Monday, 31 May 2010


Cricket isn’t my game. I much prefer rugby union or football (80 or 90 minutes and it’s done while they also both appeal to my inner gladiator, very much inner though), but on the other hand the idea of the pub cricket tour is a bit of a stunner. You don whites, feel handsome, stand in the sun for a while, get out for a golden duck (I speak from experience) and then it’s pub time in the middle of the countryside — which is why I took this photo of a framed letter that hangs in the loo of the London Inn, an ancient hostelry in the centre of the edge-of-Exmoor village of Molland. The pub has had several changes of hand since the game recorded (I know one of the players who has now decamped to Dulverton), but the survival of the memento of a long ago summer’s day (and evening) speaks volumes for the continuity and eternal sense of values that the pub has. 

Thursday, 27 May 2010

From Tennant’s to Castle Eden

In the post a handy little book arrives, The Brewer’s Tale, being the memoirs of one Frank Priestley who started at Sheffield’s Tennant’s Brewery and went on to become head brewer at Castle Eden. 1959 sees him going from the Labour Exchange to the brewery, while in 1979 his job vanishes as the big boys continue to amalgamate. It’s fascinating stuff, even if written in a very workmanlike way — it’s a window into a different brewing world, one you could argue that has long gone. The odd hoary old myth is recycled (sticky leather trousers), but I found it fascinating and a different beast of a beer book to what I am usually used to. It’s published by Merlin Unwin, costs a crisp tenner and I do recommend a gander.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Lloyd George killed our dog

Lloyd George killed our dog. Honest. My mum still has a tea-cup that he sent to my grandmother after his car ran over her dog when she was a kid in Dolgellau. The reason I bring up the last well-known Liberal to rule the world is that I have just read the following in Giles Milton’s excellent Lost Paradise, which is about the despoilation of Smyrna in 1922. 

‘As the food was being served, he (Lloyd-George) turned to the footman and called for champagne. Once everyone’s glass had been charged, he proposed a toast. ‘I drink to the success of the allies,’ he said, ‘the representative of one of whom we have here tonight, and may the Turk be turned out of Europe and sent to …  where he came from. 

‘As the champagne flowed, Lloyd George grew less and less guarded in his comments.’

Hold on a moment, isn’t this the same Lloyd George who said ‘Drink is doing us more damage than all the German submarines put together.’ Wasn’t it under his watch that pub times became more restrictive? A case of do as we say not do as we do? 

Can anyone shed any light on whether the man that killed my grandmother’s dog was a toper or not?
  • BTW if you want a beery thing, I’m sitting in the garden with a glass of Moor’s JJJ, a beer I will walk over hot coals to drink. It’s magnificent, as was the Proper Job to be had at Woods at lunchtime. 

Friday, 21 May 2010

Maersk in the middle of the Somerset Levels…

Old barns, cattle sheds, amusement parks and even the odd castle. Micros make their homes wherever they can. Yet, a visit to Moor yesterday left me with the distinct impression that Justin Hawke brews in something that looks like the kind of container you normally see branded with the words Maersk — plonked in a farmyard. Car parked, right address, down a country lane, birdsong and sunshine. No signage, nothing that said here be brewery. A radio somewhere, then the clang of a cask. Into a shed, past a tractor, the corrugated ripples of said container lookalike on my right. Outside again, round the corner, the clang of cask. The smell of malt in the air, there is a brewery here. But where. Brigadoon? Fairyland? I knocked on the wall. A panel opened and there was Moor Beer, Tom washing casks, Justin the man in the rubber boots waiting for the mash for Merlin’s Magic to finish. Compact is the word for the interior, though not crowded. On a platform, fermenting vessels stand, across the way casks tower. A wall covered with awards. Workmanlike, utilitarian, functional. And yet, from this space some of the more notable beers of the UK at the moment are emerging. JJJ, Old Freddy, Revival, Fusion, take your pick. ‘We brew beers we want to drink,’ says Justin, then goes on to tell all about his keg-conditioned beer — real ale, apparently, served from a keg, and a bit cooler. Peat Porter in the winter and Somerland Gold in the summer. I’m going back to find out a bit more about it next month as time was tight when I visited. I’ve always been up for exploring ways of dispensing beer that is not strictly within the guidelines of CAMRA — if it’s good beer, it’s good beer. But something that Justin said made me think, made me remember why I became entranced by beer. He says he came to the UK because he loved cask beer and that well made cask beer is an art in itself. Drinking a pint of Cornish Knocker later on at the Bridge I thought about it. It was a freshly tapped cask and had life and condition, a nose that suggested gooseberry jam (no one else agreed), a swash and a buckler in the mouth that set me up for another. Yes this is an art form, a Da Vinci or a Rubens, but we mustn’t forget that there are also other ways of expressing the art of brewing (a George Grosz here, Casper David Friedrich there) — and that in itself is the glory of great beer, whether it’s made in a container or castle (I’m talking about you Traquair).

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Sheffield Tap review in today’s Telegraph

No sign of Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard, but plenty of fantastic Thornbridge and Bernard beers in today’s DT review of the Sheffield Tap here.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Lager of the week — Jever Pilsener

I loved the idea of the Hanseatic League when I learnt about them in history, all fur coats, big boats and barrels of herrings (I got a similar frisson upon finally conquering Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain  in 1989 after several years of aborted attempts, it’s one of the greatest European novels, I recommend it with gusto). I would have loved the League even more if I had known of the keen interest they took in beer.

When I organised the British Guild of Beer Writers’ Lager seminar in 2008 I got Meantime’s Alastair Hook on board who then proceeded to take the whole affair by the scruff of the neck and give it a sense of authority. We met in the brewery’s pub in Greenwich over a couple of glasses of Meantime Union (a svelte and sexy black polo-necked French existentialist babe of a beer) and I felt the old feelings return as he emphasised the role of the Hanseatic League in the origins of lagered beer (or beer in general).

Which leads me to Jever Pilsener, one of my favourite lagered beers, a beer that has — rightly or wrongly — been classified as a North German Pilsner. I love it. I love that gentle nose that reminds me of white bread that has been toasted just enough for a bit of browning to show; I love the fact that the gentle first note of the nose is also joined and conjoined with an iron-like note of minerally freshness, a great contrast, a yin and yang; I love that crisp, cracker-like, appetising palate, the bite of the carbonation that would grab a herring by the hand and lead it a merry dance about the palate; I love the dry and biting finish that makes me want to lift another glass to the mouth. It’s a rollicking ride of a lagered beer — I need more herrings. 

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Sometimes a good pint of beer is the simplest thing in the world

Would you like to come and try our new beer said the email. Yes I would I said, but could we meet nearer to where I live, I continued. So off I went to the neighbouring village of Bampton for an ale with Mark Shackleton, Marketing Director at Dartmoor Brewery, whose new beer is called Legend. Dartmoor are based at Princetown, where the old lags live, a bit of a trek from Exmoor. 
Let’s meet at Blackberries he’d said, I’ll make sure they’ve got our beer on. I didn’t even know this place had a bar I thought, reckoned it was just an eating place. But no, ale was on, except it wasn’t for us. Blackberries was closed so we went to the Quarryman’s Rest up the road and enjoyed some other beers (Mark tried a drop of another local beer, I like to try something new he said, I mumbled something about the brewery’s so-so rep, after a taste he went for a Doom Bar instead, so what was it like I asked, TCP came the reply). 
After lunch, back to our cars, a good time had but still no Legend. I’ve got some beer for you says Mark, hauling a 20-litre pin of Dartmoor’s new beer to my car. I think I’d be a legend if I drunk all that in one sitting. So after a couple of days in the cellar (it wasn’t bright) I turned the tap. Malt-driven I was told. Challenger and Goldings, but malt is the master here. Not for brewer and Dartmoor founder Simon Loveless, onetime brewer at Hop Back (where he invented Summer Lightning), the razzamatazz of hop bombs and the siren call of Simcoe. English hops are what he likes, and why not?  
So what is it like? Golden amber in the glass, crisp and biscuity on the nose, light sprightly notes suggestive of apricot and peach skin on the palate, a spicy almost rye cracker like character in the background and a bittersweet dry dusty finish. A well-constructed bitter that will quench many a West Country thirst. Sometimes a good pint of beer is the simplest thing in the world. 

Monday, 10 May 2010

Empty bottles

Ruminations on the place that beer holds in the nation’s heart are all very well, but has anyone ever wondered why there is only small bank for brown glass and loads more for its green and clear brethern at the recycling centre? As I stood there on Saturday morning feeding this modern-day Moloch with brown bottle after brown bottle, I thought it noteworthy: surely as beer is still the most popular drink in the UK then there should be more mouths for the bottles that hold the liquid. Or are people drinking more cans — cue can on can action with Carlsberg, Pedigree Chum and Heinz — so there’s not the need for as many banks for brown; or is a case of a tide of clear glass bottles washing over the nation, oblivious to the problems that light-struck beer can bring? Is this a desperate conspiracy against beer to make us drink more wine (or heaven forbid drink less of anything) or just a regional variation? I am in Somerset after all and for a fiver or so you can get a plastic flagon of the sort of cider that would make a cat speak and you don’t go anywhere near a bottle bank, just keep filling up until you die.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Cornish saison

When I was writing a piece on Wallonian saisons last year I asked Garrett Oliver what his interpretation of a saison was, given that in his magnificent Brewmaster’s Table (in my eyes one of the best beer books ever written) he had note-checked the beer as the one style he could drink every day. 

He came back with the words: ‘In my mind, there are really only a few things truly required of a saison. It must be dry – residual sugar would have a considerable effect on the beer’s ability to keep through the summer. They should also be fairly hoppy. Moderate alcohol, 5- 7%, would make them strong enough to last for a while, but not so strong that they’d stun the farm workers who drank it. So perhaps it is not a style that lends itself to orthodoxy, but rather one that originally existed to answer a question – “what can I brew that’s nutritious, refreshing, tasty, and will last for at least a year in the cellar?”’ 

So in other words, every man his own brewery makes his own saison. Which is a roundabout way of leading me to Sharps’ colossus of a head brewer Stuart Howe, who is currently ploughing his way through a series of 52 beers. When he asked for suggestions of what to do I said why not do a dark saison, given that most variations of the style I have seen were blonde or even a dirty yellow (with his penchant of thinking outside the box Blumenthal-style I almost suggested a bacon and egg rauchbier but sadly thought I would sound too frivolous). A dark saison I had not seen, but referring back to Oliver’s quote there is nowhere that it says that a saison cannot be dark (I bet Dany at Fantome has done one) and so Howe took the challenge and last week he sent me a couple of bottles. He has succeeded admirably. 

I really like the beer that has come out,’ he told me, ‘if I was marking it according to closeness to style I wouldn’t be able to rate it very highly as it is a big beer and not particularly dry but it really is lovely and quite unusual. As for strength, it has galloped up to 7.8% in the bottle.

I tried one the other night and found myself loving it. It was the colour of an ancient oak sideboard some great aunt has seen fit to leave to you on her demise, even though you only met her twice. Juicy fruit gums and a sweet stewed potage of fruit dominate the nose. It’s a big mouthful and there is the flinty, chalky character of saison, joined by an oddball fruitiness that veers towards booze soaked currants; it has that historic edge of a saison, a peppery peripatetic edge that makes me think of Wallonia, yet look at the colour. On the other hand is there anything that says a saison has to be a certain colour? From where I stand saison a moveable feast; sure the Howe’s is a cleaned-up version, lacking the funk and junk of something like Saison d’Epeautre from Blaugies (pictured), but it’s still a delectable beer that I would love to see out in the wider world. I’ve one bottle left and fancy pouring it out alongside a massive pasty from the baker’s up the road. Now would be heaven.

Monday, 3 May 2010

A pint of Greene King has me thinking about the politics of beer

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting by the river outside a local pub, which happens to be owned by Greene King. Inside the bar, dark wood, antlers, the usual stuff, there’s a choice of Old Speckled Hen, Waddies 6X and IPA. I plump for the latter and note that it’s got the stainless steel gizmo that can dispense the beer in either a southern or northern style. The barman pulls a face when I ask him about the system. ‘I think it’s a bit of a gimmick,’ he grumbles. I tell him that I had tried the beer in a pub, first the northern one and then the southern one, and didn’t really notice much of a difference. 

Outside, drinking the beer, it’s a pleasant enough drop: citrus buzz, a flurry of spicy hop notes and a dry bittersweet finish. Having just done a bit of a cycle, it did the job but I would go mad and sign the pledge if I had to drink this all the time — it’s ok. But this makes me think. Am I biased about the brewery that produces this beer? When it won a silver medal at GBBF several years ago, the announcement was booed by the crowd there on the trade day. Was this because it was not a correct IPA? Was it because people were opposed to the way they operate their business? Was it because they are a very big brewery? Or was it because it the crowd in the hall listening to Protz pronounce from on high didn’t like the beer? Did it matter? If a beer has been adjudged to be good by a panel of pros does it matter that it is Greene King? 

I then started musing on the days when I used to write music reviews for leftie London listings mag City Limits and how I would invariably groan whenever someone would come up with a breathlessly written declaration that said radical record would shake the foundations of society or, er, something like that (it wouldn’t and it didn’t, and I felt the Fall and Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel more radical than any Red Wedger with a tambourine). 

In the here and now that translates into asking if the politics of beer matter? I don’t like Budweiser, Miller Lite and John Smith Bitter for a start — is that because of some collective mass psychological party line that is seared into my soul (dislike of their business matters, cheering on the little guys) or because I find the beers insipid and tasteless and besides there are some much better beers being produced by other breweries (large and small). I would like to think it’s the latter (though there’s probably a little bit of the former), and then where does that leave Greene King? Is it a case of if I look deep enough into my soul then maybe I am one with that jeering crowd from London (though happy enough to drink one after a cycle ride)? Or is it a bit simpler: I like Abbot Reserve, Crafty Hen and Strong Suffolk (I applaud Greene King for maintaining the tradition of blending and ageing beer) and don’t like the others?