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). 

Friday, 1 October 2010

Glassware glassware glassware

Glassware, glassware, glassware. It’s the accepted truism that the right glassware for the right beer is the right thing for the right time. In a bar at Taunton today with fellow Guild member Bill Bradshaw (pretty good snapper, see his pix here) and, in order to wash away the taste of fusebox dipped in water that the beer of a local micro had given us, I order a Staro for myself and Bill gets an Estrella Damm. Look at the glass, one of the best I have seen, the right glass etc etc. Unfortunately you get to taste the beer: vanilla ice cream in a lagered beer is not something I am familiar with. My Staro is a plain old nonic isn’t bad, but the Damm is…well damned awful. Moral of the story, get the glass and the beer right. You can spend a lot of money on the externals but if the internals aren’t right then what’s the point…
I quite enjoy a glass of Estrella at La Boqueria in Barcelona when I’m practising my dreadful Spanish before moving onto the Mahou Negra but in the middle of Taunton…