Monday, 30 April 2012

Shepherd Neame Generation

Shepherd Neame sent me a bottle of Generation in a nice wooden box, an oblong coffin shape almost, that might be just right for a fairy if such things exist (I did once write a story about people who believe in them for the Field) — 9% in strength, a lot of maturation, English hops and a welcome brew from a brewery whose beers are very much in the mainstream (does the mainstream matter — discuss). I like big beers like this, old fashioned big beers like this. I like big alcoholic bruisers like this. I like the boozy, fruity (as in ripe plums whose skins burst with the merest of pressure or that sort of raisiny, ripe white grape and bubblegum — close to Bazooka Joe even — fruitiness that can transport one back through time) character on the nose and the almond-like, alcoholic, Christmas cake-lite, sherry stickiness, barley husk dryness, estery fruitiness finish that came to mind with the first swig. I do like the crimson sunlit colour that resides in my glass as well. I suspect I should have saved this beer for another year but on this wet and chilly day (end of April —ridiculous isn’t?) I wanted a sustaining beer that I could connect with in front of the fire while enjoying Vollmann’s Europe Central. I do hope Sheps do another vintage of this, it’s a rather beautiful beer — and it makes me wonder and ponder and suggest that one of the great by-products of the ‘craft beer revolution’ in the past few years has been that the old family breweries have realised that they can make beers that astound. Fuller’s are well ahead of the game as are St Austell and Adnams, and now Sheps have sent their players out (while with Greene King I would like to see a nip of their 5X bottled and sent out into the world — I had some once and devoted an inordinate time to inspecting its dry Fino, musty, yeasty, meaty, almost tangy character). Oh and as the Generation lingers in the glass the flavours swirl about with the dizzy delight of giddy passengers on a fairground carousel. And so I would say to the old brewers of Britain — more of this sort of beer please. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Post Office Vaults

Ah the power of Twitter. There I was a few weeks ago on the way back to Taunton, planning to spend an hour or so in Birmingham, looking for pubs to review and after tweeting some nonsense about Burton as I passed through and mentioning I was going to Brum, Simon Johnson said I had to visit the Post Office Vaults. Which I did and thoroughly enjoyed, which is why you can find my DT review of it online here. Go on, dare yourself to go to Brum and find it. 

Monday, 23 April 2012

Radio Beer

Great radio yesterday on the Food Programme about US beer’s influence on Brit brewing (hear it here). Lots of mentions of hops and barrel ageing (plus gruit, which I found particularly satisfying having recently sat down and broke bread and drank beer with Anika at Gruut), great breweries and the pebble-in-mouth tone of the best beer writer about. I liked the fact that the programme explained things, especially with CBC’s solera system (incidentally the first US brewpub I visited back in 1996). Yet British brewing, I have often felt when we talk about the American influence, cannot afford to sit back and pat itself on the back — hops and more hops yes, but when you go to the US there is more to their beers than just hops and barrel ageing. When I went round Vermont a couple of years ago (read here) I had some of the best Alt I had tasted outside Dusseldorf; a Doppelbock made with yeast brought back from Andechs; a beer that had been aged in wine barrels and a Svetly Lezak that I could have sworn came from a small country brewery in Bohemia rather than a small place called Bristol. Hops are all well and good and I bow to no man in my love of a hoppy beer, but where are the lagers, the Alt, the Kolsch, the tripels, the Schwarz, the Gose, the lambic? Before we start putting the laurels on the head of British beer let’s remember that the US guys have set up bases on Mars while we seem to be still on the Moon (even though we once had pretensions for Mars and still might have in the future). 
Oh and before getting too carried away about this past weekend, don’t forget that cider and Alice Temperley got fabulous coverage in the Times on Saturday but on the other hand it is behind a paywall (as is some of my work so I’m not making a big thing out of it).

Friday, 20 April 2012

A couple of bière de gardes for consideration

2005, it’s the fag-end of autumn and I’m racing about the Franco-Belgian border aiming to visit as many bière de garde breweries as I can in two days. Brasseries Gayant, Duyck, Thiriez and St Sylvestre are among my haul but what I also take back is the realisation that the whole idea of bière de garde is very ambiguous. As I wrote at the time: ‘trying to pin down the meaning of bière de garde is like having to sculpt Rodin’s Thinker with blancmange. The definition is wobbly. The beers of Northern France, because of their proximity to Belgium, have their fair share of spicy blancs (known as witbiers over the border), citrusy tripel look-alikes and even fruit beers (La Choulette’s Framboise is a splendid example). There are also big and beefy ambrées with spicy, earthy hoppy notes, as well as pale ales.’ I thought about this the other night when studying a couple of bottles of Northern French beers, one of them an old favourite and the other a total newcomer.

Brasserie D’Annoeullin’s L’Angelus is an old friend, a beautiful soft beer that I always want to hug and draw close to me whenever I meet it. It has a moodiness about its gold colour in the glass, while I am always delighted with the fine Moussec-like character it delivers on the palate; it’s both full and silky with a delicate thread of juicy tangerine stitching its way along the seams of the palate, but is stopped from being too over fruity with a well-applied bitter balance and a long dry finish. There is a fragrant feel to this beer, a soft gentle caressing of the palate. This is a bière de garde that seems to hover halfway between a wheat beer and a light bodied triple.

And then there was Vivat Blonde from — take a deep breath — La Brasserie Historique de l’Abbaye du Cateau. This is a peppery, dry, bitter blonde with a cracker like firmness on the palate and not an easy crowd-pleasing beer, which is why I like it. Sometimes you need beers that make you work on them in the same way as certain pieces of music do (Benjamin Britten or Schoenberg for instance) and when they do work they are all the better for it; there is also a growing sense of bitterness in the finish plus a pleasing just-on-the-edge-of-the-horizon sourness on the palate that balances well with the bitterness and the barley sweetness. The Triple is rather succulent as well. So can we still talk of bière de garde these days or in the manner of Trappist are we just talking appellations? My debit card is on the latter.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

La Capsule Lille

Six silver stainless steel tubes stand on the bar at La Capsule in Lille and reflect the world — 18 inches high, miniature silos, places of storage from which beers such as 5AM Saint, Duchesse de Bourgogne and Mikkeller Snowball emerge. The tubes reflect a distorted world, a world that exists as long as these tubes keep being polished, a looking glass world filtered through a post-industrial gauze. Alice fell down a hole and took up a job selling credit-enhanced dreams long ago, so these six tubes at La Capsule will do.

And what do they reflect?

Two men, out on a Monday night, laughter brought along like an extra friend, guttural northern French, glasses of St Bernardus’ fragrant, orange blossom witbeer to hand, a bright bosomy beer that emerges from the glass and demands a chicken samosa; meanwhile a quartet of students, two guys, two girls, sitting at a high table near the door, one of them darting in and out with her mobile, quench their thirst on what I know from overhearing their orders is Roman’s Epsom salts fury of a Pilsner. I and son sit in a corner, I with a Abbey Des Roc Brune, he with a cola, talking over the day’s battlefields.

There’s a definite Belgian beer bar feel about La Capsule: dark wood along with the shining stars of stainless steel mix and merge; the lighting is dim but the music is refreshing different, being what seems to me a nostalgic soundtrack of Antwerpian hardcore metal disco from the 1990s.

And it strikes me, as I have another glass of Vivant’s luscious, sensuous triple, that the sort of beer or bar I like is reminiscent of a tilted smile from a beautifully imperfect woman; a feeling that has its ups and downs and peaks and troughs and rough edges and smoothed out corners, all of which make life more interesting than if you are married to Barbie who makes the perfect dinner every time but really leaves you feeling: is that it? It is a beer or a bar that is worth taking a journey with to see what happens as time passes.

Monday, 16 April 2012

When craft keg was just a babe in the eye of the beerholder there was Milk Street

Milk Street Brewery’s beers are English beers that do not hurry themselves along to the glass with the frenetic haste of desert nomads having sighted a waterhole; they are beers that are made for what drinkers in the country pubs around Frome (which is where the brewery makes its beers) and other places in the vicinity enjoy and want — and why not? It is a business and the business I had on reaching Frome the other day was to reacquaint myself with the beers of Milk Street and then write their tasting notes. It’s a paid gig but I wouldn’t have done it without having faith in their beers, a faith that I found was well rewarded with a morning in the deserted saloon bar at the Griffin Inn, at the back of which the brewery make their beers (there used to be a porn cinema at the back of the premises at one stage and when the brewery moved in they would get old boys turning up and asking when they were showing any movies). If there is a common thread that runs through the beers, it’s that of a juicy drinkability that always surprises me, given that there are so many beers in the world, but I am not here to write about them at the moment. What I am writing about is that when craft keg was just a babe in the eye of the beerholder (circa 2002, which was when I first turned up here to write a piece on East Somerset breweries for What’s Brewing), Milk Street’s founder and brewer Rik Lyall was already mucking around with different dispensations and the result on the bartop at the Griffin is Elderfizz. 

But then back in 2002 I remember him handing me a 7% wheat beer that didn’t come via the godly highway usually lit up by a handpump — it was called Elderbeer and contained honey and elderflower and was very refreshing. Of course, writing the article, in order not to upset delicate sensibilities, I skirted over the way the beer was dispensed. On Thursday I was pleased to see that the beer is still being produced and now called Elderfizz and has been brought down to 5%. And what of the beer? The recipe is 50% wheat and 50% low colour Maris Otter and it is flavoured with elderflower aqueous extract. Primary fermentation is at 18˚c for a week, and then it is chilled to 3˚c and chill proofed for a further week after the addition of auxiliary finings. Just before kegging it's krausened with Milk Street’s 5% golden beer handily named Beer that's been fermenting for 18 hours. And now one for the techies thanks to Rik: ‘the spears in the keg have been specially adapted (like the old Ushers system) so they don't go down to the bottom. It is “real ale in a keg” unfiltered & unpasteurised.’ 

So what does it taste like? Well it is a beer for a sunlit garden with lemon, elderflower cordial, sherbet and a juicy lustrous character on the nose, while the palate features lemon curd, lemon curd on brioche perhaps; I even thought of Riesling. The finish is fast and refreshing and before you can say ‘I must plant my coriander seeds’ it’s time for another sip. At at the moment you have to go to the Griffin to drink it but expect that to change. It’s the perfect lawnmower beer providing you don’t have to mow the lawn anymore. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012


Getting drunk, getting pissed, scammered, doing a bunk, hammered, liquid conviviality, beer, the price of, golden glass, hand to mouth, the ascendancy of man, the descent of man on the day after. I got drunk on Sunday, the glass was filled and refilled, the words increased in the speed in which they came out of my mouth, connections in conversation where made and then discarded as quickly as they came, and the glass was raised to my mouth once again. Not a bad, not a good thing, just got drunk — went home and slept it off, caused no trouble, might have looked a bit goofy as I talked and talked, and next morning felt dry and reflected the gloominess of an Easter Monday that had the feel of what I would imagine to be a Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. So I suppose there are degrees of getting drunk: fighting drunk, maudlin drunk, gobby drunk, pushy drunk, falling down drunk, connoisseur-like drunk, but getting drunk is what I did. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be proud of, beer all the way and a moment when I realised that I had had enough (about 10pm if I recall). Getting drunk can be fun, if you go about it the right way, and it always makes me smile when I see beer writers and brewers, straight face, poker faced, face the camera, or splash their words in print, about sensible drinking, when I know, that I know, I have seen them getting drunk. And getting drunk, sometimes, is an act of resistance, a piece de resistance, a call to arms, the way to go, and all the while treading the boards of the theatre that we call the pub.