Thursday, 29 September 2011

Go into a Czech brewery and you will get tradition

Honest he looked like Martin Johnson 
So there I am at the other brewery in České Budějovice — you know Budweiser Bier Bürgerbräu though others might know them as Samson or even 1795 Boehme (the cheap lager in Tesco with Pilsen all over it). It’s a fortress like place on a busy road south of the old city and its outside is a dead ringer for an old Austro-Hungarian barracks (I was later shown the one where Jaroslav Hašek had spent some time). Past the security barrier and into the open yard where the forklift trucks buzz and then I go and meet my hosts: brew master Lubos, who reminds me of Martin Johnson, finance guy Daniel and Vilem, who has been advising the company on their branding; the last two are my translators. Come and see our maltings — 13 floors dedicated to the arcane art of making barley fit for purpose; there’s no barley there when I go round, just a couple of guys trying to get the place ready for the shipment to arrive the following week. I imagine an ocean of malt, wavy, undulating, curvaceous and then over the next few months shrinking like the Arals Sea.

In the cellars, cold and bracing, straight from the lager tanks a metal jug of dark beer is handed round  — it’s only 3.9% but one of the best Czech dark beers I have had: sweet mocha coffee, chocolate, great body and utterly drinkable, even though it’s only 10am. Yum. I’ll have some more if you don’t mind — we stand there in the cold, the four of us, talking and handing the metal jug around like some holy benediction. And then in the brew house I start asking the inevitable questions. Double decoction? Check (or Czech even). Why I ask. ‘Because it’s tradition and we can.’ And as I sit here remembering my travels I think on how the theme of the week was tradition.

On the Monday I had been in U Medvidku in Prague, a hotel, bar, restaurant and microbrewery rolled into one, formerly a favoured Budvar tap in the city that seems to think that Staropramen is a decent beer (unrefined, inelegant, rough, but trying to be something else — Joey Barton in a glass perhaps). It’s a small brewery. The brew master bottles by hand and the wort is initially cooled in an open cool ship (small though). ‘The idea behind the brewery was not to produce small amounts of beer, but to show how beer could be produced the traditional way.’ Again that word: traditional.

During a week spent travelling through the lagerlands of southern Bohemia by bus and train, on my own, hoping that hand gestures, bad German and — as a last resort — diagrams would get me through, the words traditional or tradition were ones I kept encountering. ‘Tradition is important,’ said Budvar brew master Adam Brok (where I finally got to try the water from deep down below the city — it was clean and limpid in the glass, the ghost of water, a blank sheet on which the colours of malt, hops and to a lesser extent yeast, could be expressed as if up on the catwalk). And then at Pivovar Poutnik in the town of Pelhrimov (a delightful little place) I was told that the production process was — you guessed it — ‘traditional’. Proper lagering. Though one of my hosts’ traditionalism stretched to him musing on his nostalgia for the communists. And then on the Saturday when I went to the Purkmistr festival, it seemed that tradition was put on a big bonfire and burnt — or was it?

Brewhouse at Pivovar Kacov — they’ve got a good cleaner
I might have only visited about a dozen Czech breweries but there’s a feeling that they are punctilious in their brewing regime, possibly slightly hemmed in by the tradition but on the other hand freed by the traditions to produce some of the best beer in the world (whether it be a 12˚ svetly lezak, rauchbier or IPA). A glass of Hubertus from Pivovar Kacov, at the brewery tap overlooking the river was a stunning delight: the glass was topped with a gorgeous dollop of foam, while the Saaz lemony expressiveness on the palate was sexy and suggestive. A grainy biscuity firmness added order to the licentiousness and the finish was crisp, dry and bittersweet. I could have sat on that terrace listening to the music of the river in the company of many more glasses of this beer, but I had to catch a bus in what felt like the Czech version of a Norfolk village (the ghostly sound of someone practising heavy metal riffs on an electric guitar had rumpled itself from one house as I walked down the main street earlier on).

Tradition can be decried as the dead hand holding the brake of progress, or it can be a partner in finding new ways in which one hopes to express ideas through whatever medium counts. And in this case the medium is brewing to which tradition still has a lot to give. Or in the words of TS Eliot: Tradition is not a dead load which we drag along with us... it is the soil in which the seeds of coming harvest are to be sown, and from which future harvests will be garnered.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Purkmistr Sex Pistols and IPA

Hotel Purkmistr — a beer festival. Beyond Plzen. A courtyard in the sun. The smell of roasting meat. Would you like a beer? Of course I would. Hold on though, this is the Czech Republic: 10˚ or 12˚ or even more but what about an India Pale Ale? What about Samurai IPA or the IPA from Klasterni Pivovar in Prague? I don’t mind if I do. Ferocious bittering rates bite but there is still a softness that mitigates the surge — am I in the UK or the US? And then I think of the lyrics that ran like wild horses through my youth from the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK: Is this the MPLA/Or is this the UDA/Or is the IRA/I thought it was the IPA… Punk IPA

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

U Fleku

And so before checking in to my hotel at U Medvidku I know I have to get to U Fleku as it’s just a couple of streets away. Oh there it is, a creamy yellow coat of paint covering a building that wouldn’t be out of place in Bavaria. In through the door, a heavy thing with jowls (where are the antlers I wonder when I go in), and a functionary in a suit welcomes me, I blurt out Pivo and get directed into a side room where Que Sera Sera is being played by an accordionist in check trousers, the sort that I remember being called Rupert the Bear when I was a kid. To make things more comical he has the look of a Corsican bandit from some 19th century print. The room itself has a beer hall ambience — long tables, plenty of dark wood, big metal chandeliers, coloured windows, a tiled floor that must be easy to clean. The waiters, unlike the guys I remember from Dusseldorf and Köln, don’t swarm as much as decide it’s time to come in with a tray of beer. I’ll have one thank you. So here it is, the famous dark beer of U Fleku, a beer I have always wanted to try. It has a roasty, sweet, caramel character and there is a beautiful drinkability. As I take a gulp and look at the ornate pattern of wood frames on the ceiling I’m struck by its sparkling condition. Look at it, it is truly dark in colour and I think that the nose is stern and corseted with not much escaping but on the palate a spectrum of flavour is unleashed, as the straps are unloosened: sweet and dark and roasted coffee and light milkiness with a bitterness in the finish: all in perfect balance. And while I drink the beer the Corsican bandit sings and a couple from Belgium on the table next to me are asked to buy the liqueur (don’t). And I am keen to have my empty glass filled again. But it isn’t and I am going to be late for a meeting so I cover the glass with a beer mat and go. As I leave the Corsican bandit with the accordion is rooting through his pocket for change. It’s going to be a long night. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A warehouse is where you will find Brasserie de la Senne

A warehouse. Said with a slower sense of occasion than you would normally say the word. A warehouse. And oh it was once an industrial bakery.

This warehouse is the home of Brasserie de la Senne. It’s on the south side of Brussels, an anonymous area — anonymity the brewery’s stock in trade as well. Nothing that says: here is a brewery.

Inside there’s a massive space, dotted with brewing equipment. Over there a double-headed hydra of brewing kettle and lauter tun (German made, second hand); in another ‘room’ the fermenting vessels (especially made to replicate open fermentation) simmer, while a further ‘room’ is expressed by a silent family of maturing tanks — ‘we are convinced that maturing makes our beer’ I’m told. And as a great advocate of beers being ripened who am I to disagree. Back in the big space a bottling line awaits.

Yvan de Baets, one half of the brewery (or maybe one third if you include the guy who does their artwork), waves his hand at a largish empty space to the back: barrels with all types of beer undergoing the big sleep will be stored here within the next 12 months (one of the superstars of West Coast craft brewing who also has a penchant for barrels is coming over to collaborate). Old wine barrels are part of the plan.

By a makeshift bar (‘we are building a pub’), at tables, a group of raucous beer drinkers carouse and I know by their faces that bear (and bare) a sense of joy that they are well versed in this sort of occasion. Later on, they reveal themselves to be members of a Flemish beer club who we’d seen earlier in the day at Cantillon.

Do you like the beers someone asked? Of course came the reply, guttural and spat out with a good-natured undertone of ‘who wouldn’t’. We try them. Taras Boulba. Zinnebir. Jambe de Bois. All superb with the latter having a full sweetish body and the mouth feel asserting a flinty aromatic peppery quality. These are beers that like a high bitterness but there is also something else about them, which is why I ask de Baets an innocuous question.

So looking at the stylish bottle labels with their nods towards 30s propaganda posters and Soviet constructivism I ask: are you a political brewery? I had wanted to say are you a left wing brewery, but that seemed rather trite. He in his turn gathered around him the children of the tribe called nonplussed and said something like ‘I make beer for defending values’.

Then he moved onto riff on bitterness.

‘We like bitterness. I have always try to understand the enjoyment of bitterness. Bitterness differs between humans and animals.’ He then started talking about animal instincts, and how humans liked various flavours. It was one of the most intellectual approaches to beer and brewing that I have ever come across and I (along with the rest of the group) was fascinated.

‘People who like bitterness get more pleasure that people who don’t like it,’ he continued. In this way he unleashed a whole theory on why animals and humans are different in their approach to bitterness — and the beery corollary of this was that de la Senne’s beers are bitter, much more bitter than most Belgian beers. I love that — my disillusion with the sugary nature of some Belgian beers kicked in a few years back. De Baets talks with measured calmness, with a certainty and belief that marks out great brewers (of course it helps he can make great beer as well).

And as the Flemish party started to disperse for pastures wide with the odd song, our taxis arrived bringing one of the most magical conversations I’ve ever witnessed with a brewer come to an end. For now. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Seven Stars Falmouth

The Seven Stars in Falmouth is one of the most dishevelled pubs I have ever come across and I love it — you can read about it here in today’s Daily Telegraph. Here are a couple of pictures to whet the appetite — and while you’re at it in Falmouth have a look at Hand and the Front Bar

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

San Devizes

I don’t really do news on this blog and I certainly don’t do exclusives, so apologies if you the reader (all three of you) have already seen this one: Mitch Steele from Stone has flown into the UK to brew a beer at Wadworth’s for the forthcoming Wetherspoon beer festival. Are these things collaborations or is it more of a case of an American brewer trying his hand at a cask beer at a traditional Brit brewery? Whatever the answer I like the idea of a hybrid love child of Arrogant Bastard meets Old Henry (or whatever emerges from San Devizes, as it is now to be called) and look forward to trying it in the autumn. You’ve got to hand it to Spoons, they do come up with the goods. 

Monday, 5 September 2011

Wadworth’s Beer Kitchen

A Saturday afternoon in Devizes many years ago and a mate stood outside the closed gates of Wadworth’s brewery and shouted. He was outside and wanted to get inside. Drink had been taken that day and my mate was notorious for his inability to withstand the rigours of a Saturday afternoon session (once when we decided that an afternoon in Wetherspoons was preferable to standing in the rain at Highbury I went to the toilet leaving a perfectly sensible if inebriated man and came out a few minutes later to find him arms and head on the table snoring soundly). There were three of us and we moved on as you do. A flitter of remembrance from that Withnail-like afternoon briefly disturbed the otherwise smooth concourse of my thoughts the other week as I sat in attendance at the Bath Priory Hotel, this time in the company of several journalists and folk from Wadworth’s, plus the hotel’s head chef Sam Moody coming and going with each course. The occasion was the launch of Wadworth’s new range of bottled beers that have been specifically brewed to be drunk at the table, hence the Beer Kitchen name.

When I think of Wadworth it’s always 6X that springs to mind — out there always, riding the highways of free house and pub company, on the bar counter, ubiquitous, like Pedigree or London Pride. I’ve always enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed Henry’s IPA in and around Devizes and Old Timer when I could find it (back in 2005 the then head brewer Trevor Holmes told me that they occasionally put this beer into whisky barrels). I presume that 6X for those elite drinkers who rarely drink the same thing twice is a sort of OXO cube of suburban sterility that is to be avoided at all costs (or drank surreptitiously just in case their mates find out). Beer Kitchen is something different, being a selection of bottled beers (filtered and lightly pasteurized) produced on the brewery’s micro-plant, kit that originally came from a brewpub called the Farmers Arms.

Here are the five beers we were presented with: Wheat Beer, IPA, Orange Peel, Barrel Aged Strong Bitter and Espresso Stout.

The wheat beer was first, served as an aperitif alongside a goat’s cheese canape. The nose had a light ripe banana note that immediately anchored it into the Bavarian tradition. On the palate it was sprightly, go lightly, offering a hint of apple and an element of Riesling like fruitiness. With the canape it was marvellous, wrapping its arms around it — friendly, engaging — and lifting the flavour to a higher plane. We also had it with the first course, a crab mayonnaise with tomato jelly. Again this worked with the beer lifting up the accompanying tomato jelly and emphasising a pesto note in the mayo I’d not felt at first, a terrier rooting around in the undergrowth having caught a sniff of a downed pheasant that everyone else had missed. Scoffed fast, it was.

Then it’s Moody again, young and bounding in, and telling the ensemble that one of his favourite matches is IPA and chilli crisps. And that’s what we had, an IPA that is — is this Wadworth’s first attempt? No crisps, but on the plate tempura chilli squid. Taken on its own, cheerfully and considerate, I found that the beer had an earthy, orangey, mandarin nose, plus a grassiness that took me back to an early memory of primary school when the grass was cut prior to a football match and we all had grass fights and I got in trouble cause I grabbed a lad and put it down his back. Bitterness took a bow on the palate along with a decent mash up of generic spiciness, which helped to scoop up the chill; the sweetness of the seafood along with the spices were lifted by the beer, which didn’t douse the chilli but kept it within a gorgeous parabola of flavour: orange/satsuma/fieriness/bittersweetness and even a hint of macadamia nuts made this a very satisfying match.

So far so good, as it continued with the Orange Peel Beer, which yes has orange peel in it. It easily slipped into character with roast duck and orange puree, and while I thought the idea of orange and orange might turn everyone tango it did seem to work. Maybe it was the beer’s earthy marmalade oranginess providing a contrast with a more delicate orange, a bit like Laurel and Hardy — both humans but different shapes.

It didn’t all work, the Whisky Barrel Aged Bitter I thought was a work that still continued to be in progress — it was served with Montgomery Cheddar and Barkham Blue. The latter has a complexion and texture with an accompanying saltiness that was sensational on its own. Maybe given some time ripening away in a cool store the beer will be able to weave its magic in a more accomplished way (for time solves all problems).

Finally there was the pudding, Dark Chocolate Mousse and cherry compote. Served on a piece of slate — wish I’d known this was going to happen as we’ve got loads of slates down in the garden and I could have bought a few. This was a creamy mocha espresso brood of a beer, embracing and heartily slapping the creamy chocolate notes of the pudding on the back with the sweet cherry contrasting with the bitterness of the coffee beans and the earthiness of hop notes. It was a mouthful of darkness and I wasn’t frightened. There were also blackcurrant notes and a reminder of toffee infused with blackcurrant juice, chewy, luscious, kirsch like mixture at times; toast like even with blackcurrant and toffee and jam. A great match. You might like to try it sometime.
Chef Sam Moody 

Saturday, 3 September 2011


And so I get bottles from Magic Rock Brewery, one or two of which I have already dissected here — but here I am again sitting at the kitchen table and this time enjoying a glass of their High Wire. American Pale Ale with a nod to the West Coast it seems like to me. And I sit there drinking it and thinking that it reminds me of something else. The nose has a flourish of passion fruit cheesecake, scented, slightly risqué in its creaminess, as well as a musty dustiness that reminds me of the smell when my son’s wet suit is hanging up to dry (ozone perhaps, brininess); or maybe — a thought strikes me — it’s more like a stable (formerly stacked with dry hay) through which a wet dog has passed through. Don’t blink: it’s a pleasant aroma, providing a thought-provoking contrast between the kids’ tea party giggle-fest of the passion fruit and its friend the cheesecake with the more grown up seriousness of the space in which something wet is placed (or has passed through). The passion fruit cheesecake note is also on the palate along with a sensuous oily character; this makes for a full beer, a big body of flavour, though then there are sherberty, sweet notes that help to keep any inclinations towards obesity in the mouth under control. As well: orange marmalade, oh, lightly toasted white bread with a thin skin of marmalade, oh again, not orange but pink grapefruit. Breakfast anyone? The finish is dry and appetising with passion fruit notes making a welcome return. It’s a deeply satisfying beer, robust in its flavour. This is what I would call artisanal — I am deeply satisfied by the flavour — it’s why I drink and keep company with beer.

And so then I try the beer that High Wire reminds me of. The passion fruit is on the nose again, but then it feels like this passion fruit fancies slumming it as a mango and then loses its dignity completely by turning into a scented tropical fruit salad. Ripe fruits, I’m reminded of, ripe fruits sitting in the fruit bowl brushed and caressed by the sun of a late summer’s day. This other beer that I thought High Wire reminded me of is brighter on the nose than High Wire, but not as sultry perhaps; brasher, noisier, a celebrity with pretensions to intellectualism perhaps (Joey Barton?). There’s a spritzy tingle on the palate, a feel that has the light covering of pink grapefruit and again that ripeness from the nose. But hark, what is this, some vegetal notes Barton their way into the background (broccoli water perhaps?) and then it fades away too quickly. It’s inoffensive, has a quick finish, acceptable but I like High Wire for its robustness, its swagger and general sense of style.

And when I mention the closeness of High Wire to Stuart at the brewery he confirms what I thought and says that it was based on this beer, but as it was not as it is. I suspect you can guess what the beer is.