journey through the beerlands of Europe and the wider world; the Beer Academy’s George Philliskirk ponders on the relevance of beer styles to the drinker, while Steve Williams scratches his head over the pointlessness of three categories of low alcohol beer. Others make pointed points, but there’s no definite answer, though scepticism seems rife on the GABF ‘more is less’ mentality. Though for me there’s one word that rings through the night: evolution. This makes perfect sense — a beer style evolves and should evolve over time, what’s the point in standing still? Mild with black pepper, lager with Maris Otter, bring it on. To my mind you have a beer style and then it’s up to brewers to riff on it — Black IPA, why not? We’ve got Black Lager and wasn’t there something called Pale Stout once upon a time? And besides, as others have written elsewhere, dwelling too much on beer styles can make you go mad (or at least take up Rate Beer), maybe it’s the equivalent of the medieval debate on the amount of angels you can get on the head of a pin. At the bar afterwards, one of de Gaulle’s numerous quotes parades its words on the wall of my brain: ‘How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?’ Cheese has a multitude of varieties but nobody (as far I can see) gets aggravated about this in the way the classification of beer styles seem to get some normally sensible folks’ blood boiling (unless I suppose someone plonks those cut-price commodity lagers of the cheese world Canadian Cheddar or Baby Bell on your plate). I think I’ll have a drink: now where’s that triple-hopped, wheat wine/bitter hybrid lager beer?

Monday, 18 October 2010

A bottle of Blackcurrant Stout appears in the post

What’s this the postman has brought? Oh, look it’s a bottle of Pixley Blackcurrant Stout from Wadworth. Bottled straight from cask I guess as the beer is due to appear at Wetherspoon’s forthcoming fest. Blackcurrant and stout?A good mix. Bramling Cross, a hop that gives a hint of the berry to beer, has been commonly used in stouts, while blackcurrant and Guinness is the preferred tipple of some according to Jim at the Bridge. So what’s it like? First thoughts are toffee and blackcurrant linking arms and gliding across the well-polished ballroom of my palate; the mood music becomes mellow and restful mid palate before a crisp dry finish with a gorgeous blackcurrent tang starts shimmying towards the finish. Fresh blackcurrants are used and the recipe is apparently one that has been taken from Waddies’ (no doubt) copious archives, More breweries digging into their archives can only be a good thing and I recommend that you hunt this little beauty out. 

Monday, 11 October 2010

Bateman’s XXXB — Old School Bitter

I’m sitting in the Bridge, it’s Saturday afternoon; in front of me on the pine table a new book from the antiquarian bookshop several doors down. A pint also stands there, off-white collar of foam atop, darkish golden brown beneath; meanwhile Danté the pup wriggles about trying to get a sip of the beer (our dogs always like a drop — poor old Monty the boxer was partial to Old Freddy Walker, Jack the Jack Russell likes anything and everything, he’s a bit odd like that). The beer is Bateman’s XXXB, an old favourite; bittersweet, liquorice and toffee mingling on the tongue and around the mouth, a dry bitter finish, chewy almost; this is a big mouthful of beer. It’s robust, tannic, plain-speaking, blunt almost in its flavour; take me as you find me; a pean to crystal malt. I’m enjoying it and it’s time for a second, and then I start thinking about this old school bitter. It’s been around since the end of the 1970s, and become a familiar on the premium beer guest circuit, Lincolnshire’s answer to Broadside perhaps. Old school? I’ve been rather partial to Founders’ Dirty Bastard, really love what I’ve had of Kernel, while BrewDog’s Hardcore IPA remains a favourite (though I wasn’t that enamoured of the bottle of I ♥ Hardcore I tried), but even amidst this blitz of hop-edged flavour I find myself drawn back to the old school of XXXB. It was almost like returning from some buzzy city in which you’d made your home to the town you had grown up despising and realising that were things about it you loved. This epiphany also made me recall the brief wobble I had with Double IPAs in the US during the summer, when it just got too much and I craved US Alts, Saisons, Pilsners and Tripels. It was only a brief divorce but did my palate and sanity no end of good. So back in the Bridge the second pint is ahead of me, an old school bitter at its best and a substantial reminder that the search for the new and the post-modern sometimes needs to be put to one side and the old school revisited.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Lager of the week — Mongozo Premium Pilsener

Gluten-free beers. Good cause, filthy stuff in my experience, and you have to feel sorry for someone who likes a beer but can’t stomach the barley. Several years back I was sent a gluten-free beer. It was Hell in the Pacific in the mouth — Lee Marvin and Toshirô Mifune battling it out on a small Pacific island translated into varnish and Cherry Blossom boot polish rattling each others’ cages on my tongue; I remember thinking: well at least it’s wet. Result: have stayed clear of them until now.

In the middle of researching a ‘whither Pilsner’ piece for All About Beer, I spot that Beer Merchants have got a g/f Pilsner from Huyghe, under the Mongozo brand (was the ‘banana lambic’ I sampled in an Antwerp beer festival in 1996 one of theirs I wonder?). It’s Fair Trade and organic as well, but I’m not chucking my hat onto that particular ethical table. A quick email to BM’s Phil Lowry and he sends me a couple (along with some other Pilsners, thanks Phil — the Rothaus Tannen Zäpfle is monstrously glorious, a cavalry charge of noble hops) and with a sinking heart I pour myself a glass…

Believe it or not it’s great to be wrong, especially when it comes to beer. This Premium Pilsener is easily the best g/f beer I have tasted. For a start it tastes like a good version of a Pilsner, even with rice in the mix (I’m a firm believer of rice in risotto rather than beer but that’s for another debate and there are respected brewers of my acquaintance who will actually argue that rice is not the devil) — it’s pale gold in colour with a nose that’s suggestive of bitter lemon, though lacking the sour-sweet poke in the eye of a lemon. There’s a mineral-like firmness on the palate (rather than that flabby syrup-sweetness you get with many commodity lagers), a pleasant sweetness in the mouthfeel and the slightest of bitter finishes that gets me going back for more. Gluten-free beers have obviously come on since I last carpet-bombed my palate in a good cause. 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Monsieur Rock comes to Rock

To Rock to see Monsieur Rock (Jean-Marie, that is, of Orval). He and Sharps’ brewmaster Stuart Howe are birthing a collaboration beer born of Howe’s trip to Orval in June (I tagged along, a poor man’s Boswell to Howe’s jangly Johnson). No name to the beer yet (what about Monsieur Rock?), but when I arrive, the mash has happened and the wort is running off into the kettle — onto a bed of whole flower Saaz hops I note, giving off that beautiful delicate aroma that strokes and stimulates  every olfactory pleasure zone in my brain (this is the German way of brewing Rock tells me and then writes in my notebook, Vorderwürzehopfen). No more hops will now be added until it is dry hopped in the conditioning tanks. As Howe buzzes about, checks this and checks that, issues commands and confides with his brewers (he’s not as fierce as he’d have you believe), Jean-Marie stands purposefully at the top of the gantry, seemingly commanding the surrounding mash tun and kettle (it seems to me that brewing for those at the top of the tree seems to be about waiting). He’s on good form despite his luggage being lost in transit. Last time we met he’d let slip that Petite Orval (the monks’ drop) would be made as a stand alone brew sometime this year (rather than being watered down) — and it now has been. It’s 4.5% with lots of dry hop character and will be sold (in both bottle and keg) at the Orval café when it reopens next year. Being a bit of an Orval fan we chat about this and that and he casually and unthinkingly drops crumbs of information that I find fascinating— during his early time at the brewery he discovered the recipe for a dark Orval, which was brewed just once but ‘it had a problem’ and never saw the light of day (so to speak); contemporary Orval gets a 45-minute boil but when he arrived it received three hours; what was the result I ask? ‘No head in the glass,’ comes the reply, ‘all the proteins had been dissolved’. Over to Howe’s office we drink Chalky’s Bite with a Cornish Pastie, and then get a glass of Howe’s DW, which is being sold for £10 with all profits going to charity. This is a magnificent beast of a beer: 10.6% in alcohol, hopped with amarillo, cascade and willamette, with amarillo also called up to dry-hopping duty. This is Sauternes as beer, rich, but the sweetness being mellowed by the bitterness, tangerine hints and pineapple blasts on the nose, a fruit salad of desire that I reckon would hold its own in any grapple with a stinky Stilton. Then we try the wort of the unnamed beer (I still reckon Monsieur Rock) — it’s as pale as a lemon that’s just seen a ghost, while the cereal, grainy worty nose has lemony notes in the background and the bitterness is tight and shrill (Howe looks worried but Rock reassures that it will mellow out in tank). I suspect this will be a barnstormer of a beer, something Rock heartily agrees with: ‘This will be the greatest beer ever made in England,’ he laughs, which is not arrogance but the sense of play and fun that this delightful brewmaster brings to his art, yet he’s also someone who garners respect throughout the brewing world (as we talk he gets a text from Mikkeller asking if they can send him some beers and mention something about a Nordic Orval). I now forward to this nameless beer (I still think it should be called Monsieur Rock) and so should you.
The techie stuff: lager malt, Saaz hops, two weeks in fermentation, two-three months in cold condition; bottom fermenting and secondary fermentation in bottle (‘not sure what yet,’ says Stuart with a smile as I suggest Brett).