Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Rescuing collaboration from its dark history

Negative connotations contain to cling to the word collaboration. In my mind it’s Marshal Pétain, geriatric, stiff, a mask of authority beneath his French army kepi, a symbol of collaborationism with the Nazis. Or it’s the bluff, vulgar features of Vidkun Quisling, the quisling of quislings. And yet the idea of collaboration is so damned magnificent, likeminded people working together, to create music, art, buildings and of course beer. If there’s any one movement of collaboration that’s rescued the word in the last decade in my mind it’s the collaboration that’s existed between brewers. Some might see collaboration as a commercial gimmick (brewers sell beer and the business of beer is selling beer), something irritating between flashy hop-driven big cheeses, the craft beer world looking in the mirror, preening itself like Bowie in his Thin White Duke period and liking what they see. On the other hand, it’s the sign of an alliance (ooh a positive word, an ally) between likeminded (ok occasional big cheeses) souls who are interested in seeing what happens when they brew with someone else. Preamble over, I move onto the collaboration in hand, a bottle of Epic Thornbridge Stout, brewed between the guys at Thornbridge and the Kiwis at Epic (where Thornbridge’s Kelly Ryan went — wouldn’t it be funny if brewing had a final day transfer deadline…). I picked this up at GBBF as I rushed off to get a train, cursing as ever my inclination to never have enough time. And even though I wanted to keep the beer for much longer I gave into temptation and boy was I glad that I bit that apple. In the glass it is as dark as the shade on one of these dismal days we have had this summer. Saturnine even though the espresso tan-coloured head adds a sense of jauntiness to the beer in the glass. The nose was creamy, condensed milkiness, mocha-like and even oily. A swig and the texture was velvety, juxtaposed with a brisk and bitter feel; on the palate, mocha, roast coffee beans, an earthiness and woodiness that reminded me of the effect I used to get from burgundies, slightly farmyard-like even (the way you can smell a farmyard sometimes, not the sharp note of cow crap, but a more pleasing and pungent note, damp leaves maybe, woodsmoke, newly ploughed soil); some butter toffee notes took me back to childhood briefly; stew fruits added a sweetness, while the dry bitter finish was appetising, chewy, grainy and crunchy, bitter notes clanging along (and then there was also a restrained fruitiness, ripe plums perhaps, restrained like a shy child peeping from behind the corner when a ferocious aunt is in the room). Oh and further sips brought forth treacle, leather and a tobacco box ripeness that I remembered from my father’s when I was 11. This was a wonderful beer and a complex matrix of flavours and aromas that were more metaphysical than something you can write down. It was a beer that had a dark taste — and at that moment in my notes I write ‘can dark be tasted?’ Can it?

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Light and dark

BeerandfoodBeerandfood BeerandfoodBeerandfood…Say it enough times and it becomes the most natural thing in the world — as natural as wineandfoodwineandfood even. So here we are on Saturday evening in the marvellous Kilverts in Hay on Wye and a woman who has come to the ‘beer vs beer’ dinner at which Mark Dredge and I are sparring partners tells us that she had bought a glass of wine into the dining room with her but after tasting some of the beers on show she will be staying with beer (the glass of Chardonnay, well I presume it’s Chardonnay, it’s honeyed yellow, limpid in the glass, stays untouched for the rest of the dinner). Another woman says that she has to find a way of getting her friends back home to taste beer and the debate that follows as Mark and I discuss why we matched a variety of light and dark beers with dishes such as a creamy Stilton-soaked risotto, fresh succulent sardines and a rumbustious beef Wellington is like a gust of fresh air and the sound of heavenly trumpets to Mark and I as we sit back stuffed and replete with some of the best grub I’ve yet to have in a pub. The evidence? The Stilton and roast shallot risotto is served with Orval and Rochefort 6 — a battle of the Trappist beers. In my opinion Rochefort 6 adds sweetness to the dish, while Orval (my choice) lets the sunshine and showers of leathery Brett and bright orange citrus embrace the dish; the bitterness also helped to cut through the creaminess. Second round: sardines with a deconstructed ratatouille. Crumbs this was a tough one, the oiliness of the sardines and the acidity of the ratatouille; I choose Otley’s black IPA Oxymoron, while Mark went for Jever Pilsener. I wasn’t convinced by the Jever and thought it accentuated the oiliness, though I wasn’t too convinced by the Oxymoron and its dalliance with the food either. The dark notes might have been too much. The conversation ebbed and flowed across the table, beer its current — said time and time again, these are good beers in their own right. Goose Island IPA (me) and Aventinus went forward to the match with the beef Wellington, both of which fitted gorgeously — the choice of the IPA was seen as slightly dubious by some, but the generous orangy, Muscat notes and the generous bitterness more than stood up to the fabulously cooked beef. Aventinus, however, shaded this contest and I suspect if it had been my choice for dark beer then that is what I would have picked. Finally pudding, a chocolate fondant with bucks fizz ice cream (a revelation in itself) — me: Waen’s Porter House Blue which is made with fresh blueberries — some added in the mash, others added at the end of the boil, a porter/stout hybrid that has a slight sweetness at the end. Meanwhile Mark went for a Boon Kriek, which went down a storm with the audience though Porter House Blue also had its fans. We asked everyone to mark the matches out of ten and for each dish until the pudding you could have put the proverbial cigarette paper through the results, for instance 35 against 36 for dish one. But the pudding saw the Boon Kriek saw Mark really pull away, though I was impressed with the first Waen beer I have tried (they’re a brewery whose beers I want to research more). And the result? Mark won, but beer and Kilverts were the real winners on the night — if you are anywhere near Hay do get down today or tomorrow for the end of their beer festival. And I’d welcome all comments on the matches. 

Friday, 26 August 2011

Steak Wine Kilverts Beer

What does steak taste of? What does the king of meats taste of? King? Well it’s the meat that brings out the macho in men, the men who want it rose, rare or as crisp as Joan of Arc at the stake. I don’t really do steak, I prefer duck or mackerel or salade niçoise, but in the interests of work I have steak tonight. And as I sit here at a table in a hotel overlooking the Atlantic on the Lizard, I wonder about the taste of steak: there’s a sweetness, a meatiness (whatever that means), a saltiness and then there’s the texture — I had mine rare and it yielded in my mouth, supple, flexible, eager to crumble; mastication: a thoughtful few moments as I chew, break down the flesh and think about what I am tasting. It brings forth gastric juices, so maybe a steak is juicy perhaps? But then it’s nowhere as juicy as a ripe mango when the juices are as ubiquitous as a bucket of mini Stephen Frys exhorting all and sundry to do something they would rather not. And then what to drink with it? In the interest of research, I have an Australian Shiraz, plummy, spicy, tobacco box-like, cigars, it says on the wine list. Oh and berries as well. A mouthful before the food arrives — the tannins leap out, whack my mouth around its metaphorical head and then sit there squatting, evil grins on their faces. But then drunk with the steak, the flavours come forth, like a coach encouraging a runner/footballer/cricketer to do their best, a motivator, the voice in the head that says you can go faster, hit harder, never give in. And when the steak is gone the wine becomes tannic once more, oaky, woody, not so complex or as full of flavour. So what does a steak taste like? The reason I ask this question is that on Saturday night myself and Mark Dredge will be hosting a beer vs beer dinner at Kilverts in Hay on Wye, part of the beer and literature festival that Ed Davies has put on for bank holiday weekend. Pete Brown is there on Friday night hosting a beer dinner, while Mark and I are doing talks on Saturday afternoon (myself on the upcoming book Great British Pubs and Mark on hops, while Pete’s also there on Saturday as well). Mark and I have made things difficult by limiting ourselves to either light or dark beers for each course, so for instance I have chosen Orval for a stilton and shallot risotto, while Mark has chosen Rochefort 8. The second course is a tough one: sardines and ratatouille with which I have struggled but am trying Otley’s O Roger (and I am not entering any debates about whether it is a Burton, IPA or fruit beer);  Mark will be going for a Jever. But the main reason I have written about steak is that the third course is beef welling with which I have decided to drop from a great height either a Sierra Nevada Torpedo or a Goose Island IPA (Mark: Aventinus). Finally Waen’s Porter House Blue with fresh blueberries from the Anglo Welsh border added in the mash and at the end of the boil will be taking its time with the chocolate influenced pudding (Mark: Boon Kriek). It will be fun so if you are in the vicinity why not drop in, Kilverts is a great pub and if books are in your blood then Hay will soothe and flow through your views with the softest of touches. See you on Saturday. 

Friday, 19 August 2011

Pub observations in Bath

Heat. A smudgy reflection of the ceiling’s revolving fan in the polished wood of the table at which I sit — there are some old 60s/70s hits playing with an intervening solo from the seagull outside, an ear-piercing screech that only a seagull can do. One room, a small bar counter, coat hooks at waist level; leaded colour glass in the window; down a narrow lane; back inside a red patterned carpet across which walks a man with a mandolin to play outside. Furniture: red stools, round pub tables with metal claws for feet. Four cask beers: RCH Pitchfork and Double Header, Abbey Bellringer and St George’s Friar Tuck. Bellringer is a grainy, crisp, dry bittersweet citrusy drop in the glass, old school but accomplished. Yanks come in and one asks if she can have a pale ale, gets Bellringer while her mates order Amstel. I got wasted last night says the attractive one, a hint of Goth in her hair. A woman, 64ish, looked after, regular, looks at the beers and orders a pint of RCH’s Double Header — orange citrus, hint of almond, amber gold in colour. Friendly barman, who was the man with the mandolin, tells me that the man who owns Abbey Ales who run the pub did a session with Apple Records in the 60s and still gets a cheque twice a year. Oh and where am I? The Coeur de Lion in Bath — the smallest pub in the city. You should visit it. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

In praise of the pastiche pub

Don't fret, calm down, carry on - surrealism abounds in gigantic leaps and bounds when watching the anarchy in the UK unfold with a glass of Efes to hand. Nihilism more like it but then that's another argument in another counter-factual universe. Here in Paddy's Irish Bar by the wine-dark Aegean I ask for a bottle of Efes' Dark as the cricket comes on and then Arsenal drag out a tedious draw (the previous evening an hour of golf on the TV confirmed my lifelong dislike of this 'game'). The pub/bar is both on the street and deep and dark within - inside the walls are dotted with dozens of photos: Irish ephemera, beer brands, football teams, all manner of bottles, teapots, figurines, soft toys, a rugby ball and a framed black and white photo of Ataturk, the guy who dragged Turkey into the modern age in the 1920s (he seems everywhere here, in shops, barbers and even the internet cafe in which I write). Oh and there's a Hull City FC pennant. It's a pastiche pub, the sort of place I would never ever consider entering back home (why when there is the real thing), but here - in a town that seems sorely lacking in the sort of backstreet bars that often offer up a country's soul for consideration - I feel a sort of homeliness. I am made welcome, there is a sense of comfort, and I relax. The Efes Dark is chocolaty, mocha-ish, creamy but firm, brisk in its carbonation, and reminscent of Voll Damm (it's also chewy and has hints of vanilla). Again the same question: would this be drunk at home? Probably not, it's also too stern, too synthetic in its approximation of a dunkel. Yet...I'm on holiday, free from care, just being and also enjoying the Efes Pilsen - sharp, prickly, quick-silvered, gone. And I enjoy my drink in a pastiche of a pub, run by an expat Irishwoman, chat with the bar guys about their attitudes to Greece, the Turkish army's role in politics, the euro, Orhan Pamuk and various other flim-flam and I forget where I am - for the now I am just in a pub, a pastiche perhaps, but a pub. I am king of a small part of this universe, a noisy multi-layered universe as well; the next door bar features a bombast of metal and the bar on the other side lets out a banshee shriek of discord. And while I contemplate another Efes Dark the call to prayers from the mosque on the other side of the street floats on the air. The beers might not be the most exciting in the world (and I find my dreams drifting towards the calm carbonation of Augustiner Helles, the flutter and flurry of pine, citrus and ripe peach skin of an IPA or the yeomanry splendour of a best bitter), but in this here and now I can only write in praise of the pastiche pub.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Bermondsey saison country

Bermondsey is hardly saison country, and by that I mean the province of Hainault in Wallonia:  a landscape of flat fields upon which cattle graze and stalks of ripening corn and sheaves of wheat wave in the gentle breeze. Farmhouses dot this sylvan landscape, places where farm-workers once gathered in the hay, working up a thirst, which a bottle or two of home-brewed saison would quench. I’m in Bermondsey, Druid’s Road. Railway arches, which upon one there’s a plaque to the victims of a direct hit from a Blitz bomb, the rumble and tumble of noise that marks the passage of a train, the waspish buzz of traffic from the Tower Bridge Road; patches of builders in high-vis vests banging and clanging as the city’s landscape continues on its never-ending cycle of change. Saison country? But within the brick-built cave of an arch I try one of the best saisons I have ever had. At Kernel brewery I am, a brief visit, my curiosity piqued by what drives one of the best breweries about and also in connection with a feature I’m writing. Inside and under the arch, a jumble of equipment: the brewing kit here, the open fermenters there, bottles, kegs, brewing schedules hanging on the wall, the whole paraphernalia of making beer. Brewery founder Evin O’Riordin is not about so Nate shows me around, a brief tour and then ‘would you like to try a couple of beers?’. Yes please. First up the Export Stout, kegged, a magnificent wraparound taste sensation of espresso, roast coffee beans, milk chocolate, juicy fruit and dry cereal graininess. Then would I like to try the saison?  Yes please. I love saison, I love the fact that it’s a moveable feast, a beer that changes with breweries; it has its sense of place but this, like its flavour and character, is also a movable feast. I have enjoyed saisons from Pennsylvania, New York State, Vermont, Flanders, the south coast and South Wales (as well as Wallonia) and now I hope I will enjoy one from south London. Kernel Saison is 7.2% and dark coral in colour, orange with gold highlights. Its nose is austere and flinty with tightly laced bitter lemon notes. The palate is dry and tart, sprinkled with orange, peach and tangerine notes with an undertone of pepperiness that discourages the fruitiness from toppling over into a blowsy old caricature. Amarillo is the hop at the start with Mount Hood at the finish. No sugar or spices either, though that’s not something that’s discounted for further expressions says Nate. It’s a beautiful beer and I can close my eyes and be in saison country for a moment before the rhythms of the city reel me back in. Bermondsey: saison country. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

IPA Day with Wadworth’s India Pale Ale

Even though it’s International IPA Day all over the known world I’m giving beer a break today but here’s my own contribution to this most beloved of beer styles (types?) — a week ago I went over to the Bath Priory Hotel to sample some new beers from Wadworths (the Beer Kitchen range). I will report on the evening in full in several days when I get the time (it was a fascinating night of beer and food matching from a brewery often dismissed with the word 6X), but for the moment in the spirit of IPA day here’s a few words on one of the Waddies’ beers, their 6.2% India Pale Ale. It was introduced by the hotel chef Sam Moody who started off by saying that IPA and chilli crisps was one of his most favourite food and beer matches. Crisps weren’t on the menu though, but tempura chilli squid with roast lobster compressed melon and coriander salad (Moody had gone away and thought about the beers and came up with a great menu). The beer itself had a gorgeously earthy, orange blossom and ripe satsuma nose plus a dustiness that made me think about a hay barn during a spell of dry weather. The palate was orange-satsuma-fiery-dry-bittersweet all in one big mouthful with a hint of macadamia nuts also somewhere in the mix. It was gratifyingly bitter with a good mash-up of spice and the sweetness of the seafood and the spices were both lifted to greater heights of sensuality by this luscious beer, both the beer and food offering uplifting hymns of praise to each other’s gustatory strengths. And in the finish the spice and bitterness were still clanging away with all the fury of Quasimodo going off on one of his bell-ringing jags. Great stuff.